Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Growing Up in the Bible Belt” portrays the individuals surrounding the speaker through intimate, honest imagery like the “squamous growth” and the “sweat-through shirt” of the protestor. Meanwhile, despite growing up around this culture, the speaker is characterized as an outsider—can you elaborate on the contrast between the speaker and those around him?

Jonathan Louis Duckworth: Well, being a military brat I never really stayed in one place very long as a child, so the speaker reflects my sense of cultural and geographic rootlessness. I especially always felt like an outsider in the Deep South (Northwest Florida) where I grew up, and yet there are certain aspects of my personality that have certainly been influenced by living there, such as my fondness for saying “y’all,” my affinity for fried food, and my love of Southern dialect. I think it’s important never to condemn or dismiss an entire region or its people, while at the same time having an outsider’s perspective is helpful in perceiving a culture’s foibles.

RR: The speaker in the poem compares “a lake of fire” to the “stars—burning forever,” and the protester “with his pistol” to the Planned Parenthood clinic. This establishes a poignant dichotomy between the Bible Belt’s destructive ideology and the speaker’s ideals. Can you elaborate on the speaker’s acceptance of hell and the casual relationship he seems to have with religion?

JLD: The modern Christian concept of Hell is something so over the top (not to mention NOT supported by scripture) that you can really only laugh at it. As for the pistol-armed protestor, he’s an example of how Evangelical Christianity (and many other related toxic forces in contemporary America) drives people to perceive themselves as the main character of the video game that is their life. People like him are brazen and aggressive because they perceive the world with a simplistic morality that reinforces what they’re doing is correct no matter how awful their actions end up being. For me, I’ve never been able to see the world that way—everything confuses me, nothing seems to make any sense, and I’m filled with doubt, in contrast to my rather confident speaker-alter-ego in the poem.

RR: We love how the poem explores the social and cultural observations of a man raised in the Bible Belt. In distilling such a wide experience into a short poem, what was your process behind developing the images and ideas in the poem?

JLD: I started with the last line and went from there. I can’t really remember much else about composing this poem, but I do recall that I wanted to write a poem where the speaker imagines himself as a star, burning forever. What else burns forever? Hell, of course. The images just unfolded from there. I’m not really in control here; my imagination runs on auto-pilot 98% of the time.

RR: We understand you’re a member of the Horror Writers Association. Has your work on the horror genre influenced how you approach poetry and novel writing?

JLD: Lately I’ve been writing more horror poetry, but to be honest I’d say it’s more like my poetry has influenced my approach to writing horror. When I write a story, I always try to bring the same intensity to my prose as I bring to my poems. The line and the sentence are different beasts but descend from a common genus, and I aspire for every sentence of a story to have the same kind of linguistic and emotional resonance as a line of poetry. Writing poetry has helped me perceive narrative more through image than through idea, such that plot turns become necessarily interwoven with the prose. I think poets are more like cinematographers than script-writers, if that makes sense, and my background in poetry has made me a much better fiction writer.

RR: As a PhD student at the University of North Texas, what books or works have you encountered that you would recommend to aspiring creatives, poetry or otherwise?

JLD: For poets I’d recommend Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns by Michael Theune—it opened my eyes to how critical incorporating a “turn” is to a poem being more than just a few pretty images. To use my own poem as an example, the turn comes midway, when the speaker moves from castigating the narrow-mindedness of Evangelicals and instead strikes a more mellow chord (“God and me? We’re okay”). Without that turn, the poem would just be (ironically) preachy and self-righteous. Maybe it still is those things, but hey, at least with the turn there’s some levity.

For lovers of speculative genres/fantasy, I’d recommend a theory book by Tzvetan Todorov called The Fantastic: A Structural Guide to a Literary Genre. The book rigorously defines the usually ill-defined “supernatural” in literature, and helped me understand the different strategies a writer might use to achieve certain effects in speculative genres.

Jonathan Duckworth’s work in Issue 9.1: 

“Growing Up in the Bible Belt”