“This wondrous little engine”: A conversation with Edison Jennings
I came across Edison’s chapbook, Reckoning (Jacar Press), while reading for the LNL Debutlitzer Prize this past Spring, and I felt the poems were deserving of a conversation. The thing that struck me most about Edison’s work was the way he brings to life some memory of a specific time, place, or person in a near-perfect, short musical composition. One of my favorite pieces in the collection, an eleven-line poem, “Apple Economics,” concludes, “…and now this bag of garish fruit my memory grafts to vintage/ among the rows of grocery aisles that green to fields of praise.”
I enjoyed discussing with Edison just how these poems reflect his use of both the sonnet form and obsessive editing to transform individual memory into music and image.
JADA PIERCE Were the poems in Reckoning written over a number of years? The different poems seem to span many years, or they are at least recollected from various times in your life. So is it place that holds these pieces together for you as one collection, or something else?
EDISON JENNINGS Oh yes, written over decades. The poem, “Rainstorm,” was first drafted in, I think, 1993, while I was slurping down some coffee at Norfolk Naval Station. So several of the poems are old, but every single one went through many drafts over the years. The older the poem, as a rule, the more drafts. I think what holds my small collection in place is the sense of reckoning, which is a navigational term and a mathematical term. But most importantly, it connotes ethical and eschatological summary. All these definitions and connotations dovetail.
JP: Elsewhere you said that you changed the title of this collection from Casual Disasters to Reckoning. Could you explain this change in the context of their thematic relevance to the poems?
EJ: As for the short-lived working title, Casual Disasters, I stole it from a poem by Howard Nemerov—another great sonnet writer. I still like the title (and Nemerov’s poem). Not sure why I ultimately discarded it. Probably because I had written a poem titled Reckoning—the poem titled “Reckoning II” in my chapbook— and after consulting with Amy Glyn Greacen, a marvelous poet and very funny person, I decided Reckoning would work as the title for my, at the time, draft of a chapbook. I guess I discarded Casual Disasters because, well, as a chapbook title I thought it didn’t align with some of the poems I wanted to include. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, and to explain my reasoning further would probably take another 500 words, at least. But your question is well-put and insightful.
JP: It’s clear the sonnet has had its influence upon your poetic form, at least for the poems in this collection. The second half of the book reveals a closer adherence to the traditional sonnet forms, but I believe the rhetorical influence of the sonnet is at work in most of the pieces here. Could you perhaps talk a bit about if/why you are drawn to the sonnet? Maybe you could just briefly discuss how the form best serves those subject(s)/feelings you write about in a specific poem–like “Durable Goods,” “Saudade,” and/or “Appalachian Gothic.”
EJ: I had read sonnets in high school, so I kind of knew what they were, at least in English—iambic P, rhyme, 14 lines. That’s about it. Anyway, years later I was in the Navy and waiting in a USO reading room at an airport. I found this book to read, Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form. Learned later it is something of a classic. Imagine, finding it in a USO reading room! Anyway, I read it. Read it again and again. Brought it with me on deployment and set myself a project of writing one sonnet in every formal iteration covered by Fussell. Took me three months, and those sonnets I wrote sucked, big time. But I did it, mimicked every sonnet form Fussell covered. Years later, one of those sonnets won a small contest and was published. It—my “winning” sonnet—sucked, too. I think my poem won just because it was a sonnet (of sorts). I remember the judge simply saying, “You wrote a sonnet,” as if that alone were my poem’s only distinguishing characteristic. And it was the only distinguishing characteristic, I suspect. In other words, lousy poem, but a sonnet. Jump a few years and I’m at Warren Wilson where I read Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie. Knocked me out. Masterful, a new way—at least to me—of addressing the sonnet tradition and the sonnet sequence. I remember her—Ellen Voigt—telling me, “Hell, I’ve written more sonnets than the law will allow.” Or something like that. So, over the years, I’ve tried to write a few.
I like sonnet form and structure because of its elegance. By that I mean, its economy of means and its flexibility, its protean quality of adapting to any topic, tenor, concern, aesthetic. And the narrative and strategic flexibility of the sonnet sequence, as well. In my little chapbook, I frequently went to the sonnet because it invited, or accommodated, a directness, a tolerance for my lack of sophistication. It forced me to cut and cut and cut. To get to the goddamn point. Believe me, if something, some kind of constraint, doesn’t cut off my yammering, I just go on and on.
JP: I wonder if when you initially composed these poems, did you know that the subjects/feelings were best suited to the sonnet? Which sonneteers rank among your favorites (traditional and contemporary)?
EJ: Yeah, I kind of knew the sonnet would be the best vehicle to address some concerns or recollections that had become quite insistent—that seemed to demand I speak, say something. Or, if you prefer, write something. As for contemporary poets writing sonnets: Ellen Bryant Voigt, Mark Jarman, Richard Wilbur, Norman Ball, Gwendolyn Brooks—deceased but still contemporary in my mind. There’s a few. I’ll now stick with traditional, or historical, exemplars: Shakespeare (of course), Sidney, Donne, Wordsworth, Hopkins. So many. My lists are by no means exhaustive or intended as exclusive, either in the contemporary or historical sense. I should note I have included only poets who wrote primarily in English (though Wilbur is also famous for his translations). Otherwise one might well ask, “where the hell are Petrarch, Neruda?” to mention just two.
JP:I also wonder if there’s not a kind of obsessive editing at work here as well? I think that working in traditional forms especially lends itself to such editing. The language in so many of these poems, but especially “Old Bitch and Bone,” is just incredibly precise. Are writing and editing the same process for you?
EJ: Obsessive is the word. Probably most poems in Reckoning went through at least 10 drafts. And several, more than 15. And not just the 14-line poems.
JP: A piece like “Nuptials” seems like it could’ve been carved down a number of times before arriving at those ten lines that make up the final draft.
EJ: Yes, that poem went through several drafts, but not nearly as many as some of the others.
JP: So of all the poems in this collection, which piece rendered the most drafts? About how many drafts (and why)
EJ: I’m not sure which of the poems required the most drafts. Probably the older poems, poems I had written years ago and needed to hammer into some sort of acceptable shape. The longer poems, the more “free-versy” poems, demanded the most drafts. I’ve often found that to be the case with me. The 14-line poem has this wondrous little engine that seems to drive it along and then demand you put on the brakes. “Stop! That’s enough—don’t fuck with me anymore!” the sonnet seems to say.
JP: How did working toward the MFA at Warren Wilson change your relationship to poetry and your own writing?
EJ: Warren Wilson was a rigorous, rewarding, and invigorating experience. A plus, plus, plus. I don’t want to get into the endless argument regarding the merit of MFA programs. I don’t really have anything to add. All I can say is I am grateful I attended the Warren Wilson program. Lucky and grateful. I needed a lot of guidance, and the program provided that guidance. I became a better reader and writer as a result. I got to know and work with a lot of folks I admire to this day. I was introduced to a wide range of significant and marvelous literature. I was treated with respect and attention to my own healthy predilections and debilitating tendencies. The faculty poets were sharp-eyed and eared. And kind. The spirit of the program just crackled. Dug it the most. For me, the benefit was enormous. In short, an MFA program worked for me on a deeply personal level. Might work for others.
JP: Over time has the role of poetry in your life (reading and writing) changed: for example, while serving active duty in the Navy as opposed to working at a college?
EJ: I have enjoyed poetry since I was a kid. But my enjoyment changed, maybe even matured, over the years. And I think I am a better writer than when I was, say, 18. I needed—and still need—a lot of improvement. I have been fortunate to teach for 16 years, and that definitely improved my poetry. I have my students to thank for that. They taught me to speak directly, unfeignedly, honestly. Being a father also helped me as a writer. My children were and are all interested in lit. That’s a plus, that’s a benefit. But over the years the compulsion to write has never lagged, though I find writing increasingly difficult.
I’ve got to add a little story. My ex father-in-law, James M. Cox, had a wonderful and original mind. He was a great scholar of history and literature, and a host of other concerns. He had retired and was living on a farm. One afternoon, I asked him to read a couple of novels by Cormac McCarthy and give me his take on them. Which he graciously did. He said the McCarthy novels were “beautiful.” Now think about the adjective “beautiful” as it might apply to Blood Meridian. He then elaborated a bit on McCarthy’s novels. And he was brilliant. But he concluded, and this is the point, “Of course, at my age all you really want to read is poetry.” That rocked me on my heels. Seems every day that goes by, I realize more and more how true that is. How mysteriously true. End of story.
But back to your question about being a writer in the Navy. Hard to write about my time in the Navy. I’ve written only two poems that deal with those experiences. Why? Because the modern Navy ain’t Melville’s Navy or Patrick O’Brian’s historically reimagined Navy. The Navy I knew, and my role—job—in that Navy, made for a strange little world. And some of the most arresting aspects of that strange world are not easily rendered into poetry, at least not by me.
EDISON JENNINGS lives in Abingdon, Virginia. His poems have appeared in several journals and anthologies. Jacar Press published his chapbook, Reckoning, in 2013. http://www.jacarpress.com/reckoning/
JADA PIERCE has taught English and Humanities at the secondary and collegiate levels for the past fourteen years. She earned an M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Oregon, spent many years playing rock-n-roll, and now rears two young’ins in Portland, Oregon.