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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

First book interview: James Allen Hall

Two weeks ago, my mother called me. She quoted my poem "The Enemy" back to me. Her vowels were sharp and her voice embittered as she finished. "So, when I say I love you," she said, "you feel like I'm your enemy." I said if she wanted to know how I felt, she'd have to wait for the memoir.


Anonymous said...


I have a question for James; in case he happens to read this, because I am very interested in these questions that this pulled quotation brings about. As a teacher of creative non-fiction (that's what I was hired to teach at SUNY Brockport and most of my course assignments are in that genre), I actually assign a lot of poetry. Who said that creative non-fiction has to be prose. So: I'm thinking about bringing in some poems for non-fiction and showing this interview because it does raise some ethical questions: is it kind or even moral to write about someone's mother? Especially since it seems that the poems are admittedly autobiographical (he never refutes that they aren't). Also: since it seems that the implication is that there is a direct correlation to poetry and showing as opposed to non-fiction and telling (if she wanted to know how I felt, she'd have to wait for the memoir.) So do the poems which seem to be autobiographical just show or contain more ambiguities than non-fiction which will "explain" those ambiguities, that lack of definitiveness.

Is there something unkind about writing a poem about someone else who might not have the "tools" to read the complexities of the poem and then deny them the "meaning" of it when they ask.

There's a stoicness even in the description that seems ungenerous (and I'm not saying a lack of generosity is a bad thing, not at all, but describing it as such), as sharp and embittered as he feels she feels toward him. How would she feel if she read this interview (a non-fiction text), does that even close down the communication even more between living subject and poet.

Also: I read the poems, if I remember right, as almost elegiac, that I wonder if his poems were in a way an attempt to use words to "put her to rest."

James and I have talked several times in various venues, so please know James that I'm not attacking you as I'm sure you know. (You can't be too paranoid about posting) Instead the questions your work and your interview (which I also see as your work) raises some important questions about our responsiblity to the living and "the dead" and the odd, weird, scary, tragic and redemptive boundaries of the autobiographical.

Steve Fellner

Keith said...

You can find James on Facebook, Steve, if you'd like.

Not sure if he'll be reading this or not.

Anonymous said...

What a thoughtful and thought-provoking interview by James Hall!

Steve Fellner, too, is quite the writer, but I'm not sure I very well understand many of the first set of comments/questions posted. Hall doesn't answer, for instance, that creative nonfiction has to be prose. Instead, he makes it plain that they are different for him and satisfy for him what often seems two very different writerly urges...urges that they may make use of the same material but come from different places in _his_ "mind."

I'm pretty certain that the goal of his marvelous book or this interesting interview is not to create communication between he and his mother. Or as Hugo says, "If you want to communicate, use a telephone." I'm 100% sure his real family relationships are none of my business.

I suspect that our opinions of how kindly a poet, a memoirist, or anyone treats his or her mother will be as several as there are people with mothers. I think it's the job of the son who is also a writer to be as sonly as he may be. As a reader, I don't want to be responsible for deciding what sonliness should include for the various writers I read.

Jericho Brown

James Allen Hall said...


Thanks for a series of heady questions!

Certainly, I think the poems I wrote for Now You're the Enemy attempted to put to rest the grief that happens when you love someone in love with self-destruction. I think all writing is an attempt to "put to rest" the disquieting feelings one has: an attempt to contain in language the image or sound which calls us to the page. "You belong here," we say. Which is another way of saying, "I've put you there."

It may have been unkind to write about my mother, especially about the private photographs of her that I discovered one day. But ultimately, art matters more than the personal. If the poem were bad, I wouldn't have included it. If the poem were untrue, I wouldn't have included it. I should say that I would never publish the photograph itself. A poem is a different thing: it's what happened to me. So, it is my psychic property. If it was unkind, it was certainly not unethical or immoral.

I believe Bruce Weigl's speaker in "The Impossible" when he says, "Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what." The stoicness of the description is an attempt to reveal and impart beauty and clarity. It is, I believe, a deeply empathetic and wholly generous gesture. I couldn't write if I didn't believe that. I think my mother believes that as well. (Though maybe I'll have to wait for her memoir to make sure).

I do say in the interview, Steve, that sometimes I conflate characters and events, that I take liberties with certain things. The book isn't exactly memoir, but I certainly wouldn't mind you teaching it as such. My mother, for instance, never kidnapped her neighbors. She did, however, love each of her ruinous children well.

Many thanks for the ponderous reflection you show here, Steve and Jericho. I am delighted that the book provokes such excellent writers and thinkers to converse.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jericho,

Thanks for the reply. I'd like to restate my question (I write these posts so quickly that I can totally understand why it may come off as confusing. Part of the reason I write posts is to get attention from people I don't know personally. I'm an unabashed sycohpant.)

Let me give an example of something that I felt was an unethical act by a poet. In Utah, I had a conference when I was a student with Ellen Bryant Voight. We were talking about her series of poems called Kyrie about the people who died from the Black Death (or some sort of plague a long time ago :)) I asked her if she was at all nervous about misrepresenting the dead. She said absolutely not, she was their god, she was bringing them back to life. This concerned me. There is a certain danger in potentially "fudging the facts in art" when the dead cannot correct the fact or speak up themselves. Who is she to put herself in a higher position and not at least be self-conscious about her responsiblites to them? Does the fact they're dead excuse her to think about how these poems will color their memories? They can't argue for themselves.

I'm not saying at all that Hall is doing something as dangerous or even possibly unethical. But I do think it is a valid question. (And as I've said to James personally and in other blogs I more than like specific poems and identified them)

The memoir according to James will provide the answers. The poems are asking the questions. Pretty big questions and his mother is struggling to deal with them and the representation of her.

I don't know exactly what to make of this.

I know a lot of creative writers feel that everything is up for grabs. (I'm not saying you men this Jericho) It's your personal life and you have a right to use it for your creative endeavors. I don't believe that at all. I think we have a responsiblity to treat each other (the living and dead) with constant self-consciousness and ask why we are writing what we're writing (and how it could be misread) and ask ourselves if it is worth the potential pain it could cause the living or the dead. It may very well be. But I think we hold each other to that task if stuff is being introduced into a public realm. Or at least I do.

Then again, I'm pretty self-righteous especially when I'm restless. :)

And I am always interested in how much we can fabricate of history or History in order to fulfill or striving for a perfect verbal object.

I hope that provided a little clarification.


Anonymous said...

Breaking Ground

My tears, rolling hot down my face.

My lips, beginning to swell at their first salty taste.

My heart, hurting inside my chest.

My feelings, forgotten as I continue to do what is best.

The terror that grips me in the middle of the night.

The, doing the right things, always such a fight!

The love, given without condition for oh so many years.

The disbelief of it's absence now feeds into my fears.

You write, and publish such hurtful things for all the world to see.

You leave out so much, skewing the truth to fit your version of me.

You differentiate my sexuality from your own.

You judge me as only Mother, come to knock Philomena from her throne.

"Don't mess with Texas", somehow relates to me.

Don't see me as a woman who needed her family.

Don't understand how you made hate a point of view.

Don't pretend to know how it feels to fight the world...and now, you.