The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Jonterri Gadson about her new collection Blues Triumphant, her love of editing, and the intersection of poetry and comedy writing.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears
Brian S: Can you talk about the way you structured the book? Like, the use of lines from that opening run of sonnets to make poem titles and so on.
Jonterri Gadson: When I was sending my book out and getting feedback from others, I kept hearing that the poems were good, but that the book needed a frame. No one understood what the poems were doing together. So out of frustration, I was like, “Fine! I’m going to structure the heck out of this thing!”
Brian S: Did you write poems to fit into spaces in the book then?
Jonterri Gadson: Francine Harris had a lot of sections in her book (maybe thirteen, I think), allegiance, and I read it so many times and finally felt like I understood why the poems were in those sections. So I thought I’d try different ways of grouping my poems. It turned out that each of the lines from the sonnet crown had its own theme and the poems felt like they fit together in those groupings, so I went with it.
Jonterri Gadson: I didn’t write more poems to fit, I actually removed poems that didn’t fit and I think that was the key. I had poems that I liked that just don’t belong with my other poems, so I finally had to remove them.
Brian S: That’s always so hard to do, isn’t it?
Jonterri Gadson: SO HARD. Hahaha.
Brian S: I think that’s one of the hardest things to convince my students of—that not everything you write will ever be finished or will find a home somewhere. Sometimes it never gets past being a Google doc.
Jonterri Gadson: Exactly. I had to tell myself that those poems would still exist, just not in this manuscript.
Brian S: You have so many landscapes in this book. Can you talk some about what having been in so many areas does to your sense of place?
Camille D: I like to dream about my Selected Poems, wherein the homeless pieces will one day find homes. But I loved how all these poems were all so well aligned. Thanks for this book, Jonterri!
Jonterri Gadson: Yes, there’s always the Selected Poems to look forward to eventually! Hahaha; thank you, Camille!
Brian S: I saw that some of these poems appeared in your other two chapbooks. How long have you been working on this book as a whole?
Camille D: I’d love to get back to that opening sonnet. There are so many interesting forms throughout this book. What sort of ideas drive your vision of how to shape a poem?
Jonterri Gadson: The sonnets are the oldest and they were written in 2007/2008. Wow… I felt like I had an epic story to tell and Denise Duhamel assigned sonnet crowns for us to read in the workshop I was in with her. I think the first one I read was by David Trinidad and then I eventually read Natasha Trethewey‘s, so they opened up my eyes to the possibility of a longer form.
Camille D: Ooh, those are both great ways to be introduced to the crown!
Jonterri Gadson: I read a lot before I write and I try to decipher how poems are functioning and then I experiment.
Dana: I keep reading “Blues Triumphant” (the poem) over and over. Can you please talk a little about your inspiration for that poem in particular and how it came to be the title of the collection overall?
Jonterri Gadson: I write a lot of narrative poems and the title poem “Blues Triumphant” was an experiment in not being so linear and narrative. During that time I was writing a lot about not having a relationship with my father so I realized that in spite of that, I’m alive and I wanted to celebrate that.
Brian S: Does being a teacher help with that? I mean, does having to break down poems for students (or even just to prep to teach them) help you figure out what you need to write?
Jonterri Gadson: Teaching absolutely helps me. I actually enjoy the part of class prep where I break down poems. I used to break down poems for fun in my diary. I started doing this with Claudia Emerson‘s poems after I saw her at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in 2008. Late Wife really moved me. I also saw C.K. Williams, Sharon Olds, and Major Jackson there and started analyzing their poems. Major Jackson had talked about how he did that with Whitman’s poems so I didn’t feel so weird for doing it anymore.
Vievee Francis gave me a manuscript consultation at Callaloo and she liked “Blues Triumphant” (the poem) and she said, “Save that for a title. Not for this collection, but eventually.” My manuscript went through so many changes and it got to the point where that celebration in spite of everything fit, so I went with Blues Triumphant.
Dana: Ooh, that’s wonderful. It certainly feels like a celebration. It’s the type of poem that makes me want to stand up and recite it aloud!
Brian S: When I saw the title (before the poem) I remember thinking of it in a musical sense, and that since the blues are generally speaking the root of most American music, they really are triumphant.
Jonterri Gadson: I thought about it in the musical sense, for sure. And there’s triumph in the survival that allows one to write and sing those blues.
Camille D: That poem, “Cardinal Sin,” is a gut-wrencher. There are so many poems in this book that turn and then turn again, into deeper and both more painful and… triumphant territory. If there’s a question there, I think it’s to ask if you would be able to articulate the drafting/revision process that allows this for you.
Jonterri Gadson: Thanks, Dana! I love reading it aloud.
Brian S: What made you decide to break up the Patricide Epistle poems?
Jonterri Gadson: Vievee Francis suggested to me that the Patricide Epistles were three separate poems and I hadn’t considered that before. Eventually I was able to place them in the manuscript in a way that felt like it marked a shift in the speaker (me) each time they appeared. They all have different tones.
Camille D: Forest Primeval (by Vievee Francis) is next on my reading list. I’m looking forward to it. It will be interesting to read it with the echo of Blues Triumphant still in my head.
Dana: Just in a general sense, would you mind sharing a little about your writing practice/process or any ‘writing rituals’ you have?
Jonterri Gadson: I actually really enjoy revision. Not the writing itself, but the result of revision feels like magic to me. I think it’s the discovery of those turns and new territory and those moments when what the poem is *really* about surfaces that is so exciting. With “Cardinal Sin,” I’d had the opening lines “I don’t love my son the way I thought” written in my journal from Louise Glück’s “Brown Circle” poem. I didn’t know why I loved those lines. Everything in that poem actually happened so it was a matter of matching the obsession with the Glück line up with the experience and then saying what I was most afraid to say over and over again until I ended the poem.
I wrote most of these poems by forcing myself to stay awake after I completed my son’s lengthy bed time rituals with him. I would force myself to write for two hours. I had so much anxiety that I was failing… failing him, failing myself so I would honestly ask myself, “What am I most afraid to say?” and then I would write poems about what I wouldn’t want anyone to hear me saying out loud.
Brian S: That’s something I should try, though I’m so exhausted by the time the girls finally go to sleep that I don’t know how I’d do it. Maybe that’s the point. To write from exhaustion.
Camille D: I was thinking the same thing, Brian. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and beat everyone up, but there’s the ticking clock of the morning.
Jonterri Gadson: It’s so hard, Brian! So many nights I’d wake up in his bed and not even realize I’d fallen asleep! Lol. Then I’d make myself write and then go to bed. There was no other time to do it and that pressure was motivational.
Brian S: Kids, man. They make life so hard. 🙂
Jonterri Gadson: Hahaha they make life so everything.
Brian S: I know you’ve been doing some comedy writing lately. What’s the latest on that?
Jonterri Gadson: Right when this chat started, I got an email that I’m a semifinalist for a TV writing mentorship, so that’s the very latest. I write for an all-female comedy show in NYC and I take sketch and improv too. I realize that I really just like having an effect on people and comedy (when it’s done right) accomplishes that. Laughter is an instant response and I enjoy it.
Brian S: Woohoo! Congrats! And yes, I know that feeling. I’ve never been willing to do more than tell jokes on social media though.
Jonterri Gadson: I did the NBC Late Night Writers Workshop this year and they were really intrigued by the fact that I’m a poet. I love how one thing leads to another. I feel like I’m getting signs that I can pursue my different creative interests at the same time and that’s given me a lot of confidence to move forward.
Camille D: Before we go (how does time fly so quickly?) I have to tell you that I love the titles all through this book. They’re the sort of titles that pull me into poems. Then the poems keep me inside them.
Jonterri Gadson: Thank you, Camille. I do not like titling! I think titles are so important. I think you actually told me at the Minnesota Writers Conference when I had a consultation with you that the poems were good but the titles needed work. I put in that work! Hahaha. So it’s great to hear you say that. I remember everything!
Camille D: I remember that now! So delightful to be able to see beauty come to fruition.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Anything new we should be on the lookout for?
Jonterri Gadson: Brandon Courtney actually has an amazing mini chapbook, Inadequate Grave, that just stuns me. I also really love Tafisha Edwards’s poems and I can’t wait for her chapbook to come out. Oh, and Phillip B. Williams’s work is genius. Michelle Penaloza‘s poems make me cry even after a million reads and I love a good cleansing cry.
Brian S: We did Phillip’s book for the book club when it came out. Such a good book.
Thanks so much for joining us tonight and for writing such an amazing book.