Michael T. Young: Thank you, BJ, for agreeing to an interview.
Your newest collection, Jackleg Opera, is your fourth, and is a new and collected poems. Could you comment on putting it together: how and if you worked on the new poems to connect thematically in any way to the whole or just worked on the newer poems independently of any overall cohesion?
BJ Ward: I worked on the new poems as they came to me, not concerning myself with how or where they connected to the other work. Once I had about sixty poems that were publishable or had already been published somewhere, I chose and arranged the thirty-three new poems that make up the first part of the book. The thirty-fourth new poem I placed after my 2002 book, Gravedigger’s Birthday, as it serves as a coda for that manuscript. One of the best aspects of releasing a collected poems is the opportunity to revise some of the earlier work, an assiduity I have admired in poets such as Justice and WCW.
Michael T. Young: I love the title of this collection. Of course, “jackleg” means “unskilled or incompetent,” and yet your work is so wonderfully skillful. Also, much of the collection seems to be about embracing our imperfections. For instance, “The Noises I Make” declares “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Could you talk about that a bit: if you see this kind of embracing as important, or what its significance is in your poetry, or, perhaps even for one’s sanity?
BJ Ward: Although that line asserts that I rejoice in my imperfections, I actually have spent the better part of my life wrestling with them. I suppose I’ve come to live with them. Why did I write that line? I think of two things: Frost’s maxim that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion, and that final line in James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “I have wasted my life.” It’s reported that when Wright was later asked about that line, he said it was just how he felt in the moment of the poem. Supposedly he joked that after he had a sandwich he felt better.
Yet I hope there is also some kind of truth in my line, as your question seems to imply. I’ve always loved these James Joyce lines from Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
Michael T. Young: The poem “Filling in the New Address Book” ends saying, “why threaten any miraculous history,/any great testament, with knowledge/of how empty our current book of stories is?” The poem “And All the Peasants Cheered for the King. The End” which is a fatherly effort to preserve a child’s imagination against the harsher elements of reality and concludes, “The astronauts are still fastened in their flotation /The soldiers still guard the fairytales.” How important do you think it is for people (children and adults) to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life? In what way is it important?
BJ Ward: I don’t think we have to work too hard to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life. It’s always there. What we might have to do is learn to be comfortable with it. I question, even as I embrace technology, what we have lost in this age of information. I suppose my embrace is guarded. And somehow forced through my employment. Sure, the ready access of information is useful for many reasons, particularly in terms of a greater accountability of authority and the resultant effects on issues of social justice. But there is this thing in me that feels our urge to be connected through our devices might lead to an unquestioned, or at least implicitly sanctioned, “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I know I am not alone in this. And because of this, I am very protective of the silences with which I’ve tried to surround myself. In a different age of industry, Whitman had it right: he loafed in order to “invite (his) soul.”
Michael T. Young: The poems “Bandages” and “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not A Single Poem In It about Her” portray instances of breaking rules for a greater purpose, a kind of reaching out to others when it breaks with laws or social norms. This comes up in your other poems in different ways. I wondered if you might comment on this: do you see this as important in the greater context of our society and world? Why?
BJ Ward: So many heroes of mine were criminals in the eyes of those who were in power. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela. When you live in an unjust system, it may be morally imperative of you to break the rules by using the artillery of resolute compassion.
Michael T. Young: In “After Googling Myself. . . “ you write, “I toast all the engines/I never controlled.” And “Development,” ends with “But the houses/were just fields then./And we were wild.” A number of other places in the collection seem to quietly suggest an embracing of a wildness in ourselves, the uncontrolled. Do you feel this is significant and if so, why?
BJ Ward: I love Donald Justice’s penchant: he wanted the maximum amount of wildness a poem could bear. An artist should be aware of this wildness. I don’t mean to speak for others’ creative processes, but perhaps someone reading this can relate to it: in the act of composition, I’m riding the wildest form of the poem, almost as if seeing where it takes me. A term for this is “transport.” In revision, I’m taming it. If I do it right, what I’ve produced still has wildness. If I do it wrong, it either remains all wilderness or becomes too civilized, too “broken” (in horse-trainers’ lingo). I aim to have just a little more body in the poem than brain—a little more beast than math.
Michael T. Young: The poem “Delaware Water Gap, NJ Side, Election Year, Rush Hour, Hungry Again,” opens with “The sun slips like a tongue/down the sky’s neck/and the flowers within me//open to it all.” This recalls to my mind a moment in Rilke—I can’t remember where—a flower opens so wide to the sky it’s unable to close at night. I wonder if you see opening or exposing our heart to the world, to the greater reality around us, as necessary and if so why. What is gained?
BJ Ward: We create in a time when new houses are more likely to have back decks than front porches. A time of intentional obfuscation, with language that is deliberately imprecise. (In Oxford, NJ, close to where I live, the garbage incinerator and landfill is called a “Resource Recovery Center.”) Greed no longer seems immoral to us, but something that makes one admirable. How revolutionary an act writing a poem in America seems. By doing something so earnest and so outside the expectations of Western culture’s sense of “industry,” you are deliberately engaging in a deeper economy. The first gesture toward engaging in it is what you point out: opening ourselves to the outside world, like Rilke’s flower. The second is to protect that heart you mention, for the world is acidic, and it is drawn toward your compassion and your imagination. It wants to extirpate them. And the third part is to commit to a deep happiness, much deeper than the exchange of money.
Michael T. Young: “Aubade” says, “I want to be as precise with my joy today/as all those poets are with their suffering.” Even in your poems that deal with suffering or difficulties (I think of many of your poems about your father), there seems an effort to find joy and beauty, to be precise about it more than the suffering. It is also evident in the linguistic playfulness of so many of your poems. I wondered if you feel seeking out joy in spite of suffering is important, looking for the beauty rather than the ugliness that is surely always there.
BJ Ward: Langston Hughes viewed his role as a poet as having three important aspects: celebrant, performer, and seer. Although Hughes approached them differently than I do, I aspire to these three myself. (The third one is by far the hardest.) I don’t have to look hard for misery. It’s always waiting for me when I open that door. The writing of a poem is what helps me step past it. I’m lucky in this way; I know a lot of people who get stopped by the misery, and they have my sympathy. I’ve come to look at joy as an act of creation. Experienced fighters know that, when your opponent has a terrific defense, a tight guard that is hard to slip past, you have to “make your own hole,” usually with a combination technique. I find myself almost every day making my own hole in the ugliness that’s out there.
Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera and why is it significant for you?
BJ Ward: I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t have a consistently favorite poem from the book. Right now I suppose it’s “Wolverine The X-Man Kisses” because I just received a generous email from someone saying how much it meant to her. How it helped her understand her marriage. It was generous of her to thank me like that, and it was a powerful moment for me to receive her message.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?
BJ Ward: My first inclination is to say, “Too many to name,” but I’m always disappointed when other authors say that to this kind of question. It seems like a cop-out. So I’ll just name the first ten works that come to my mind. I’ll limit the list to prose by writers who are no longer alive.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Hamlet when I was younger and King Lear now; the great plays of Tennessee Williams. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. The letters of both Emily Dickinson and John Keats. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. All of Hawthorne. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel. The Bible. And the short stories of Raymond Carver. I am sure there are dozens of others I could have listed, but these came to me first, and even now I couldn’t limit the list to ten.
Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?
BJ Ward: I love baseball—watching it and playing it. Also, I’ve trained at a traditional karate dojo for 36 years now. But, given your question, I should say that the men and women I train with have absolutely influenced my poetry, although they wouldn’t know that unless they read this. Right now I train with a mechanic, two cops, a pharmaceutical executive, former junkies, a Shop-Rite cashier, a postal worker, two engineers, a church cantor, and a lumberyard worker, as well as hundreds of others over the last 36 years. The lessons I’ve learned from them have influenced not only my writing process but also many individual poems.
Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, BJ. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera.
BJ Ward: Thank you for the interesting questions, Michael. Here is the poem I mentioned earlier. A note about it: as far as I know, the Marvel superhero Wolverine only has one real superpower–the ability to heal instantly. That’s what allowed surgeons to line his skeleton with metal and place those retractable claws in the backs of his hands. The title notwithstanding, this poem is as much about loving someone who has (almost) stopped being vulnerable.
Wolverine the X-Man Kisses
His bones, lined with adamantium, are unbreakable,
. . . . . . . so his lover is just licorice and moth wings
in his careful palms.
And tucked within each open hand
. . . . . . . lie three knives, retracted,
but one thrust and snickt
(x, x, x)
whatever he holds could die.
. . . . . . . What delicacy is in his hug,
but is this a fair relationship?
Before you answer, know this:
. . . . . . . he is a mutant, able to heal
from the deepest of cuts,
and so to hurt him
. . . . . . . she must kiss him.
Look at his trembling lips
as he leans in to hers–see the nervous animal
. . . . . . . in his eyes, how it paces back and forth (x, x, x)
knowing there is no way out of love
but to suffer. He’s a mutant, but is he so different
. . . . . . . from you? Have you ever folded yourself
into someone’s arms, unsure of yourself,
knowing what you have learned in your life
. . . . . . . contradicted such tenderness, leaning in anyway,
lips separating, closing in,
the potential of blades
. . . . . . . running along your bones
just in case?
(from Jackleg Opera, Collected Poems 1990-2013 [North Atlantic Books])
You can learn more about BJ Ward and his poetry at his website: http://www.bj-ward.com/.