The Poet’s Story: Interview with Jay Hall Carpenter
This in-depth interview needs little introduction. But I will say that if you have a chance to see this Poet read live, do it! In addition to his many other skills, Jay is a dynamic orator who will entertain, as well as likely make you laugh and cry. With no further ado...
You’ve written three collections of poetry, Model Home (2021), 101 Limericks, Inappropriate for all Occasions (2017), and Dark & Light (2015).You create some incredible sculptures, really iconic around here. I enjoyed the pieces around the National Cathedral, as well as Jim Henson and Kermit at University of Maryland, many years before I knew who created them. I’ve had the great gift of seeing early versions of a couple of delightful children’s books you’ve drafted, as well as hearing some great songs you’ve written; delivered with a beautiful singing voice I might add. Might you speak to how you balance those creative pursuits and how you find the time? And how do your different art forms speak to and inform each other, if at all?
First off, Kristin, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. I’m very pleased to have an opportunity to reflect on the mulligan stew of creativity I call a career, but it is also always a joy to have a chance to talk with you. It may, on paper, seem as though I have been reasonably productive. Don’t be fooled! My first book, Dark and Light, took 30 years to write and contains only 32 poems. I can’t call myself prolific. But once that was published, the pleasure of being able to share my work was a great motivator. Model Home was written in 9 years, and the soon to be published, Mount Fuji, took a mere 5 months, thanks (?) to the pandemic.
That's an incredible trend in your completion rate! Might you talk about your new collection Model Home -- what themes / images you explore; how you organize the pieces in the collection?
Model Home evolved organically and took its time revealing the links between poems. The first theme to take shape was childhood trauma. My own childhood was a nightmare at times and I wanted to explore that, especially while my own daughter grew from four to thirteen and it all had renewed relevance.
The second theme of the book is the legacy of racism in this country, from Monticello to the present. My family’s immigration dates back to Jamestown and they fought in the Revolutionary war, but to my dismay, as recently as my grandparent’s generation we had a member of the Klan in our family. I wanted to take that on.
Religion has been a life-long interest of mine, and I have been a liturgical artist since 1976. I’ve sung in church choirs and attended seminary. Several poems in this book address my personal experiences, which have not all been positive.
And the fourth theme is work, the honesty of labor, its repetitive nature, its redemptive qualities. I am nearing the time when I will need to put down my tools and look back, I hope, with some satisfaction. In some ways the book uses the personal to address our national story.
One poem that links all four themes is Birth at Monticello:
Birth at Monticello
No fixéd star illumes your birth
No Frankincense perfumes your bed.
No seraphim proclaim your worth,
Though skin be fair and hair be red.
Were your magi misdirected,
Waylaid by your charming lord?
Was your coming unexpected?
Is your birth to be ignored?
At last they come, but bring not gold—
The only gift for you is steel.
They break your mother’s desperate hold
And squelch your stricken, infant squeal.
For you, there’ll be no flight to Egypt.
The northern star will never near.
But like our savior, you will be whipped,
Then made to know you’re not his heir.
And though you’re to the manor born,
Not in the manner one would hope.
Sired, then denied with scorn,
You’ll know the shackle and the rope.
Wow, Jay, powerful poem! Beautifully written and heartbreaking with such a poignant analogy. Thank you for that. Might you speak a bit to form in poetry. You write many sonnets and seem to have a penchant for rhyming. Although I know that you also write some wonderful free-form poetry. How do you decide in what form you will draft a piece? Do you think that particular forms are easier or make for perhaps better poetry? When you do write free-form what do you consider in way of structure?
Yes, I love rhyme for the sounds, for the challenge, but mainly for the way it guides the poem along as you write. You may have a destination in mind, but the need to satisfy the form and the rhyme will always bounce you around and make the journey more interesting. I’ve tried every form I’ve come across with mixed success. Haiku baffles me. Sestinas and villanelles are wonderful, but I wouldn't want a book full of them.
For me the first line tends to determine everything. If it’s funny I tend to go into a modified ballad form. If it’s not funny, I tune into the tone and see what it needs. There seem to be some tones that just require free verse, others fall easily into a formal order. When I was writing the sonnet book, everything was quick because I knew exactly what I was trying to do. Usually it is more of a treasure hunt.
The key for me is to try to let it all fall onto the page without much thought, then see what you have and shape it. In that way it is much like sculpting. I work in clay and everything is editing what’s in front of you, responding to the oddities. Creativity begins with uncertainty.
Wonderful analogy for editing. Might you speak a bit more to the editing process, particularly to presenting poems in workshops? We're lucky to be in an area with such a talented, supportive poetry community. How did you settle upon the workshop(s) you attend? How inclined are you to take advice for edits?
I do work with a wonderful critique group and I know you value your group, as well. Our poets have a diverse range of skills and perspectives from comic, to empathetic, to surreal. We even have a professional copy editor who writes wonderful poetry and can answer all of our usage questions! There is an etiquette to such ventures, which is a separate discussion, though interesting. I try to leave my polished beauties at home and bring the works in progress, the promising messes. In either case, I write down all of the suggestions and usually know what I will try to incorporate and what might be applicable more generally to future work. The other key advantage to a group is the accountability. You will be working on something every month, even if it’s something you pulled from the bone bin.
I’ve never been to a workshop, though I have been tempted. The oddest thing I’ve done is to solicit poem titles from my friends on social media. I got 5 responses which led to 4 good poems and one I am still trying to birth, Snip. Hammerstein wrote that way, you know. He and Rogers (Richard, not Fred) would plot a new play and place the songs, then give them all titles and tempos. Hammerstein would then go home and write the lyrics based on the titles, which usually found their way into the refrain. I think in such cases one must be open to discarding the title if the poem needs to head elsewhere. Here is one from that experiment. Title credit to Pamela Murray Winters:
Transport me back to Florence where it’s warmer;
Come share again our little abbey flat.
Let’s find that osteria on the corner
To have a fine Chianti and a chat.
Remember there, that bowl of little olives,
So delicate, collected when still young?
We counted eight, declaring them an octave
Of rounded notes, each rolling off the tongue.
And you would lick the brine from ev’ry finger,
Then run a bit of bread around the dish,
And I would find a way that we could linger,
For we were there, and what more could I wish
But to recount the Michelangelos
And feel your playful toes upon my toes?
Oh, that’s great! Thanks for that.
When you're writing, do you have a particular audience in mind?
I used to write for my friend Winston. We met in junior high and shared a sense of humor. Now I write each poem with a different reader in mind. That unknown person who somehow wants that poem. Who would laugh at this? Who will cry with me here? Who shares this desire? It comes from the realization that all of those impulses are valid. But it also want to say I write a lot from character. In those cases I'm simply offering them a voice. I am the audience. I commit myself to their truth, and find that broadens my work. About 25 years ago I began writing plays. The qualities found in a good play can be found in my favorite books of poetry. I want my books to be full of characters and points of view. I want my poems to disagree with each other.
What started you writing poetry?
I don’t know what the impetus was exactly. I began writing song parodies and a joke notebook in the 4th grade. I got in massive trouble for both, ending up in the Principal's office. I also drew my first liturgical art on the blackboard that year. It was Jesus hanging on a swastika. I was trying to figure out what it meant politically, liturgically. I had about gotten to the Nazis were bad and killed Jews, Jesus was a Jew, they would have killed Him too, and didn’t they destroy Christianity with their actions, when the kids in class insisted I erase it before the teacher got back. I was trying to poke Hitler in the eye, but my teachers were trying to crush a nine year old. It was a bumpy start.
Yes, a lot to navigate in all that! I’m stealing this next question, paraphrasing from interviews I’ve heard by Dr. Michael Anthony Ingram, Quintessential Listening: Poetry Online Radio, because it’s where my curiosity has led (Thank you, Michael!). What do you think the role of poetry in today’s society is or should be?
If we go back to Ovid, or Homer, or Edward de Vere (Shake-speare), then you see the potential for poetry to illuminate and define a culture and a moment in time. Today there is so much competition for the eye and ear that, though the role hasn’t changed, the impact is probably diminished. I love the way a nation or culture embraces its great writers, but I am working at a community level, and I find that very rewarding.
What's next for you in way of writing? Do you have other writing projects you're working on or collections in mind?
Great question. After Model Home and Mount Fuji, the sonnet book, I have three books in mind, now that I am thinking in terms of books in addition to individual poems. They are ambitious for me, so I am not saying these will be on a bookshelf anytime soon. One is a book devoted to fathers and sons, based on my father’s life. I’ve never written anything in the voice of another actual person, but he died last year and I feel there is a lot to say. Another is a collaboration with a friend of 40 years who is a very fine photographer, Jon Gilbert Fox. Poems matched to photos. Here’s an example:
Whom can I ask, How long have I been falling?
What sparrow-watcher keeps his eye on me?
And as I plummet, who will hear my calling?
None other, dear one, ‘twill be only thee.
And you alone will worry my excesses,
Will count my cups and put the rest away;
It’s you alone remembers my successes,
How in my youth, I might have won the day.
And once I’m gone, you could take out my laurels,
Now pressed and dried inside some weighty book—
May you recall that day, and not our quarrels,
May you recall the way that I would look
At you, my love; for though our race is run,
I still remember you, at twenty-one!
And the last is a book of poems inspired by the names of the books of the bible. I found this occurring repeatedly during the writing of Model Home, and thought it would make an interesting project. When I tried to write “Numbers,” though I fell right down a rabbit hole from which I have yet to emerge, so it may be slow going.
Jay Hall Carpenters poetry may be purchased on Amazon.
101 Limericks, Inappropriate for all Occasions https://www.amazon.com/101-Limericks-Inappropriate-All-Occasions/dp/0692983481/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=Jay+Hall+Carpenter&qid=1627911747&sr=8-3