The Poetry Editors, Rappahannock Review: We were drawn in by the way your poems use space and perspective to make the familiar feel strange. How did you develop the imagery of space in order to explore the personal? Can you tell us more about how you use space in your writing?
Jonathan Duckworth: I’m not sure whether by space you mean the separation between all physical objects or if you mean outer space, but either way I have an answer, and the two are interrelated. Years ago when I was in my first year of undergrad, I was watching the Discovery Channel and they had Michio Kaku on discussing the illusion of contact. As Kaku explained it, electrons form attachments between atoms which form molecules which form matter, and we tend to think of them touching each other, when in fact it’s the opposite: they’re repelling off each other. Electrons never touch one another, and thus matter never touches matter, and thus I’m not actually sitting on the chair I seem to be sitting on now—I’m repelling off it. This, combined with the (to me) revelation that atoms were mostly empty space disturbed me greatly, and has informed my writing ever since. Physical connection and touch are important in my writing simply because they are fundamentally impossible. When you kiss someone, your lips are repelling from theirs—how could anyone not be fascinated, terrified, and awed by that?
On a similar level, I’m frightened and moved by the vastness of space, how insignificant it makes everything we know here on Earth (and speaking of Earth, what we consider “Earth” is really only the surface of the planet, a tiny, tiny fraction of the planet’s area and mass, and most of the time that figure is shrunk because we give so little thought to the deep ocean, which makes up the greatest part of the surface). The stars, for reasons I can’t quite understand, frighten me, and I can’t look up at a starry sky without experience a twinge of dread. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think the stars are beautiful—one of my greatest desires is to one day see the Milky Way, somewhere far away from the lights of any city or road.
But the moon is different. Maybe because the moon is closer, or maybe because of some other reason I can’t articulate, I don’t fear the moon like I fear the stars. The moon is home. The moon is where I go to feel safe and loved, and my poetry often reflects that, with the moon as an emotional anchor.
RR: The poem “The Moon is a Grave of Feathers” opens with the speaker telling little fables. Can you talk about how you developed the voice in the poem? Is there a specific fable that inspired it?
JD: I believe I was reading Ada Limón’s collection Bright Dead Things when I wrote that poem, as well as the poem “Hands” (they were written only days apart). Ada Limón’s poetry in that collection is very quiet and unimposing yet brilliant, so I endeavored for a similar tone with that poem. Most of the time when I write a poem the speaker is me, but in this case I never really decided on an identity for the speaker. I think what works about the poem is that the speaker could be anyone addressing anyone that he or she cares deeply about. It could be a lover, a sibling, a close friend, a child, anyone with whom the speaker could share this magical little moment of enjoying the wonder of space, of playing make-believe and putting a romantic spin on a materialistic universe.
There’s no specific fable that inspired the poem, although in the back of my head I was probably thinking of the Chinese legend of Chang’e, which has some very, very oblique similarities to the fable in the poem.
RR: We love the way that “Hands” navigates its rhythms through line breaks and caesura without punctuation. What do you think about the ways a poem can shape language outside of the bounds of the standard sentence? And can you talk about the way you use the forward slash within a line?
JD: The first thing I try to tell my creative writing students when we’re writing poetry is to think outside of the sentence while also recognizing that poetry is as much sentence based as prose is. That is, while it isn’t generally constructed on a one-sentence-per-line basis, if you lose control of your sentence structure, you lose control of the poem. I also tell them that if they’re going to omit punctuation at any point in a poem, then they shouldn’t use any punctuation at all. Either stick to the rules or throw them out the window—none of this wishy-washy crap where you decide not to use periods but still use commas in the middle of lines.
As for the slashes, I really wish I could pretend that I understand what I was doing with them. Every time I use slashes in a poem I feel like I’m using them wrong, and yet from time to time I’ll still use them when I feel a poem calls for it. In this case, the slash has more power in rendering metaphors than regular punctuation (for instance: “what is a mountain / an equation”). Somehow I was more ready to accept the leap from “mountain” to “equation” with a slash between them. I think bewilderment and cluelessness are underrated in poetry—I was pretty close to clueless when writing this poem.
RR: Can you tell us a little about your process? For you, how does a poem begin?
JD: It’s never quite the same. Sometimes I’ll be ambushed by a poem, and it will pop into my head more or less fully written. Most of the time though, I begin with a single image, or even a word that fascinates me and demands that I write a poem around it. Reading other people’s poetry helps of course, but nothing’s better than talking with poet friends about poetry to jog some images.
RR: Are there any poets or writers that have been particularly influential for you?
JD: James Wright, Du Fu, Sylvia Plath, Barbara Hamby, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were my earliest influences, but more recently I’ve been quite taken with the poetry of Lisa Russ Spaar, sam sax, Solmaz Sharif, Franz Wright, Jericho Brown, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Natalie Diaz, Ocean Vuong, Bruce Bond, and Ada Limón. A lot of my influences are also good friends like Ariel Francisco, Cathleen Chambless, Ellene Glenn Moore, Ashley M. Jones, and Marci Callabretta Cancio-Bello, among others.
Jonathan Duckworth’s work in Issue 5.1: