Jay Deshpande’s much-anticipated first collection of poems, Love the Stranger, was released in 2015 by YesYes Books and quickly devoured by the poetry community. Deshpande was dubbed one of the “10 Debut Poets to Watch in 2015” by Poets & Writers, and his work is striking in its assured quietude. Love the Stranger is both skewer and ode to 21st century intimacy, combining classical forms and rhetoric with blunt personal admissions. Moments of tender contact fuse with devastating perception, lifting the ways we relate to each other and turning them in the light, each poem a prism of the “devastation we journey toward/and will sleep inside forever.” The result is a book that asks all the right questions and puts itself mercilessly on the spot. Chet Baker makes several appearances and could be a patron saint—serving mixed feelings in a field as we hush, listen, and read it again.
I talked with Deshpande about his writing process, the composition of poetry, the self, and jazz, and what we have to look forward to from this up-and-comer.
The Rumpus: Love the Stranger is your first book. How’s it feel to have this work out in the world?
Jay Deshpande: It’s thrilling! And a weird thrill, too. I wrote these poems over the course of five years and it was only gradually that they took shape as a book. I was immensely lucky to find a home for it with YesYes Books; they understood the manuscript and found ways to turn it into this beautiful organism, with pages and covers and art and everything. I’ve lived with it for months now, but I still look across the room maybe once a day and go, “C’mon. You can’t be real.”
I try to make sure no one’s around when I talk out loud to books.
Rumpus: Let’s start at the beginning. Love the Stranger shows its hand at the get-go, yet keeps the reader eager for the next card. The first poem, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (A Defense of His Life), sweeps us into an inner world that is as self-aware as it is articulate. “We unwrap the small / almost-animal form…. I am resting my head against the part of myself / I am willing to put down.” Speaking frankly about a subject—the body, the self—implies a kind of comfort, if not mastery. Do you think that’s true, or are we always wrestling?
Deshpande: I tend to be suspicious of any realizations about the self; or at least I don’t trust any self-knowledge to be stable or lasting. (This might be because I so badly want that knowledge to be true.) “Apologia” is built around several moments of revelation: the speaker comes to these recognitions one by one. But I think their very multitude should make us cautious about trusting these wisdoms too much. Often it’s the great pleasure of poetry that we can touch down on something that feels right—language that has the music of a truth. But that music is double-edged, really. The function of an aphorism is to make us think its content is true. A declarative sentence (like that one I just wrote), with neat closure—it’s tempting. Maybe too tempting. I like it when poems can activate that pursuit of knowledge, and play with it; but I think it’s also great when they remind us that our knowledge about the self is always unsatisfactory, and we never stand on stable ground.
Rumpus: That poem also seems hyper-aware of limit: the beloved known “only as the sound of her hair,” the field that the speaker approaches but won’t enter, and ultimately, the complicated vision of the self in its last sentence: “Tonight I will sleep like a just man, / a good man, a man who has hurt others / in order to lay his head down.” How do limits play into your creative process? Where do you think about restraint in your work?
Deshpande: We always have to have something to push against. In terms of my creative process, there are times when I rely on very clear formal strictures. The verse form I use the most in Love the Stranger is the sonnet; it’s a room that I feel both comfortable in and ignited by. I’m particularly attached to the sonnets of Denis Johnson. His kinds of breath and diction occasionally find their way into my lines.
But even when there isn’t such clear formal constraint, the limits of what can be said are always at work in a poem. Isn’t that what poetry is about? It’s a finger pointing to what we cannot find other words for. The limits of language, the limits of what we can know… And there’s great excitement in pushing up against that. An immense eros comes into play as soon as we determine what it is that we desire but cannot touch.
Rumpus: Do you have a consistent writing practice? How do poems usually take shape for you?
Deshpande: There’s no one way I can rely on; but I’m very drawn to the almost call-and-response dynamic that happens between the title of a poem and its first line. Like a lot of writers, I’m a hoarder of words and phrases that appear during some unconscious moment in the day (washing dishes, boarding subways) and stick around, waiting for acknowledgment. I tend to think in terms of titles, so when one of these visitors announces itself as a heading, I automatically start reaching for words that could follow it. That may explain why I have a whole cache of title-and-first-line combos, but without poems to follow them. Sometimes they just become one-line poems, which works well enough. For the longest time, I had wanted to write something with the title “Cornsilk.” Its first line had to be: “No one can know about us.” Eventually I came to see that this was the whole poem, and now we live more companionably.
Rumpus: This book is so matter-of-fact about interpersonal trauma. One of my favorites, “On the Meaning of Love,” sees the speaker kiss a ‘her’ to the point of embodiment, climbing inside her mouth in a way more supportive than invasive, though this presence does silence her—her mouth is literally full.
Deshpande: I’m glad you’re drawn to that one! I’m fascinated by the borders between self and world, self and beloved. Whether they exist as psychological perimeters or the actual limits of skin, the edge of what we think we possess is a teetery, uncomfortable space. This poem’s act of intrusion or penetration or becoming, whatever you might want to call it, was one way for me to grapple with the fraught ways we encounter the love object.
Historically, one great problem with the love poem is that it never lets the beloved speak. That’s the nature of the form: a poem or song is usually voiced by just one person. But it also says things about power and chauvinism. There’s something desperate (and desperately beautiful) in the tradition of love-poem speakers ecstatically trying to capture just what makes the beloved so great, or to say the right words to make her love him back. It’s a symptom of the ongoing human history of people silencing one another; and that’s very often a story of men not letting women get a word in.
Where’s the line between the supportive and the invasive? This speaker’s action is one of embodiment, of union, okay; but it’s also one of terrible control. And the fear of what side of the line we stand on, the concern over appropriate power, or trusting that you can be on the same page with another person when feelings are involved—maybe that’s the real problem with defining love, in any terms. Our attachments to one another are so bound up with our small violences.
Rumpus: Questions of power and violence are generally tackled from a male perspective in Love the Stranger, and your work seems thoughtfully in conversation with a heritage of male speakers acting upon female bodies. In the poem “Eidolon,” for instance, a man dissolves a ghostly woman’s body, “mute and made of sugar,” in a pool of water. What are the visions of masculinity that you’re wrestling with in these places?
Deshpande: I’m hesitant to make any broad remarks about forms or performances of masculinity, in poems or elsewhere. That’s because most narratives of maleness that I’ve ever encountered seem so troubled and troubling. It is certainly something I wrestle with. Many of the male speakers in the book provide me with ways of exploring power, the erotic, embodiment—and especially culpability. I can’t get too far into thinking about masculinity before the word guilt comes to mind. (And I won’t say that’s healthy or unhealthy, but simply that it’s a place in which I find myself.) In “Eidolon” I wanted to present a troubling scene, where the line between tenderness and violence would remain ambivalent. I think there’s a suspension we have to live in about the ramifications of masculinity, about the blessings and dangers that come with it.
Rumpus: A different kind of male figure haunting much of the book is Chet Baker, the white trumpet player, singer, and golden boy of mid-century jazz. How did you first encounter Chet Baker?
Deshpande: I grew up listening to him. My parents are great lovers of jazz; classics of the 1950s—that curious period when jazz had a wide audience and began to be commercialized—were a mainstay of my childhood. Chet Baker’s voice stands out, in both its beauty and its oddity. It’s soft and strange and androgynous; it is lush and unschooled; it yearns, but with a buffer. No matter what, to me, it has the heft of unremitting truth.
I listened to Baker play trumpet, I listened to him sing, and I spent time with the full arc of his career. But nothing affects me like the Pacific Jazz recordings he made in the mid ’50s, with Russ Freeman at the piano. Listen to Chet Baker sing “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.” That waver in his voice, those burring satin notes in his high register where, just for a second, it’s unclear if that’s voice or trumpet, man or woman—there’s beautiful, liminal work there. I was fascinated. I don’t know how many loved ones I’ve danced with to his music. But that combination—familiar, seductive, brittle, riven—stays with me always.
Baker is also central to a whitewashed jazz landscape. Great though his music is (and it shouldn’t be undervalued because he had a popular appeal), his image had an almost equal impact. Even though he played with Charlie Parker, he remains a pretty boy who sang love songs. And his look gives an edgeless veneer to a life that was full of edge and crash and desperation. It’s all there together. For instance, he’s known for these beautiful photographs that William Claxton took of him; but you almost never see Chet smile because of a missing front tooth. It’s a curated beauty but a complicated one. And as he aged it was extraordinary. His face performs its own memento mori: so much transpires between his look in the 50s and in the 80s.
Rumpus: You’ve written quite a lot about jazz. Beyond your references to Baker or Miles Davis in the poems, you’ve also written critically about a number of musicians and albums. How has a sense of composition, even instrumental, influenced your poetry? I can’t help noticing those places in the Chet Baker poems when you seem to reference some idea of composition and its gaps: “there are parts of the map we save for silence”; or, “a book being written in the process of being torn apart.”
Deshpande: Jazz was maybe my first creative outlet, so I think it’s shaped a lot of what I value in art. (But I avoid all ideas of a “jazz aesthetic” or a “jazz feel” like the plague! I think those are such dangerous, reductive ideas. “Jazz” is one of the few words that gets maligned in the popular imagination even more than “poetry.”) It’s important to have a non-linguistic art form to think in, because words can be so cerebral. A risk in writing is that you start to think the head is all words. The head is not all words. I relish the chance to make a different kind of sense. And I feel that around musicians.
Jazz provided me with two ideals from a young age. One is that of the spontaneous overflow of the ecstatic, as can be heard in solos when they’re good. Jazz improvisation opens doors wide on joy. (I don’t mean to say it’s a happy music, which would be hopelessly simplistic; I simply mean that the ecstatic—the standing outside of oneself—can happen in the mind’s sudden irruptive professions, and that a lucky listener gets to hear it.)
The second ideal is a romantic one. The underlying narratives in jazz standards, the way a feeling burgeons, the rueful beauty of loss when it’s sketched out, or the plaint and etiquette of longing—these are all aspects of love that I digested in childhood, long before I had fallen in love myself, by listening to American popular song. I don’t think I’m alone in this. There’s great power and seduction in the formulas of ballads. It’s in the lyrics but it’s also in their very architecture. The associative, tangential, or complicating stuff that a bridge can do. As I’ve realized more and more, what I know of love I know from singing along to Chet Baker or Betty Carter or Nina Simone as a little kid; and when I write a love poem, I think I’m going back to those offices again and again.
Rumpus: There’s also a sense of persistence throughout the collection. Through the gut-wrenching day-to-day, the speakers keep moving forward. I see this happen all over your lines: the dream-horror of “water… telling you please not to fall asleep,” or the dictum that ends “Amor Fati”: “We will never have enough / of being wrong about the other, not once.” It seems like there’s some idea of a terrible continuance. How is the poem a way of persisting through the emotional upheavals of a life?
Deshpande: Well, for one thing, the poem acts as a monument: it’s a stay, an effort to document something—perhaps otherwise-unsayable—and hold onto it for all time. Like all the things we make, it’s a countervailing move against the hopelessness of our mortality. That means it also gives us something to believe in. We can trust that whatever wisdom a poem holds will last us, past death.
I’m always attracted to voices that can live in their upheaval and loss while also seeing more expansively. And those moments of persistence that you’re pointing to in the poems are aligned with that: they’re efforts to step back and recognize the bewildering continuity, the strange ways that, as a species, we suffer and go on. Going on is just so fascinating to me. The contradiction at the end of Waiting for Godot is so perfect that way. We can’t persist, so how and why the hell do we? There’s something to praise there.
Rumpus: The book is impressively free of moral angling, yet clearly seeking to “do better.” Do you see that as a goal when you write? Is there an ethics to the poem?
Deshpande: I get leery about prescribing an ethics to anybody but me, but I know that I do write from a kind of moral injunction. I believe in the idea that art helps us imagine our way into the subjectivity of another being. In my twenties I fell in love with E.M. Forster, above all for the humanism he espouses. It’s there in his dictum to “only connect,” but it’s also present over and over again in his characterizations. A commons of feeling is the best that we can do. And our failures, when they injure anyone beyond ourselves, are always the failures of empathy.
Many of the speakers in Love the Stranger grapple directly with how to be good, or how to address the self in its ugly needs, its blindness to others. But even when my poems aren’t explicitly considering moral questions, I want language to help a reader imagine inhabiting a different perspective. Empathy is a muscle; we just need to develop it. It’s about practicing and honing the ability to imagine our way into another subject position. Language can help us expand our thinking; and thinking will help us expand our heart. I ultimately don’t know what else matters.
Rumpus: Now that the book is out in the world, what are you working on these days?
Deshpande: I have some different irons in the fire. Writing for Slate keeps me running down peculiar rabbit holes, whether it’s an investigation of the best rake for leaves, or field-testing steel cups, or a contemplation of the Drake holiday sweater. I’m translating Georges Henein, an Egyptian Surrealist poet; someday soon, I hope those will see the light of day. And in terms of my own poetry, I’m pushing into new territory and trying to throw my voice farther ahead of me to see where it wants to go next. This has meant some lyric essays, some purely sound-based inquiries, and several series of poems that are in dialogue with different inspirations: a mid-century American painter, lethal injection protocols, or my favorite work of children’s literature—just to give a few examples. Meanwhile, I’ve been touring a lot with Love the Stranger, which is a great excuse to test out new work on unsuspecting audiences.