Poetry co-editor Candelin Wahl recently had this exchange with Issue #44 featured poet John Leonard. Here’s what John had to say about crafting opening and ending lines, experimentation with form in poetry, the role of a mentor, and more.
“Brothers” and “L’appel Du Vide” seem driven by masculine norms (stoicism, patriarchy, boyhood, manhood, love unexpressed). Yet these poems are brimming with sensation and emotion. How do you tap into feelings of regret and shame? Did yearning emerge from the imagery and language, or vice versa?
I think the best way I know how to tap into those feelings is by bringing those often toxic male tropes to the front of the stage. Let’s face it, most of these “masculine norms” are hurtles at best and land mines at worst. So it’s essential to pinpoint them and maneuver around them as truthfully as I can. All too often, the only truth I can establish is emotion. That emotion…the yearning…is absolutely what fuels these poems. The failures of toxic masculinity are the subject to be solved…and to speak and feel and express freely is the ultimate resistance against a cultural mentality that tells boys and men “don’t talk about how you feel.” So many problems in our society basically come down to guys who can’t talk about their feelings, right? So my best attempt at addressing that is by exhibiting, through poetry, the unfixable yearning that results from succumbing to these damaging norms.
At fourteen lines, “Va’eira” is the shortest, sparest poem in this set. Yet it’s like a keepsake of a wise and honest child, tucked under the mattress and holding souvenirs of friendship, love, competition, even religious icons. What inspired this poem, and does it achieve what you hoped it would?
“Va’iera” was largely influenced by the secret and often overlooked violence of suburban/small town childhood. I remember spending hours at a time with my childhood friends running through our homes and across our neighborhoods, engaging in elaborate airsoft gun wars with each other. We’d hold these guns to each other’s heads, demand small ransoms from each other, and even figure out the times when we’d take out the garbage so certain groups could coordinate surprise attacks on others. By the end of the summer we’d all be pocked with welts and I actually spent some time in the E.R. when one of my deadeye friends shot me directly in the pupil. It was all rather silly and dramatic back then, but I can’t even think about how dangerous these escapades would be now…or how dangerous they would have been if we had all lived in a different neighborhood or weren’t all middle class white children. But, there can be a certain type of safety in one’s race and class and location, right? And I think that type of safety can sometimes breed a lack of consideration for life or, at the very least, it can numb desensitize certain people to the painful realities experienced by others.
The majority of the families I knew growing up were incredible people, but sometimes you could see that desensitization come out in surprising/horrifying ways. For example, although the frog crucifixion in “Va’eira” was fictionalized, there have still been multiple moments in my life where I’ve been appalled by the way children and adults alike have treated animals. Specifically, for this poem, I wanted to recall a scene I experience where I was at a backyard barbecue and a boy in my class (who came from a respected church-going family) caught a frog and started using it as a hacky sack. He quickly started encouraging the younger kids at the barbecue to join in and, not soon enough, my friend and I put an end to it. Even more disturbing than the abuse of this harmless frog was the reaction of the adults. They didn’t understand what the big deal was. I remember being so confused about why this didn’t immediately turn into a teachable moment about respecting nature. I suppose the frog wasn’t a living thing so much as it was an exhibition. Which made us the overly sensitive teens who ruined a good photo-op.
Maybe there aren’t teachable moments for people with that kind of mentality. Maybe all you can do (to paraphrase the poem) is wake up earlier than everyone else, and do your part to fight the small and large evils of this world.
We were so moved by the range and power in your opening and ending lines. In “This Was the Year,” you start with: “This was the year they drained the Smiley Face water tower,” and end with this insight: “…you are only free to stare at the clouds/for so long before something on the ground pulls the whole world under.” Please share how you work your way into first lines, and then trust your instincts on last lines?
Weirdly enough, first lines are the easiest part of the poem for me to write. I have notebooks filled with potential first lines that I’ve thought of, and I would say 50 percent of my process is just picking one and going from there. They obviously don’t have to remain the first line. But once you have a few solid verses written down, you suddenly have something to branch off of, and it’s so much easier to get into the flow. Endings aren’t necessarily harder to imagine, but they’re a little harder to get to. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my poems can be long(ish) and wordy. That’s mostly because I don’t stop until it feels like a proper ending. I guess you could call it instinct. If I lift my pen off the page, or my fingers off the keyboard, and I can stand up and walk away, then it’s done. If I’m still stuck at the table, that’s where I’ll stay until the ending is written.
You subjects experience gun violence, child abuse, suicide, and other traumas. How has writing these truths—exposing secrets—onto the page impacted you? On a related note, do you encourage your composition students to explore taboo topics?
Writing has always been somewhat cathartic for me. It’s a way to “expose” secrets, as you said, while also being able to look at certain subjects from varying angles, in order to gain a better understanding of them. For me, this is often achieved by weaving truths and facts together with fiction. Or, by juxtaposing these truths with seemingly unrelated occurrences. At the end of the day, the writer knows what’s true and the reader decides what’s true (which is just as powerful as knowing). The only effect that matters is what is felt. I don’t speak for everyone when I say this, but I think the mind naturally wants to combine memories and edit them and test them in different lightings. The moment something happens, we’re involuntarily changing small details (the color of the car that hit your dog or the nonexistent wood smoke in the air during your first kiss, etc.) until what we have are memories that can’t fully be trusted…just like writers. Don’t get me wrong, what memories exist in one’s head, both tragic and beautiful, are valid and real regardless of how they’ve been self-edited over the years. I just don’t believe in delivering a straightforward, neatly wrapped narrative when writing my poetry. So, I don’t aim for universal directness or purely concrete detail.
As for your second question, I absolutely encourage my students to explore whatever topics speak to them and to seek their own truths while doing so. The only true advice I can give is to write everything with grace and a respect for yourself, your readers, and the subject.
We’d love to learn about the way you push form, especially for line breaks and use of white space. Even the poem, “It Makes You Wait for It” seems safe with its familiar quatrains, then jolts readers with a recipe for fried heart, centered right there on the page.
Form is one of the facets of poetry that I struggle with the most, so I’m deeply humbled that you found merit in the structure of these pieces. In “L’appel Du Vide,” I wanted to create a poem that weighed as heavy as the subject matter it deals with, while also appearing light on the page. As I’ve said before, my poems can be dense and wordy sometimes, so I really wanted this piece to have moments where the reader (and speaker) can simply breathe. I think this is achieved through the use of white space and by breaking it into manageable sections. The opposite effect is achieved (necessarily) in “This is the Year” where I hit the reader with big subjects, yet still maintain a dense structure. Formally, the recipe section of “It Makes You Wait for It” was a risky attempt at humor, while calling back to the metaphorical prison of the rural Texas town mentioned in the beginning. There’s something very “country” about recipe cards, and I really wanted the ending of this poem to reflect a false type of acceptance for the speaker who considers himself “lucky,” even as his psyche is trapped in an endless stream of small towns.
Our journal, Mud Season Review, grew out of a nonprofit writers workshop in Burlington, Vt. We’d love to hear your experiences with workshopping your writing. Is there any feedback in particular that strengthened your voice, or caused you to reconsider your own approach to poetry?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great mentors while I was in school (who I still look to for inspiration today). My poetry professor at IUSB essentially taught me everything I know about the subject. The readings he assigned, the workshops he held, and the feedback he gave allowed me to continuously develop my skills and cultivate the confidence I needed to believe in my work and submit it. It goes without saying that there were seriously so many talented writers in these workshops, including my good friend and chief editor of Twyckenham Notes. He helped me develop my poetry and trusted me to be his assistant editor. I really think your entire perspective on poetry changes when you’re reading enormous quantities of submissions. There’s just so much raw, undiscovered talent in the world! It’s a blessing to be able to showcase it. But it also makes you want to work harder at the craft because you become ultra-aware of the competition.
There is one piece of advice that was given to me in my Stylistics class. Essentially, I wrote a short essay about a time during my childhood when I thought my house was haunted. The essay was funny and chock full of self-deprecating humor. Although my fellow classmates enjoyed it, my professor made me aware of how cruel I was being to my childhood self. I wasn’t telling the story of a scared child so much as harming a moment of innocence and misunderstanding. His advice, which absolutely changed my perspective on how I interact with my characters/speakers, was to be kind…be understanding. I took that to heart, and my writing has been significantly less sarcastic and self-deprecating since then. I would give this same advice to others when writing about their younger selves…be kind and be understanding. Somewhere, that “self” still exists inside you and it needs love, acceptance, and grace.