Riding the Joy Bus: A Interview with D.A. Powell

by Andrew Rahal


D.A. Powell is the author of four collections of poetry. His most recent book Chronic (2009) received the Kingsley Tufts Award and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.  This conversation was recorded over the course of several days, while D.A. Powell was visiting Nashville and Tennessee Ridge. He currently lives in San Francisco.

Interviewer: If we can begin at the end, with your forthcoming collection. Do you find that it has been heavily influenced by your prior work?

Powell: Well, I’m doing something different now. I’m writing in fairly straightforward sentences and using traditional punctuation and capitalization. I’ve done a few things that are formally new for me in this collection. I have one poem that is in an odd syllabic structure, varying between thirteen- and seven-syllable lines—hoping that by switching between the two lengths, the lines will sound organic. I also have a poem in the collection that is a villanelle, although I change the lines quite a bit. And I have a poem that is a sestina, although I change the end words quite a bit, so I don’t know if it truly counts as a sestina. I needed to abandon the traditional notion of end words—they are what always stopped me from writing a sestina. Now I’ve gone and broken the form so that it’s scarcely recognizable. Not only did I abandon the end words, but I also didn’t try to keep the ideas in a set order, because even that would have felt too rigid. So it is really sestina in name only.

Originally, the title of the book was Useless Landscape. Antonio Carlos Jobim, a composer whose work I keep coming back to, wrote a song called “Useless Landscape.” I borrowed that title for a poem. For a while, I thought that the whole book would be called “Useless Landscape,” but then I realized that it sounded far too dreary. In the meantime I started to write these other kinds of wry, erotic poems which seemed to require their own section. One of the anchor poems in that section is titled “A Guide for Boys.” It’s inspired by old scouting manuals. Pretty soon, I had these two opposing titles sparring at one another. I started thinking about the tension between Useless Landscape and A Guide for Boys—how very different those two phrases are, but if you combine them, they work upon each other in very useful ways: “useless landscape” is what you would call “a guide for boys” in the most cynical view of love. And vice versa.

Photo by Eric BurgInterviewer: These new poems appear to grow less out of the material of the in-the-body experience that you explored in Chronic and more from an out-of-body experience, which takes us into a more naturally expansive experience with our environment.

Powell: I think I’ve always been a landscape painter, in terms of my poetry. But I really began to employ that painterly mode of regarding and recording the natural world in Chronic. And I’m continuing that particular thread in this book. People don’t have any sense of what things are, they don’t know their own environment and they try to remove themselves from it as much as possible, through screens and filters, through media and information technology and all these coping mechanisms which are like the trappings of a really dysfunctional relationship. Rather than looking at what’s going on and addressing the problems that we’ve created, we look at the problems through a filter, if we look at them at all.

Interviewer: Speaking about divorcing oneself from this kind of landscape and relationship in the natural world: are there moments where a Golden Gate Bridge might be passing over cornrows, or some form of those intersections, metaphorically speaking?

Powell: Even though I’m writing primarily about the Central Valley of California, I’m constantly drawing upon what’s happening in San Francisco, because that’s where I live. It’s what I was brought up in, versus what I was brought up against. But these borrowings only work if they can be transposed into the Central Valley in a way where they don’t feel like foreign objects. If people read carefully they’ll definitely see where I acknowledge that importation, that grappling between ideas of nativity and foreignness. Even though I’ve spent a good deal of my time in the Central Valley of California, I’m not native to it. I don’t feel terribly native to any place. Or rather, I feel native to multiple places. That’s why it seems perfectly reasonable to borrow from more than one location, because I feel equally loyal and disloyal to them all.

I love that poem “Anecdote of the Jar” by [Wallace] Stevens, where he puts a jar in Tennessee and the slovenly wilderness surrounds it and shapes itself. That’s what I’m often doing, taking this manufactured thing, this imported object, and putting it in my landscape—then making sure everything else somehow shapes itself to fit it. If it doesn’t accommodate it, it would feel intrusive and invasive. And I’d get rid of it. Of course, everywhere we live these days, particularly in California—though it happens in Tennessee too—our landscape is entirely invasive.

Interviewer: Could we turn to a seemingly invasive poem you read earlier, “A Little Less Kettledrum, Please.”

Powell: Yes. Since it’s a sestina, there are certain words that get repeated, but not in the formal constraints of a sestina. Songbook, piccolo, record, there are all these words which indicate music, and field comes in through various incarnations; there are certain visual ideas that keep coming back.

Interviewer: And those ideas form this manufactured character of the poem.

Powell: I’m trying to make it look a little bit more organic by not having those words thrown to the end, but there is even a moment in the poem where I acknowledge the artificiality of landscape: “now has the unnatural grass been freshly mowed…”

Interviewer: Setting it on a football field adds an extra layer of artificiality.

Powell: “Mowed and limed” I think is what it ended up becoming. Not only manicured, but ritualistically killed each week to create a grid. It is unnatural grass, also, in the way that we divide it into plats. Just as we do with housing developments.

Interviewer: The scene in the poem is quite magnificent—in the midst of this faux celebration with the dancing and music, the pomp and circumstance of the marching band, coupled with the speaker’s grand sense of self.

Powell: Yes, well, it’s rooted in military history. All of the symbology of the marching band comes directly from a kind of invasive practice, and utilizing those symbols in such a way that we are not necessarily thinking of invasiveness or practice was one of the goals. I wanted it to be, in essence, a celebration of the marching band as an American phenomenon. As I wrote, I wanted the poem to grapple with the kind of silliness of the pageantry, and the distorted ideas of masculinity. The speaker in the poem is ‘the least of all piccolo players.” Perhaps the only thing that could be more sissified than that would have been to be one of the baton twirlers. And yet despite the smallness and un-masculine quality of his instrument—his “voice”—that speaker gains such authority and power, particularly in the turn that comes as the envoi. “Lest you be mistaken, I’m fully in control of everything,” he seems to be saying.

Interviewer: Essentially, beyond his own constricted environment, he is unchecked in what he can do as the least of all piccolos, then.

Powell: (Laughs) “Hear me up in the bleachers?!” Yes. And the way he is in love with his own sense of the artistic, even though his version of the artistic is perverse in so many ways. He’s so naïve as to what constitutes true artistry, which is why he serves up two maestros, as if doubling the idea of mastery makes it more true: “the maestro, Mr. John Williams.”

In ways, this poem draws upon my own sense of exile and alienation. Of course, when I was in high school, I wasn’t in the marching band. But I remember one of the things that helped me to survive the horrors of high school in the central valley was that I built myself into what I perceived to be an intellectual. I read the things that I thought would make me intelligent. You know, I read Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Being and Nothingness by Sartre. Maybe I understood two percent of it, but it was just the aggression of that act. And of course for a long time I even assumed that no one noticed how much I tried to be smarter than anyone, more aware, better read.

Interviewer: So you picked up the piccolo, in that way?

Powell: Now I realize that a lot of my distance, then, was a kind of pretense. That’s why I liked creating this piccolo player, because he also has those same delusions and desires.

Interviewer: You seem to draw out the agency of adolescence and the transitional moments in poems like that. Do you return to similar catalyzing moment in other poems?

Powell: I return in some way, but not so much. It’s hard to go back, after a certain age. But I definitely feel like Tea was often a very adolescent work, and then I had grown out of that. But… I am all boy, though, you know? I like to set firecrackers off.

HomeplaceInterviewer: There was a quote on a gravestone in a cemetery we stopped by (in Tennessee Ridge). It read, “Dying is but going home.” I don’t know if you remember what you said—it was kind of off-the-cuff—but after staring at it for a minute you mentioned, “For me it’s the opposite: ‘Going home is but dying.’” In the context of useless landscapes, does that home acquire a place of vitality or a kind of perishable place?

Powell: I think I’ve certainly come to peace with the fact that I could never really live in this same part of Tennessee in my adult life, being who I am. And I don’t mean because people would bother me—they wouldn’t. Tennesseans are genuinely gracious. I mean because I myself would grow restless and uncomfortable, as I did even when I was a kid. It still is a part of me, and I think that many of the choices that I make or have made as a citizen, thinker, and artist have been informed by my past and childhood. In the most generous sense of what we call artistry, many people in my family had some sort of artistic vision. Even my grandmother made quilts, but she had no talent. They were awful. Polyester, mismatched blocks lacking any sense of composition or color.  She also fancied that she was going to be some great cook. But her cooking was practically a sin, and if there weren’t a convenience store nearby, we would have starved half the time. Thank God for the Slim Jim!

Everybody in my family told stories; recounted the adventures and misadventures of our kin. I suspect there was a great deal of history which got changed and embellished. And that has become part of the fabric of my life, those stories, so I appreciate it. I love Tennessee for that. I love the way it triggers memory and helps me get in touch with who I am as a human being and also to discover these impromptu moments where I might say something ridiculous. In an odd way, I was always given permission by my family. Despite my gift for vernacular color and for inappropriate social commentary, I wasn’t punished for writing. It was quite the opposite—even though I don’t think any of them would understand my poetry. And so much the better. I mean, I probably wouldn’t understand the thousand-page treatise that my Aunt Opha wrote on The Revelation of John. And yet, I’m probably in conversation with that compulsive and hermetic work in ways I’ll never even begin to imagine.

Interviewer: Though most of the work in Useless Landscape deals with the Central Valley (and other parts of California), does Tennessee life graph itself into the poetry?

Powell: Certainly. I’ve been reading a lot about color, trees, plants, insects, birds and birdcalls. I think my healthy respect for the natural world grew directly out of spending summers in Tennessee. My brother and cousins, we would go up to the woods and find snakes and wild berries and nuts. And I always had relatives who were very good at pointing out things of interest. My father knew so much about our environment, and his kernels of knowledge would lodge in the back of my head.

Although at the same time I was saying, “Get me out of here, get me to a city,” even though I didn’t know what a city was.

Interviewer: The poems seem openly conscious of the kind of respect for the land you experienced while living in Southern rural culture.

Powell: I think it’s why I’m fascinated by people like Clyde, my great-grandmother’s brother, who disappeared. I understand that desire. I had it myself. And in some ways, for many of my family, I have disappeared. But part of the demand of being an artist is you must constantly go back and revisit yourself along the way. In Samuel Beckett’s plays, he has these moments where he will describe somebody’s movement, and then the next stage direction is “reflects.” And to reflect (in the terminology of acting) is a posture; to reflect might be to turn your head this way. It’s not reflection unless it plays to the audience—it’s a kind of self-conscious gesture, but it’s nonetheless a part of what creates mood. So I’ve become much more comfortable with reflecting as a necessary part of writing.

Interviewer: Has that shifted your speed of the language in the poem?

Powell: Oh yes, there are these willful kinds of turns, where the energy of the line is going in one direction and then I have to sort of drop the register. I think we all do this: we’re walking around and we’ll say, “Well, there’s 4th street.” Think of Sylvia Plath in “The Moon and the Yew Tree” writing, “I simply cannot see where there is to get to.” Many of the people in my family were awfully good navigators. Everyone knew how to draw and read maps. I think we must share some genetic material with bats. I appreciate bats, because they are constantly sending out noise and listening to themselves, and I seem to do that all the time. And a poem can include that kind of echolocation in such a way as to make it stronger. It’s a necessary strategy of composition for me.

Interviewer: These moments of reflection, do they perform as a kind of travelogue for the collection?

Powell: It’s a little bit like what Twitter is doing right now. Twitter has become this way for people to sort of track their progress through the day; a modern ship’s log. It’s a form that intrigues me, because it requires a great deal of compression. It means that everything has to be rigorously pared down. And at the same time, people use it as a nervous signposting. My poems have those little sign posts, because I realize I use language which is often incredibly elaborate or unusual in many different ways, and I don’t want people to get lost or feel like the poem is this opaque material they can’t penetrate. So those navigation points not only help me as a writer; I think they help the reader as well.

I don’t trust my thought process enough to rely upon it as the exclusive controlling device of the poem. But I do trust myself enough that periodically I will say something. In this new collection there is a poem called “Missionary Man,” and at one moment, the poem arrives at this line: “the world is full of lovely but tragic boys.” That to me is a kind of sign-posting moment. It steps outside of the action, comments on what’s going on, and returns to the action with a resolute “get me on the Joy Bus”… Okay, I know stepping onto the joy bus at that moment is the more difficult route to take, but I’m determined to get on that stupid bus, and I get on.

Interviewer: We saw one of those buses! (In Tennessee Ridge.)

Powell: Yes! And I didn’t realize that was a phrase that was peculiar to me and a few other people. I think it must be a sub-regional dialect. Many rural churches have buses that pick up children for Sunday school, usually the short buses. They go around on Sundays, picking up people for church, usually kids, because the parents have sent the kids off to church without taking them there themselves. When I was a child, I remember the bus would come by, and the kids were always singing the Bible songs that kids sing, like “Deep and Wide,” “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” and “I’ve Got Joy Joy Joy Joy Down In My Heart.” When you hear something coming up the road with this Doppler Effect of joy! joy! joy! joy!, that becomes the “Joy Bus.” Every time someone reads this “Missionary Man” poem, they have their own idea of what the Joy Bus is, and 98% of the time, it has nothing to do with what I know as the Joy Bus. It’s wonderful to have those moments where somebody can enter a poem and feel like they live there, without it really having to conform to either their notion or the writer’s notion. The whole crux of a poem is really “you speak, I speak, and something else happens.” How we begin writing poetry is: we listen to language, we begin to get adept at it, and we understand what poetry is, and we repeat it—but we repeat it inexactly. We make our own version of what constitutes poetry, but the poems that we write are always some sort of negotiation between what poetry has always been and what we perceive it to be, and then there’s that little space in between, just begging for the “Joy Bus,” the thing which satisfies you, and satisfies me, for different reasons, and we never have to know we are in disagreement.


Read D. A. Powell’s A Little Less Kettledrum, Please

Or read more interviews in our current issue