Painting out of the Past: An Interview with Jay S. Paul
by C. A. Gardner
In addition to his poetry collection Going Home in Flood Time (Ink Drop Press, 1999, ISBN 1-88001628-1), Jay S. Paul has published over 250 poems and numerous critical studies, book reviews, and short stories. He has been a finalist for the Virginia Prize for Poetry in 1990, the New Letters Literary Awards in 1986, and the State Street Chapbook Competition in 1985. The Best American Short Stories accorded him honorable mention in 1983. An English professor at Christopher Newport University, Dr. Paul teaches advanced writing classes in fiction, poetry, and prose and a seminar for the honors program, which he also directs.
VL: The small Hudson River town in upstate New York where you grew up has been central to much of your work. Considering place as a motif, how would you describe that setting?
JP: I lived in Castleton-on-Hudson until 1966. It's on a hill in the Hudson River Valley region. Everything's on a slope. We lived right at the top, so you're always conscious of going up or down the hill and where you are in relation to the river. My parents built our house with land from my grandparents, who lived next door in the house they had inhabited since about 1910. It was like a throwback to another time, when people weren't mobile — they planned to live there forever, and they thought that the way things were was the way things are going to stay. It was the kind of setting that lets you dig in and really understand it.
This was a relatively rural area. Our little village had about 1,750 people in it, in two consecutive censuses. It was a static place, just on the edge of going downhill. When I grew up, there were still independent mom-and-pop drugstores and grocery stores — it was almost a self-contained community. Not long after that, things started closing down, moving away. It's become a commuter lifestyle. But when I was growing up, some people were still walking from the village to the factory to work.
I've always been fascinated by hints of the past in the people and the way of life. I was born in 1945 right before the end of World War II, so the war has been a really big event in my life — it was so much in the air and the way people acted. There were a lot of veterans, and Memorial Day celebrations in those days were really important events. I had uncles who were in the army.
Those are the kinds of things you just puzzle out. How did these adults become the way they are? How did this world that I find myself in end up this way? Where did we all come from? Answering those questions was both easy and sort of a deprivation because there was no hurry. The people were there; they weren't leaving. The same people, year after year — which made it a very limited world, too.
VL: Has Virginia also influenced your work? How does it differ from your earlier setting? Do you feel uprooted, or have you come to see Virginia as home?
JP: My current setting is suburban and highly transient, so there's a really big difference. I see Virginia as home, absolutely. I felt more dislocated when we lived in the Midwest. I like it here; I feel comfortable here. When we lived in Illinois for seven years, there was no promise of stability. I was clinging to the edge there for about seven years. There was just no certainty of whether we'd stay or not, so that was pretty unnerving. But Virginia's been a good place. I really do take to these coastal places, and I've always been fascinated by water.
VL: Speaking of water, in the two poems that share the title Going Home in Flood Time, you describe the terror and majestic force of the flood. Flood time is a powerful metaphor throughout the book, which depicts the impact of destructive forces—lightning, war, age, disease, time, death—on human lives. Water imagery recurs frequently. What are some of your personal experiences with flood time?
JP: The flood — there was a time when I was obsessed with it. The river in particular has been a haunting image. It was such a presence there. It seemed big, though the James River is far more impressive. But when I was a kid, the Hudson still flooded. It was a big enough problem that they spent millions of dollars to build dams to control the flooding. My uncle was one of those people who helped fight the flood, with sandbags and all the rest. As a kid, I can remember standing partway down that hill looking at water flow into people's houses. That was pretty amazing. After the flood would subside, we'd go out driving just to see what had happened. I can remember landslides, and restraining walls that had to be rebuilt. It was a major shock to my imagination.
VL: There are two poems in the book that bear the same title as the collection. Did the title for the poems or the book come first?
JP: The poems came first. I wrote that first poem in the seventies; it's one of the oldest in the book. Most of the others are from the eighties and nineties. That "Going Home in Flood Time" was like the first emergence of the vision of the way flooding ties into mortality. It took a long time to articulate.
A lot of the images from the longer "Going Home in Flood Time" originally resided in other poems. I didn't even realize it was a whole idea for a long time. Then I finally pulled it together in the nineties after really feeling like I finished growing up. That poem in a way seems to have commemorated the completion of a process. Once I wrote that, the river didn't have as much draw. That image, that metaphor, that whole lode is emptied now. It's time to move on to other things.
VL: Certain themes and subjects recur in your work, as with the life and death of your uncle Edward A. Dorn, depicted in "December" and "Tall House." These poems each get at the experience from different angles, creating different moods. Do you deliberately set out to write poems on related themes for a more complete treatment of a subject?
JP: Do I look at things from other angles? That's exactly right. I think you just say okay, I think I understand that one now, let's try something new and see what else I can get to.
To me, writing poetry is really finding the metaphors that allow you a medium to say things. You can say things better when you say them through the metaphor. You can say them more wildly than the way we're talking now. That's what I value, those moments of occasional craziness or recklessness. A lot of that's nonsense, but sometimes it leads to something that's better than anything you could think out. Sometimes you have lines and you don't even understand what those lines are for a long time. They're compelling, you say them over and over again, they don't change a whole lot, but you just don't know where they belong, what they're becoming.
VL: You have returned to "Moordenerskill," the last poem in Going Home in Flood Time, condensing it and giving it the title "August and More." Do you often revisit published work, or do you usually view your poems as finished?
JP: I do usually regard the poems as finished, but I nonetheless revisit them eventually. I read "Moordenerskill" a number of times to audiences, and I realized it just wasn't right. Robert Lowell talks about that, too — that's partly how he learned to rewrite his poems into that radically new style. In reading his poems, he often didn't read the printed version. I've found that there's lard in there. It's like a bad research paper; I've kept some things from my sources that I really didn't need. It takes a while to sort all that out. With some poems, it takes longer than others.
VL: You've also said, "At one time, I thought I was writing to remember the past." Many of your poems provide glimpses of your family. Aside from the changes made for the sake of metaphor and narrative, how closely do you follow memory when creating?
JP: I don't think my subjects are sheerly nostalgic, but they're obviously rooted deeply in the past. I've been writing about a lot of them for a long time, struggling with them. I don't want to just recreate what happened. Technically, one of the most interesting questions to me is how I can take what I've experienced and extend it into the present — to capitalize on the way a child holds onto things in the imagination, but still deal with it as an adult.
I write about family because that's what I know best. But just because I write about them, I don't think they're the main subject. I think deep down there's some personal, aesthetic combination of things that I'm really concerned with. I grew up around all these people who are essentially private and not particularly articulate. I didn't hear a whole lot of stories, so I've had to tease out a lot of this and try to figure out what made these people tick. When you sit around wondering what you're going to write, your mind runs over those little shards of the world that you still have in your head. Those are the ones that you hope are going to turn at least translucent, if not transparent — to open up, become something of a lens.
There's a poem in the book, "Lily," about a family photograph, and one of the lines is, "I am more / than solitary body, body not all there is." The poem imagines this incredible gathering of people with the idea that you are not an individual — you are part of an organism, a bigger unit. You're yourself, but in a way, you're also continuing what earlier generations have done. You've got similar talents or similar leanings or the same name. I grew up in one of those areas where there were relatives up and down the street. It felt like you were pulling at a membrane when you acted independently.
That's why I think this is all so resonant to me. But now and then I do get to write something that's totally different. It takes longer to absorb those things because I've got all this other stuff there already. Anything that's really important, you can't write about immediately. If someone dies that you cared about, it takes a long time to get to that, to find a focus, a metaphor, a situation that will open up the poem for you. Something that causes you to let your mental or emotional guard down momentarily, that opens a door. Maybe it's not inspiration at all; maybe it's just relief, release, something that triggers the poem and pulls everything together. That's when the poem gets to be fairly easy to write — when everything gets sucked in and coheres, like iron filings to a magnet. Suddenly, so many different things are related — they're all part of something that's now just defining itself. If you're a writer, that's what you want. That's what you wait for, prepare yourself for.
VL: Some poems, such as "House of Worship," "Her Dream Was of Water," and "Tall House" are clearly commemorative. You convey a strong sense of the shape these characters and subjects have given you life. Others suggest autobiography, but lack references that would confirm a specific connection. How do you decide how much autobiographical detail to impart?
JP: In some cases, I was reticent because I felt if I declared all this, it would somehow bring the poem down to a quotidian level. I remember having a long period of debate with other writers about whether you should include place names. Any number of Midwestern writers used place names in titles, and that astonished me. It never seemed easy or appropriate for me to do that.
I feel less protective of that kind of thing now. For some of these, where there's no indication of who the people are, that's partly a matter of point of view. I wasn't trying to hide it, it just didn't come up. But in other cases I have definitely tried to be more direct. Sometimes it works better to just write it, not to turn it into something else too arbitrarily. I do think there's a lot of reticence in me, and it's not easy to write from that personality.
The big problem for me is I'm so interested in metaphor that I sometimes ignore the emotions that ought to be attached to it. I'm essentially skirting the issue. I've had to figure out how to bring a variety of things together. I don't always get it right. It takes a while to find that moment where things can finally be expressed. I keep learning.
VL: During the 23rd Annual Writers' Conference at CNU this March, you encouraged participants not to set out to write a poem at once, but to begin by sketching, like visual artists. This seems a particularly apt metaphor. Would you elaborate on your process of creation?
JP: I learned a lot by looking at other practitioners of the arts — poets, writers, visual artists. I was really struck by the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. While reading books and looking at published sketches, it dawned on me that this whole idea of sketching is a really good metaphor. That's one of the things that finally helped me relax and realize that poetry is a long process, and there's nothing wrong with writing something that doesn't come together. It's just another step. So I've become much more patient.
Getting started is really hard. One of the best things I can do is write about poetry first — read a book and copy down lines, or write in a notebook about what's there. It helps turn my mind in the right direction. I've also learned that you can write as unconsciously as possible while you're still conscious and then look back afterward. And if I don't get too far the first time I do that, it's better to stop, to go outside and weed the garden. To keep inviting the muse, but not presuming to say when it may arrive.
One of the things that Henry Taylor has struggled with is the problem of trying to finish poems too fast. That seems to me very good advice. If you think it's finished, put it aside and go on to something else, then come back and see if it's still pulsing. Does it want to give birth to something else? Maybe there's a line missing, or maybe there's something else you haven't gotten yet.
When my poems work, they're pretty elaborate. You don't write those poems easily. It's such a convergence of things that even for a small poem of relatively few lines, there's a lot of work before it can happen. It's one of the most exhausting things I know. By the time I'm really finished, my body is empty and my brain does not produce words anymore in any kind of coherent fashion. It's a very strange feeling.
I don't want to lose the density of my poetry, because I really do value that. I think it's possible to make poetry rich. But one of the things I've been trying to do is use a human voice to thin out that density, so that there's plenty to hear, but it's easier to get the train of the narrative.
I've also gotten to be a lot more accurate in evaluating what I write. Some of the poems I published in the sixties and seventies were really beginner's pieces. I had a long way to go before I got past that. At one time I was so glad to have things in print that I was cherishing everything, but I do know from reading other books that poets put out a lot of weak poems. Maybe they have a role in a book, but I don't look at poems that way. I think that each poem ought to justify itself somehow. And that's a really high standard, for a person who doesn't have all that much time to put into this in the first place.
VL: Has poetry always been a craft, a vocation? When did you start to take your own work seriously? How have you pursued a writing career?
JP: I started writing poems in high school. I liked metaphor right from the beginning, because it allows you to be witty. Ingenuity is obviously part of all this, trying to match up things and see what you can make. I really got hooked, but I didn't do any formal study of creative writing other than a class in college and one in graduate school. I spent a lot of time with friends and older writers when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation. We had a little magazine that we started — I can claim credit for being one of the first to publish Carolyn Forché.
I learned a lot about teaching writing while I was in grad school, and I went to every reading I could. With the teaching job came opportunities to do creative writing. At NIU, I got chances to teach creative writing, and when I came here, I was actually hired to teach creative writing and American literature. By that point I had published quite a number of poems. I also continued to write scholarly and critical articles, which has been a really good thing, because I found myself dealing with the same themes in my poetry. It's a nice complementary activity.
I think one of the most fortunate things for me is that coincidental with my career has been this explosion of interest in creative writing. When I was chair of the English Department, I put together the Creative Writing Concentration in the mid-1990s. What with keyword searching on the Internet, it really draws a lot of students. We can hardly keep up with it now.
VL: In addition to Going Home in Flood Time , where might an interested reader locate some of your work? Are there any plans for a new book?
JP: I have some poems posted at the English department website (http://www.cnu.edu/engl/jpaulpoetry.html), including some that aren't in the book.
I've been thinking a lot about putting together a new book, and that's one of the things I want to get started on this summer. I'd like to just lay out all these poems and try to think about what can emerge, how this can finally cohere.
VL: You mention in the acknowledgements for Going Home in Flood Time that "'Hampton Roads at Dusk,' 'The Place Came Over You,' and 'West' were inspired by paintings and collages of Jon Petruchyk." Were these poems part of a larger cycle of reflections on his work? Have you written poems inspired by other works of art?
JP: Jon Petruchyk and I were friends. Back in 1989-90, he thought of collaborating, which turned out to be a really interesting idea. I had been quite taken by some of his paintings. I took my sabbatical that year, so I spent a lot of time trying to write from his work. I would take home a bunch of them and just write about them, look at them, describe them, freeassociate on them. I got some good poems out of that, and he did some collages that included some of the poems I wrote. Then he did follow-up paintings, so we were going back and forth. I really like that kind of conversation.
I'm really interested in music, too. In terms of the way I hear poems, music has probably had as much of an impact — listening to the way music is composed, and how you can play one movement off another.
VL: You do that with the title of Going Home in Flood Time — the title of the collection also appears in the first poem like an opening theme. Then the title is echoed in the final section, and again in a longer poem within that section. It's like a recurring musical motif.
JP: Motif has always been an important concept to me. There are other poems in the book that do that. There are these little pieces called "Morning," "Up," and "Down." And "Morning" acts as a prelude to "Tall House" as well. I'd love to be able to do more of that, honestly. It's pretty hard to manipulate it that carefully.
VL: You've mentioned that Part 4 of Going Home in Flood Time , "What To Hand as Change," contains poems that are mostly set in Hampton Roads. I was particularly fascinated by "Summerfield's Daughter." What was the impetus behind that?
JP: "Summerfield's Daughter" is definitely a Virginia poem. There was a Summerfield family who were neighbors of ours. The poem is based on what really happened to him. He and his son got electrocuted by hitting a high power line. It was a horrible story. He stood out in his garden one day and told me about what it was like to have high voltage burning through your body. I wasn't thinking of a poem at that point; I was aghast. But what helped me write the poem was Dave Smith. He's a really powerful narrative poet who weaves together all kinds of amazing things that stagger you. I think this whole idea of using direct address, speaking to the daughter, and trying to use a lot of these rhetorical questions came out of reading his work — it's his rhetoric in a lot of ways, and probably to some extent his sensibility. The story was so shocking, and he writes a lot about violent stuff — people doing hard labor, racial injustice — as well as Virginia culture.
A lot of the pieces in this section are about neighbors. There's one about a woman who dies in a traffic accident, and another about a little kid who's mourning his dead father. It's always a matter of how you can get to the material. The poems were written about something in the past, but the present becomes the way to imagine it.
VL: It seems as though your neighborhood may have reawakened your sense of being in a small town.
JP: There's no question about that. Most of the people who lived there had once lived in towns at least as small as mine. It was that same kind of active neighborhood. People looked out for one another, helped each other, especially the older people who were sick. There were a lot of neighbors who did a lot for them over a period of years.
One of the things I wrote about in the seventies was Old Testament subjects. I'm really drawn to these stories, and I wanted to render them in my language. Looking back on it, I think I was trying to figure out how to write about a people, collectively. I think that's really what I've been up to all along. I'm interested in a people. I knew who that meant in my hometown. And in that neighborhood, there was just as much a sense of a people. A couple of them were born in the nineteenth century, and others were much younger; and though most of us were from Virginia, there were also military retirees, so you knew people from all over the place. In a sense, that's very similar to my hometown, because of all the immigrants.
I like a sense of belonging to a place. That's part of what I like about CNU — the personal attachments. I've always liked the camaraderie. When I walk around a place I like to say hello to people. That's probably why I like working with students so much. It's really a lot more than teaching — teaching is fun, teaching is great, but I like connecting with people and watching their development as they mature and get better at things.
VL: Do you feel connected to a community of writers?
JP: I've been lucky to have a chance to be invited to some festivals where a lot of writers from this area have participated. Probably the best connections have been with people at ODU. The workshops and friendships over there were very important to me for a long time. I met Phil Raisor the first fall I was here, at the inaugural Writer's Festival. Several years later, he started a workshop and invited me to attend. Though I've run out of energy to keep doing it, I spent several years going over there once a month. I always liked the feeling of being over there for programs. When I had more time and energy, I'd go to those writers' festivals for half the week.
There was another festival I really used to enjoy in Chesapeake at the Russell Memorial Library on Taylor Road. They always have something focusing on poetry in February, but there were a couple of years where they had several dozen writers, mostly associated with Virginia, reading over a Friday and Saturday. Dave Smith was behind that. He has a pal who contributed to that library, and they've got a great collection of poetry. I've gone to VCU for a couple programs, and William and Mary. I'd love to do more, but I've gone to a lot of readings in my day. I've heard some amazing people — Jorge Luis Borges, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott. There's a lot more I wish I had been old enough to hear — some of these legendary writers. I can remember Robert Frost at Kennedy's inauguration. He was so old at that point it was pretty hard for him to see in that blinding sunlight.
So community has been important, there's no question about that. And it was true in Illinois, too. That was one of the hard things about leaving Illinois — I had already made so many friends who were writers.
VL: Has there been an editor with whom you've formed a close working relationship?
JP: There has been one — Dabney Stuart. He was at one time the editor of Shenandoah, and he was immensely helpful and supportive. One of the biggest gifts I've ever gotten was his interest in my poems. He not only wrote the introduction to the book, but he also looked at the manuscript and made a lot of suggestions. He helped me shape several poems. The connection with him was by far the richest I've ever had. And he's a fabulous writer himself. He was really a godsend.