CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “Pentecostal Sweethearts,” we’re especially interested in the line, “Sin thrice, and the fourth time meant telling your mother.” What inspired this moment in the poem, and how do you see it interacting with the theme of trust here?
John Leonard: The themes of trust and shared secrets are central to this poem. We have a traditional “I”speaker but there are really two people’s stories being told here—the speaker and his female friend. The “Sin Once, Twice, etc.” is a device the speaker uses almost as a mental tracker of the wrongdoings the he and the girl have committed together and/or separately. I think there is room for interpretation for what some of those “sins” are. However, the main idea is that it shouldn’t be considered a sin or confessional material to try on dresses as a young boy, or have premarital sex, or be abused etc., but the characters have been brought up to believe it is and this has obviously caused them some damage. I think that, ultimately, fear and resistance are both motivators for them to keep each other’s secrets. Nevertheless, by the fourth “sin”, the speaker and his friend realize that they have to come clean to someone. Again, I’d rather leave the reasoning up for interpretation, but I think this decision to confess comes from being in a position where enough is enough. Alternatively, it could be out of desperation or because the speaker can’t watch his friend suffer anymore. However you choose to look at/interpret the ending, the connection they share and the trust they placed in each other remains intact and, in my opinion, grows into something larger. In some ways, this willingness to lose their tongues for each other (figuratively speaking) is the closest thing to piety that they have.
RR: The poem uses sexual imagery in tandem with religious overtones. How did you approach this combination of themes and the tension between them?
JL: Like anything else, I tried to approach these themes with respect and sensitivity while remaining true to my own viewpoints (and the viewpoints of my speaker). I think there’s only so much you can do to avoid offending at least some people when discussing religion and sex. I mean honestly…Religion and Sex. Just look at those two words placed next to each other. Like Sun and Moon, they just have this almost natural dichotomy. They’re opposites who, whether together or apart, manage to elicit strong feelings from almost anyone. I think there’s a simple reason for the tension between religion and sexuality to be so immediate/recognizable. For countless people across multiple faiths, that dichotomy between sex and religion is purposely created from the moment they begin to grow even remotely curious about sex, the human form, their natural urges, etc. Too often, unfortunately, I think fear and shame are the default tools used to avoid these conversations or to enforce a set of beliefs. When natural curiosity is met with fear or misguidance, an obvious tension is created. And as we all know, avoiding a problem or blinding oneself to a subject doesn’t mean that problem/subject goes away. Issues of gender, sexual experimentation, and abuse crop up in people’s lives no matter how they’ve been introduced to the subject. However, the way these subjects are dealt with internally and/or externally changes drastically when one’s parents/religious leaders/church community view natural thoughts and urges as outright sins. That’s largely what “Pentecostal Sweethearts” is dealing with—young people bonded by the forced sexual misguidance that religion often creates—and it’s doing so through equal part confession and honest language.
RR: We’re interested in the poem’s play with gender roles, particularly in the lines, “I went into my aunt’s attic and tried on all her old dresses” and “just for comfort, you imagined yourself as a man.” How do you see these moments interacting with and potentially complicating the other themes of the piece?
JL: I think that gender compliments the themes of sexuality in this piece and serves to challenge religion. As mentioned before, the idea that it’s a sin to wear clothing that doesn’t meet your gender expectations is ludicrous to me. In a poem dealing with much darker issues, the speaker’s need to “confess” to trying on dresses really draws focus onto the damaging viewpoints that are often forced on young people who, realistically, are still in the process of developing their identity. The second instance where gender is mentioned is definitely a jab at the patriarchal nature of most religions. During an unpleasant and perhaps unwanted sexual experience, the girl “imagines” herself as a man, essentially pulling herself out of the moment and fantasy-ing about what it would mean to have that kind of power, control, autonomy, etc.
RR: We understand you’re a composition professor and an editor–how have those experiences affected your writing?
JL: My time as the assistant editor for Twyckenham Notes has given me the opportunity to engage with thousands of poems from writers all across the world. They say one of the most important things you can do to improve as a writer is read, so having the opportunity to read and even publish some of these outstanding poets has been an honor and, also, has had a positive influence on my own work ethic. As a writer, I feel more engaged with the contemporary poetry scene and I feel more inspired to submit. There’s a lot of competition out there, and there’s nothing like reading a phenomenal poem to make you realize you need to step your game up.
My time as a composition instructor has been equally as rewarding in the sense that I finally have a way to use my skills to help others. I don’t think most college freshmen realize just how important their composition classes are and how much writing will influence their lives, future careers, etc. Having a strong foundation as a writer is a priceless skill. For me, the opportunity to teach also provides me with a refresher on the basics.
RR: Do you have any advice for writers who want to approach subjects often deemed taboo or graphic by the communities they were raised in?
JL: How does that old saying go? It’s easier to ask for forgiveness later than it is to ask for permission now. Just do it. Tell the story that you think needs told. Chances are, if the community that raised you would take offense to the poems or essays you write about your personal experiences, then they actually need and might possibly benefit from your perspective…they need to know that how they do things maybe isn’t fair or right and that how they operate is potentially harmful. You might not change any hearts or minds…you might ruffle a few feathers…but your story deserves to be heard. I would encourage you to tackle any subject as long as you do so with grace, honesty, and sensitivity.
John Leonard’s work in Issue 6.2: