“A Strange Sort of Periscope”: John Freeman on Poetry and Politics
By Angela StubbsOctober 24, 2017
ANGELA STUBBS: How did the writing of Maps help you unravel the internal maps you’d made over the years? How difficult was it to revisit some of these memories in order to write these poems?
JOHN FREEMAN: Writing poetry has always been a largely instinctual thing for me, something I do only when I feel like it, often very quickly at night or in transit. Scribble, scribble. My internal editor needs a lot of distraction to shut off. For the last 20 years, as a journalist and editor, I have been a human deadline, bouncing from one assignment or production date to the next. Poetry was a way to unplug and return to a deeper mode of thinking, and not direct my mind at a task but into a space. I’ve always felt the unconscious mind maps things far more interestingly than our rational, waking mind, so making this book was for me an attempt to try to be guided by that principle, to see what lived in there — for me — in the possibility of a poem. I’m so glad it wasn’t just filled up by muscle cars and Tom Petty tunes.
When we spoke recently about Maps you mentioned that you almost stopped writing poetry altogether. Why? And more importantly, what made you begin again?
I didn’t almost stop, I stopped. Between 1994 and 2008 I don’t think I wrote a single line of poetry. Meanwhile, I wrote well over a million words of criticism and journalism, a nonfiction book on communication. That’s a terrible ratio and I was becoming acutely aware of it, but poetry had turned into a kind of phantom arm. I knew it had been there once, but I had no idea how to pick up something with it. And then my mother began to die and I understood what it was for.
The unbearable loss of a parent cannot be made poetic, but writing about loss can help — as a meditation on limits, both of the heart and language. Did writing poems help distract from your grief, or did they help you be present with the sorrow?
In the beginning, writing was a way of grieving, and some of the poems I got down then remain, but they only survived because they became objects with their own integrity. One of the sad, stupefying facts of grief is, well, how little it distinguishes you. People walk to work grieving, they make sandwiches grieving, they teach classes grieving, and drive ambulances while grieving. It’s everyday. The trick of a poem is to make grief feel the way it does when one experiences it — the tunneling, the stunned senses, the way the imagination struggles to imagine the fact that someone is no longer. You imagine you need to be inside the experience to some degree to capture this. I was only able to fully do it well once I had a bit of distance and the poem was under my control. By then the grieving was done but the making of the elegy was not — it was a strange wave of emotion-less emotion.
Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” speaks to the reader with a wisdom acquired by experiencing that state of being. How did poetry help you open up to those spaces and feelings we often suppress when we feel vulnerable?
All of my favorite poets wrote and write of great intensities. Tomas Tranströmer, Sharon Olds, Jean Toomer, Cavafy, Thom Gunn, Anne Carson, Keats, Nikky Finney, Allen Ginsberg … they are many things but they are all warm. Even Kay Ryan — there’s a great deal of feeling in her abstractions. They’re like pieces of metal sculpture, straight out of the forge. You can feel the fire that made them even if you never see what did the ignition. Whitman, Christ. Whitman is like a sun, still burning. You can’t fake this real feeling, even if a poem is an act of making a thing that is not the thing itself. To me it’s why poems stick to people. Those spaces are always open in me. My mother and father were social workers and loving, available, sensitive parents. I was very lucky. It’s getting the feeling onto the page that’s the hard part — and not producing feeling for the sake of a poem. So I wait.
Your poem “Tattoo” addresses the need we often have to memorialize a person or an event by permanently embedding an image of them on our body. The last lines of your poem remind us that we cannot escape those reflections staring back at us. A poem is like a tattoo. Do you think the transference of grief into poetry helped you during your mother’s death?
I stumbled upon “Tattoo” on a computer I was about to donate and, at first, had no memory of writing the poem. It was as if a ghost-hand had written it. Slowly, the period came back to me. I visited my older brother the year our mother died and we spent a lot of time in the car talking about tattoos. He went back to work and I flew back to New York, walked into the house and sat down before I even took my jacket off. Wrote the poem in about five minutes. Closed the file and poof, five years pass. I say all this to preface my response, because I don’t understand this process. I wished the writing of poems was more helpful, but I think it was one way to deal with it. The part of me that is not rational did all the work, though. It’s a strange sort of periscope, poetry — it breaks the surface but most of the action is beneath the surface.
The last line of your poem “Saudade” addresses our desire to continue conversations with people who are no longer a part of our present reality. It seems that, in the face of death and loss, our emotions require more than our memories as consolation. Your speaker says, “Here, again, grief fashioned in its cruelest translation / my imagined you is all I have left of you.” Do you think nostalgia as a poetic device can be cathartic, or is it just a bittersweet vice to help numb the pain that accompanies loss?
Oh, I think grief is an act of the imagination, so nostalgia is an exercise of that, a kind of attempting to construct a compound where we preserve our past, or home, or memories. But I prefer saudade, because it is suffused with longing, rather than the encapsulation the word nostalgia has come to imply. Longing is erratic and ragged, it can burn away the hedges and expose the house.
Rebecca Solnit suggests that we should fill maps with fantasy — that we, the artists, should create or invite into our realities a mystery, an unknown, and make it familiar. What did you feel compelled to invite into your reality while writing these poems?
I experience consciousness as a many-layered thing … Every waking moment of my life is filled with fantasy, films, memories, a whole cloud of associations. Last night’s Sacramento Kings box score. There’s never clear weather. I find it fascinating that some people think a place can be emptied of such things. I suppose I wrote some of the poems in Maps to try and reflect this, and I suspect I’m not alone in thinking this way. If you are dumped in Rome you are going to think of that city as rotting and a little bit rotten. I’m not saying subjectivity is more important than place, it’s just far more of a guide than we think — and my feeling is that certain punctures to the subjective (grief) allow us to see and feel more of a place by appreciating what’s not there, or not visible.
I think all writers bring their own foreign landscapes to the page and the readers get to be the immigrants, visiting and learning about another place, another time — seeing the world through another’s eyes. Language creates images creates fantasies. The fourth issue of Freeman’s, titled The Future of New Writing, politely nudges its reader to remember the role of imagination even in supposedly nonfictional texts.
The more reference points we have for a smell, a taste, a sound, a feeling, the richer our present feels to us. I think this is how imaginary cities become part of our actual cities. I’m constantly walking through Langston Hughes’s New York, Edwidge Danticat’s New York, Charles Simic’s New York … and I think that, when I’m not in New York, other imagined places inform my experience of wherever I am. For that reason, I love reading strong writing from elsewhere — it’s how I see where I am from, too.
Let’s talk about Tales of Two Americas. I think this anthology about inequality in the United States seems more urgent than ever, offering stories that connect us as well as divide us. Can you tell me more about how this collection came together? How long had this project been in the making?
It began out of an earlier anthology I published in 2014, Tales of Two Cities, which itself was a response to moving back to New York and realizing how huge the gap between the rich and the poor had grown in the city. It was feast or famine. Sometimes on the same block. And people simply walked by. I think if a Martian came down to New York, this is what they would be shocked by. Not the size of buildings or that humans pick up dog poop on the street, but just that we walk by fellow humans who are clearly in crisis. Sorry, man — gotta to get to work. That sort of thing. Anyway, I went on the road to promote that book and realized this was true of just about every major US city, and the roots of the problem were a whole host of structural inequalities — racism and sexism, and policies that enshrined those dynamics into law. Drug sentencing, the building of prisons, the way we are taxed. And the policies of the current administration are just going to make this worse.
Tales of Two Americas asks its readers to look closely at the many divisions in this country. Eula Biss’s essay “White Debt,” for instance, discusses the moral problem of being white in the United States. I believe this anthology to be a call to action for writers and readers, a summons to share our stories so that we might transcend some of these tragedies. How do you see it?
That’s exactly how I see it. I think reading and writing are moral activities. Context is dangerous, because if you look hard you realize this country has a long history of taking from its citizens what is rightly theirs. It’s why the most radical administrations try to erase history to work in a perpetual present tense. My hope is that once readers have seen the context of inequality in our nation, have felt what it feels like, they’ll want to do something about it.
In many of the essays and stories in Tales of Two Americas, we witness resistance to recognizing our bond and debt to the other. Otherness breeds fear. I know people who don’t believe gender inequality or racial inequality exists. If it’s not true for them, it doesn’t exist. How do we transcend fear and ignorance so as to appreciate the experience of the other?
I think that attitude — if I don’t experience it, it doesn’t exist — is a very common form of denial. Does the same person say the same thing about the world being flat? I hear the world is round, but all I see is flat earth! Or about gravity being heavier on Pluto? Or about the fact that we are made up of cells? Frankly, this argument is a form of bigotry masquerading as mental deficiency. Of course those examples above are true, they’ve been verified, just as racism and gender-based discrimination are true. But people who use that argument don’t want them to be verified — it implicates them — so they act as if not experiencing it allows them to refute it. I am hesitant to start relabeling. I think we need to confront bigotry when it attempts to disguise itself. These are the secret Trump voters, I think.
How can we encourage a broader view of America, one that serves to unite us instead of furthering the gap between us?
I think it begins with sharing space. I really feel things as small as walking are enormously important. We need to create pedestrian areas where cars used to live, use public transport. These shared uses of public space expand our notion of what the public is. It’s no accident that when protests to actions like the Muslim Ban occur, they happen in these spaces. The Women’s Marches. It’s why Trump rules on Twitter — which is not actually a public space, but a digitized space. His supporters are not numerous enough to take over public spaces. And they don’t want to share public spaces. The more we fill up and expand public space — where there are no robots, no memes, just people — the easier it will be to accept our differences and thrive.
John Freeman will appear at Skylight Books on Wednesday, October 25, at 7:30 p.m., alongside Garnette Cadogan, Diego Enrique Osorno, and Héctor Tobar, who have contributed to his recent anthologies.
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