Web Feature

JAMES ALLEN HALL
in conversation with WESLEY HAAF

 

WESLEY HAAF

When you were working on this piece, "I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well," how much were you concerned with the conventions of memoir, prose poetry, and the lyric essay? Do you see it as nonfiction or cross-genre work? How, if at all, would you categorize it?

JAMES ALLEN HALL 

Thanks for asking about form. "I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well" is the title essay of my forthcoming book. An essay works like a suite or chapbook of poems. There's the first seed planted, and then that dictates the movement and architecture of the whole garden. I am devoted to making coherence and lawlessness exist together in service to the sublime. In nonfiction, I have an allegiance to memory and truth, but as a poet I have no allegiance to time. Because a body, an identity, is a layer of acts and performances, not an arrow through chronology's heart. I don't mind at all however one categorizes it; I've used "lyric personal essays" or "lyric memoir" to describe them. But your question points at the slipperiness of genre, and I'd rather not eliminate that.  

My interest in lyric essay, or slippery genres, came when I was also studying queer theory.  I don't know that I actively wanted to queer generic convention, but I wanted to find a form that made whatever I that I am make sense, form being an extension of mind.

WESLEY HAAF

In reading your essay, I am so struck by the lyric power of individual lines and turns of phrase, and I'm wondering how much the direction, form, and tone of this piece were affected by the sentences you crafted. Did your concept of the piece change as you were writing it?

JAMES ALLEN HALL 

This piece is written very consciously sentence by sentence. Usually, I have to know the beginning of an essay and all that remains is the writing. With "I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well," I needed the ending. Because trauma ripples outward endlessly, because it in some ways fetishizes its own beginning, this essay was waiting for a long time: from 2008 until 2014.  

I try to stop frequently in writing—I know to stop myself once I've written an individual line that feels like a provisional ending. I change focus—cook something, answer an email, fold some clothes. No interaction with another human being. So I can stay in a meditative but anterior space. I trust my brain to work in the background, to ponder what possibilities I've opened up, which I've occluded, and how what I've said might be true, or what corollary might also be true. I think geometrically: not, what's next, but what's at the angle, what intersects, what sharpens what I've said—acutes or blunts it.  

WESLEY HAAF

You have a collection of poems, and now a forthcoming book of essays, which Chris Kraus selected for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Essay Prize. Do you feel like you write nonfiction and poetry with the same part of your brain or do you see your fundamental approach to each genre as inherently different? Does some subject matter just lend itself better to essay than poetry?

JAMES ALLEN HALL 

It's all the same part. I write essays and poems about the same subjects; the treatment is different. The silence that bears on a line of poetry fascinates me, but also disallows the comic range of tone, for me. I have not mastered at all the art of comedy in poetry. All that silence just throws off my timing, I think. Whereas the sentence as a unit of composition allows for quicker rudder-shifts in tone. Again, this is for me. I think I am fascinated by poets like Carl Phillips, Louise Glück, and Jericho Brown precisely because they can be funny, sardonic, wry, hilarious—and then break your heart. 

That said, I think I deploy comic elements (hyperbole, irony) in poetry, but these are minor tones that temper the major.  

WESLEY HAAF

Your essay, like much of your work, unflinchingly tackles emotional complicated, upsetting subject matter. There is a real courage to this kind of work, to what you're willing to say or consider in a poem or essay. Could you talk a little about the importance of truth-telling and directness and confession to your writing? Is it different for your poetry than for your nonfiction?

JAMES ALLEN HALL

The notion of confession: that the subject is kneeling in the dark, asking forgiveness. Asking to be let into some other state of being: redemption, grace, shamelessness. But it requires a certain kind of shamelessness, no?, to admit to one's abject state already. So, it's confession that subverts the act of confession. 

Confession also says that there is some listener who is empowered; but the act of telling for me is the most powerful. I don't have control over my subject matter—and when I thought I did, I was a tedious writer. Write your fascinations. "Tell me your diamonds," as Beloved begs her mother, Sethe, in Toni Morrison's novel. The telling gives us control; the craft helps us reclaim. How funny, I think, that by giving you my story, I am freer by it.

WESLEY HAAF

What’s something you never want your readers to assume about your relationship with poetry?

JAMES ALLEN HALL

Let them assume anything they like.  Who am I to police their pleasures?  

But there are things that sometimes happen. One, three people have told me that my poems give them nightmares. Sometimes, people who know me in life and on the page will say, "You seem so happy, but your poems are so sad.  Which one is true?" Of course, putting one's sadness somewhere, changing its form and analyzing it and expressing it, allows one to be happy afterward. Anyway, I contain multitudes, etc.

WESLEY HAAF

What is the last book of poetry that you couldn't put down? What's the last book of nonfiction that you couldn't put down?

JAMES ALLEN HALL

Monica Youn's Blackacre and C. Dale Young's The Halo were both incredible reads.  For nonfiction, I fell absolutely in love with Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Dr. Lauret Savoy, a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke.  Every time I had to put the book down—to go to work, to eat dinner with friends whom I love—I felt like I was cheating on this book.  One of the most important reads I can remember. I came to it through a recommendation on Facebook by the poet Rick Barot (whose book, Chord, is also mind-blowing). See? I'd be nowhere without poetry.


JAMES ALLEN HALL is the author of the poetry collection Now You’re the Enemy. His forthcoming collection of lyric essays, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Essay Collection Prize. Other essays have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Bellingham Review. He teaches at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.


WESLEY HAAF is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review. 



Issue Two
13.00
Quantity:
Add To Cart