by Jamie Townsend
we simply a performance block letter’d
congenital heart defect evangelical mix
tape public shame for grand space budget
lavish rental carmelite cell reading
beating it out excel in maintenance orders
mine division non-denom no provisionary
danger / danger replicated razor blade or
treaters hells-night watch harvest festival neu-
tered a kind of collective action – removed
blacklight poster lite novelty store variety
tee display pun verse for pop commercial
pressed hands bent milk or beer sloganeering
hanged man as actual event fear the ritual
position of leg cinematic deviance came
rock words well a problematic overlap
couldn’t fall for barcode dark-roasted market
worship on hands & knees keening
the carpet growing stains not discernable faces
I met Jamie Townsend three years ago, in the Summer of 2008. Poet Adam Meora, then attending the Naropa Summer Writing Program, called me & said he had just met a poet who was moving to Philadelphia at the end of the summer who was very “brilliant.” Thus, I was excited to meet Jamie, & happy to hear that another young poet was moving to Philadelphia.
Quickly after his move to Philadelphia, Jamie joined The New Philadelphia Poets, & his depth of knowledge regarding poetics & poetries ignited within me a new kind of awareness for minimalism, lyric, juxtaposition & gentleness. While The New Philadelphia Poets “workshop” meetings were still in session, I always looked forward to reading a new poem by Jamie Townsend, for his keen sense of putting surprising words together always pleasantly jarred me as a reader, & inspired my own work. Jamie’s poems are very musical, very fastidious, always hold true to giving something to the reader – his poems are generous.
Beyond the generosity of his poetic craft, Jamie has also contributed greatly to the Philadelphia Poetry Community at large. Recently, he & Nicholas DeBoer have begun the con/crescent reading series, which continually features some of the best poets writing today. Jamie Townsend has extremely good taste, & this is evidenced not only by his own poetry, but in his selection of the poets who read for the con/crescent series.
Every time I am fortunate enough to have a conversation with Jamie Townsend, I always learn something new – about the ways I think of poetry, about politics, about the cosmos. I am fortunate to know him, & I hope you enjoy this interview with Jamie, one of the best poets writing today.
Debrah: Jamie, there are so many lavish juxtapositions of words & phrases in this poem that create quite surprising nuances of meaning. For instance, "heart defect evangelical mix tape," "lavish rental carmelite cell," "danger / danger replicated razor blade." How do these words come together for you in composition? Did you enter the writing of this poem, "Mansions," with an objective, regarding meaning, sound, the layering of tercets? How did you select the three-line stanza as efficacious for this poem's delivery?
Jamie: Hey Debrah. First off, thank you for inviting me to participate in your wonderful new project! I'm honored at the time you've taken to look at my poem in depth, and really inspired by all the work you do in regards to celebrating Philly poetry and supporting fellow writers.
MANSIONS came together as a series of little discrete events that seemed to have correspondence with each other. I think the thematic elements and the prosody are tied together because I was approaching this poem as a way to explore the space of, in part, my own history growing up in an evangelical community and the limitations those formative years imposed on my experience of the world. That being said, I didn't want to write a strictly confessional piece, but instead to use elements of confessional writing in combination with a particular scaffolding of form and rhythm to facilitate these sonic and visual elements in the poem. I think my goal was to offer a dynamic experience for the reader, a place to engage in levels of "meaning-making" or resonance. I wanted to write something that was a feeling-out of certain sensations, of being blocked or stunted, pressed into a strict lineation for living (I think feelings that most everyone has had at some point) -- and simultaneously present a sort-of release from these feelings within the structure of the poem itself. MANSIONS has marks of traditional meter but plays with torque, connection and disconnection, both across lines and within them to resist a straightforward, closed reading. I want people to be able to pick up on places where groupings of words seem to be saying something specific to them, and then feel the shift as the poem expands or moves on to another grouping; what comes before and after linking up but vacillating sense. It's like looking at something closely and then backing away to see all the other elements connected to, and in play with, that limited, detailed view.
Since this piece developed around my own thinking about issues of religion, branding, and personal development the form just seems to occur organically. The tercets just came out as I was writing, but looking back on it now I think that it was kind of an example of Robert Creeley's "form as never more than an extension of content", yet I feel like here the form deepens and extends the content, at least in retrospect. It allows the reader to parse a line for "meaning" or an "experience" or whatever and then to go back and read the line again, and hopefully have a new feeling, a new sense of words clicking, swinging together, or extending an impression. The tercets create a tension; three is not a round number so we are not dealing with pairs or lines that create an immediate dialectic response to each other. There is something extra, something that extends out. Three is also a very important number in Christianity, as a representation of the nature of God - "God in three persons" - the Trinity. I've always thought it was very interesting, and telling, that in the evangelical community, at least as I experienced it, there is a lot of self-possessed surety, compartmentalizing, completion in belief, yet the being of God as expressed in three parts is an open form, it cannot be reduced to an easy equation for living. No equal division means endless possibilities.
Debrah: Jamie, I am notably interested in your delineation that three is not a round number; thus, it presents no dialectic. Instead, you say, it gives us "something extra, something that extends out." This you also link to the notion of the Christian Trinity, a concept which also reasonably presents no stagnant dialectic. Would you say, then, that this conceptualization of "3" gives us a sort of synthesis? Could we look at the third lines of each stanza as presenting that "release" that you speak of? I am moved to look at the last words in each stanza: budget, provisionary, removed, sloganeering, overlap, faces. Out of these six, three of them provide us with a kind of negation -- "non-demon no provisionary," "a kind of collective action -- removed," "not discernable faces." Is this negation a release from something?
Jamie: I would definitely say that while "3" works itself into the prosody of MANSIONS and has connections to its themes and subjects, it is not necessarily a qualitative element of the poem, at least not by any premeditated design on my part. I guess that I felt, quite naturally, the third lines in the poem, as the end lines of each stanza, would have to function uniquely in that space of "closure" (at least visual closure) -- as the ending of each stanza/section. I'm interested in this space of ending or "closure", mostly because it's presented difficulty for me technically (as often my approach to writing leads me down paths of thought I don't necessarily want to or know how to end), while at the same time providing a field for thinking about what a poem can do in this places where the form or thought gets "wrapped-up". What are the politics of the prosodic closure? How do you end a poem or a section of a poem in a way that doesn't impose upon the reader a tidy resolution? I think about this a lot -- and maybe it’s my way of facilitating overlapping questions of form, content, intent, perspective, readership, etc. I am interested in the potentiality within a poem, the openness it may have to many readings that could possibly be wildly different, and how any of those readings can be equally "correct" (or equally "incorrect" for that matter). I think I try to structure my poems in a way that encourages this sort of open-endedness, and involved readership, and in that way the tercets seem to work well (maybe it’s the three voices at play in the poem as well -- me, the reader, and the poem itself -- in dialogue). In English-language versions of haiku poetry the three line structure is predominantly used, and one of the goals of haiku is a nice balance between clarity and opacity -- I strive for that as well.
As far as negation in the poem, that may just be subconsciously coming from my own desire to avoid the whole mess of definition at the end of stanzas and the end of the poem as a whole; I hope the negation isn't just an "easy out" like that, but more so how the cards fell as the sections were put together (It probably says something more about what I think in regards to half-glasses of water). It's funny though, you typed "non-demon" when it’s actually "non-denom" (evangelical-speak for "non-denominational" -- sort of moderate-conservative yet officially unaffiliated Protestant churches") in the poem. I like this transposition quite a bit, as it has a sense of the both the original term and my own play with the lingo. Denominations as hierarchical, as powers to be negated by a ridiculous vague label that is, in essence, a denomination itself, with its own set of religious interpolations, customs and obsessions. Kind of a proxy, at least in terms of semantics, to "post-modern." I guess I would usually rather have these things be "demonic" or "denomic" than in that strange space of definition by proxy. "Let your yes be yes and your no be no" as it were. But great that the terms themselves can be open to interpretation, mutation, play (and any various wonderful typos that can happen).
I think that this also has something to do with power. I've been thinking a lot lately about the idea of power in language, how we've moved away from a larger cultural discourse that takes up questions of opacity and clarity in terms of the language of mass media, government, religious leaders, etc. It’s an interesting tension that I am trying to think about in these pieces as well, mostly as I attempt to create open spaces for reading, open-ended structures, while still keeping an ear to the ground. I think most individuals in positions of any type of authority today consistently use methods of linguistic obfuscation to confuse, to render placid, citizens who would otherwise have a very real problem with the bare facts about illegal wars, hate speech, avoidable natural disasters, sexual abuse. On the Daily Show the other day Jon Stewart, in conversation with Bill Moyers, was discussing an interview he had conducted with Donald Rumsfeld. Stewart asked Rumsfeld about "selling the Iraq War" to the American public, and Rumsfeld immediately corrected him saying "not sold, presented". I don't know if I found a steady balance between keeping language open but still maintaining a clear difference between "sold" and "presented", but it’s something at play here in this piece, and something I keep returning to.
Debrah: The politics of sworn words & illegal testimonies seem like legerdemain. I like how your poems never seem to swear testimonies or provide the reader with, as you say, "tidy resolution."
In my reading of "Mansions," I notice the swelling of popular culture words -- "mix tape," "blacklight poster," "novelty store variety tee display," "pun verse for pop commercial," "milk or beer sloganeering," "barcode," "dark-roasted market." Does this poem make any statements about consumer culture? Also, the title "Mansions" bespeaks of residences for the wealthy. Should one pay attention to any notions of social class when reading this poem?
Jamie: Popular culture words occupy this really interesting space in relation to religious terms or ideas, and this is something I was definitely exploiting in this piece. So much of popular culture is about "branding"; scoring an idea into the mind with a strong, suggestive force. It's no wonder that religious subcultures often employ modes of branding, whether it be in the repetitive use of loaded and often ill-defined terms ("discipleship", "evangelizing", "ministry") or the "Christianizing" of pop culture commodities and youth cultures (Christian rock music, bible-verse quoting graphic tees, WWJB bracelets). This is all about exercising power through rhetorical gesture, as well as opacity and its place within these cultures of control. In many ways I am fascinated by and drawn to the idea of having a purely emotional resonance with a term wardrobed in a sense of mystery - the thrall of bare language, experiencing an immediacy of sound. However, this hypnotic, alien element of communication has become one of the main tools of advertising, and thus is connected to some of the most troubling aspects of our capital driven society. So it's all a balance (and often an uneven one). I think MANSIONS (the title I cribbed from a verse in the Bible I often heard referenced growing up: "In my Father's house there are many mansions" (John 14:2 KJB) - which gives this idea of heaven as a sort of gated community where a chosen few will live in luxury) explores the connection between these two ways of perceiving language, as well as with the inherent political implications of any opaque, "open" text.
Religion and pop culture are intimately connected, though they often propose to be at odds with each other. I'm interested in how they both make use of language similarly. What do we wish for, and how are those wishes veiled (often thinly) or made manifest through semantics? What do we need, and what are we told that we need? (and how do these things often bleed into each other?) Poetry serves an important function here, to bring words back into an experiential space that can be personally and socially generative instead of depletive. When looking at issues around social and economic class distinctions, which I think are always in the poem based on the conditions through which it is created (though not always addressed thematically), it’s really important to understand the ways in which these delineations get created and enforced. Much of the inequality in our culture comes directly from, and is continually fostered by, language: racial slurs, socio-economic derogatory terms like "welfare queen", religiously charged hate speech; these are linguistic and ideological frameworks that we construct, with materials that are often unconsidered and largely the product of our particular cultural legacy. When something is a "term" it has a predetermined span of time, a shelf-life; it is fixed in place by its perceived limitations. This is how language has been stunted and weaponized, by being enforced as "terminology". Returning focus to language's sense of playfulness, to its ongoing associative morphology and restless energy, can help, I think (I hope), break apart some of the barriers that concretizing rhetoric has set in place.
Debrah: Thank you, Jamie, for these insights. I am indebted to your thoughts on these things for it does seem that even notions of afterlife have ghettos for the unholy, like purgatory, hell, limbo. Heaven is for the upper-crust, if it is composed of mansions.
Since this interview is for Starlight, Philadelphia, I would like to close by asking you about how you find the city of Philadelphia to be an inspiration for your poems. Do you find it as such? Does the city & its pulse enter your composition of "Mansions?" Do you feel like your poetry has changed as a result of being in Philadelphia?
I think the eclecticism of Philadelphia has definitely opened up new perspectives in my writing. The city is this interesting hodgepodge of old and new, which coincides with the mixture of archaic/religious and popular culture language used throughout the poem (sort of like Old City abutting South St.). Living in Philly, as a writer, has afforded me a lot of opportunities to work with people who are passionate about where they live -- which, in turn, has helped me realize the importance of specificity in writing, of being connected to a place and the unique conditions that locale generates. Philly has helped ground my poetry in real things, and has helped me focus on the importance of writing as a social act, not just an aesthetic one. I want to give all credit due to the amazing, diverse, welcoming writing community in Philadelphia for adopting me 3 years ago. You were one of the first writers I met in Philly, and it’s amazing to look back at the time I've spent here, in part, through this discussion. Thanks again Debrah, it's always a pleasure to chat!
Debrah: & thanks for this interview, Jamie. It’s a blessing for all of us here that you decided to move to Philadelphia three years ago.
Jamie Townsend lives in East Kensington, Philadelphia, where he is organizer of the c / c reading series, & co-founder of con / crescent, a chapbook publisher & magazine focused on discursive essay / creative non-fiction. He is author of the chapbooks STRAP/HALO (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs; 2011) & Matryoshka (LRL Textile Editions; 2011). His poetry & critical work has appeared in various publications, including The Cultural Society, Gam, Wheelhouse, Volt, Elective Affinities, Jacket2, The Poetry Project Newsletter, & Try.