Since I left college, I’ve learned that sometimes the professor who always offered honest critiques helped you grow as a poet much more than those who praised you and made you feel great. I caught up with Jon Woodson, Ph.D and asked him a few questions. His perspectives about art—poetry in particular— are always interesting and earth shattering.
AA: What do you consider good poetry?
JW: When I was eleven years old I was taken to see Carl Sandburg read. It was a tremendous experience, and I was probably never the same. Sandburg was the most interesting person I had ever seen. He had imagination, conviction, personality, and he was completely convincing and captivating. And despite the fact that he was an old man, he was a better child than I was. He was a great showman and his material was poetry. That is my standard, and I now see that it is very high because often I am amazed that poets are so lacking in nearly everything that they need to bring to the endeavor of poetry. Now that I am an adult, I see that he was a very serious man with very deep concerns, but he knew that if he was a bore he was not getting anywhere. He was smart enough to know that if you are not able to communicate with children you are just kidding yourself. There is that primal element of amazement that is the foundation of poetry, and that is what has to be present so that the poet and the audience are on the same vibration of rapture, vision, dream, and discovery.
AA:What’s your criteria?
JW: All over the place I keep coming across the same idea—that poetry has to be interesting—that old idea that it should make the hair on your neck stand up—that it’s autonomic and involuntary. In general art is a realm that gives you access to areas not otherwise available in life. I just watched two women get drunk on Bloody Marys while eating a huge brunch, and something like that brings home to me the pathetic nature of ordinary consciousness. One of them said—“Babies are cool, that’s why you like them.” That is typical of the level of ordinary consciousness. People are robots, and they need to have access to more authentic moments of consciousness: that is the role of art and the function of poetry. I mean it’s obvious that in the example above somebody needs to explain to them what a baby is. Of course, there is the problem that most poets don’t know either, so poetry is not automatically of any usefulness most of the time. Poets are as robotic in their poetry as most people are at brunch. So, you have to be careful not to give yourself too much credit for knowing what you are doing.
AA: And what do you perceive to be some challenges for poets coming up today?
JW: It’s not possible for most people to be human beings. They buy into all of the forms of modern insanity, and thus they are unattractive and uninteresting, often dangerous or merely exhausting to deal with. We live in a dark age. Most people do not seem to realize the darkness of this period of history. I am not sure there are any special things about barbarians who consider themselves to be poets. I imagine that a real poet can be expected to be badly misunderstood by the robot poets. It’s a struggle to be an artist at any age, but we have all sorts of delusions, so many things get undeserved credit. Gurdjieff called this “word prostitution” and I think that I ought to do a t-shirt and make it possible for that concept to enter the culture more widely. Perhaps the challenges are always the same—in fact nobody knows. If anyone were able to actually know how to develop into an artist, perhaps we would be making progress as a planetary culture. But this is not one of the things that seriously engages us: instead we just give ourselves credit for nonsense and are content with mediocrity.
JON WOODSON is the Graduate Professor of English at Howard University, received his Ph.D. from Brown University. Woodson is a scholar and teacher of Modern American literature with interests in poetics, the novel, and the long poem. In 2006, Woodson was a visiting Fulbright lecturer in American Literature at the University of Pecs and at ELTE in Budapest. His articles have appeared in Obsidian II, African American Review, The Furious Flowering Of African American Poetry, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, The Harlem Renaissance: a Gale Critical Companion, and The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing. His critical studies are To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and The Harlem Renaissance (1999) and A Study of Catch-22: Going Around Twice (2000). Anthems, Sonnets, and Chants: Recovering the African-American Poetry of the 1930s is forthcoming from Ohio State University Press. Recent work is directed toward a study of the Egyptian materials in Z. N. Hurston’s fiction. Jon Woodson’s chapbook, Cage with a Live Mouth, has just been translated into Hungarian and is forthcoming in a bilingual edition. His poems have been published in Poet Lore, Northeast Journal, Arjuna Library, Baltimore City Paper, and Manzanita Quarterly. He has also published two chapbooks, I Slept Like Liquid Paper and Worry Dolls.