Safia Jama, On Poetry, Film & the Black Imagination: An Interview with A. Van Jordan

The journal’s nonfiction editor, Safia Jama, spoke
with the poet A. Van Jordan over lunch in downtown
L.A., during the Association of Writers & Writing
Programs Conference. The following is an edited
version of the recorded interview.


SJ: We’re live in L.A. at AWP. Thank you, A. Van Jordan, for joining me. I’ll start with a basic, run-of-the-mill biography question. Where did you grow up, and how do you think that may have shaped you and your work?

AVJ: I grew up in Akron, Ohio. Normally, I would say I didn’t think growing up there had much of an effect on the work—mainly because I think, had I stayed in Akron, I wouldn’t be a writer today. I think I’ve always had the spirit, but not necessarily a pathway, to being a writer. I grew up in a very working class, African American community, and a community that didn’t necessarily value the arts as much as a steady job, benefits, things like that. And so, it didn’t create a culture that would encourage one to become a poet, for instance. But when I look back on that time, growing up in Akron, a lot of the obsessions in my writing seem to emanate from things that I was curious about, or things that I experienced growing up in the Midwest, in a blue collar town, in an African American community. I find those things to be more fascinating, often, than the things we hear about in communities that are in more well-known artistic environments, like New York or L.A. There was a place called the Helping Hand Club in Akron—the Helping Hand Club was an organization put together by people in the community to help folks who fell on hard times. The community came together, pooled their money to have an actual building, and held meetings. They did all these things after people left work in the factories. My aunt, who was one of the officers of the club, cleaned offices at Goodyear Tire & Rubber. Theyoffices at Goodyear Tire & Rubber. They pooled money together to give college scholarships—I got one of my college scholarships from the Helping Hand Club, in Akron, Ohio. When I look back, I think of the Helping Hand Club as emblematic of the sort of community culture that develops, that people would not normally think about. You would think not much is happening after work, unless it’s going to church. But then you’d find all these little pockets of the city, that have all these other little things that people find, as a means of escape—

SJ: That they have created.

AVJ: Yes, that they have created. And so, in my experience, the Masons were a big part of my community. They ran all these after-school programs that I would join.

SJ: The Freemasons?

AVJ: The Freemasons, yes. They had a group called the Pythagorans. I was never a good student in math as a kid, but I learned my math at the Masonic temple, in the Pythagorans group.

SJ: Wow.

AVJ: I didn’t do much more than Algebra 1 in high school, but I learned trigonometry and geometry through the Masons. And I really think that’s why I did well on the PSAT tests, receiving a National Merit Scholar. I thought this kind of organization happened in all black communities, but then I realized it’s a very unique experience.

Growing up in that community always made me want to ask questions about the parts of American history that no one else was talking about. Like the story behind M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, you would hear about in a barbershop, but you would never read about it in a book.

I wanted to try to capture some of those stories, and I think a lot of that came from being in these environments, and sitting around talking to these old men in the Masonic temple, or talking to older women at the Helping Hand Club, and all these different environments where you’d hear this history that was just passed down in conversations, from generation to generation, but you would never read about it. I wanted to capture those parts of history and be able to tell those narratives in poem form.

SJ: Since you mentioned M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, when did you first hear of the story of MacNolia Cox? Editor’s note: Thirteen year-old MacNolia Cox won the Akron District Spelling Bee in 1936, and she was the first African American to compete in the National Spelling Bee. MacNolia made it to the finals, but lost when the Southern judges asked her to spell the word “nemesis,” a word that was not on the official spelling bee list.

AVJ: I heard about MacNolia kind of as a fluke. I was visiting Akron, Ohio, visiting my family—at the time, both my parents were still alive. I was there, really, to see LeBron James play in the high school, in his championship game. My brother had tickets; he’d been trying to get me to come see him play.

Anyway, I woke up in my parents’ home, and I opened up the newspaper, and they had this column in the paper called This Place, This Time. It was a two-page spread about MacNolia Cox, and it had photos, and it told her entire story around this spelling bee. My mom woke up, and I showed her the story, and said, “Mom, have you heard about MacNolia Cox?” And she said, “No, I never heard about her.” And then my father got up, and, same thing. And I thought that was strange. Here was this woman that was in their age group, who had done something significant, and they hadn’t heard of her. And I was writing poems about the Great Migration—this is what I thought I was writing about at the time—and I thought, maybe there is some way I could work her into this collection I’m writing. And the more I delved into her story, the more I felt her story was emblematic of that time, and I really wanted to focus on her. And so I kept doing the research and kept building this narrative around her.

SJ: Wonderful. You’ve spoken and written about your passion for film, so I thought we could go in that direction now. Let’s talk about diversity—or rather, the lack of diversity in films today. I was wondering if that was something that was on your mind while working on The Cineaste.

AVJ: I guess I can talk about this in two ways—being concerned about diversity in film, but also how it played out in The Cineaste and what that was about.

With regard to The Cineaste, I realized a big part of it dealt with the presence of Africans and African Americans in film. Initially, I thought the entire book would be about Oscar Micheaux. But I started publishing a few of the Micheaux poems, and there was some interest in doing a chapbook, and I was also writing a few poems about film.

I’d been living with the sonnet for two years, writing sonnet after sonnet around Micheaux, and there was still a part of me that wanted to be a little freer, and say things in a different way on the line. I would go through these long periods of binge-watching old films, and so I think the first poem I wrote, outside of the Micheaux poems, was “Nosferatu.” And then, as I was writing the book, I was teaching a class called Cinematic Movement. I had this really compelling conversation with the class about Do the Right Thing, after screening it, and then writing the Do the Right Thing poem. I think in writing the poem, I realized that people hadn’t looked at that film as a work of high art. They’d seen it as more of a time capsule for that period, a signature film for Spike Lee’s style. The other thing was that very few students had seen the film before. The few that had seen the film never thought about looking at it through this critical lens.

That was the first film that I had shown the students by an African American filmmaker. And I realized that whenever I had shown a film by a person of color who was international, they took that seriously. But they entered Do the Right Thing thinking it was just gonna be fun. But when we went through it, and started breaking down the shots and the structure of the film, they were blown away. And that was the thing that came back in their papers, for the most part, was that they did not expect the film to be that good—not entertaining-good, but high-art-good. And that fascinated me.

When I first saw the film [Do the Right Thing], I walked out of the theater and just felt transformed. I had never seen anything like that in a movie theater before. And I knew it was high art. And then I realized that these students—mostly white—hadn’t seen many films by African American filmmakers, and hadn’t thought about them as being high-art artists. So I brought in a Charles Burnett film; and Charles Lane, the guy that did Sidewalk Stories, the great silent film, as well as Daughters of the Dust. And I allowed the conversation to develop around the craft, and not just the culture that the craft was dealing with. We would talk about a film’s temporal spatial movement. And we’d talk about Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, a film I wrote about in The Cineaste. And then we’d talk about that film in relation to Daughters of the Dust, and how both have lyrical ways of dealing with time. And so now, students would look at the film on this critical craft level.

In that way, I was very conscious of which filmmakers I would chose. In The Cineaste, there is a black film that is by a white filmmaker. The Mack is a blaxploitation film. And I don’t think of The Mack as necessarily being a great, high art film, but there are elements of the film that are made greater by the performances, and that was one of the things that I was concerned with in the book: Looking at different films, and trying to find something in them that may not have been a part of the general conversation of the film.

So, I looked at The Mack, which I had only heard referenced in some off-handed way as a joke in a rap song, or something like that, and now thought about it in terms of the relationship between the sex worker, the pimp, and the mother figure—which is what the film seemed to be about: How these paths are taken and what their relationships are with their mothers. That’s how I approached The Cineaste.

When I think about diversity in film, and particularly the presence of black people in films, I think we’re in a time in which people have access to filmmaking in a way that they didn’t before because it’s a digital age. And people can tell stories in a way that they probably could not have told before. They may not get told in a large studio system, but they’ll get told through great short films, and more independent films. And there are more venues now, more festivals, and streaming. And I think that’s actually where the outrage is coming from. Because people will see a year of great performances by people of color, and none of them get the top prizes, and they’ll ask why. And it’s not that these other filmmakers who win the prizes haven’t done their job, it’s just that they should be competing with others who should have been nominated.

SJ: Which reminds me of the story of MacNolia Cox, in terms of black achievement being overlooked, in some way. It may not be outright sabotage, but who knows what we don’t see behind the scenes?

AVJ: It’s not just about people of color pointing the finger at someone white. But this is also someone white realizing, ‘Oh, maybe this is being kept from me. Maybe I haven’t been given either the permission or the platform for the discourse to happen around these works of art. And as a result, I’ve entered this process of selection with tunnel vision. I don’t even see this other work because no one’s been talking to me about it. No one’s made it important enough.’ And so, you know, I think the whites who aremaking the selections should be just as outraged that they missed it.

Consider Beasts of No Nation. You can’t walk away from this film and not be affected by it. I mean, the young man in the film who played the lead, Abraham Attah, there’s no way he should not have been nominated for an Oscar. The filmmaker himself should have been nominated. I felt the same way about Creed, another powerful film. I often ask my students ‘What is it that is happening in this film that is in some way extending the tradition of a genre, or changing the tradition of a genre?’ When you look at Creed, it’s clearly in the tradition of the sports film, clearly in the tradition of the Rocky sequence, but it’s completely changed that outlook. It’s also a great film about relationships between generations, talking between cultural lines. They managed to get a love story in there, too. I mean, it’s a powerful film, in a genre that should not be that good. This is not one of those stories that you think, ‘this story has to be told.’ Still, you can’t not recognize the writer of the film, or the lead.

SJ: While we’re talking about films, let’s talk about your poem, “Blazing Saddles,” which is after the Mel Brooks film. The poem begins with the declaration, “What’s so funny about racism / is how the racists never get the joke.” I think that, like great comedy and great poetry, this poem in particular is rife with risk, creative and personal. I was wondering if it made anyone mad. How did folks respond to this poem? Where were you—geographically, intellectually, psychically—when you wrote these lines?

AVJ: I think I was—not to be flippant—but you know, I was in my black body when I wrote that poem. And so, it’s hard sometimes for my white friends or colleagues to think about it, but the thing that I thought—the thing that Claudia Rankine so beautifully curated in Citizen—is that microaggressions happen, even to those black folks walking around who are supposed to be “safe” and “good”—for the record, put quotation marks around these words.

When I watched “Blazing Saddles,” the thing that bugged me, you know, watching it for the umpteenth time, was that I just laughed when I first saw it, and thought it was so hilarious. But it was in a space and time when we were talking about this so openly that when “Blazing Saddles” came out, we could laugh at it comfortably. And now, I feel less comfortable laughing at it because there’s been so much suppression in the discourse around race, and I think the biggest setback with this has been the discussion around diversity, the discussion around—I’m trying to think of the other buzzword that was popular… something that professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. used to talk about…

SJ: What is the meaning of the word?

AVJ: It’s like another word for diversity.

SJ: Representation?

AVJ: I’ll just say diversity. Anyway, it was a safe way to talk about race, without talking about race, is my point.

SJ: That’s why we can’t remember the word.

AVJ: Exactly. It was this buzzword that you could use so that you didn’t haveto talk about racism. You would just say “diversity.” That discussion around diversity has become a big part of this avoidance. Right now we don’t talk about race blatantly enough. So when something comes up, people have a hard time talking about it, or even accepting it. And it’s something that’s become difficult to deal with, not just for people of color, but for white folks as well. Because, pointing at a time line, we should be beyond it; white people shouldn’t have to walk around feeling like they have so much white guilt. But they still are carrying it because, you know, they try to tamp it down at that friction point when we’re about to make progress. I think the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the early part of the ‘80s, we were at that friction point, we were at that friction point. We were about to make some progress, and then people said, ‘Oh no, we can’t go there.’

So, to the point about the poem, it was a mixed reaction. Some people really got it, and liked it, and could see what I was risking in the poem. Others felt maybe I was letting people off the hook on some level. Some people didn’t like the film, so they didn’t like the poem. All of that, I feel, is valid. The whole point is that, I think the poem, like the film, kind of represents both sides. So it’s hard to go through that entire poem and think, you’re really sticking it to the racists, as if that’s the only thing that’s happening, because it’s also talking about a sort of internalized racism as well. The film is constantly changing the camera angle on racism. And so I was trying to represent some of that in the poem, so if the responses are mixed, that’s because the points of view are too. And that’s probably how it should be.

I don’t think a discussion around race should ever be fully comfortable. There has to be some moment of discomfort on both sides to have a real discussion about it.

SJ: I agree. If it’s not comfortable then perhaps you’re not talking about much of anything. I can’t resist asking you this next question. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a book I’ve turned to often. And lately, I’ve been thinking about that subtitle: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. How might we begin a conversation about blackness and the literary imagination? And from there, I’m thinking about the important, overlooked stories or histories, such as the story of MacNolia Cox, whom you’ve written about. And also, there’s the poet’s muse that wants to write about what he—or she—wants to write about. And I’m wondering how you, as a black poet, navigate between the important stories that need to be told and that you want to tell, while also following the muse.

AVJ: That’s a great question. It’s been a long time since I read Playing in the Dark, at least 10 years, but one thing I remember taking away from the reading, is that Faulkner, Hemingway, and others, are all talking about whiteness as a cultural experience. But when you have that cultural backdrop to your story, no one has to explain what it’s like to be white, say, in the plains, if you’re Willa Cather. You’re talking about ‘the human condition.’

I never felt that I had to explain why I had an interest in anything I have interest in, because I felt all of it was mine. It all falls under the umbrella of my blackness and my experience. So, if I want to write about film—sometimes a black American filmmaker, sometimes a white French filmmaker—it’s all black. If I want to write about DC Comics superheroes, or Einstein, it’s still coming through my black lens. Even if I don’t have a black cultural reference—because there are black people who read comic books.

I gave a reading once in Chicago, and in the front row was Haki Madhubuti, and he said, ‘Man, I never heard anybody black writing about comic superheroes.’ And I said, ‘No, Baraka’s got a Green Lantern poem.’ He’s got an epigraph from the Green Lantern Oath. People have a problem with this. Often, white people ask, ‘Why are you writing about these things? Do you have a problem being a black writer if you like Einstein or comic books or film?’ But that’s a question you ask if you don’t think of black people being multidimensional.

In the black imagination, I can hold all of these things. I feel completely free to have access to all of that. The question that usually comes up is whether I have an issue being labeled an African American writer or poet. And the answer is that I don’t, because I don’t see it as being limiting. I remember reading Playing in the Dark and feeling that in some way it validated what was rumbling inside of me, and that gave me permission.
SJ: You’re on sabbatical at the moment. Would you like to share a little bit of what you’re working on? What’s capturing your muse these days?

AVJ: I’m working on writings that deal with survival and displacement. Often, the theme of water comes up. There will probably be some references to race as well, but those are the central themes.

SJ: I look forward to reading that. I’ve one last question that has to do with the creative process. It seems poets and Catholics like to talk about the idea of mystery.

What role does mystery, however you define it, play in your creative process?

AVJ: It’s central to it. It has to be. When I think of mystery, I think in terms of curiosity. More than, I think, any other element that we need to have in our arsenal as writers, we need to have curiosity, and a curious mind. If you combine that with craft, and some talent, something’s gonna happen.

But I think you can have all the craft, and all the talent in the world, be well read—but if you don’t have a curious mind, I don’t think you can be a writer. I don’t think that you can sustain it. I see people that are really talented, or they’ve read everything. But they have a hard time writing, because once you get inside the process of writing, you have to keep thinking that there’s something mysterious that you want to figure out. If that’s not driving you, then something’s amiss. I don’t know how else you can do this, without having that. I think when people say ‘drive,’ I think it’s that desire to solve the mystery. To be so curious about this thing that you’ll dive down into the rabbit hole to discover it.

SJ: I was wondering if there was anything else you wanted to discuss—especially as it pertains to this journal’s mission to provide a platform for underrepresented voices in many shapes and forms.
AVJ: I think one thing I can say with regard to diversity is that it’s double-sided. It’s not just an issue of feeling comfortable, like we were talking about before. It’s about feeling a little bit of discomfort. When I say discomfort, I don’t mean that pejoratively. When I think of discomfort, I think of a healthy awareness of something that is other to you. And the thing is, we’re constantly at a state of alert. We’re constantly walking through life managing this kind of discomfort of trying to be ourselves while being in an environment that’s not inviting us to be ourselves. So you have to have a sense of what’s happening in this other person’s experience.

SJ: Double consciousness?

AVJ: As Du Bois put it, yes. But it’s also empathy. I think you develop a great deal of empathy, and I think that’s what we go to literature for. We go to literature to find this empathy, and we often will say we’re going to experience this experience, through the life of this other person, character, figure or voice. And we develop empathy in that way. We can’t always expect that to be our experience. And I think that’s the real gift of diversity when we talk about it in those terms of inclusion. It kind of goes back to that other question: you have to be curious, and open. It’s a big world.