What an honor it is to share this Q and A with Joy Ladin, award-winning poet and memoirist. She writes of the importance of placelessness, of God, of the belittling effects of T.S. Eliot, and gives one of the best damn speeches about what poetry should aspire to do...
She's here to kindle our lives a little...
Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?
I am a writer of placelessness. In many of my poems – too many – abstracted distance from the specifics of existence, from place or being placed, is the “main character.” This placelessness reflects my often-tortured and always complicated relationship to my body (which is after all the part of us that is “placed”).
I've done some work on how literature creates a sense of time and space (what my favorite literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, calls a “chronotope”). My poems usually have so many time indicators and so few space indicators that they seem to take place in no place at all – which is also the way I would describe most of my life, due to the dissociation caused by gender dysphoria and living as someone I knew I wasn't.
While most people seem more in touch with place than I am, I think placelessness is an important state to most of us, even those who visit occasionally rather than live there. Emily Dickinson's most probing examinations of human anguish and trauma are placeless; by contrast, her ecstatic poems are often gorgeously rich in place-defining description. In general, the thinkier the poem, the more poetry reflects on rather than describes instances of existence, the more placeless it will be. One of the ways I think about my transition from living as a man to living as a woman is as attempt to move from a disembodied sense of haunting rather than inhabiting my life, to being placed within life and really be present in the places I find myself. Like every aspect of me, it's a work in progress, and I've been frustrated with how difficult I find it to write more place-specific poetry.
Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?
I am definitely religious. I perceive my life, and all life, as coming from and being sustained by God, and I am a practicing Jew. However, I wouldn't describe myself as a person of faith. God for me is a given of existence, not something I have to believe in. (By contrast, I rarely see my self as a given of existence – I am something I have to believe in, imagine, commit to as trajectory rather than settled fact.) My sense of God is explicit in many poems (particularly my book Psalms); at one point, I had to stop myself from using the word “God” in my poetry, to make room for other things to happen.
My sense of God has also shaped my poetry more generally. I don't see the world as given, I see it as a kaleidoscopic whirl of intersecting processes. That would terrify me, if I didn't have a sense of God as the root and container of it all. My sense of God means that even when I write about the hardest, most unjust or excruciating aspects of existence (subjects as irresistible to me as potato chips), I don't imagine, as, say, Philip Larkin does, that existence is meaningless. I often can't find the meaning, but the way I write assumes that all of this means something, because all of it comes from and returns to God. That's why so many of my poems express what Robert Hass, writing of Issa's haiku, calls “monotheistic rage,” rage at the inhumanity of human existence. There's no point in raging at random quantum fluctuations, or entropic processes: I rage because for me, there is always someone there, knowing, feeling, listening: God.
People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.
Though I was mostly shaped as a young writer by writers I loved and envied, there was a kind of poetry that drove me up a wall: poetry that brilliantly, virtuousically, performed meaninglessness, pointlessness, emptiness. It seemed (and still seems) to me that poetry is about creating meaning in a world in which meaning is in short supply, and in which meanings are constantly degenerating into cliches, fashions, empty performances, sarcastic asides. For a poet to use poetry to undermine the vitality of meaning is to me a monstrous perversion of the sacred power of poetry. However, it's fun to write those kinds of poems, and I do myself sometimes, because some kinds of experiments with language are only possible when very little meaning is at stake. I try to recognize these poems for what they are, and either push them further, into meaning, or relegate them to the discard pile. To the extent that the poems I hate enable me to recognize these tendencies in my own work, they have been among my most useful teachers.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
No. Life always seems to be too much or too little – sometimes both at once – and after many years of insisting that I could only write under certain conditions, I realized that I would have to accept that writing is part of life's tossing and turning. Having children taught me that – if I couldn't write while holding a fussy baby at 4 am, I couldn't write. Lately my life is very full in other ways, and I'm finding myself wondering if there are ways of giving poetry more pride of place within it. So far, my attempts have centered on carrying around small notebooks and trying to write poetry (or stuff that wishes it were poetry) while on public transportation or in waiting rooms or what have you. This has liberated me from being too conscious about my writing, but I'm not sure how much this process will yield in terms of viable poems, and in terms of growth as a poet. One plus, though, is that since I'm often looking out a window, I find myself writing more “placed” poetry than I otherwise do.
Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?
I love writing, and I tend to fall in love with whatever I've written. But when I dig down and commit to a poem, I have to fall out of love with it, and find ways to be honest and tough-minded without becoming so hostile to a draft's shortcomings that I crush the life out of it. (The “Godzilla-meets-Bambi” school of revision.) That kind of critical self-hatred is driven by a wish to be perfect – and laziness. It's easier to perfectly loathe imperfect poetry than to write and finish a great poem. But poetry isn't about perfection; it's about vitality, about using language to create more vivid, honest, ample, imaginative, relations to life. I am still learning, every time I revise, how to bring my poems to that kind of finish, and how to engage in a process in which the poem and I give life to one another, rather than engaging in a fight to the death.
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
I worked for a decade at The State Bar of California between college and graduate school. I considered myself a poet who was supporting myself by doing office work, and in an odd way, whatever work I did, I did as a poet. Not that I did it “poetically,” whatever that might mean. (What does poetic xeroxing look like?) But I was always acutely conscious that I was doing the intensely prosaic work of a world to which poetry meant – nothing. None of my co-workers knew or cared about poetry, even though many were quite educated. Some would back away slightly when I told them I was a poet. To them, poetry, even the greatest poetry, was irrelevant, useless, meaningless. Worse yet, poetry, they had been taught, was something they couldn't understand even if they wanted to; a poem was an IQ test that would prove that they were stupid. I called this the T.S. Eliot effect, because Eliot made quite a good living as a poet of intimidation, whose success proved to many in the early and mid-twentieth century that poetry was an elite, obscure medium. Reading poetry, then, was a way of being looked down on.
Those ten years resulted in an intense commitment to write poetry which didn't make people feel stupid, poetry that would sing and ring emotionally even when it had no clear prose meaning, poetry that wouldn't condescend, that was written as a person among people, poetry that wished to be meaningful to someone, to help them feel more alive. I'm not sure how often I've achieved those goals; I'm not sure how viable they are in an American culture to which poetry is largely irrelevant. But they remain important to me, because they remind me that writing poetry is an expression of the kind of person I want to be, the person I wish I were, the possibilities I wish to create in and through language, the connections I wish to foster. I want my poems to be the best of me, and I want them to be better than me, smarter, more compassionate, tougher, more honest, more embracing, more forgiving, determined at all costs to live, and kindle others' lives.
Joy Ladin is the author of six books of poetry: newly published The Definition of Joy, Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration, Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life, Alternatives to History and The Book of Anna, (all from Sheep Meadow Press), and Psalms (Wipf & Stock). Her memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was published by University of Wisconsin Press in March. Her work has appeared in many periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review, and has been recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship. She holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, and has also taught in the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, Tel Aviv University (as Fulbright Poet-in-Residence), Reed College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.