When I submitted my poems to you, I had no idea of the theme of Identity. That being said, I might posit that each and every poem I write has to do with my coming to know my own identity through the world I am privileged to live in, to attend to. I more often than not do not set out to write a specific poem but to discover what will prevail on any given morning when I sit to write. I pray the world will enter me in some way while reading other poets or paying attention to what is going on at the moment and that suddenly the “weak and diffident pulse of language,” as William Stafford speaks about in his brief essay “A Way of Writing,” will bless me with an avenue into a new poem or a draft of a poem. I love the discovery and the mysterious surprise, and believe in the lineage of my work there is some clue to who I am and what I love and wrestle with as a writer: What I believe is important to convey: What gods stand up inside me at that moment and sing, if you will. I know myself better in the years after as I read what I have written and see the patterns of concern and attention. Let’s say the act is a way do discovering who I am.
The speakers of my poems are often in an act of that discovery; in the act of revelation, as I am in the creative moment. Then, as Donald Hall and others suggest, I come to know what the poem tells me.
In the poem published in your Identity issue, it is hard to pick out one sole line that speaks to your definitive question of what sums up identity. For me it would be, “I have come close/to the water with pen and paper/seeking a stillness / I can translate,” as in Vermont when I have summer time to write I am often at the end of a dock on a small quiet pond in the Northeast Kingdom overlooking a valley and waiting for the pulse of language to move me toward a poem. For the noisy children who had no understanding of my need, it may be, “But there is no defeat / in them now: no tenderness.” I am reluctant to reduce it all to that, but it is what my gut tells me at this moment, the northeastern storm winds howling outside, a good peasant red Spanish wine close by, and the fatigue of having recently written a narrative for my online American Literature II class that engages poets from Lowell to Bishop, Brooks to Roethke, and Ginsberg to O’Hara.
The best I can do in a short way to describe how I have gotten here is telling you that at the dinner table after the meal was done my father read Kipling aloud…”Riki Tikki Tavi” and “Gunga Din,” his favorites, as well as excerpts from “Henry the IV and V” and Romantic poets that might have had his fancy at the time. And that our household was always one of words and books and the importance of such, whether it was my mother reading to us at bed time or our sharing even now the books we love and talking about them; or my nieces answering the mundane question about where their uncle might be matter-of-factly answering, “you know, he’s on the dock writing,” as if it is a normal practice in any household.
What I have gone through is an engaged curious attention to the world around me: and I am blessed for it. Give thanks every day for that privilege.
What lies ahead? More poems, I trust. And of late, I have been possessed by the presence of an old fictitious bluesman from Mississippi by the name of James Tobias Lock from the late 1940’s and find myself in the middle of a play that is also an act of discovery. I have begun the second act recently of a first draft that finds me walking around hearing his voice as well as his true love Jasmine Rose and humming much music in 4/4 time.
To view an excerpt from Jonathan’s poem “Those Lords of the Flies,” click here.