Friday, October 15, 2010

An Interview with Rod Jellema

Rod Jellema’s fifth book of poems, Incarnality: The Collected Poems, has just been released by Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company. It includes forty-nine new poems and a selection of poems from earlier books. Rod Jellema is professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and for many years led workshops on both writing and reading poems at the Writer’s Center. This Saturday, October 16 at 4:00 p.m., he’ll read at The Writer’s Center, and will be joined by his son, the clarinetist and cornetist David Jellema, who will play in a musical call-and-response to some of the poems.

The poet and painter Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli interviewed Jellema for First Person Plural.

Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli: The title for your “Collected Poems,” Incarnality, uses a word that we rarely encounter in reading, media, conversation. Could you comment on what that word means to you and why you chose it as the title.

Rod Jellema: I wanted to play that rare word off against the better-known word carnality. We make of carne (flesh) something lascivious, slightly naughty, and yet celebratory, as in carnival. What that suggests is meat without spirit, a narrow and desperate kind of joy rising from the wild time of indulgence before the sensual deprivations of Lent. In that usage, flesh and the spiritual are split wide apart. Well okay, but why not celebrate the wholeness, the tense union of body and soul? If the spiritual is enfleshed, embodied in the beauty of physical reality, isn’t that where we find mystery and wonder? I want the word incarnality to be now and then a noisy carnival, celebrating matter infused with spirit., incarnate.

MPW: That might explain not only the title but also the artwork on the cover.

RJ: Yes. The publisher came up with a time-lapse photo of a lit carousel, shot through dark from above. It’s a slightly abstract link to carnival. Just right. Thank you for noticing.

MPW: In many of the poems you seem deeply concerned about the tendency, past and again present, for minds or entire cultures to give adherence to the spiritual world, or to spiritualism, as a separate entity. In “Catching Light,” for example., you take issue with Shelley’s famous simile, “Life like a dome of many-colored glass / Stains the white radiance of eternity.” Many regard his sense of unstained timeless purity as what is truly holy. How do you answer that?

RJ: I just don’t see the flight away from the physical world as anything holy. It’s ingratitude. I prefer poet Pattiann Rogers’ notion that pure light travels at the speed of light and keeps going unless we stop it. It is when we stop it, let it rest, that it makes color, design, shape out of pure light that would otherwise go on and on eternally into the most boring and lifeless infinity that we could imagine. It’s obvious that I begin in a very different place from Shelley, the neo-spiritualists, Asian monists, etc. The little incarnations and incarnalities that I see are real images or reflections of the capital-I Incarnation, God-made-flesh and joining us in time and history. That’s heady stuff, more imaginative than logical.

MPW: I am reminded of Richard Wilbur’s essay “The Genie in the Bottle.” Do you recall that one?

RJ: I do. Wilbur writes that The genie gets its power by virtue of being contained in the bottle. This is the function of form. I don’t use set forms but there is something formal about what poets do. We like that sense of the pressure of the poem’s energy—the soul, the spirit, of the poem that is only going to get made if it’s pushing against something. It has to have that formal demand to push against, otherwise it’s just flopping around. Or disappearing into that lifeless infinity.

MPW: I notice in the collected poems that you like setting up opposites --- not just physical vs. spiritual, but also light vs. dark, large vs. small, also other contraries. Is there some poetic principle behind this? Or a deep philosophical one?

RJ: [laughs} No, not at all. I just mistrust public opinion, which can be manipulated. It can tell us, for example, that dark and black mean evil and ignorance while light means purity and wisdom. That’s dangerous. Looking through paint and sounds, shapes and the wonder of words, artists take time to notice that the ultimate flash and glare of light we pursue could be a final nuclear blast, while the dark is also the cool place where we dream and meditate and see the unseen. Likewise, our veneration of bigness overlooks the threads and splinters from beneath consciousness. The job of the arts is to give us a second look. At everything.

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