In spring 2006, I flew from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Austin, Texas, to attend my first ever AWP conference. I went because James Allen Hall, a doctoral student at the University of Houston and an editor at Gulf Coast, whom I had never met in person, invited me to serve on a panel called “Poets as Nonfiction Writers.” I was the youngest and least published member of that panel, but James—whose generosity has always been as great as his talent—chose to include me anyway.
The panel was well-attended and well-received and lasted for the usual seventy-five minutes, including Q & A. Afterwards, James took me to an Elvis-themed dinner where we talked for a good three hours or more—about poetry, memoir, our lives as students, teachers, queer people, what we read and who we loved.
I don’t think that conversation has ever ended, nearly eleven years later. I consider this interview a joyful and significant extension of it.
The Rumpus: So you’re a poet, and I’m a poet, and there’s a kind of shared understanding between poets, I think, that we didn’t “get into” poetry in hot pursuit of fame or fortune. Yet I don’t know in all these years of friendship if I’ve ever asked you outright—how did you get into poetry, James? Was it a gradual slip, or a dramatic fall, or something altogether different—a climb to the top of a cliff? Maybe you always knew you were a poet. I’d still like to know how you knew.
James Allen Hall: I was in love with language, then uneasy with its borders. You know that queer narrative. Names never fit so easily, and I think it may be the poet’s job to name the world anew. Maybe by reinventing language—its maps and purposes.
My parents gave me books of poetry. I’d read and loved “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in ninth grade, and they saw me curled up on a Friday night with my dad’s old college anthology. Maybe they thought it was a way to keep me safe. I had a reckless older brother, and perhaps if I could be persuaded into poetry instead of piss-and-vinegar, then all would be well.
First up was e.e. cummings. I did not adore him. Then came Sylvia Plath. I washed my eyes in her poems.
What I loved most was the force of the silence I could feel acting on the language almost in equal measure, but ultimately failing to keep the speaker of, say, “Daddy” or “The Bee Meeting” quiet. Here was a voice that had battled and beaten the cultural imperatives that say, “Be a good girl.”
I wanted to be bad. Say all the unspeakable stories.
Rumpus: Yes, how well I know this queer narrative! Your response made me remember one of the first poems I ever loved with a fervor—Denise Levertov’s “In Mind.” She describes the two women who inhabit her, one who is very kind and clean but “has no imagination” and the other—“a turbulent, moon-ridden girl” who—this was the part where my breath caught in my throat—“is not kind.” I too was interested in the unspeakable stories, and I liked how poetry seemed safe on the surface, even appropriately “feminine,” and then wasn’t.
My friend John Dufresne, who writes and teaches fiction, always says, “There has to be trouble on the page.” I think about this mandate a lot and wonder how it applies to other genres. How has poetry gotten you into trouble, James, and how has poetry kept you from it, whether on or beyond the page?
Hall: Poetry gave me the life I live: many of the people I love, the places I’ve traveled, the things I’ve learned about myself, the job I hold. And I can’t count the times I’ve been on the precipice of making a—shall we say “adventurous”?—decision and thought, “But think of the poem I’ll get out of this.” Most of them have paid off. Was it Frost who said, poets get into danger legitimately?
My danger has always been to rush towards any emotion I experience with curiosity. To open the door, invite it in for a cup of coffee, then listen to the story of its journey, fascinated, asking for certain parts retold.
Many years ago now, I lived in upstate New York, teaching in a very isolated village close to the Canadian border. That first winter was the coldest I have known, the most deprived of light and sound. Temperatures plunged into double-digit negatives. I began fantasizing about killing myself, without understanding why. The conscious self was baffled, but the feeling insisted on telling its story. Instead of walling myself off and obtaining safe distance, I invited it inside, out of the cold. It was the only way I knew of comprehending the unthinkable. But it felt very tenuous. I could have just as easily lost myself as won myself back.
I wouldn’t do it differently today.
Rumpus: So there’s a paradox in poetry—which doesn’t feel surprising to say—but I haven’t thought about this particular paradox until now. I think your honesty enabled me to see it. Poetry can endanger us, but it can also rescue us, and the danger may even be part of the rescue, the means to its end? Does that sound right to you? And is there a moment in your own poetry that you can point to where the sense of risk and the sense of refuge are both present simultaneously?
Hall: Art devoid of danger lacks many other things as well: pleasure, beauty, and the ability to save us. Poems that divest the self of its masks in order to analyze how those masks are made—by what means, by whom, for what ostensible purpose—those poems risk offering us refuge.
I hope my work does this. I’m thinking of “A Fact Which Occurred in America,” which is ostensibly about the time in fifth grade when my teacher introduced the Civil War by saying, “We lost. We lost.” That was the conclusion of the history lesson as well. For a year, that’s all I knew about the Civil War. And they say Florida is not the South. In the poem, the young, gay white male speaker is punished for writing the name of a black boy he loves. He is detained and sentenced to write “I’m sorry we lost the Civil War” fifty times on the blackboard.
The poem also concerns a George Dawe painting entitled “A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo: A Fact Which Occurred in America, 1809.” The poem interrogates whiteness as privilege, hetero-enforced, policing and shaping young minds and bodies. The speaker calls whiteness “a sickness stretched over my skin” and declares a sort of allegiance to difference at the end: “In that America, I am always betraying the master.” Betrayal is necessary when to obey means the debasement of others. The only refuge is rebellion, the only rescue is resistance.
Rumpus: You know, or at least I hope you know, how much I cherish that poem. I used to teach it as an exemplar of intersectionality in my cultural studies classes—race, class, region, gender, orientation all coming together to do the poem’s work. Now I bring “A Fact Which Occurred in America” into creative writing classes as an example of “writing beyond ekphrasis,” starting with a work of art and then allowing a larger narrative and/or reflection to emerge in response, or perhaps to grow up around it.
This poem appears in your first collection of poetry, Now You’re the Enemy, which I had the pleasure of reading once upon a time at the Kiva Han coffee shop in Pittsburgh, PA, when it was still in galley form, making its transition from University of Houston dissertation manuscript to published volume at the University of Arkansas Press. And, of course, the first thing that struck me about the book was the title, which seemed to reach out from the page and grab me by my collar, shake me a little. Then, I turned the page and saw opening epigraph comes from Louise Gluck: “if you worship/ one god, you only need/ one enemy—”
So let me ask: Why this title for this book? And broader: Who or what are the enemies of James Allen Hall? Broader still: Who or what are the enemies of poetry? In writing the book, did you vanquish any of them? Did you find new ones? Do you think poets need enemies, even symbolically, to write their way through the risk to the refuge?
Hall: Here is the story of the title: My younger brother and I were talking one night while we cooked dinner. Dustin had met this beautiful man, they dated briefly, and we were analyzing the demise of the relationship. Dustin said to me, “Whenever a man says I love you, the first thing I think is, Great. Now you’re the enemy.” It was sad and lacerating, and it described exactly the feeling of the poems I’d been working on.
Do you know the story about Sharon Olds making a vow to Satan? Picture it: Dr. Olds on the steps of Columbia, just after receiving her PhD in Literature, swearing to that archetypal enemy that she would leave all she had learned right there on those steps if only she could write her own poems. The offspring of that vow is Satan Says, a bible for people like me.
All that to say, writers seek to balance the tensions of the real versus the imagined, upending them, re-righting them. And perhaps tension is another word for enmity. I want language with something at stake. Gwendolyn Brooks ends “The Boy Died in My Alley” with the lines, “The red floor of my alley/ is a special speech to me.” I don’t think she means “dear” through-and-through; I think there’s an archness to “special.” It converses with her speaker, especially. The way violence does to one upon whom it trains its eye.
My enemies? Naming them would only warn them! But I write poems and essays for them all the time. I’d like to believe art vanquishes; it allows empathy to take hold.
Rumpus: Well, I think this is the perfect segue to a question about your second and imminently forthcoming book, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well (Cleveland State University Press, 2017)—another knock-out title and one that struck me the first time I heard it as a riff of sorts on the first book’s title. Did you intend for these two books—the first a volume of poetry, the second a memoir-in-essays—to speak to each other even at the titular level? Of course getting to know someone and not liking them as well as you thought you would isn’t the same as discovering an enemy in your midst, but there is also overlap in the dramatis personae of both projects—your brother, Dustin, for instance, appears in both the poetry volume and the prose. Maybe the better question to ask is how do you hear these two projects speaking to each other, in ways you planned and perhaps also in ways you didn’t expect? (And if there’s a story you can share about arriving at the title I Liked You Better…, I’m all ears!)
Hall: One Christmas, when my father was still alive, Dustin and I made our annual pilgrimage to my parents’ home in Indiana. My mother was visiting elsewhere that year, but she’d left presents. One of these was a door-hanger Dustin opened that said “I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well.” I thought it was one of the meanest things one could say; I coveted it immediately. It also seemed a good definition of love and family.
I began writing these personal lyric essays in 2002, around the same time I was also starting to write the poems that comprise Now You’re the Enemy. I loved the essay, how it allows varieties of documents, how it comports itself as memory and history, playing those different frequencies, overlaying them at the same time. I love the capaciousness of the essay, which allows me to question its boundaries, its limits.
Here’s how they speak to each other: I am someone who always feels the threat in the world. I experience privilege, especially as a cis white male. Are those categories uneasy for me? You bet. Can I just overthrow them because of my uneasiness inhabiting them? Not so fast. But I think it’s useful, artistically and politically, to inhabit privileged spaces uneasily. To contest them. I try to use my privilege to deconstruct from inside the racist, homophobic, heterocentric house, as an ally, while compatriot tools dismantle the patriarch’s house. I do this by pushing the boundaries of what makes a poem and what makes an essay. My tools are blur, cross, pulverize, confront, remember.
That’s one theme of I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well: that boundaries are made to be unmade, that power and sex are married in the original open relationship, that concealment is revelation. I am interested in how we learn to love our oppressors as a function of oppression. For months, I denied I’d been raped because I couldn’t fathom my rapist as someone who could do harm. I couldn’t impeach my violator: a beautiful, well-educated man. Everything I wanted to love. Even his violent access to my body I wanted to love.
The two titles share the intimacy of second person. They lean close to whisper some sweet nothing, but say instead this arresting, true thing. At which does the heart quicken? The threat is a fantasy and a reality I have to confront, my imagined and real jailer. Judith Butler says the condition of being human is that we are addressable. Our vulnerability to each other is at the center of our self-understanding. I want to say self-making.
But one role of art is to indict and impeach the culture in which we do our making. To lay bare the ways the mind is shaped by it. Perhaps “But Now I Like You Best” follows the disenchantment my title implies. We can write each other anew.
Rumpus: I love the articulation of your tools above—tools for both complicating privilege and genre boundaries—but I’m also wondering if there’s room for one more tool on that list. My instinct, from knowing you and your work all these years, is to add “reclaim”—blur, cross, pulverize, confront, remember, and reclaim.
For instance, your essay “My First Time” concludes with a vivid scene of facing your younger self in the mirror and trying to own an epithet before it is even hurled at you, an epithet that nonetheless you already know is coming. Here’s the startling, luminous prose of that essay’s ending:
I had called myself that name for as many days as I had known Jaime. I had waited until my own house was empty and stood in front of my mother’s mirror and had said the words, “You are a faggot,” and I had watched myself say it, falling to the cold tile of the bathroom floor, hugging my knees to my chest, waiting for something to happen. So, when it came swirling down upon me, it felt as if the name assaulted my hair, my chest, my legs from the outside, until it could find some vulnerable part of me, some place where the acidic spittle could melt through to the wellspring of faggot inside me. Then the dam broke and I was saturated with the name.
Those final words—“I was saturated with the name”—read like a rallying cry to me and maybe also a kind of mantra. This is a porous person, I’m thinking, and a porous artist. Nothing is wasted on him. He is going to take in all the names, even the hardest ones to bear, and find a way to reclaim them. But that’s just my reading. I’d like to hear yours.
Hall: I love your addition! I think maybe all of those other tools add up to reclaim.
“My First Time” came from an assignment Mark Doty gave a nonfiction workshop: write a small essay about your name. I thought immediately of the first boy to call me faggot, in high school. Who had the naming power? Him or me? I wouldn’t invent that word.
That name carries an incredibly weighted history, dating from before 1300 and denoting a bundle of sticks, a burdensome and unwieldy thing to bear. By the end of the 16th century, the word had morphed into slang for a shrewish unmarried woman. In our own time, it has been wielded with other weaponry to inflict fear, violence, and death upon queer bodies, communicating to us that our lives are worthless.
Once I had this June Gemini friend who’d greet me, “What’s up, fag?” Then bear-hug me, picking me up off the ground, laughing and holding his cigarette in the corner of his mouth. It would take a Gemini to accomplish such simultaneous archness and intimacy. I could never say if I was more chagrined or charmed.
When I meet strong contradictory feelings, my impulse is to say, “What if the thing I readily know isn’t all I can know?” With fag, I began to think: Can we really turn denigration to endearment? What does calling fag permit the caller, what kind of passport is it? Is it the thing that allows a man to enter some wished-for bodily contact with another man without sacrificing his own borders? If it erases my borders, does that mean I am made up of words? Can I accept that boundary-drawing lexicon, substitute for others, flex the linguistic joints, stretch until I have remade (reclaimed) myself? Wield that self back against the erasures?
Once the dam breaks, something is freed. You don’t fear that catastrophe anymore. You adapt. You swim to shore, dry yourself off, make a fire with what has become again by now just a bundle of twigs.
Rumpus: “What if the thing I readily know isn’t all I can know?” This question strikes me as essential to a writer and a writing life—a credo perhaps—but also immensely valuable to a teacher and a teaching life. I know that you are a creative writer who earned not only the “terminal degree” of our field—a Master of Fine Arts—but also went on to earn a PhD. I also know that for the last decade, you’ve been a professor of poetry and creative nonfiction at Bethany College, SUNY Potsdam, and now at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. I’m eager to know more about how the writer self, the student self, and the teacher self coalesce in you—how they take care of each other, and if they feud, what about.
I suspect similar mechanisms powered by curiosity and diligence are involved in each of these aspects of your life, but maybe I can make this question a bit more precise by breaking it into two. First, what did you go searching for when you pursued the study of creative writing at the graduate level? Was it something different in each degree program? And did you find what you expected to find? (Cannily, you see, this is actually three questions!) And second (fourthly), what is the most important thing you want your own students to learn about writing—poetry, nonfiction, both—as they prepare to embark on/continue down this path of literary art-making?
Hall: This is why we have to write our fascinations: our diligence and our curiosity are powered by them. I experience writing as the feeling self teaching a thinking self something I didn’t know I knew. (My Cancer moon guiding my Libra sun). Yes, they feud, as sentiment feels primacy over the rational which in turn has the luxury of proving itself right. But art doesn’t want to just be right. Or it would be all law, and no good art comes without lawlessness.
Ultimately, a poem or essay needs to begin reasonably to gain the reader’s trust. And then move past what’s known, into the irrational, where discovery awaits. I hope I can always let feeling guide me.
Another way to say this: the artist wants to render. That is, to describe and deconstruct. The writer needs both the formal impulse and the impetus to rebel. This is where pattern and variation come in.
I went to graduate school to really study poemcraft. I learned a variety of lyric strategies at Bennington, which helped me read deeper in my aesthetic. I found that I approached reading as a writer better: learning how to make each voice I read a Virgil of sorts. I read widely: Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Anne Carson, Reginald Shepherd, Auden’s essays, Cavafy, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marie Howe, Tennessee Williams. Each writer was a discovery of inordinate pleasure, of inspiration. Though I didn’t write a single poem that made it into Now You’re the Enemy during my MFA, that program certainly helped to make the poet who was going to write those poems one day.
I went on to doctoral study because I didn’t feel done, and I suppose to understand what makes a great poem. I found along the way other loves: rhetoric, queer theory, Victorian literature. I happened upon a love for literary editing and a love for teaching. And accidentally, because I’d sought to figure out craft and had faith in the endurance of my subjects, I wrote a book.
I want my students to risk everything—intellectual and emotional vulnerability, to put something real at stake in their artmaking. But equally important is craft: it’s how you tell a story that makes it beautiful. I want them to put aside any high-falutin’ notions of what poetry is and instead see what they can make a poem do. “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what,” Bruce Weigl ends his poem, “The Impossible.” I love teaching because it allows me to think about craft—to think about what can be known about the structures and revelations of feeling.
Rumpus: In the spirit of things that end while still opening—the nature of all the best poems, I think—would you mind sharing something about the other projects you have underway and/or in the literary hopper? Where and in what forms can readers hope and expect to encounter the poetry and essays of James Allen Hall in the future?
Hall: I’m going to remember your wording and pass it along to my students, Julie: “end while still opening” is beautiful.
There are essay ideas laying in wait. But because I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well is just out, I am still a little inside that world.
I’ve finished a book of poems that I’m sending out—poems about wanting to die and wanting to keep alive. Emphasis on the wanting. The book tells a story about how queer people interiorize the death wish that homophobic culture dreams up for and foists upon us. It looks at desire and time as functions of one another.
And when my father died in June 2015, I started writing poems about afterlives. I wanted to imagine what his daily life must be like, now that he was no longer in life. I wanted to understand why I needed to construct for him another narrative. Seems like writing must be tied to living for me.
Author photograph © Karly Kolaja.