Printer Friendly

Jack Butler: poetry and life, an interview.

Jack Butler was born in Alligator, Mississippi, in 1944. He lived primarily in Mississippi until 1964, when he moved to Missouri to attend college. He received degrees in English and mathematics from Central Missouri State College, after which he worked for a while as a Baptist preacher in Missouri. In 1968, he moved to Arkansas to attend the University of Arkansas in the creative-writing program. He has lived in Arkansas since, except for two years in Southeast Texas. Butler has also worked as a bread-company route man, fried-pie man, statistical analyst, writer-in-residence; and now he is assistant dean at Hendrix College in Arkansas.

Best known as a fiction writer, Butler has produced one collection of short stories and three novels. Hawk Gumbo and Other Stories, which appeared in 1982, was followed by the widely praised, Jujitsu for Christ (1986), recently republished in the Penguin Contemporary Fiction series, and then Nightshade, which was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1989 and in paperback by Grafton Books two years later. In 1993 Alfred A. Knopf will publish Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, a novel.

West of Hollywood (1981) and The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman (1982), both published by August House, are Butler's two Volumes of poems, and he has just finished a series of poems that will go by the title The Circles. A major poem in this book-to-be, "Gyro Gearloose," was just published in the New Orlean Review). His poems have been included in a number of anthologies, the most recent being The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, edited by Leon Stokesbury (University of Arkansas Press, 1987), and about 100 of them have been in magazines and reviews, including the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, and Poetry Northwest.

The interview that follows, which focuses mainly on Butley's poetry, but not entirely, took place in 1991.

BC. Do you feel there is some operation basic to all poetry, in spite of the variety of poetry, or do you feel that there are a number of different kinds of poetry that function differently?

JB. Yes and yes, I guess. I do think there is a basic operation, basic function that all poems engage in. Clearly poems and poets are very different each from each, and some of the differences are fundamental, not just those superficial add-ons that poets concoct in order to distinguish themselves from each other. The big thing now is to have what is called voice - I can't think of anything more awful than getting trapped in a so-called voice and having to repeat the same shtick forever in order to be appreciated. I think when that happens you're probably confusing the market with the poetic process. But beyond superficial differences there is a fundamental operation, a fundamental thing that's going on in poetry, and I think it has mainly to do with how important words are to us. I feel that words are a lot more important than we give them credit for being. They're terribly important to us when we're just learning to speak. Then they are really magical acts. A certain collection of sounds springs a very vivid image. All of our first words are concrete nouns. That must be overwhelming to a child. Sometimes I think we can pick up on it.

Let me tell you a story. We had a piece of land west of Hollywood, Arkansas. I was there with my daughter when she was learning to talk. There were some minnows swimming around in a pond on a cold, sunny spring day. She had never seen them before. I was busy realizing that there were all sorts of things in the world that she was seeing for the first time, so I was re-seeing them for the first time. She would turn to me - I felt very good to be a poet and have this happen - she would turn to me for words for these things, and that made me realize how important it is to find words for what we see and what we experience. She wanted to know what those bright shiny things were that would flash as they turned their silver sides in the sun. I gave her "minnows" to be specific and "fish" in general. She liked "fish." Later that night I built a big campfire; it began throwing off a whole bunch of sparks, and the sparks left trails in the air - the persistence of vision, you know. And she had not seen that before. She had seen fire; she knew the word for fire; she may have seen a spark or two, but nothing like this torrent. She was again tremendously excited, badly needed a word, but this time she was too excited to wait for Daddy to hand the word down from on high. She had to tell me before she had the word. And so she made up a word from her previous experience - the word was "firefish." That to me is a fundamental act of poetry. It happens in a one-and-a-halfyear-old girl, and I think it can happen in all of us. The fundamental operation of poetry, it seems to me, is to restore language to that sort of potency.

BC. So it has to do with perception.

JB. Yes, I think it does. To some extent a poet is like my daughter was at that point-when he sees something and is too excited about it to wait for the received ways of talking about it to settle in. He sees something that there is no enunciation for yet, and he must enunciate it. There is a tremendous satisfaction that settles in us when we have the right words for things. Obviously, in some contexts, this is a pretty trivial satisfaction, because there are many things it doesn't do: it doesn't feed the hungry, and it doesn't build cities. I won't claim all manner of good for it, but I do think it's a definite satisfaction; and I do think the desire for this satisfaction is in every human being from early on.

BC. Education makes us unlearn the ability to do that, don't you think?

JB. Well, it's inevitable. [When your vocabulary grows to] somewhere over 600 [words], you begin approximations, and language is more and more approximate and generalized from then on. Your first home is a very powerful thing for you; for many of us it will linger in dreams, radiant and mythical, the rest of our lives. But after you've lived in fifteen houses, houses don't quite do that to you anymore because you generalize them. It's inevitable. So poetry in adults, I think, is more or less an attempt to restore, at least momentarily, under special conditions, something of that early impulse, which I think is a way of making life feel like it's worth living. Our education does train us away from [our early poetic] state of perception, that immediate, direct- it feels direct-sensing of what's valuable. Since [this mental activity] is hard to quantify, and since it can't be tested very well, and since during most of our lives we are forced to make choices and approximations anyway, it's very difficult to keep [the poet's mode of perception with an exacting metaphor], so I won't really indict education in the U. S. [for our adult condition].

BC. Has your being a Southerner shaped you as a poet?

JB. Yes, it certainly has. I'm not sure that I can very easily pinpoint all the ways that it has. I would say probably to some extent the sort of Southerner I was has shaped me more than the fact that I'm regional. That is to say, my early life, primarily the first twenty years, was rural, or, if we were in towns, they were very small towns. My first rhythmic influences in writing were probably cadences of the King James version of the Bible. And then I'm very much a nature poet - in the sense that nature is my context, but not necessarily my only subject. I'm not a nature poet like Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver who seem to be writing directly at nature. I tend to write more out Of nature. I remember very early having an awareness of the outdoor world, and this has inclined me to be more of a poet of things and events than of theories, though I love theories. Do you know what I mean?

BC. Although some of your poems are in free verse, you for the most part write formal verse. Does your being influenced by the cadences of the King James Bible have anything to do with the fact that you were writing sonnets and villanelles back when most American poets were doing either free verse or "prose-poems"?

JB. Mostly I would say I have written formal verse, though I have never done any theoretical or aesthetic agonizing over writing free verse. I can't really tie that directly back to my childhood acquaintance with the King James version of the Bible; I'm just sort of supposing a connection, because I didn't start writing poetry very much till I was sixteen, and then I was more or less blindsided by Shakespeare. The real reason that I think I wrote so much formal poetry, and still do, is that all my early models were formal poets: I heard that music, and I loved it. So I was thinking of form in poetry as the music of poetry; I was not thinking of form as a set of restrictions to be fulfilled. I was not thinking of it as a set of barriers but as a way of making things sing. I was really pretty much out of it as far as the avant-garde is concerned. At that time, I didn't really collide with the fact that no one was writing formal poetry anymore. Shapiro's an interesting case, you know, because he wrote wonderful formal poetry for a long time, and then he went into free verse, and I'll never forget a poem - "the Pondicherry Vulture," I think it was - to my mind it's an awful prose-poem, but he really felt that he had found something.

BC. So it was your isolation, being in rural Mississippi, that contributed to your being a formalist?

JB. Yes, partly. My early career as a poet as very much one of isolation. I did not bang into other poets very much. I remember going to the drugstore in Sedalia, Missouri, when I was living up there for a little while, and getting copies of Writer's Digest just to have some sort of contact with the literary world.

But for the most part I discovered things on my own. I had been writing lines with recurring cadences, and then one day I found out that it was blank verse that I had been writing. From then on I was very much enamored of iambic pentameter. That probably happened about age eighteen. Then I remember consuming everything I could find about poetry - the craft of poetry and the theory of poetry. I remember learning all the names of the feet and everything. I wrote, for example, a poem which I thought of as a sort of mirror-image poem, that went something like dactyl, trochee, iamb, anapest. And that was probably around the age of twenty, and it wasn't too long after that that I finally began to get hold of the idea that Frost has enunciated so very clearly - that you don't build rhythm foot by foot, but that it's an entity that glimmers over an entire line; it's a contextual entity.

BC. Are there any other poets besides the ones you've mentioned that you feel are part of the discovery of what you wanted to do?

JB. Yes, I have my own little canon, which is very extensive. It includes poets who have written something like a half a dozen poems that I care about very powerfully - somewhere between one and half a dozen. My list includes Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Andrew Marvell, and Archibald MacLeish; it ranges over time a great deal. My triumvirate, however, is pretty modern; the three who matter the most to me are Richard Wilbur, Robert Frost, and W. B. Yeats. Of those three Yeats was really the first one that I imitated very seriously. What I picked up from him was the idea of the refrain line and the way he plays around with dissonances in rhyme. I came late to Richard Wilbur. I was already fully formed and can't say that I was much influenced by him, but I admire him tremendously. Frost, on the other hand, I imitated assiduously for a period of a couple of years. That could be very dangerous, as you know. But I never really worried about what I was doing.

BC. Are there other contemporaries that haven't necessarily influenced you that you think a great deal of-?

JB. There's a sort of a gap in my poetic apperceptions. I hit the age of twenty-four and went into a poetry workshop and discovered that no one was writing formal poetry anymore. I tried to read the stuff in the magazines, and I kept trying to read the books that came out, but they just bored the hell out of me, so I quit reading them. I just still don't have any use for a great many of those poets. I suppose it's a terrible thing to say, but they just couldn't write very well. So I dropped out of the whole struggle. And now, just recently, I'm finding out that there were other people who were dropping out of the struggle at the same time for some other reasons, poets like Dana Gioia, who I think is an excellent poet. He's a vice president with General Foods.

BC. Another Wallace Stevens type.

JB. Right. And he's a very formal poet. Another is Fred Feirstein, who is a psychologist in New York City and writes formal poetry and has for years; others are Fred Turner, down in Dallas; Dick Allen and Robert MacDowell on the West coast. They're all leaders in something called the Expansive Movement of poetry, which embraces what they call the new formalism. It rebels against the lyric, confessional free-verse poem, the self-conscious one in which the agonies of "I-the poet" are always at the center.

BC. People generally think of mathematics and poetry as coming from two different cultures. You are a mathematician and statistician and until just recently worked for Blue Cross and the Arkansas Public Service Commission as a computer analyst. It seems to me there's a reconciliation between the two cultures in your poetry; in fact, you even use mathematical metaphors in some of your poems. Could you comment on this?

JB. I hope there's a reconciliation. Certainly I didn't cause the split. I was born into a world in which there was a perceived split that I've never liked worth a flip. I don't style myself as a mathematician; I do have an undergraduate degree in it. Real mathematicians are doing many things I find it very difficult to comprehend except on a fairly general basis. But I'm a fan of mathematics; I understand it probably to a greater degree than the average citizen. I follow it; I'm an amateur of mathematics.

Early on I discovered that the free play of the mind was for me one of my very greatest pleasures. Once I wrote a little poem nobody's ever seen, about a pencil. The poem said that the wonderful thing about a pencil was all the different things its could do-you could draw, you could write, or you could do mathematics - and that it all came from that same core, that same instrument. That's the most visible place that I didn't draw barriers. There are other places I haven't drawn barriers: I still sketch; I like to work out; there are male-female barriers in my fiction that I don't pay quite the attention to that you're typically supposed to; and so on. We're a very chopped up, divided, compartmentalized culture. The divisions are fine when they're functional, but there are a lot of them that aren't functional.

So the early impulse for me was just learning how to do things and playing with my mind. That came out in numbers, I enjoyed numbers, they made patterns, they were pretty, and you could think big thoughts with them. I liked numbers. I stayed with them a long time. If I hadn't gone to college in some out of the way, buried little place, I wouldn't have gotten away with sticking with mathematics. When I first hit college - it was in Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi - I thought I was going to be a preacher. I was on the track team and the crosscountry team, I acted in plays, and I was studying physics and calculus. I just wanted to taste it all. You can't do everything; life narrows you down. Therefore, I held fiercely to the strongest oppositions. I was unwilling to relinquish either of the two clear poles, as defined by our culture. I find poetry as good a way for knowing things as mathematics, and the comprehension of one definitely aids the comprehension of the other.

You mentioned the mathematical images in my poetry. Such poems as "The Binomial Theorem of Hope" and a few others explicitly refer to math and to the patterns of certain mathematical functions. I think my imagery has been strongly shaped by mathematics. This is because there's a certain clarity of image that speaks to me, and it may have something to do with my sense of mathematical structure. I think of envelopes, discreteness, and continuity; there's a whole system of thinking by now so deeply rooted in me that I think it affects not just individual images but the way I approach imagery as a whole. But I'm sure someone out there will say, of course you like numbers; that's why your meters are so monotonous and regular; I don't have any answers to that kind of comment.

BC. You might have answered in part the next question that I had in mind. It's about the fact that poetry seems to be very much a part of living in your collection The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman. It seems that personal experience is integral to your poetry. Is it really, or is that seeming just part of the artifice in creating the thing that is the poem? In "Sunday Spider," for example, you are writing the poem in the poem.

JB. That's really not artifice. Well, it ends up as artifice in the same way a photograph of the kids at Christmas becomes an artifact after the kids are grown. I'm not trying to maintain that these poems will bleed if you cut them, but at least my lyric poetry comes out of my life. There's a distinction that I would make here between that and the practice of confessional poetry. There are curtains I have not pulled over incidents or feelings or events from my own life in my poems because I felt that was the place not to pull the curtain, because my experience had something to do with other people's lives too. That to me is not the same thing as confession. I never had the sense of trying to expiate or work through a personal crisis in my poetry. Probably the thing that stood me in good stead there is the formal impulse because it seems to me that what I'm doing in some sense is formalizing, celebrating my lifc and the lives of those around me. That is one of the benefits the practice of poetry has to offer, as distinguished from poetry as collections and books, that it can be a celebration of life. The first really serious book that I put together had a section in it called "Celebrations I" and a section called Celebrations ll." The celebrations weren't necessarily all joyous. It was that events from one's own life were being given - I hate to say such a resounding thing as "meaning," but they were being ritualized, formalized; they were being elevated. It was a way of saying how much you cared about them.

To some extent the necessity for formalizing and ritualizing and celebrating our lives has fallen on the individual because of the absence of consensual ceremony in our culture. There are ceremonies out there, but they try to recruit us into their vision. There are few ceremonies that I see that reward us all through the culture. Ceremonies should reward us; they compensate us for our mortality. As a result it falls back on the individual to try to do some of the compensating, ad hoc. That's what it seemed to me I was up to with poetry. When I was younger I would throw the names of friends into the poems. My goal was to have something memorial, something that you would want to remember but also something with the quick of living in it. A great deal of my poetry starts from something that's actually going on with me. It may be a thought or may be a dramatic situation. I have very seldom fudged dramatic situations. Occasionally, when I have done so for effect, almost always I've admitted it in the poem when I was doing it.

BC. You would say, then, that sincerity is an attribute of your poetry, and that the artifice does not undermine sincerity;)

JB. Yes, I hope it's sincere. I should probably say that, if any of my poems are sincere, that they are probably the peak of my sincerity and that I'm not necessarily someone you should trust in other areas.

BC. Do you think there's a moral dimension to poetry, in any sense? I mean moral in the broadest sense.

JB. Yes, definitely. There are at least two moral dimensions in poetry. One is the morality that it points toward, and the other is the morality of the conduct of poetry. The relationship's not always clear. First, poetry can tell us things morally. Wallace Stevens' poem "A High-toned Old Christian Woman" is explicitly moral; it's a poem about imagination, and it's a poem about how prudishness, when it gets out of bounds, is terribly destructive. Stevens comes up in his sly sort of out-of-the-corner-of-the eye way and creates an image of a very prudish Christian lady who looks down on this parade of somebody like Shriners, who are no doubt drunken and thumping around; he says, they "May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves/ A jovial hullabaloo..." and so on. That is the moral that that poem points to. It says something-very cleverly and very interestingly - about what no doubt the prudish old lady would call morality in the first place. It makes a moral comment about that morality. But secondarily, there's a good example in that poem of the morality of conduct. The poem makes me suspect that the "high-toned old Christian lady" that Wallace Stevens is pointing to is Wallace Stevens himself. We may think that Wallace Stevens is just completely wild and that he would do anything imaginatively in his poems. But I'm sure he felt those same restrictions that every artist feels - you can't do that. I really think he was the "high-toned old Christian lady" that he was pointing to. That's a kind of fundamental honesty of approach; that's the morality of conduct. And that enters into poetry. It matters a lot more than the morality that poetry points to. This has to do with what we mean when we can say that somebody's an awful person but a great artist. It may mean that the morality of their conduct, in the art at least, was good, was honest, because we all have different arenas in which we're more or less good in the moral sense. I think it's probably as incumbent upon the artist to be good in the moral sense as it is for a dentist to be. I don't think art's any excuse for immorality. But the aesthetic risks that poets take and the way they meet them are a species of morality, too. One thing that I sometimes say to students is "This poet, this novelist, this writer can say anything he wants to to you about what he feels and thinks and who he is. The only evidence you have of his behavior is the piece of writing itself. That's the only direct evidence you have of how he behaves. It's not very strong; it really won't tell you whether that person beats his dog. But the way chances are taken, responsibilities are met, pleasures are enjoyed in the poem provide the only actual evidence about the writer that you have. Whether we trust artists depends on the way they conduct themselves in their art." I think that's terribly important, and we don't talk very much about it in classes, maybe because it's hard to talk about.

BC. How do you see this issue in relation to your comments about sincerity in poetry?

JB. Poetry's a stage; how you conduct yourself on the stage is just what I'm talking about. Sham comes in when you care more about what you get out of it than what your audience gets out of it. You're "acting out" instead of acting. The fine point you try to make in poetry classes is the difference between self-expression (which is what everybody coming into college thinks poetry is) and art. There's a difference. Yet you may very well express yourself in a work of art. That isn't the function of it. Self-expression is a means to an end in a work of art; it has to give the reader something beyond the self. Poems must give pleasure, which is a moral value. The sheer delight that a poem can give is a moral act. If you write a heavy-handed tendentious poem about war in which you wind up making everybody feel terribly guilty because they're a part of the sick society and so on, and there's no delight in there, then I think probably that's immoral, in a strange way, because you have postured and you've adopted an attitude, and you've unloaded that attitude onto the audience. What you're really doing is you're taking a morally,.,superior stance in relation to your audience, and the poem is the device which grants you the chance to feel morally superior. That's not really good morality to me. Entertainment doesn't allow you to do that. If you're trying to entertain someone, you are not superior to him or her, and you'd better remember that, because people don't enjoy being treated as inferiors.

BC. You've got another volume of poetry ready. Is it a step in another direction from what you did in your last volume? - and when is it going to be published?

JB. This volume is really different because my first two volumes of poetry were, by necessity, collections. There are the books that you write, and there are the books you can get published. Probably the first four books that I wrote as books will never be published, and so the first two collections of poems - the first one, West of Hollywood, and the second one, The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman, are collections from those four books; and in fact The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman explicitly reflects that structure: the poems in each section are chosen roughly according to the content of those four books that haven't been published.

The way that happened was that I was publishing fairly successfully in magazines, fairly early on, but didn't have a book out for a long, long time. When August House finally wanted to do a book, I had une book out in a contest and that left a certain selection of poems that I put together around roughly the theme of a natural retreat to a cabin in the woods. It wasn't really a hermitage like the cover says. At any rate, they fit in that way pretty well, and I tailored it a little bit, so made that book. Didn't win the contest, of course. And then when they wanted another book about three or four years later, I had all of those poems available with some changes, so put them together. Those two books represent up to about 1984, a selection not necessarily of my best work, but sort of a compromise between my best and my most well-published work. I did what I could to organize them and give them form and thrust, but, as I say, they're selections. It's been a real frustration that I've never been able to publish [the four original books of poems]. I just feel like I've never really been seen. I've always naturally written books. It seems that I'm in a phase of my life in which themes emerge naturally - I don't write books to themes, but in a more or less narrative or dramatic way over time. The poems are lyric, but I think maybe the overall effect of the books is somewhat dramatic or narrative.

BC. Do you think you're going to be able finally this time to publish "the book" rather than selections?

JB. This is my first direct attempt to publish a book that is the book I designed from start to finish. So far I haven't had any luck getting it published. The fact of the matter is I haven't tried very much because about the time I really got into it heavily, my novels started doing fairly well. And, since I work for a living and since I have contracts for novels, it doesn't leave a lot of extra time. I really dropped poetry, haven't done any self-promotion in poetry. Believe it or not, as small a field as it is, if you don't get out there and hustle, you disappear. That's pretty much what's happened. As soon as I finish this novel [Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock], I've told myself this summer I'm going to make a push to get this book in real good shape and try to publish it. We'll see.

BC. Does being a poet help you as a novelist?

JB. I suppose so. I do write my novels sentence by sentence, which I doubt I would do if I had come to prose first. Language has always been for me voice and music, line by line. You can say this approach hurts me as a novelist because it slows me down. But I know why every sentence in a novel I write is the way it is. I've gone over and over it in my mind. More generally, poetry has helped me in my novels by teaching me a certain eye and a certain intensity; also I think it has trained my ear. I think that training of the ear is what has made it possible to develop a range; that is to say, if you really want to punch a sentence home, it's as though you have more tools to do it with. You have a bigger range in what you can do with the prose because you've got all the poetic options available. Maybe it makes my fiction too congested and too "poetic."

BC. So it doesn't really involve a very great mental shift to go from writing poetry to writing fiction.

JB. Almost none at all, I'd say. The only shift is the form that you choose for the device, though fiction has more limitations. Poetry has a built-in presumption of formality even in free verse, the formality of the standpoint of the speaker. Fiction doesn't usually have that, at least in the modern day; fiction has to seem more real. We usually have to make fiction earn belief from the reader. So as speakers go on wild narrative excursions in fiction, then you have to justify it within the fiction. Poetry therefore can indulge in what we might call a more artificial sort of discourse, which is really just a way of saying we've got more levels of discourse available. When I am writing fiction it seems terrible to me to have 400 years of readable English fiction and not be able to range all over that for music, but I feel restricted to the tiny little decade that I'm in and the way voices go in that decade. That seems awful to me to have no more in my musical tool kit than that. Well, in poetry you do have, if you want to, a little bit more window for those levels of discourse because we already accept poetry as an artificial device.

BC. What about your methods of writing? Do they change greatly when you go from writing poetry to writing, say, a short story? Is there a different way you work? I know there must be a big difference between writing a novel and short story or a fairly short poem. Do you write them all on a computer?

JB. I do compose on the computer now. I still tend to begin poems wherever I am, which may just be with a pencil in my hand somewhere because I've never found a completely satisfactory portable computer; and, if I did [find one], I wouldn't want to have it strapped to my belt all the time in case I wanted to write a poem.

Once I get a poem going and get it on a computer, I'm perfectly comfortable composing on [the computer]. So in that sense, it's not really different. Actually my composition methods are dictated by the necessities of my available time. That probably masks any sort of natural pattern I might have. There have been times in my life when I had the luxury to sit under a tree beside a creek all day and work on a poem a line at a time as it came. That was a wonderful freedom. Your mind spins off into all sorts of only associationally related things. I've written a great deal of poetry that way. That won't work for a short story obviously. I don't rough draft things in fiction in the sense of just putting anything down, however rough it is as an approximation: I cannot bring myself to do that. Really my composition processes are the same. I just hammer through it, a piece at a time, getting every piece more or less what feels to me right before I can go on. If I get too far ahead of the edge of what feels right to me, I'm lost. Until I get the sentences right enough, I really can't write the end of the book. It just doesn't work for me. I don't have a compass. In that way, poems and fiction are the same. I have to stay within the envelope of what I feel I've got just right already.

There is this important difference between writing poetry and writing fiction: with poetry [you] have very much the sense of hammering away a line at a time. It's almost obsessive; it's almost a matter of will power, just keeping your teeth in a poem over days and days and days, and making the rhymes come one at a time. Fiction feels a great deal more relaxed, probably because you've usually got a dramatic situation to drive it. In the long run, it is just as much a matter of endurance and will power, but it doesn't feel quite so much like banging your head against the wall until the wall breaks.

BC. Are a lot of your revisions done in your head before you write anything down?

JB. Yes. And a great deal of it's mental, though much of it is subconscious, too. I don't really rework things that much [once I get them on paper]. On the whole, there are not huge gaps between my first drafts and my later drafts. My revisions are more like fine tunings than anything else.

BC. Is there a submerged shape in your fiction that in any way accords with the kind of organization and form that characterizes your poetry?

JB. Yes, I like that question because there is. I've never gotten to talk about it. Nobody's ever asked me before, and it's never come up in a conversation.

My novels are very highly shaped, not so much by plot or even character. Those things are somewhat random. They have to be true; the reader has to believe the characters would really do whatever they do. I don't go to a novel with shapeless anything-can-happen notions; I do have a shape for the plot in my mind. In poems there's an organization to the imagery of the poem as a whole. The images speak to each other, and you sort of try to organize that speaking. Architectonically there's a similarity between my novels and my poems because I do have an overall imagistic structure in mind almost always in my novels. Sometimes it's very, very complex, but you can go through and you can map it out. In my first novel, Jujitsu, there's an extensive structure of black and white imagery, which is natural because of the time and place that it's set in. There's an extensive structure of vortex or tornado imagery that runs all the way through it that seems natural. You can go through the book and pick up images of whirlpools, vortexes, tornadoes. Eventually the black and white images merge into these. Late in the book there's a reference to the sort of spiral that movie makers used to use to indicate somebody falling down into hypnosis or a trance or something, and that's a black and white spiral that pretty much sums the two patterns of imagery. One of the protagonists in the book, Roger Wing, senses some bad events pulling at him like a whirlpool. And then late in the book, when the climactic, more or less tragic event at a football stadium occurs, the stadium is described as "a square funnel of souls." That happens the night before the riots at Ole Miss. The game is literal; the riots actually happened; the people who were at the game went back to Ole Miss and rioted the next day. And I describe that as being like a tornado that just picked up and moved from Jackson back to Oxford. That's not by any means the only imagistic structure in the novel, but it's one I was highly aware of as I wrote. I have to say I don't feel that I force opportunities for these things and I don't mind if readers miss them, but it's impossible for me not to hear the rhymes or the images as they come. All my fiction's done that.

BC. Has anybody ever pointed any patterns like this out to you that you weren't consciously aware of when you wrote the novel?

JB. I've had people point things out to me that I liked that I wasn't aware of when I wrote. [I was] just up at the Air Force Academy, and they were doing a pair of [my] stories called "Hawk Gumbo" and "A Country Girl." In "A Country Girl" there is a scene with an old woman who's married to and nursemaiding an old man who has very debilitating diabetes; the smell of the sickness fills the room; he's a cranky old bastard, and he has a boat paddle that he whacks his TV with to get it going when it's out of tune - or makes her whack it with it. The wife and nursemaid looks on him as a soul-less creature,just a bag of wants. One of the students asked me, in one of the classes there, what [the boat-paddle passage] was about, because the story's not about those two [characters] at all. It's about a woman named Sara Bean; in fact, the whole story is told from her internal monologue. The students were just wanting to know what this old married couple were doing in the story. I really didn't have an answer right away. I started to say, "Well, I don't know." But the colonel who conducts the creative writing classes at the academy said, "Well, but you see, the old woman in this instance is nothing but the nursemaid and caretaker, and this instance really is about Sara's predicament because she loves her husband, Christian Bean, and yet he wants to force her into a narrow role of being the nursemaid and caretaker for his emotional distress and other distresses, just like this old man does to his wife." They've lost a daughter: he's torn up by it; she's made her peace with it in some sense. And he wants her to continue to nursemaid him and to be mama; he even calls her mama, and she's his wife - which is very Southern, but there's something about roles in it, too. Yet Sara is a Christian in her own peculiar way and very much a Delta Southern woman, and feminism is not for her - it doesn't take; it doesn't offer her anything that she can plug into her life. So here she is: she can't have Bean without having the role; she doesn't want the role; she's got no structure to give her anything else - and that's what the whole story's about. I don't know how conscious it was when I put [the episode about the old couple] in there, but I had just not noticed that. Sara did; Sara comments on it in the story. I hadn't thought of it formally that way. So people do observe things that I was not conscious of when I wrote.

BC. When we were talking about the writers that had influenced you, you only mentioned those you encountered as an adult. You say you read a lot as a child; do you think that childhood reading has had much to do with what you ended up doing and how you do it?

JB. Absolutely. It's probably heresy, but I don't think the way to be a good writer is necessarily to read all the great stuff. I'm very patchily read. As a writer, I think I'm allowed to make commando raids on what culture offers me - not allowed to, I just do it. Bad science fiction has been as useful to me in my writing, however good or bad my writing may be, as has James Joyce, I'm quite sure. The question is not where I get it but what I do with it. So I think it's a misconception that [a writer] needs to be terribly learned in all the great literature. Still, it is morally incumbent on me to be learned to some extent in great literature so that I won't be wasting your time trying to do things that better minds have already done. Also it will keep me from looking like an idiot. What do you do if you accidentally blunder and create a line that W. H. Auden has already made famous, but you wrote it without knowing Auden. "Time and fevers burn away/ individual beauty from / sleeping children." Well, not terribly likely anyone else would have said that, but you could conceivably. Well, you're just in trouble, that's all. It's been preempted. So, in a sense, knowing the literature that precedes you is a survival tactic.

BC. On the other hand, there is this danger that lines stick in your mind and you don't realize that they are lines that you remember. Readers who recognize the line would assume, if they were charitable, that you were making an allusion to another work. Depending on how much of the original context the reader assumed you to be alluding to, the understanding of your entire poem could be affected.

JB. Well you are, though, making an allusion. It's just maybe on a deeper level. The feeling that I'm doing that has happened to me a great many more times than I've actually ever done it. It seems to me I may remember one or two instances in which that actually happened. There may be some that I'm not aware of. That doesn't seem to me to be as terrible a danger as we all feel it to be. It's definitely something I worried about a whole lot in my career, and yet it doesn't seem to have happened that often. Now I've had people borrow from me, and I've borrowed from them, and I think you always want to put a little twist on it so it shows that you know you're doing that. But I'm not terribly territorial about it. You can't patent every line of a piece. Who would want to?

BC. I want to ask you one last thing. At one time you were a preacher. Can you tell me something about this aspect of yourself?

JB. Yes, well ...

BC. I want you to tell me a little about it, because I'm wondering if that experience had something to do with the way you presented your main character, Roger Wing, in Jujitsu for Christ, who goes out and does a little itinerant preaching. Is there a connection here?

JB. There's a definite connection, just physically speaking, in that I know the background; I've done it. And I know what Roger was looking at, but Roger's very different from me in that regard. I was probably closer to the hypocritical character Jimmy Mac - the young preacherboy who's got all the right answers - at that time in my life, maybe now, than I am to Roger. Still, the situations Roger finds himself in are familiar enough to me. I hear that Bloom is about to do a major work on the Southern Baptists, and I think he should definitely get in touch with me before he goes much further with it. I just wanted to throw that in. From John the Baptist to the Southern Baptists I can trace the connections for him if he wants [me] to.

From about the age of eight I was a Baptist preacherboy. Two and three and, during revival times, more times a week, I got up in the pulpit and orated. That's probably the dominating influence on my life, and may be why I get so preachy sometimes. Significance from the pulpit, you know. While I'm sure that experience has shaped me very strongly, it's also the thing I very consciously have tried to stay away from, talk myself out of, train myself away from. I don't know so much that I wanted to be a preacher as that, being a Southern Baptist, I was warped by a desire to be heroic (the Baptists created a little hybrid category in which preachers and missionaries were heroes for Christ). The earliest thing I thought I wanted to be was a foreign missionary because it was the most glamorous occupation. I very clearly did not want to be a preacher, but the only way to find this out was by becoming one, which I later did for a while. I didn't mind getting up and trying to give a sermon, although even that got to be a drag after a while. But I found as a young pastor - I happened to have a church very briefly up in Sedalia, Missouri - I found that I was not emotionally prepared. I didn't have anything to offer people that I saw in church: some were wiser and older than myself Of course, I was dilatory about preparations for Sunday, so I whipped up a nice emotional sermon about that text, the fundamental thesis. It's 1966, I think. The fundamental thesis of that sermon was it doesn't do any good to love your neighbor as yourself, if you don't love yourself; to hate yourself means you treat your neighbor pretty bad. So I waxed very eloquent about this for quite some time; they all filed out shaking my hand. Then a little old lady, one of the survivors of the strongest, most populous family in the church, shook my hand, said, "Brother Butler, I really enjoyed your sermon" - they all have to say that-"but"-I heard it coming-"I just can't believe God wants us to love ourselves." So philosophically, I was getting ready, I guess, for the late '60s or something, and she put me in my place pretty good. We were very different, and I didn't think they knew anything. I was still in rebellion against the narrow culture that I had come out of and the rigid way that everything had to fit a certain pattern, the absolute forbidding of imagination or interpretation or individuality. It was not so much that individuality was forbidden, but that there were a limited number of acceptable ways of being an individual. Being a repentant drunk would have been an acceptable way; being a peacenik was not. So in that sense, I was in rebellion against them; I didn't think they knew anything. But experientially, they were older, and they were wiser, and I didn't have anything to offer them. I couldn't help their hearts.

I suppose that's what I've been up to all along, in poetry. Looking for my appropriate vocation. Looking for an arena in which, however modestly, I can help the heart.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Crowder, Ashby Bland
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Words:8261
Previous Article:Black, White, and Southern: Race Relations and Southern Culture, 1940 to the Present.
Next Article:Eliot's Modernism and Brook's New Criticism: poetic and religious thinking.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters