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Sunday
Aug122018

"The Lone Tree No One Could Name": An Interview with Ben Jackson

Ben Jackson is the director of The Writing Salon, a San Francisco Bay Area creative writing school for adults. He has taught at a wide range of colleges, schools, and retreat centers, including the University of San Francisco and the Esalen Institute. His writing has appeared in New England Review, Southern Review, Hudson Review, FIELD, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, he has won awards and fellowships from the Tor House Foundation, Warren Wilson College, Vermont Studio Center, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and Jentel Artist Residency Program.

His poem, "Christmas Break, 1997," appeared in Issue Seventy-Six of The Collagist. 

Here, he talks with interviewer Sarah Huener about using nature as a figure for human dynamics, how images are like lava, and relishing the mystery of synthesis.

Despite being a scene from the past, there’s a real immediacy in “Christmas Break, 1997.” The many details we get, from floating ice to an unidentifiable tree, form a vivid catalogue of touchstones to memory. How did you arrive at this final collection of images?

Maybe there’s an immediacy to the poem because the memories and images are not purely past for me, particularly that scene of my sisters huddled around my mother or the image of cigarette burns on my brother’s wrist. To this day, I’m haunted by their presence, and I hoped to convey this sensation with some dramatic urgency. While I wanted to include personal, even private, images and memories in this poem, I also chose imagery that, though linked to that period of time in 1997, might both stand outside of and inform my personal life, images that would implicate the local landscape and correlate with the larger world, even a deeper history, say, the lava that makes the island. Still, it’d be a stretch to say that I arrived at these images by altogether conscious means. I’ve found that, by the time I reach the final draft of a poem, the images usually connect in some fashion, whether elementally, tonally, or sonically, but I don’t quite know how or why they’ve all come together. I relish this mystery.

Television appears a few times in this poem—first showing Discovery Channel island formation, then a cold front on the Weather Channel, then, finally, blankness. How do you see these TVs and what they display functioning within the poem as a whole?

Just as the television offers distraction and refuge from the family’s grief, it’s also an image-maker, teacher, and messenger. In stanza one, the island formation on Discovery Channel is crucial to the poem for it suggests, to some degree, the beginning of the speaker’s own maturation after the rift in his parents’ relationship. In stanza two, the imagined scene of the father watching the Weather Channel pins another layer of oppressiveness and loneliness to the Chicago winter, the father experiencing the cold front alone inside his apartment. The “imageless TV” as a “black galaxy” sets up the transition into stanza three where the speaker begins to process his grief and attach stories and wounds to those glow-in-the-dark stars on his bedroom ceiling.

I love the lines “And no snow, not when paradise/ kept changing its rules, unapproachable/ as the lone tree no one could name/ out there on the bluff.” Not only does the speaker constantly return to the weather throughout the poem, but the weather itself is almost a shadowy character of its own. Could you talk a bit about this poem’s treatment of nature and the elements?

Thank you. I’m glad you like those lines. A Chicago winter, in my experience, is “a shadowy character.” In any dramatic piece, I’m interested in the ways that an environment, including the elements, might reflect and animate the human drama that’s unfolding.

In stanza one, I wanted to create an exchange between fire and water. The mother, as if to calm the fire within her, lives on “a diet of floating ice.” During island formation, water yields to fire, the island birthed by fire. The tension between husband and wife occurs alongside this pairing of often-oppositional elements.

Throughout stanza two, I aimed to set down what Eliot might call “the still point” in nature, “but neither arrest nor movement.” The wind is “circling, circling back,” and the cold front is “stuck to the Great Lakes.” Even if the wind is circling, it’s doing so on a kind of axis, with no discernible forward progress. The weather’s near-inertia stands beside the father’s leave-taking, a moment suspended in time, the father and family “waiting.”In the final stanza, once the snow has fallen, the deer prints recorded, there’s the possibility for change, for the speaker to interpret this familial experience, just as the characters in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” when washed ashore, become “interpreters.”

Are you currently reading anything you’re particularly excited about?

I’m reading Frank Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. It’s thrilling to read more than five decades of his poetry in a single collection. There’s a remarkable unity to his complete work, a sense that in his lifetime he strived for a cohesive poetry while still boldly experimenting with voicing, repetition, font types, punctuation, and subject matter. It’s striking to observe how certain aspects of his work may have either subtly evolved or didn’t evolve at all, how he arrived at an aesthetic decision and sustained it, quite nearly an aesthetic conclusion.

Do you have any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

“Christmas Break, 1997” is part of a collection of poems that I’m currently working on, a collection that’s primarily centered around family, both the one I was born into and my growing family with my wife, daughter, and son-to-be.

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