Reconciling the pure and redemptive pull of the spirit with the mess and noise of modern life is a problem confronted repeatedly in these poems. The title poem—which is perhaps the best in this very solid collection—rephrases this dilemma in each of its eight segments. “I don’t have to tell anyone who’s watched thistle seed / scatter in wind / that we, too, long to leap from ourselves” he writes in “Notes for a Praise Book,” acknowledging the universal human desire for some kind of transcendence.
Notes for a Praise Book has been reviewed by Chapter 16. Read it here.
Mary Biddinger, author of Prairie Fever, St. Monica, and O Holy Insurgency, has started a self-interview series called The Next Big Thing. I've been tagged by Gary McDowell (author of American Amen and the forthcoming Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral) to participate. Below are my responses to questions regarding my second collection, Notes for a Praise Book, recently selected by Toi Derricotte and published by Jacar Press.
What is the working title of the book?
Notes for a Praise Book
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I suppose the book’s origin began when I came across a poem I’d written about a decade ago. The poem’s title, “Notes for a Praise Book,” stayed with me, and I began to wonder if I could get away with assembling what amounted to a collection of praise. I’ve always been interested in the ideas and values of praise, especially as an antidote to, or in spite of, so much else that happens in our lives.
I used to ask my students to make a list of everything that really bothered them, stuck in their craw, irritated them, or annoyed them. The exercise was intended to move them toward writing proposals for solving certain problems they saw in society or in their own lives. What I found, instead, was that people seemed to enjoy airing displeasures, complaints, and the like. I asked my students to make another list of what gave them great satisfaction, what mattered deeply to them, what made them happy to be alive. No one seemed willing to risk voicing what brought happiness, joy, contentment. I think I’ve always wanted to risk delight in my existence.
What genre does your book fall under?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m fond of Gary Cooper’s voice and sensibility in The Pride of the Yankees—that mixture of humility and gratitude standing before a microphone in Yankee stadium, realizing his days were coming to a close—but Morgan Freeman speaking one of my poems would, I am certain of it, help me to believe in the power of words just a little more than I do. And since some of this book’s words came slow and still linger, I’d ask to hear Eva Cassidy as she begins, yet again, “Fields of Gold,” ushering me into what feels like humming turning toward holiness.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
What fortune we have (and are) as we wander around inside the inestimable world.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Almost all of the poems in Notes for a Praise Book were written 2000-2005. I write for the most part daily and have for more than two decades. I think of poems as individual premises to follow and/or tease out, and I enjoy varying styles and shapes from poem to poem (a sonnet one day, a skinny poem the next, a narrative the next, an apostrophe poem, a title-driven poem, a sound-driven poem, whatever interests me at the moment of composition). I suppose I don’t write “a manuscript”—I write poems. For good or bad, I write the poem as I can conceive of it on any given day. Then I assemble the ones I think seem hospitable toward each other. Most often my poems take years to find acceptance in journals, and that has been the case with the half of this book that found receptive editors. That reality, at least for me, exerts its own pressure on what I think worthy of being part of a manuscript. Maybe that shouldn’t be a factor, but when an editor says yes (or more realistically when multiple editors year after year say no) that reality affects my perception of the value of a poem. On the other hand, half of the poems here made rounds for a decade and came back whimpering. I tried to listen to them and to believe in them, which was sometimes difficult to do since I had gone on writing poems year after year, but in the end what survives here is what still kept speaking (or singing) to me.
In my first book, Fall Sanctuary, there were a couple of poems (“This Earth We Walk Upon” and “Morning and Night”) that were comprised of five three-line stanzas where each stanza could be read as its own thing, its own thought over which to linger for a while. I thought of these poems as juxtaposing stanzas creating a conversation, not necessarily a straight-forward argument or narrative. The reality is that I had written dozens and dozens of these poems, and Notes for a Praise Book simply collects 24 more of them among its 50 poems.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I believe in a work ethic and in reading (and honoring) the work of other writers. I think of the work ethic, for instance, of Yannis Ritsos or Pablo Neruda producing all of those poems. I think of the work ethic of Jose Saramago producing his incredible novels. I especially think of the work ethic of William Gay, who lived one town over from me, and wrote faithfully for years and years and how, quite possibly, we came staggeringly close to missing his stories entirely. I’m inspired by the thought that right now someone is writing down words that will usher him or her into the presence of meaning.
I doubt I can point to a particular poet’s work or to a book that inspired my own book, but since I mentioned earlier the role of juxtaposition in some of my poems, I want to acknowledge a classmate from college, Randy Blythe, who was the first person, as I remember, to discuss juxtaposition as a governing concept for a poem. I was a essentially a narrative poet in the early 90s at the University of Alabama, and Randy helped to expand my idea of what poems could be and do. He brought to workshop a ghazal he had written, with its distinct (and seemingly unrelated) stanzas, and the poem piqued my interest. I found and read the ghazals of Adrienne Rich, Ghalib, and Hafez, but I also began to notice how poets like Albert Goldbarth and Richard Jackson were also using juxtaposition, just on a larger scale and not simply from stanza to stanza. Juxtaposing narratives could intertwine, overlap, speak to one another, or become metaphors for reading and understanding each other. Each narrative, each image, each word could become a window to look upon the next window and the next. I suppose, in a way, I’m trying to get to a point where each poem can teach me how to understand more fully every other poem I’ve ever written.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
As one of the poems states, “I can’t keep a straight face being that presumptuous.” On the other hand, another poem claims we are ministers to one another. Read to find out whether we are or not.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book was selected by Toi Derricotte for a recent book contest by Jacar Press.
My tagged writers are:
Kathryn Stripling Byer
Jeff Hardin is professor of English at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN. He is the author of five collections of poetry, including Fall Sanctuary (Nicholas Roerich Prize, 2004), Notes for a Praise Book (Jacar Press, 2013), Restoring the Narrative (Donald Justice Poetry Prize, 2015), Small Revolution, and No Other Kind of World (X. J. Kennedy Prize, 2017).