Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

In Search of the Exact Meaning:
An Interview with Richard Jones


I met with Richard Jones on a late Saturday morning in July in the comfortable surroundings of the faculty lounge in the new Arts and Letters facility of DePaul University. Before the interview, we toured the building and marveled at how encouraging it is for a University to value the arts so much that it would build the faculty and students such magnificent quarters. On a rather rainy day when there were no classes in session, we were completely alone in the building and had no distractions as we drank tea at a table, talked, and looked out at the treetops rustling in the breeze. It felt to me as if we might have been in a Richard Jones poem.

Fifth Wednesday Journal: Thank you for agreeing to be this issue’s featured poet and doing this interview. I would like to begin by asking a question most poets have had to answer many times. When did you begin writing poetry?

Richard Jones: Well, my mother would tell you that I was writing when I was little, that as a boy I’d lie on the floor, scribbling in notebooks. I always thought this was merely my mother’s romantic history until I had children of my own, children with wonderfully delightful imaginations. So now I’ve come to believe we all begin when we are children — little painters and poets, like Wordsworth said, trailing clouds of glory. The trick, of course, is to not let those clouds of glory “fade into the common light of day.” So maybe my mother and Wordsworth have it right, that writing came to me naturally and early. When I think about it, it does seem that I’ve always been a poet, even before I knew what poetry was, or dreamed of what it could be.

And yet sadly there was little poetry to be found in my childhood, or the childhoods of my friends and relatives. There were no bookstore readings or coffee-shop open mikes, no models or mentors, no enthusiastic teachers, not even an eccentric, tipsy uncle quoting Yeats. So now I’m happy to see poetry being integrated, however tentatively, into our daily lives. That is such a healthy thing for a hurting world. April may be the cruelest month, but at least now it’s Poetry Month. My three children learned about poetry from their grade-school teachers, not from their poet father. That’s a good thing.

But when did I begin? The first true poems I remember writing — besides love poems to my high-school sweetheart — were written after college in New York City. I was young and New York was a revelation to me. My eyes were opened in so many ways. Though born in London, I see New York as my spiritual birthplace. I found the city electric, everyone strange, unconventional, and fully alive. Everyone I met was a poet or an artist pursuing some wild dream, or so it seemed. I thought, OK, I can fit in here. This will be all right. And so one afternoon I went into my boss’s office and said, “I’m going to be a poet.” He just looked at me and said, “Oh no. Oh no, no, no.”

FWJ: Where was this office?

RJ: CBS Books. Times Square. Late seventies. CBS had just bought several paperback imprints — Premier, Gold Medal, Fawcett — and I worked there for two years. That’s where I learned book editing. That’s where I learned how to read galleys. I worked on manuscripts that ranged from romance novels to John Updike. I’d hang out in the art department and ask questions about design, fonts, layout, and the art of making books. On Friday afternoons we’d drink martinis. I felt so young, so new at everything, and people there were kind to me, patient, generous with what they knew. All this in the days before computers, when designers and editors still worked at drafting tables with pencils.

FWJ: Is this after you completed your MFA?

RJ: No. That came later, after my first book was published. By then I was in Charlottesville, where I was an instructor at the University of Virginia. After getting over an initial shyness in the classroom, I found I enjoyed teaching, but realized I’d need a master of fine arts degree if I were to become a professor. You see, I knew I would be a poet, but I never knew I was going to be a teacher. I’d never dreamed of that, so I made no preparation for it. I kind of walked eyes-closed and backwards into my life as a teacher. It was writing my first book, Country of Air, which was the real, true education.

FWJ: At what age was this?

RJ: Thirty-three, thirty-four. The thing is, I came to poetry, and later to teaching, as a reader. My education was all about literature, not writing. My undergraduate years at Virginia were a gift. I just gave myself completely to reading and I learned so much, so much. Those college years have blessed my whole life. I believed then, I still do, that reading books was the door to everything. Books were all you needed if you wanted to become a poet. And it’s true: the great poets taught me so much. They still do. Reading is a lifelong process of self-discovery.

FWJ: You point to a lot of writers — Delmore Schwartz and others — in your poetry.  Of course, your poetry is certainly distinctive. But as with all poets, there are shadows of other writers. Who are the writers that you take the greatest pleasure in reading?

RJ: That’s a tough question, because I don’t want to leave anybody out. The list of writers I admire is actually quite long, a little eclectic, and surprising. And not just poets. We could be here all day.

FWJ: And some are probably not even well known.

RJ: That’s true, and true in part because I love so many writers from other countries whose names are not so well known in the States. When I was first writing poetry and thinking about the art, the poems that spoke to me were poems in translation. Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of ancient Chinese and Japanese poets were a revelation. Rexroth brought the poem across the centuries and into the present moment where it spoke to me, and spoke to me intimately — that astonished me. “Translation” hardly covers the miracle of that, I thought. And I began to see that what I was doing in my own work was very much like translating — finding a language for our innermost emotions and desires. So I sought out the work of poets like Neruda and Tranströmer, who was then obscure but who has since also gone on to win the Nobel Prize. These poets from abroad seem somehow to marvelously balance the public, the domestic, and the political. There doesn’t seem to be any divide in their minds. Everything is accommodated within the poems. I like that, and aspire to it in my own work.

So early on I preferred good translations to the work of American poets. When I read American poems I found myself obsessively studying the form. With poems written in English I couldn’t see past the techniques — the form and meter, the free-verse patterns, the rhetoric — to really hear what they were saying. I love so many American poets — there are too many to name — but starting out, for me, I first just needed to hear the human voice, and oddly enough, I heard that most powerfully in translation. I felt that reading a poem should be an experience. For me, reading Rilke or Hikmet is the best kind of literary experience because it feels like a genuinely human experience. So there was something in these translations I was discovering: a directness of speech that retained an element of mystery. And I liked that. I like direct speech and mystery — that’s a powerful combination.

FWJ: You mention the Asian writers who influenced you. In your book Apropos of Nothing, you call up the philosophy of Basho and other Asian philosophical poets.  There’s some philosophy there, but it may be nothing, a philosophy of nothing.

jones-aproposRJ: I believe like Archibald MacLeish that a poem must not mean but be. So I’m for the direct experience of the poem, and less keen on rigid philosophical ideas. I certainly don’t write to accommodate literary theories, which can limit the poem. So I’m happy to leave philosophy to philosophers. I mean, when looking at a sculpture by Bernini, no one on earth begins spouting philosophy. We simply engage with the work of art. We feel.

Apropos of Nothing. That title came to me because, after writing for decades, I was amazed that the poems just kept coming. Inexhaustible. Out of the blue. Apropos of nothing.

FWJ:  The word interiority has been used to describe your poetry. That word made me think of a line of poetry that has stuck in my head for some fifty years, written by a poet who had submitted work to Accent Magazine, where I once had the pleasure of serving on the editorial staff. It read, “For the journey into the interior, what gear to wear?” And the simple act you describe in the blank verse poem “At Last” (which concludes your latest book, The Correct Spelling and the Exact Meaning) of taking your three children up to bed had emotive meaning to you. You ask them what gear they will wear for sleep, for their journey into the interior. What gear do you put on when you are preparing to write a poem, for your journey into the interior?

RJ: “Gear”? Well, maybe some of us do need “gear” for the journey.

FWJ: Your son had a headlamp on.

RJ: Yes. In the poem he’s in a bunk bed, up in the top bunk, reading in the dark. He has on his head one of those headlamps that are for finding one’s way in the woods at night. It’s as if the light is coming from the center of his mind. And like dark woods — what Dante called the selva oscura — the interior space may be dark, so you carry the light. It’s not your light, but a disclosing light, the proverbial “lamp unto the feet.” And you take the light so you can see what you need to see and what you need to report. Poems are revelations.

FWJ: So maybe a headlamp is all the gear you need?

RJ: Maybe. The main thing is not to be carrying a lot of baggage. Sometimes I have to divest myself of the useless gear. I have to divest myself of pride and vanity, suppositions and theories. You have to let go of bitterness, forgive everything, even yourself, and start out fresh. You need a clean mind, a Zen mind. Before you can write a poem, so much has to go by the wayside — old thinking, received ideas, ready-made language. You even have to forget all you know about poetry, the forms and techniques, so the heartbeat rhythms and music can just come naturally. So sometimes “gear” is just baggage. But I do like the idea of the light. Dante would like that, too.

FWJ: You make such adventures out of the very simple, everyday things of life. Do you choose these adventures or journeys, or do they choose you?

RJ: Really the only thing I choose is the blank paper. Which is no small choice. It’s a matter of trust. But once the pen hits the paper, then, if I’m lucky, yes, we’re off on a journey, an adventure. Often I feel that my only task as a poet is simply to be a friendly and clear-sighted tour guide, so that my readers can enjoy the journey, too. Journeys are about the new country you’re visiting, that strange place that you’ve not been to before. Not about the tour guide. Some adventures are ordinary, like sharing tea at a table, and it’s true not every poem climbs the Himalayas, but ideally, by journey’s end, the poet and the reader both are refreshed, invigorated, and feeling alive.

jones-spellingFWJ: Your book The Correct Spelling and Exact Meaning finds you taking the reader on a journey to search for the exact meaning, precision, word choice, clarity. How do you achieve that? Do you pare things away?

RJ: I am a great believer in time. Time is a great ally to the poet. I feel no need to write my poems in one sitting or one morning. My poems reveal themselves over very long stretches of time.  So there’s no embarrassment for me to write a first draft that’s not particularly lucid or precise, though the process is humbling. My first drafts can be rather discombobulated. But I try not to worry because I believe in the poem that is inside of me, not what’s on the page at first. I know the poem exists in my heart and my soul and in my consciousness, and that I am going to translate it out onto the page. And that takes effort, takes time, perseverance, and it takes lots of revision. So yes. I pare away. I revise. I rewrite. What’s the old joke? I rewrite the rewrites.

But you’re right: I am seeking clarity. The right word. I want the poem to be understood. I’ve come to believe that this aesthetic — which informs all that I do, my writing, teaching, and editing — arises naturally from a deeply personal place. You see, my mother began to lose her hearing around the time I was born. She was quite deaf all through my childhood, and didn’t get hearing aids until I was around twelve years old. So when I would speak to my mother, I felt a certain anxiety, felt sometimes almost a life-and-death importance to be clear and to be articulate and to be precise and to be spare, because wordiness would lose her. Without precision, she’d be lost. If I didn’t have the exact music, she couldn’t hear it. I still remember how, when I was little and she wanted to talk with me, she would come up and take my face in her hands like a book and she’d read my lips. So from very early on I was acutely aware that though I wanted to be heard and understood, there was no guarantee of that. I mean, the child wants to be understood by his mother. The child does not want to be an enigmatic mystery to his mother, but known and loved. And this old experience has just deeply impacted my poetry. Of course I didn’t know this when I first started writing poems. But my agenda from the beginning was always to be clear. That’s the calling.


James Ballowe, FWJ advisory editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. His biography of Joy Morton, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2009. In 2010, the University of Illinois Press published his anthology, Christmas in Illinois.

This interview appeared in the Spring 2014 Issue 14 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.

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