CJ Evans is the author of A Penance (New Issues Press, 2012) and The Category of Outcast, selected by Terrance Hayes for the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets chapbook series. A recipient of the 2013 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, he co-edited, with Brenda Shaughnessy, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House, and his work has appeared in journals such as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is the editor of Two Lines Press, which publishes contemporary international literature in translation, and a contributing editor for Tin House. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, daughter, and son.
Both your chapbook, The Category of Outcast, and your debut collection, A Penance, begin with the poem “Penitential,” which is one of my favorite poems because of its musicality, and how it builds its catalogue through phrasing and a sharp eye for detail. Can you discuss the process of writing this poem (as it plays with the tradition catalogue structure), and the decision-making process of placing it as the “opening poem?”
That was a poem I tinkered with for years, and its original title when it was published in a journal was “Ars Poetica.” To me it felt like an introduction to all the obsessions of the book. The germ for that poem was a Saint Christopher’s medal I wore when I was in prison, which had “Pray for us” on the back (which isn’t very common for a Saint Christopher’s Medal). And the poem slowly grew out, rather than forward, from there. It feels like a litany—constructed but with speed to it, as if the speaker is caught just trying to catch hold of things, both beautiful and horrible, but he has no time to pause and dissect them.
Also, I liked this poem first because it opens with “Here is,” something I do occasionally in this book. I want the “things” in the poems to fight against becoming metaphors; I want them to be the thing named. So, when I say horses—I want the reader to picture horses without the ambiguity of any attached or forced meaning by me. I wanted that “fact-ness” to permeate the book, because the book is very concerned with trying to, if not make sense of, at least remind the reader that they live in a world that includes both the fact of a thing as strange and miraculous as a horse and the fact that we can become orphans without even knowing it has happened.
What came first—the chapbook or the full-length collection? What was your process in putting together the chapbook, and how did it differ from assembling your collection?
The chapbook was published first, but the majority of the poems, besides for the dominating, broken sestina at the heart of it, “The Hunger of the Mine Canary,” is in A Penance. The chapbook is more focused—it more directly engages criminality and prison, while A Penance is somewhat larger—an exploration and questioning of what it means, now, so removed from time and situation, to have done what I have done and been who I have been. Does that person even exist anymore? When I was 21 years old I got in a bar fight and stabbed a man with a knife I carried with me everywhere. That’s a fact. But since then I graduated from Reed College and Columbia University. I’m the father of two kids and I’m a loving husband. Those are also facts. A Penance asks if it’s even possible to square those two very disparate things that have been forced to coexist.
I view A Penance as a very lyrical collection, as many of the poems use anaphora and, as touched on in “Penitential,” the way language builds on itself to surprise the reader with so much aural and physical texture (to quote from another poem, “I Ask No Other Heaven”: “In the hushed hours, in bed with cold hands / coupled under covers, in the minutes before / the wreck.”) Do you find that your writing always starts with music first or something else entirely, such as concept or form?
For me, a poem always begins with an image, or a thought, or something I’ve come across. “I Ask No Other Heaven” is a line from a plaque that is affixed to a hand-wrought stone bench on the side of a pretty steep face of Mt. Tamalpais outside of San Francisco, the full quote being: “Give me these hills and the friends I love, I ask no other heaven.” A man’s children and friends built that bench in 1927, in a time and place when it must have taken an incredible amount of work. It made me wonder: what would I trade for heaven?
Finding the form and the music is the part of writing that gives me pleasure. The initial concept is drudgery, is work. But somewhere in the editing process I begin to hear the music of the poem—there’s a moment when a line clicks into place and sounds exactly like it should and I realize the cadence that the poem wants to have.
It’s easy to love your ideas. Everybody, writer or not, loves their own ideas. But if you love shaping the language around them in a way that scaffolds them just right, or subverts them, or changes them in ways that surprises you—that’s what sustains pleasure in a process that’s not often rewarded.
In my review of A Penance, I touch on a series of “Instructions” poems, where the speaker offers advice to what seem like inanimate objects and ideas such as silk, wire, and loyal(ty). When reading the notes section, I discovered that these poems were actually dedicated to friends that you met in prison. How did their nicknames aid in the poems’ creation? How much of your relationship with each of these people influence the speaker’s character and declarative voice?
The “Instructions” poems are kind of strange animals, and very important to me. Half of my time in prison was spent in a special boot camp program. By going through that program I was able to reduce my sentence by nearly two and a half years; but when I got out, if my parole officer disliked anything I did she could, on her whim, send me to finish the remainder of my sentence plus another three years for a violation.
When you get out of prison in the US you have a series of limitations they put on you. They give you a list—I still have mine somewhere. It includes things that make sense (don’t do drugs) things that are very tough for a felon (get a job) and things that are kind of funny (don’t own venomous snakes). Another one is to not associate with other felons. But that’s a problem if your wife has had a felony charge, because that means you can’t go home. Or if your brother is a felon and he lives with your parents, or if most of the people you’ve grown up with have some charge or another. So, what’s left? You get 50 or 100 bucks, some sweats and a couple of shirts, a 30 day voucher to a SRO that’s rife with drugs and crime, 30 days to get a job and an apartment, even though you’re required to tell any potential employer or landlord about your conviction. Essentially, you’re fucked.
I didn’t have 90% of those problems. I got out and my family was there to pick me up. A friend hooked me up with a good job, and within a couple of months I was back at college, studying English literature. But I was of two worlds, going to anger management classes and NA groups and conflict resolution classes at night and reading Wordsworth during the day.
My life and my opportunities meant I left behind the people I’d been in prison with. But we had been through a lot together, and many of them had really been kind and caring men who were just caught by those things in our society we seem incapable of fixing, and I never stopped hoping they made it okay, even though in most cases the odds were stacked incredibly against them. So, I thought I’d write poems giving them advice, but I didn’t have any actual, actionable advice, so these short poems were all I had to offer them.
Additionally, when I began writing the first drafts of the Instructions poems it wasn’t too long after John Barr had written an essay in the long tradition of saying contemporary poetry sucks because it’s too academic, and cited the “real-world” experiences of William Carlos Williams (doctor), T. S. Eliot (Banker & Editor), Stevens (of course) and, amazingly, the big-game hunting of Hemingway. Poets getting boring jobs or somehow shooting big animals for experiences to write about didn’t seem the new way to poetry to me. I think poetry has a self-confidence problem, not an artistic problem. There are parallels to contemporary poetic usage all around us. Movies can convince an audience pretty easily to be negatively capable. Hip-Hop seems no less leap-ridden and anachronistic and, in its way, hermetic than contemporary poetry. Skaters or taggers or soldiers have no less reference or coding in their lexicons than poets, just different references and codes.
So, I wanted to address my friends who spoke a very specific prison language that had codes and rhythms and tones and associations and imagery so distinct from, but so parallel to, lyric poetry. What resulted was a kind of pidgin. Taking coding from prison slang and mirroring some cadences, and melding it with “high-brow” form and a touch of romanticism. The results are meant to serve almost as elegies for each of these friends, now lost, at least to me.
You are an editor for Two Lines Press, which publishes contemporary international literature in translation. What drew you to translation? Do you translate any poetry yourself? How does your role as an editor allow you to enter the larger conversation of international poetry?
I don’t translate myself, which I actually think helps me keep some distance from the work. I see many “translations” of poems that seem to pay no homage to the original—translating them becomes more about the translator’s own poetics than the original writer’s. Sometimes that can be very interesting, but to me that’s writing poetry, not translating. I also see many translations that are incredibly reverential to the original author, but to my ear they seem to have no engagement with what is going on in contemporary American poetry—they’re “smoothing” the original in English, making it more prosy and readable, making the easiest translation rather than the most interesting, which is a shame.
Two Lines Press is, by its mission, interested in “traditional” translation. When people ask me what that means, I say there are two real options as a translator—you can make the voice of the original poet the loudest in the poem or you can make your voice loudest in the poem. As an editor at Two Lines I’m not interested in your voice being loudest.
But for me, my “place” as I see it in the conversation of international poetry is to look for things that are going to be intriguing to, in some way in cohort with, and that will expand or lead what we think of as contemporary American poetry. I have no doubt that the 12th century formal Urdu poetry is wonderful in Urdu, but if it doesn’t do something in English, why choose it, why put our limited time and money into publishing it here? In an ideal world, all those things would find their home and their audience, but the hurdle for international poetry in translation is high enough without publishing things that don’t engage, expand, or challenge even the small American poetry reading audience.
On the flip side, I have absolutely no interest in publishing the 87th volume of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. If there are already great translations of that out there, again, with limited time and very limited money, why would I do that?
Ultimately, I want as an editor to show American readers that international literature isn’t just a place to “learn.” I hate covers of books that highlight Arabic patterns or Orientalize the content. We’re publishing our new issue of the journal, and we have a special folio of literature about the Arab Spring, but I’m going to get emails because there’s very little direct attention to the revolutions in the content. The pieces are good. They’re weird, and rangy, and contemporary, and they all happen to come from countries that were involved with the Arab Spring. I really like that, it seems like our little snap on the anticipation that a journal of international literature is going to somehow be cultural reportage. And we think that because publishers have conditioned us to think that way since the height of British colonialism. But there are people writing surrealist poetry in Bahrain. There are people writing experimental poetry in Uruguay. That’s the stuff I want. I want it to to be one large conversation, rather than one about American poetry, and some other, quieter one about international poetry. I mean, think about the contemporary short story—are there bigger influences on the contemporary short story than Gogol or Kafka? I want to find the work that’s going to define the next generation of American writers. Or, at the very least, I want to publish things I think are fascinating and difficult and cool.
As a writer, reader, and editor, what do you look for in poetry? What surprises or enchants you?
To answer first as a writer: Many years ago, when I was just starting out in literature, my first real job was working for Tin House magazine and the Tin House summer writers workshop. I think the first or second year, we had James Salter out to give a reading and a talk. During his talk he was asked this question, and his response was something along the lines of: “I don’t get pleasure from literature anymore; I’m always reading to see what I can steal, to see how they put it together, the bones of it are too apparent to me.”
At the time I found that crushingly sad and depressing, but that’s really the way I approach contemporary poetry now. Very rarely do I read it from a place of pure pleasure, and when I do get that type of pleasure from it, it’s most likely because it’s so far from my own poetic interests or style I can stop trying to dissect it and just let it be in that way.
From an editor’s standpoint, I’m enchanted by writers who seem in control of what they’re trying to do—whatever that is. For example, I so often see these days syntactical derivation seemingly without reason. I’ll sit there and read it and the derivation seems to harm the music, the meaning, and the voice, but without purposeful effect that I can find. That, to me, is a writer who is not in control of their medium. Or a writer who seems to be breaking lines purely at natural breaks—that to me is a writer who isn’t utilizing one of the fundamental advantages of writing poetry.
The wonderful opportunity of being an editor is it’s your job to be open to myriad styles of poetry, so I try to read widely and have conditioned myself, as much as one can, to allow my reading to be led by the work, rather than dismissing things based on my tastes.
Do you have any genre crushes? I know you wrote an essay on David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men for The Quarterly Conversation, but who else are you crushing on or reading?
Sometimes I go through phases when I like to slowly move through as much of a writer’s work as I can get my hands on, and lately I’ve been slowly reading through Mary Ruefle, Maggie Nelson, Lydia Davis, and Clarice Lispector. I just finished Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Anne Carson’s Red Doc>; I’m reading James Salter’s new book All That Is now. I’m excited for Eirann Lorsung’s second book, Her Book, and the new Geoffrey G. O’Brien, People On Sunday, Lynn Melnick’s If I Should Say I Have Hope, and Alejandra Pizarnik’s A Musical Hell (translated by Yvette Siegert) are on deck. I read pretty much 50/50 poetry and prose, dependent upon mood and time of day.
What are your current projects? How are you building on or away from A Penance?
Oh, I have a bunch of projects I’m working on. I feel that, poetically, I’ve exhausted the prison stuff—the reality of it has grown remote to me now. In a very different kind of conversation, but echoing the Instructions poems’ form a bit, I’m working on a series of “Inquiries” which are all questions about marriage, which is ultimately taking your life, which is everything you have or will ever have and giving it to another person.
I’m also working on some prose things, a weird hybrid memoir-type thing and a linked collection of fables but I don’t know if either of those will ever see the light of day. I’m mostly letting myself get distracted by individual poems. I’m in this really great space right now where A Penance, which I worked on for so long, is out, and I get this little window where I’m free and clear to do whatever I want without looking ahead to the next book. I figure I’ll have to start piecing them together at some point to see what they look like, but I’m loving the freedom and play of just writing whatever form and subject and music speaks to me without having to have it feel as if it is in concert with anything else.
To learn more about CJ Evans, go to his amazing website!