The page is the stage: An interview with Junious Ward
Junious “Jay” Ward’s first full collection of poems, Composition, published by Button Poetry brings high expectations from the reader. This isn’t a book that spoon feeds. He plays with form—which one is right for the poem—and in our interview revealed he would try on a form and embrace the freedom of trying another one and starting over if it didn’t work.
That panoply of forms in the book grapple with one of the collection’s recurring themes: what it is like to live as a person of mixed race. Ward’s poetic forms are, in their way, saying I don’t want to be boxed in. I’m going to tell you my truth and my truth is going to look so many different ways. Early on in our friendship, I recall him telling me about Dr. Maria Root’s “A Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” (reprinted in the appendix of Composition) and in which one of the declarations says, “I have the right not to keep the races within me separate…I have the right to identify myself differently in different situations.” There are so many ways to parse Black and white, but also a tension of giant brackets holding it all together.
In spoken word circles he’s known as Jay. It’s where Ward has his roots as National Slam champion in 2018 and Individual World Poetry Slam champion in 2019. Most recently he’s served as the inaugural Poet Laureate of Charlotte, NC. We recently spoke over Zoom.
The Rumpus: With your background in spoken word poetry, how do you write differently for slam than for the page? How do you think about the rhythm and the music that are so much a part of spoken word?
Junious Ward: I write differently for stage versus “the page.” But I recognize there’s a lot of poets right now from a spoken word background who do both at the same time. And they don’t necessarily write differently and their work stands up amazingly in both platforms. I write differently because I have to. Like when I’m writing for an audience, I feel like there are liberties I can take. If it’s performance poetry, it’s part writing, but also the nuance of being there and hearing the intonation of the inflections and seeing the choreography and just the overall energy—the page can’t necessarily do that. The page is the same way—there are things that don’t transcribe over to the stage. For example, enjambments and line breaks. Those things create their own cadence, their own rhythm, visuals, and in many cases, second meanings.
Rumpus: Several of your poems include blank spaces or brackets, such an interesting tactic for involving the reader. Is there a wrong or right answer for each of those blank spaces?
Ward: No, not necessarily. I’m thinking of the ones that are my take on zuihitsu. The way I set up the first paragraph, those brackets indicate race and you can go either way with it, but also, I’m a big fan of the reader’s imagination. If the reader’s imagination goes somewhere else, I think that’s very telling. Poems can be introspective, but inviting the reader to make their own conclusions allows them to be introspective with themselves as opposed to interrogating my work. It becomes an interrogation of themselves. So, I have guidelines of what those things are, but I’m very willing to leave that open to the reader because that allows them to experience it in a different way.
Rumpus: So much of the book contends with mixed racial identity, and I’m thinking specifically of your poem, “blessings” with its shape of two columns—left and right that meet in the middle. These separate columns with their poems and perspectives culminate in the middle and the whole is so much richer than the parts. Can you deconstruct how you came to this form?
Ward: I tend to read the parts before I read the whole, so that’s how I read it. The left column, which is my Black family reunion; the right column, which is my white family reunion. And then, the middle column. Then, I’ll read the whole thing together. It was fun and challenging to write. I had a consultation with Tyehimba Jess in a manuscript coaching class and his comment on several of the poems was the same: “This is good, but you need to push it. If you’re gonna push form, then you need to push it.” On that particular poem, his comment was I needed to torque it up a little bit.
Rumpus: Let’s hang with that for a second: “If you’re gonna push form, you’ve got to really push it.” Did he mean as a way of bringing Jay Ward to the page?
Ward: The original version of what would become this manuscript was probably written six or seven years ago. It was the finalist for two competitions: Write Bloody and Button. It didn’t make it to publication through either, so I let it sit for a while and then I went to Bread Loaf—it was actually conversations at Bread Loaf and conversations with Ross White of Bull City Press where I was saying I want to revisit this manuscript.
And I started thinking if, in some poems, I’m breaking form, and in some poems, I’m combining form, and in some poems, I’m trying to create a new form—then each poem becomes a metaphor for the whole work.
This idea of being mixed race, but also the idea of Blackness or the idea of dominant race, when you are multiracial or biracial. I spent about six months after Bread Loaf digging into forms more, trying to find out what each form does well—how would my poems benefit from a particular form—and then starting in that form and saying, “Ah, that doesn’t work.” Starting over, in a different form, and then combining them, and just seeing what happens—I probably spent six months doing that. Then, once I revised them that time, that’s when I had the manuscript class with Tyehimba.
So, I work with a lot of documents here. Originally, it was just erasures and blackouts, and Tyehimba said, “You know everybody does erasures, so if you’re gonna do erasures—if you’re gonna do a blackout—instead of always seeing to create subtext, what about super-text?” Like how can you use these documents in new ways to have this conversation? Because in my mind, I’m having a conversation with all the things that were in conversation with my parents when they got together—Senate Bill 219, an anti-miscegenation law, some of the snippets from the newspaper from a nearby city from where we grew up, all these things—I want to find a way to have a conversation with them. So, in some ways, I can kind of parse, not only my own existence, but sitting in my parents’ seat—how it was for them.
Then, to your point about sneaking some Jay Ward in there—prior to Bread Loaf and Callaloo, I was strictly a spoken word artist. So, it wasn’t until after Callaloo that I really started getting into publishing work. I am very meticulous about how I put together a performance, and I wanted to figure out what that looked like on the page. I wanted the page to be the stage and what does that mean—what does that look like? I’m not catering to an oral style in the work, but visually—the way you read it—is this going to jump off the page? Is it going to feel like a performance that I’m reading? So, I was interested in figuring that out.
Rumpus: Do blackouts and erasure poems show underrepresented voices in public works? Did you approach these pieces like you might ekphrasis?
Ward: Absolutely. I was very conscious of what black space and white space would do in the manuscript. I think it was Solmaz Sharif, in an essay about erasure, who made me think about blackouts and the satisfying nature of performing a violence to a document that performs a violence.
There’s at least one poem that has the erasure and blackout happening at the same time that creates this whole column of white space and column of black space that are doing similar things but to a different effect. Even in poems that weren’t blackouts, I was very conscious of the use of black space and white space.
Rumpus: How do footnotes work with blackouts as you have them in “Concerning a Problem”? [“Concerning a Problem” is a blackout of the letter Mildred Loving wrote to the attorney general following the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act.]
Ward: I wanted to create super-text—I wanted there to be more to the conversation, so I wanted you to be able to read the poem, but also know some information behind it that would either give a different thought or context.
In “Concerning a Problem”—one of the footnotes can be read as part of the poem depending on how you read it. So it’s “Dear sir, I am.” One of the annotations coming off of “I am” is “not Black. I told the people so when they came to arrest me,” which is a quotation from Mildred Loving. And if you drop to the footnote then it gives you more about that—where Mildred was raised, there was an ingrained history of choosing to identify as anything other than Black. So now, from the beginning of the poem it becomes really complicated, right? I would probably read the blackout on its own first and then circle back and get this other complicated part of the history, which is how Mildred chose to identify. But that choice, as the second footnote brings out, was based on ease of living and what everybody in that town also did.
So, everything is nuanced. Everything is complicated. I wanted the poem to be there but I wanted all these other annotations and footnotes to be there to guide the reader through the complications. So, it’s not just Black and white, but I wanted a way to interact where all the complications could live, where you could still enjoy the poem, but also a new way to introduce the complications.
Rumpus: Writing yourself and your story into the gaps of legislation brings a hyper-personal lens of who is impacted by laws and governance. How did the poem “Within the Prohibited Degree” come to be?
Ward: That poem started as notes and other documents and snippets from documents I didn’t use for an entire poem, but they stuck with me for various reasons. So, it was after “Concerning a Problem” when I noted, “Oh, yeah, annotation is a kind of neat way to interact with some of this information.”
So, for “Within the Prohibited Degree,” I took some of those snippets and other documents and found a new way to interact with them, and then intentionally changed the order of a couple things so that you have to interact with the poem differently—almost like a flow chart, but you are being redirected. These are obstructive thoughts, many of them, and they’re obstructive ideals and I wanted to obstruct the reader’s experience in reading it and redirect them and make them feel a little uncomfortable as they go back and forth.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about ekphrasis for a second. How does ekphrasis create connection between us and them? Something in you sees a work and needs to respond to it—it becomes part of you.
Ward: It causes me to think more deeply about what the work sparks in me. So, some of that ekphrasis is responding to pictures of my parents. Some of it is responding to Romare Bearden’s work and thinking about the great migration and how this has affected Blackness and Black thought. It does create a connection because I have to meditate and put myself in a new perspective in order to really write about the work and what the work causes in me.
Rumpus: I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up “Mural of This Country” with its mirroring poem of seven tercets and two quatrains in conversation with the word map on the opposite page, jumbling the same words and re-orienting them into a map of the United States. Can you walk me through your process of bringing together that poem of two pages speaking to each other?
Ward: I got into research mode on Romare Bearden. I was going to pitch to one of our organizations in Charlotte a booklet that went along with the exhibit for his work. In the process of pitching that, I wrote out all these words and I wrote short poems for every one. The pitch didn’t happen. But as I started sitting with the poems, I thought, “I’m going to create a poem that’s collaged from all these individual poems that are homages to these individual works of Romare.”
As I looked at it, I thought, “Oh, man, I think I could cull this so it works backwards, which I did as commission work for Blumenthal Performing Arts a few years ago. Once that existed, I probably re-edited that and it was after the conversation with Tyehimba where he said push everything, I said, “I wonder if this could be done.” Because the way I had it before, it would just reverse itself like a palindrome. I had to play with it and cut the word count so I could get it onto one page so that it could mirror the other page. And then I worked with a graphic artist to make it fit into the shape of the United States. So, that was a pretty satisfying moment when it actually worked.
Author photo courtesy of author