Poetry as “conversing with the world”: Interview with Jay Udall

Image showing multiple time-keeping devices, including clocks and an hour glass

Jay Udall is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Because a Fire in Our Heads, winner of the 2017 X.J. Kennedy Prize. His previous volume, The Welcome Table, won the New Mexico Book Award. His poems have appeared in such publications as North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Verse Daily. He teaches at Northern Virginia Community College in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Jay’s poem “Doomsday Dog” appears in the Winter 2020 issue of Little Patuxent Review. He read this and other poems at the issue launch (video below).

After the reading, Jay answered some questions about his work.

Q: Can you share a little about what inspired your poem “Doomsday Dog“? Does it capture an actual moment in time?

JU: Some poems are kind of given to you, and “Doomsday” is one of those. It came from a confluence of all the things mentioned and was definitely an attempt to capture the moment in which that happened. On the one hand, two loose cannons—the leaders of the US and North Korea—were threatening each other over nuclear weapons. On the other, I was going through a difficult time personally, living more than a thousand miles away from my family and seeing them only intermittently. With a kid, if you miss something, you don’t get it back. Ever. It sharpens your sense of time (as does growing older—I was edging toward 60 then). So, I think the poem grew out of a sense of transience and precariousness. It makes me think of Eudora Welty’s comment, “Every world is doomed.” The world as we know it is always ending, passing away, becoming something else (and, hopefully, continuing to sustain life).

We face so many crises and opportunities now—political, social, cultural, environmental. The challenge is to write about such realities from a place of depth and complexity where the personal and the transpersonal commingle.

Q: I’m fascinated by the very last line, which breaks from the four-line stanza structure of the rest of the poem. What was your intention in breaking that pattern right at the end?

I like the idea of a creative, dynamic tension between content and form, and for me the writing of each poem is a process of finding the right form to bring forth the content and serve it in the best way. I realized that this was going to be a narrative, so I fastened on quatrains, traditionally a good choice for story poems. But you can see that they’re loose quatrains, not ordered by rhyme, strict meter, or syllabics (I tend to favor such a rough kind of structure because I think it more accurately represents the order we find in the physical universe). The stanzas are more of a frame to stretch the story across, and when I came to the end, those last four words didn’t fit in the final stanza. It was a happy accident. I like the sense of something spilling out beyond the poem’s structure—like the sudden joy that arises in the poem.

Q: Both this poem and another poem you read at the issue launch, “The New Curriculum,” seem to take on our particular historical moment. For you, what is the role of poetry in times like these?

I don’t want to be prescriptive; I think people should write what they want and need to write. Poetry can have many roles and functions. But, for me, it’s become increasingly important to try to speak to the current moment. We face so many crises and opportunities now—political, social, cultural, environmental. The challenge is to write about such realities from a place of depth and complexity where the personal and the transpersonal commingle. Poetry is well suited to this challenge, as evinced by the works of Whitman, Lorca, Akhmatova, and so many others. So much of our public discourse nowadays is shallow and/or toxic. Poetry can be a countering force that returns us to our full humanity and helps us to navigate the difficult path unfolding before us.

Read more of the great poetry in our latest issue—get your copy today.

Q: What’s your writing process like?

When I first started writing poems, I was walking two miles to and from my job each day in a fairly small town. I soon realized I could carry poems in my head and work lines as I walked, sometimes saying the words out loud. I realize now that some passersby likely thought I was crazy, but it helped me build rhythm and physicality into my poems. When we had our daughter, I found the ability to carry poems in my head invaluable. Rachel was an intensely active kid, a real handful—two or three handfuls—she wore us down during her waking hours. But naps were our saving grace. We discovered that if you kept strolling her around outside, she would keep napping, sometimes for two hours or more. During these walks, I got a lot of writing in! To this day, I still carry poems in my head and work on lines when I have a spare moment. If you see me talking to myself, you know what’s going on.   

Q: How did you first get involved with the Little Patuxent Review?

I’ve known about LPR for some years and had visited the website and perused issues—I knew it was a quality publication—but really didn’t get involved until I saw the call for submissions last year in Poets & Writers magazine. I had some pieces that I thought might fit. I have to say, the review is staffed and supported by a wonderful group of people. It was such a pleasure to meet the editors, production personnel, board members, and the wider community that makes LPR happen. You can’t continue to put out a quality journal for so many years without a talented, dedicated group of people, and that’s precisely what I found at the release event.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece from the most recent issue?

There are so many strong pieces, I could go on and on, but I love Gary Stein’s “Kayak,” a quietly magical piece that moves toward a stunning end, and Ben Cricchi’s photos of Baltimoreans, soul-filled images that stick in the mind long after you see them. 

Q: What’s a go-to piece of writing advice that you give to folks who ask you for help?

I’m a big advocate of integrating writing into everyday life. Sometimes writers, especially new writers, will take a rarefied view of the process. They have to set aside a special time and place to do their writing. Now, if that works for you, fine. But if you’re continually unable to find that time and place, consider writing whenever and wherever you can, even if it’s only for ten minutes. By just continuing to engage in the process, you’re sending an important message to your deeper mind—you’re keeping in touch—and if you do that, sooner or later things will start to happen for you.

An added benefit of this approach is that you’re always keeping the doors and windows open. Maybe you overhear someone say something. I once heard a guy at a party say, “I was born in a hearse”—I had to talk to him! It turned out he was born in small town with only one ambulance. When his mother went into labor, the ambulance was in use, so they asked the funeral home to send a hearse. He was born in the back before they could reach the hospital. Maybe you remember part of a dream. Maybe you see something on the street. When you practice like this, it’s like you’re conversing with the world. You listen to what the world is saying and then you respond in your poems.  

Read more of the great poetry in our latest issue—get your copy today.

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