By Richard Siken
James Allen Hall has placed himself in history twice. First, inside these poems, he has used himself, and everyone, as a metaphor for war. Second, by writing these poems, he has secured himself a well-deserved place in American letters. These poems have a remarkable ability to inform. They are uniquely created systems of telling that unearth uncomfortable connections and wrestle with their consequences. Hall uses metaphor to think, and he pushes his thinking into dangerous realms. The ideas here are rebellious, seditious, addressed with penetrative candor and an ingenious imagination. And, simultaneously, the poems are delightful, luxurious, extravagantly grand and quietly dignified. Hall is aware of his own context, but restless within it. This restlessness is both vital and contagious.
Richard Siken: Your poems investigate the small, particular stitches that bind people to each other while simultaneously representing these small knots as epic events in the history of America. Two examples: your mother as the Republic of Texas, your romantic desire as part of the Civil War. What informs these larger gestures?
James Allen Hall: I want to see how the pressures of history force particular outcomes: how we are molded, shaped, informed by what has come before. “The history of a text is like a long caress,” Anne Carson quotes someone as saying, and like any good postmodern poet I believe in the text that is the body, the psyche. I won’t say soul. No matter how hard you press.
Richard: Is there a soul?
James: If there is a soul, it is surely that which subverts history, that part of us that rebels and reinterprets and rewrites. I see in that word, “history,” the traditional, the conformist, the dominant and muting modes of expression and control. But, surely, there is a history of the rebel as well.
Richard: Several of your poems are presented as portraits, yet the subjects of the portraits are never still or singular. These portraits develop as interactions, rather than descriptions, as if to say that the self can be best understood in relation, in context. Do you believe in a singular, discrete self or do you believe that “self” is as limiting and muting as “history?”
James: How many selves do we have? Infinite, perhaps, a notion I think I’ve taken from Emily Dickinson. I love her poem “I Felt a Funeral—In my Brain,” where the speaker voices the poem to an audience but at the same time is locked in a coffin inside her brain inside her body. And at the end of the poem, she drops through the plank in the floor, hitting a “World at every plunge.” The more interior and contained she gets, the freer she becomes. Especially in “Portrait of My Mother as Victorine Meurent,” I play with the notion of interaction. The speaker is both the son and the artist rendering the mother/model. I inhabit the dynamic between the artist (Manet) and his favorite model (Meurent posed for at least 8 of Manet’s most famous paintings, including "Dejuener sur l’herbe"), and in doing so, I critique the ways identity can be known. Are we, for instance, some core unrepresentable being (“soul”), or are we our bodies? Or are we the photographs of our bodies that peer back from the optimistic pages of yearbooks (for instance)? Are we our selves, or is even “the self” a representation of many forces that shape, define, and revise the very notion of being?
Richard: Why is your mother so epic?
James: I think because she fights so hard to survive and because she tries so hard to die.
Richard: Are there dangers to such large gestures?
James: Any story worth telling is valuable not because of the nature of its spectacle. When I began writing poems about my mother, and then began making the book, I was concerned with the question of spectacle: is it interesting because it is, at various turns, sordid and gossipy and heartbreaking and joyful? I asked not, “what concerns,” but why. I needed to enlarge beyond my mother’s story, or to understand her particularity as a stream birthed by a whole other river, and that river sourced by another, and on and on. I think I’m interested in this enlargement as an issue of empowerment. Maybe because people who resist their categories have been told they have no history, that their struggle is futile and incoherent precisely because, our teachers and theologians and lawmakers have said, there has never been a precedent for that struggle.
Richard: Does this make you a political poet by default?
James: By default, yes. And by choice.
Richard: In the title poem of the book, there are the lines “But he hadn’t healed, he couldn’t say it / without meaning something else. And what he meant was, / Now you’re the enemy.” How did you come upon this line, and did it surprise you?
James: My younger brother and I were talking one night while we cooked dinner. Dustin had met this beautiful man, they dated briefly, and we were analyzing the demise of the relationship over dinner. Dustin said to me, “Whenever a man says ‘I love you,’ the first thing I think is, ‘Great. Now you’re the enemy.’” It was the saddest and most lacerating statement; it nailed exactly the feeling of the poems I’d been fashioning—this book about loving a self-destructive mother figure, how that shapes subjectivity, and what happens when we find ourselves shipwrecked on the shores of Love Always Fails Us.
Richard: What are you working on now? Is it different or is it a continuation of your previous work?
James: I’m fascinated lately by ideas of resurrection and reinvention, by how one rebuilds after devastation. New work confronts the desires for self-destruction and salvation. I see definite intersections between these poems and those of Now You’re the Enemy, but in my head it feels like a departure, a new conversation. I think I’m turning more personal now, if that can be imagined; I feel even more the solipsistic weight of “I.”
Richard: What question would you ask yourself?
James: If you could have been anything other than a writer or a teacher, what would you choose? Maybe a pilot or a social worker. Empress of the Known World has a nice ring.
Richard: Tucson summer’s can be brutal. Are you ready?
James: I grew up in South Florida. I remember men in cashmere turtlenecks walking Las Olas Boulevard and Lincoln Road on summer nights, just because they were fashionable that season. I’m not so fearless to wear cashmere in Tucson, but I will be brave.