A. Van Jordan is the author of four collections: Rise, which won the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award (Tia Chucha Press, 2001); M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, (2005), which was listed as one the Best Books of 2005 by The London Times; Quantum Lyrics, (2007); and The Cineaste, (2013), W.W. Norton & Co. Jordan has been awarded a Whiting Writers Award, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He is a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a United States Artists Williams Fellowship. He is a Professor in the Dept. of English at the University of Michigan, and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Interview with A. Van Jordan
Lindsay Ahl: The structure of M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A is incredibly sweet. You go backwards in time, focusing mostly on M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A and her husband John, beginning with the way things end up, and backing up almost 40 years to the spelling bee. Intercut are a few other voices, and a few examples of poems (The Night Richard Pryor Met Mudbone) which are related in theme and time but not directly to the narrative. How did you orchestrate this? Did you know what you were doing the whole time …. or did it come to you at some point?
A. Van Jordan: If I ever know exactly what I’m going to do too far in advance, it’s usually a bad sign. I need the discovery to grab hold of me during the process. That is to say, when I’m surprised by where the narrative or structure is going, I believe the reader will also be surprised.
The idea of the historical figures—Jesse Owens, Josephine Baker, Asa Philip Randolph, Richard Pryor, etc.—was two pronged: 1) I wanted to place MacNolia Cox within the spectrum of African American history, and, consequently, within the spectrum of American history. And 2) I wanted to have time markers in the book without having to separate sections with bold face dates. The only artificial indication of time that I allowed myself was the separation of her childhood from her adult life, which predicated the reverse chronological order of her story. I wanted to begin with her death and work back in time to her moment of greatest potential in order to infuse transcendence into the story. When it’s told in straight chronological order, it’s too easy to overlook the transcendence and to dismiss this as a sad story.
Ahl: This idea of transcendence …. I feel you get to that in other ways too … I feel like it’s not really a discussion of her greatest potential being at the spelling bee but her potential in general … and therefore our potential, all of ours, as individuals … that you are talking about. (Pryor being one example). I’m not a particularly political person, so I see Macnolia as beautiful exploration of the human spirit, of love, of life and how the course of our lives unfolds. But it can be seen in a different way, as an exploration of the history of what it means to be black in America. I think it was Toni Morrison that said, “All art is political.” Do you agree?
A. Van Jordan: Certainly. Anytime you try to tell a story or capture the human spirit in a painting or dance, that representation is imbued with the culture through which it is told. Every culture carries with it a political legacy; therefore, all art is political. Now, that being said, I don’t think every artist sits down with politics in the foreground of her mind. What I mean to say is that once someone is asked to participate in the art—once someone walks into a museum, or sits in an audience for a play, or reads a poem—they bring their life experience, their politics, their ignorance and their culture to the interpretation and to the critique. At this point, the art with the most benign intentions can become incendiary.
Ahl: The Night Richard Pryor Met Mudbone is quite a poem. Really lovely technically and narratively … but what brings it home for me is the question that’s being asked, of how do we find that place where we actually authentically express what only we can express? How do we find our unique place in the world? Can you talk a little about this? Is this a true story about Pryor?
A. Van Jordan: Yes, according to a few biographies of Pryor the story is true. He spent most of his early career imitating other comedians until that night in New York working with Miles Davis. I think this relates back to art being political, too. Pryor wasn’t being himself because he didn’t think the essence of who he was could be acceptable to Americans. Once we’re allowed to be ourselves in whatever place we may find ourselves, we’re not only free but also emboldened. Pryor found out later that he could be the guy from Peoria, IL, whether he was in his hometown or Las Vegas. Once he had that epiphany, nothing could stop him.
Ahl: There are film references in M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A and occasional scene instructions, as though we were reading a screenplay. Odd and interesting idea, to include that. Why? Also, structurally, how did film, Eisenstein and others, influence the structure of your work or how you experience your life?
A. Van Jordan: Why not film? This is a story full of drama and if I had the resources, I would have made a documentary—in film, that is, because I did in poems—of her life. Sergie Eisenstein really made sense of the connections between images—the variances and co-variances, and relationships—with the receiver, the audience. Our experience of watching a film was never manipulated as well until he put not only a theory to it, but also a methodology. The tensions I think of between images on an associative level are directly taken from his ideas on montage and the synchronicity of senses. If I had a camera, it might be clearer to see.
Ahl: I tend to think of my thoughts as being almost as real as any worldly objects or actions …. what, in your study of physics, are you finding in regards to thoughts?
A. Van Jordan: Physics presents the greatest case for a spiritual world. There are physical laws that can be explained, but there’s a great deal that we can witness, but we can’t explain. We know that there’s a relationship between matter and energy, but we don’t know every aspect of this relationship. We have some understanding of the relationship between space and time, but we can’t fully understand it. Something as simple as symmetry is beyond the greatest minds we’ve produced. So the uncertainty principle and relativity have paved a way for much philosophical discussion, which is really a way to make sense of the physical world. In this way, math and religion have the same mission.
Ahl: I’ve had some difficulty defining myself in relation to what my parents, husband, society etc. think I should/would/could be …. (I’ve spent a fair amount of time rebelling against or trying to conform to their thoughts!) … which makes me want to ask you … what is it like to be black in America today, and how do you deflect everyone’s thoughts (including questions like this one) about who you are, stereotypes, the history of repression ….. and become who you want to?
A. Van Jordan: Being who you want to be — being true to yourself, so to speak — is an act of declaring your freedom. I realized long ago that I cannot walk through life worrying about the white gaze. Sometimes it calls for a great deal of paranoia and other times it’s just a matter of not caring how people perceive me. I don’t mean in some nihilistic way, mind you, which is what the commercialization of hip-hop is all about: a push to have a monistic African American culture. All cultures are deeper than that. As Hughes would say, the beautiful and the ugly, too. It’s been amazing being a black male as simply a black male and then, sometimes in the same day, being seen as a black male poet, which is the same always for me, but not for the public. Somehow, I can say things as a poet and have a dialogue across racial lines, gender lines, class lines, etc, in a way I can’t if I’m just a brother with an opinion. Poetry is the highest form of language because it can transcend so many limitations in the human condition.
And when someone wants to take me down a peg, they think that labeling me an “African American poet” will work. Well, that doesn’t work any more than it would be an insult to call Joyce and Irish writer or Lorca Spanish. I don’t have a disconnect when it comes to loving people across cultural lines; I’m a humanist. When people can’t see the universal in a story like M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A because she’s a little black girl in 1936 America, that’s their problem; it has nothing to do with the writing. That person is simply myopic. If I can find the universal in Russian literature or Ugandan literature or Spanish literature, people should see the same in African American literature, which is another layer of American literature. Period.
Ahl: What or who is your nemesis?
A. Van Jordan: Self doubt. When I second-guess myself, I always fail. It’s something I’m working on.
Poems by A. Van Jordan
INSERT SHOT: Einstein’s notebook 1905 — DAY
Einstein defining Special Relativity
1: a theory that is based on two postulates (a) that the speed of light in all inertial frames is constant, independent of the source or observer. As in, the speed of light emitted from the truth is the same as that of a lie coming from the lamp of a face aglow with trust, and (b) the laws of physics are not changed in all inertial systems, which leads to the equivalence of mass and energy and of change in mass, dimension, and time; with increased velocity, space is compressed in the direction of the motion and time slows down. As when I look at Mileva, it’s as if I’ve been in a space ship traveling as close to the speed of light as possible, and when I return, years later, I’m younger than when I began the journey, but she’s grown older, less patient. Even a small amount of mass can be converted into enormous amounts of energy: I’ll whisper her name in her ear, and the blood flows like a mallet running across vibes. But another woman shoots me a flirting glance, and what was inseparable is now cleaved in two.
CUT TO: (seven years earlier)
INSERT SHOT: Albert replies to Mileva’s letter announcing that she’s pregnant; He addresses her by his nickname for her, Dollie. May, 1901 — DAY
Exciting news, my dear–
I have been pacing elliptical orbits
around my desk, twirling
locks of my hair through thoughts,
and I may have an experiment for generating
cathode rays by ultraviolet light.
As for your news, promise me
you’ll never cease being
the elegant equation of (little street urchin)
times (infinity) times the (speed of light).
INT. 1919 — NIGHT
Mileva, recently divorced from Albert, is sitting at home peering into a photograph of Albert with his cousin and now second wife, ELSA, after their recent wedding
Possibly, she’s more of a wife
but could she be more of a woman,
too? A floppy hat and a smile,
strands of hair astray,
a cloth purse and sound shoes
that led her to my husband who doubles
as her cousin—not much of a threat
but not so safe, either. He thinks
he’ll experiment by taking a second wife.
Men behave as particles do
while being observed in light: they
respond differently in the dark
when you can’t watch how they move.
I’ve worked math to prove to the world
that his thoughts were elegant; I’ve birthed
our children; I’ve laid my face in his hair.
I look at this couple and see myself in her.
I was young, scientific and willing
to fall into equations, through the infinite
yearning to understand physical laws
of action and reaction, of the force
of a mass in acceleration, of what’s inert
and what work puts us back in motion.
People ask if I’m jealous
of science, as if I were a seamstress
instead of a physicist by training. Now,
another woman is by his side, and no
one asks my opinion. If they did,
I’d tell them the same truth I’ve said before:
what can you do? One gets the pearl,
the other the jewel box.
INT. Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall — 1921 — NIGHT
German Nobel Prize winning physicist and Nazi supporter PHILIP LENARD holds a public forum of the Anti-relativity League denouncing relativity and “Jewish physics”; Einstein attends.
And the sun will cease in a scene
much like this: ruined reputations remind us
that prominence doesn’t protect people
who commit brilliance–the hubris to bear it, that is–
and defend friends against fools who hate
truth and tolerate nothing. Well, after this,
what can we believe in? How can we believe?
Philip Lenard makes moves
and trust turns from us to tax
the days when the sun says
this is a day that things must be done.
The revelry is reversed and heads reel
from the crimson morals credited to crowds
lusting after their own lives and livelihoods.
Look at him, festooned with the fear of friends.
A physicist serving anti-Semites,
booking Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall, which,
even to refute relativity, reminds
us of what men must be mindful.
So I sit and listen to Lenard’s followers:
anti-peace, anti Einstein.
My seat in the audience warps space
and time; the entire hall turns
to energy, granting gravity to grow,
to stretch the light of their strained spirits,
frozen in time, in this temple of intolerance.
Of course, how these hovering black holes
do this—a prism of primal possibility—
is in my head, as I handle this hell.
Let them taunt; my mind is taut.