Our poetry editor Grier Martin recently had this exchange with Jonathan Louis Duckworth, our Issue #32 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about his inspirations, his experiences in writing workshops, and his development as a writer.
What inspired you to write this set of poems?
These five poems were written in the space of about 3 months, and all had different triggers and on-ramps that led me to them. In the case of “Slipstream of Consciousness” I was reading a poem by my friend Cathleen Chambless which mentions the velocity of the Earth as it travels through space, and that, combined with a recent experience of getting a speeding ticket, made me think about how strange the concept of “speed” on Earth is when, in fact, we’re always moving through space at incredible velocity even when we seem to be sitting still. With “Thaumaturgy” and “Codex: Desire” the answer is simple: I’d just read a few books of Lisa Russ Spaar’s poetry and for about a month became obsessed with writing poems that were entirely devoted to muscular, flexible language as its own end, which is what you get from Lisa Russ Spaar (among other wonderful things). With “Chthonic,” I wanted to write a poem about my grandfather, who died of cancer five years ago, and I also wanted to find some way of using the word “chthonic” as the title of a poem. As for “Twenty-Five,” I used the conceit of things I’ve “learned” by the age of 25 as a sort of lifeboat for a slew of tiny mini-poems that weren’t strong enough to stand on their own, but which when combined formed something—I think, at least—compelling.
Death, fear and humor appear to be strong themes in your work. In “Slipstream of Consciousness,” the speaker begins with a humorous exchange with a police officer and ends up “fetal on the smoldering asphalt” listening to what sounds like “two corpses” ramming together. “Twenty-Five” has a whimsical structure and tone but deals with ghosts, monsters, and nightmares. How do you see the frightening and the humorous connecting in your work? What do you hope the reader will take away from these connections?
I think a lot of my poetry wrestles with one central understanding: death is coming, and that’s okay. We can face that fact with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, or we can do what we can to find humor and meaning in it. I choose the second option and hope that readers will too.
Subterranean imagery also seems to play an important role in these poems. In “Chthonic” the speaker imagines his grandfather planted in “the crust of the other continent.” In “Slipstream of Consciousness” the speaker listens to “continental plates” moving beneath the surface of the earth. In “Codex: Desire” the speaker imagines cracking the crust of the planet and drinking its iron core. All of these images are quite powerful. Why do you find yourself drawn to this particular imagery? Was it a conscious effort, or did it well up from somewhere within? Was there a specific inspiration for it?
To me, it’s remarkable how vast and deep the world is and how almost the entirety of human experience has occurred on what amounts to its epidermis. Even our deepest mines don’t reach close to the bottom of the crust, which is itself a tiny sliver of the world’s diameter. I’ve always been drawn to the unknown and the unexplored, whether that means space, the bottom of the ocean, or the interior of the Earth.
You tap into different branches of science to add interesting and humorous images to your work. You include what may or may not be facts concerning astronomy, geology, chemistry, and even a mathematical equation (which I’m sure many readers will be interested to look up online). Have you studied science and/or math beyond the secondary school level? Are either or both amateur interests? How do you see these fields intersecting with poetry?
I really, really hope nothing turns up if anyone Googles that equation; that would be spooky.
I’ve not studied much science or math since high school except for those classes I needed to take in undergrad (I pursued an English degree, which as you probably know doesn’t require much STEM coursework). For me it’s always been a matter of understanding my strengths, and I realized somewhere in high school that while I had the brains to be a scientist or engineer, I didn’t have the desire to push myself in those fields. I was more drawn to the humanities: history, philosophy, and of course, literature. It’s the same with math—it’s not that I’m bad at it, it’s just that I never wanted to understand math badly enough to put in the necessary work to master it. I know enough about math and science to fake knowing more than I do, and I know enough to know that I don’t know much. I’m always in awe of those poets and writers who do have degrees in STEM fields and are able to harness that knowledge in their writing.
You also include images of magic and myth in this set of poems, from witches and ghosts to Charon and the Sphinx. And “Thaumaturgy,” whose title refers to the ability to work magic or miracles, is devoted to this theme. Do you perceive poetry to have an element of magic to it? What does this magic entail? What power do you feel that poetry possesses?
Poetry is the shaman’s art, isn’t it? But I wouldn’t say there’s anything “magical” about poetry, except in its power to reveal the magic of ordinary existence. I do like working with myths and folklore in my poetry, and in fact have put together a chapbook entirely comprised of poems of this theme called The Book of Never, which actually includes “Thaumaturgy.” We have to remember that poetry (as well as fiction) traces its lineage back to myths and campfire tales, which were ultimately bound in humans trying to disentangle the mysteries of the natural world.
What are you reading now? Is it inspiring or affecting your writing? Do you feel that it might compel you to write on any new themes?
I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland, as well as poetry collections by Natalie Diaz, James Allen Hall, and Ada Limón. I can’t tell you what they’ll lead me to, because there’s usually a delay of a few weeks after I finish reading something before it crops up in my own writing. It’s definitely inspiring me; however, in what ways, I can’t yet know for sure.
Tell us about the first poem you remember writing.
It was a bad one. That’s all I can remember—that and it rhymed. But then those things are usually part and parcel, aren’t they? As for the first good poem I’ve ever written…well, I’ll let you know when I write it.
What kinds of encouragement or motivation did you receive when you began writing? Was there a particular teacher or mentor who inspired you? Did you read your work at open-mic events?
I started writing when I was very little. I always wanted to write a fantasy novel since reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I remember reading the first page of a fantasy story to my third grade teacher and getting praised for what was probably “good for a third grader” writing. Around middle school and high school I started sending (slightly) more polished work to my uncle, who was a big reader of fantasy and science fiction. My uncle read those terrible chapters I sent him and gave me honest criticism, which I think is something adults should do more often for kids who aspire to be writers.
It wasn’t until my first semester at FSU when I took a fiction workshop that I became absolutely certain that writing was what I wanted to dedicate my life to. A big moment came when a story I wrote, “Writ in Sand,” won FSU’s undergraduate writing contest for fiction, and I was allowed to read that story in front of an audience of dozens, including my undergraduate mentor Barbara Hamby (a wonderful poet, fiction writer, and person) and her husband David Kirby. It was a small achievement, all things considered, but huge for my development. Poetry actually came to me relatively late, and I’ve only been seriously writing it for a few years.
Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, and we are always interested to hear about workshop experiences. Have you participated in any writing workshops? If so, what was the experience like?
I attended workshops at FSU in undergrad with writers Spencer Wise, Barbara Hamby, and Russell Franklin (who coincidentally has the same name as Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Jurassic Park). Afterward I was encouraged to pursue an MFA, which I ended up doing at Florida International University. Here in Miami I had the immense privilege of working with a positive but competitive community of fantastic peers, as well as taking workshops with geniuses like Campbell McGrath, Denise Duhamel, Lynne Barrett, and others. I don’t know that I’d even still be writing if I’d never taken a writing workshop.
What advice would you give to beginning writers?
Everything you write is going to be bad for a long time, maybe years. And that’s okay, because it’s part of the process. To become a better writer all you need is effort, desire, self-belief, and the time for all these things to take their course.