Jeremiah Childers is a former editorial assistant to Ninth Letter and the recipient of a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He is currently a Zell Fellow at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. An excerpt from his poem “Origin Myth” can be found here, and the full poem appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Your poem in KR, incorporating bells and silence and clapping and impermanence, at times recalls a Zen koan. How, if at all, do you see the concept of paradox as part of your project?
I don’t know much about koans, so I can’t really speak to that. And as for paradox—well, I prefer to think of the thought as circular. I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene in Paradise Lost, toward the beginning of Book IV: Satan is, for the first time in the text I think, alone, and he feels ashamed. There’s a lot of hemming and hawing as to whether or not he’s to blame for his current situation, and finally he resolves that the catalyzing trait of his damnation—self-love before servitude—is an inseparable part of his being. He’s smart enough to fully apprehend his despair, but not enough to escape it, and so there’s nothing left for him to do but to go on as this damned, damaged thing. (Same goes for Don Draper, by the way). And that was something I was thinking about in regards to the poem—this closed loop, where thought is dominated by that which cannot be resolved, where you try to fix an irretrievably broken thing with the limited means available to you.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
To tip my hand here, I’ve only been writing for about the past five or six years, so my experience will probably be most relevant to those still early on in the process of becoming of writer. To them I would simply say follow your nose. It was important for me to try a variety of different writing processes out—whether it be writing every day, trying to write it all in one go, or allowing myself to think about a poem over the course of an entire year. I’ve learned that there are a million ways to do this, and that my way will probably (and hopefully) change poem by poem. I’ve also learned that the . . . severity of your process in no way guarantees the quality of your work. To spend a year on a poem doesn’t mean it’s going to be better than a poem you write in a single afternoon. Sometimes they come whole-hog like that, and other times it takes patience and time. And I can’t understate the importance of reading both deeply and widely, not just those writers I love but especially those I meet with initial resistance. On a craft level even, it’s important to see where the work you’re reading is coming from, what tools that writer has at their disposal, what you can steal and what you might want to avoid. Moreover, it’s been important for me to keep track of which writers I’m reading when my writing is going particularly well. I’ll find that, while they aren’t necessarily responsible, that certain work is opening a cognitive space which makes the process all the more dynamic and flexible. And, finally, not to think too much about the competitive aspect of this—awards, fellowships, publications, etc. I don’t mean to undermine the blessing of financial support, or the honor of an award, or the absolute thrill of seeing my name on the back of a magazine. I only mean to say that the less I’ve thought about winning, the more in-tune I’ve felt with my writing, the more organically I’ve been able to grow and change. To keep giving the poems the time they’re owed.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I try to watch a lot of movies. When they’re good, they’re able to engage you on almost every level of sense, and I think they were my first understanding of art as a bodily experience. That being said, it’s a medium that privileges the visual, and for that reason I think I’m primarily drawn to the image. I always read these interviews where the poet says they start with language, and I’m always jealous, and I always think “next poem.” But then I watch P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and I’m obsessed with the color blue again. Or I find an image, either before writing or in the writing, that diverts my attention and slowly begins to take over the poem. And like film, the poem and its movements will correspond to certain palettes and perspectives, which lend themselves to certain rhythms and words.
For that reason I’ve started painting recently. The attempts are cartoonish, and I have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s a helpful means of duplicating the nonverbal sense I’m trying to translate into verbal expression. If the colors and perspective are right, I sit and stare at it for a while, and if they’re wrong I can begin to triangulate why. The latter has been more helpful, but on the whole it’s actually been kind of pleasant and therapeutic—a means of making progress while circumventing the anxieties I carry into writing. So now every time I get stuck I just sit my ass down and color and have a big time.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
More so than anything, I think my answer to this has changed a great deal over time. Initially, it was because I was overwhelmed by the energy and expressive force of slam. Recently I was reading Hass’s What Light Can Do, and in it he paraphrases Dickinson: “you can tell when you’re in the presence of poetry because it takes the top of your head off.” At first it was slam that thoroughly took the top of my head off. And while over time my tastes changed—which isn’t to say for better or worse—for a long time I was chasing that feeling. I wanted to write a poem which would make that whooshing noise up off the page, as I’d read or heard in so many of my favorite poems. This led to a lot of deliberately “impressive” poetry, all of which aged as well as a banana, and since then I’ve turned more and more to writing as a means of internal mediation. There’ll be a fixation or an energy, however vague or acute, following me around, and poetry has become the only means by which I can turn around and reckon with it.
Still, even though the two experiences are drastically different, a large part of why I’m writing has to do with what I take from reading. In short I never felt particularly religious until I started reading poetry, and finding, in the work of others, that spiritual space of nonverbal unity, of negative capability—those are moments and poems I’m profoundly grateful for. Writing then seems like an act in good faith, whether my own poetry achieves said unity or not. It seems like the responsible thing to do.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Don’t think of the poem as an object, as that which is constructed or built. It should be an invitation inward, an opening into a shared act of consciousness. Like yourself, it is perpetually in process, perpetually taking on form.