- A Conversation with Rodney Jones
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Rodney Jones has published eight books of poetry, including Salvation Blues: 100 Poems (2007), Kingdom of the Instant: Poems (2004) and Elegy for the Southern Drawl (1999). Salvation Blues won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2007. Jones was also named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the winner of the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award. His other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Peter I. B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts [End Page 51] and Letters, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award and a Harper Lee Award. Rodney Jones is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. This interview was conducted in July 2008.
MCFADYEN-KETCHUM: You are a poet familiar with success, and 2007 was particularly good to you. Your recent collection, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985–2005, was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize and received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for 2007. What’s it like to have achieved so much success in the world of contemporary American poetry?
JONES: I’m getting old, laminated, bronzed and stuffed. Neruda, possibly the most romantic poet of the twentieth century, wanted to see his poetry as a kind of work like plumbing or carpentry, less a profession than a job that he felt fortunate to do. I keep that in mind when I receive rejections or awards. Not to say that rejections don’t depress me or that I am immune to the ego-jacking side effects of awards, but the work itself is the thing, the transformations and the discoveries—the little bonuses, William Stafford used to say.
Someone, a philosopher, perhaps it was Kierkegaard, had it that artists were miserable people who were doomed to a cycle in which they attempted to create perfect selves in their art only to be thrown back on their imperfect lives. My life is not perfect, but it is a very good one as lives go.
MCFADYEN-KETCHUM: I’m wondering, where does Rodney Jones go from here? You’ve published eight collections of poetry and seem to be in the prime of your career. What’s next?
JONES: I’m wondering that, too. I have never been able to conceive of an entire book until it arrives, line by line, poem by poem, and each book has come to me differently. The Unborn was exploration, pure and simple accommodation to wonder and the sensuality of language. Transparent Gestures challenged me. I wrote it one poem at a time, so nothing overlapped, an act of will. Then I got tired of working that way. Apocalyptic Narrative began as automatic writing, wild drafts, easy on the front side, much harder to revise. Things That Happen Once is mostly poetic translations of journal entries that were intended to be loose drafts of poems—I wrote the journal entries with a very conscious emphasis on rhythm, image and the need to make original language. I had thought to make prose poems, but when I went to revise—and there were several hundred pages of journal entries—the rhythms seemed to dictate lines.
In Elegy for the Southern Drawl I worked in two modes: one very formal and the other loose and conversational. I wish that I had spent another year with [End Page 52] Kingdom of the Instant. Of all the books that I have published, that one disappoints me the most.
The new poems in Salvation Blues were tough to write because I believed that I was defining a period of work. When a book is finished, I feel that I am finished with that way of working, tired of it, exhausted. Strains go from book to book because I continue to work on poems for years if they remain provocative, but essentially I prefer the fresh project, the experiment. My mother-in-law, Urania Zepeda, described a politician she disliked by saying, “Son of a bitch talks like he doesn’t know the...