On Faith and Form: An Interview with Jonathan Diaz, Part 1

IMG_20180615_201606_edit_edit_editEarlier this summer, Californios editor Timothy Bartel sat down to talk with Jonathan Diaz, whose chapbook Rumors of Rain: Poems is out this week from Californios. Here is part 1 of their conversation about Diaz’s new collection.

TB: You’ve spoken before about the concept of “writing between poles.” There are a lot of poems in this collection that are overtly religious in theme, but also some that are about California in general. If you had to map where the poles are between which you write, how would you talk about that?

JD: The poles being the places I want to take the poems, where I want the reader to be carried in reading, mirror what the poles were for me when I wrote these poems, which are from probably the last seven years, some being from the beginning of that period, some being as recent as the last month. They detail a lot my own religious journey from growing up in Southern California in the Los Angeles county area in a very Pentecostal home in a very Roman Catholic cultural milieu and extended family. So in the beginning of the collection there is a very, very Pentecostal sonnet about the experience of being in a service that’s filled with tambourines and loud music and speaking in tongues and maybe a little bit of being slain in the spirit. Then it moves to poems that are detailing my exploration of more ancient church history and more ancient church liturgies in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as you’ll see in poems about being at St Peter’s in Rome and trying to think through some of its implications for faith. So those are the kind of ecclesial poles, you may say, for my writing. Geographically it runs along the freeways and landscapes of the San Gabriel valley just east of Los Angeles.

TB: I think it’s fun that the collection goes from being set largely in California to being set in the Old World. So as someone who’s Californian, who grew up in a new world tradition like Pentecostalism, what do you think Rome and Europe should mean to the contemporary American West Coast poet? What do Rome and its traditions mean to you as a writer grounded in the West Coast?

JD: I think what’s interesting, coming from the West Coast, is that the old world is less so what you’re explicitly grounded against, what you’re trying to define yourself against in a way it might have been on the East Coast, where identity is colonial or American; it’s “we’re going to do things very different that Europe” which already is very different in England than on the continent. So to go to the Old World from California is almost to rediscover it. You’re thinking “oh, this is back in my history”, but also you feel as if you’re the first person to see it, to discover it anew.

TB: So there’s a freedom on the West Coast that there maybe isn’t on the East Coast, or wasn’t at one point. Let’s move from European culture to European literary tradition. You start off this collection with a sonnet, an inheritance from Italy. Talk a little bit about your choice of forms in this collection. How do you think about forms and choose them for your poems?

JD: I love writing formally, and pushing against the limits that they place on my writing. A lot of these poems came about as I was trying to navigate my own relationship with form as a writer. I was thinking not only what are some established forms that I want to try out, such as this very traditional sonnet, but also what sort of general formal structures that don’t have as much of a defined history or name? For example, the poem “Ghetto Bird”, I believe, is in a trochaic tetrameter.

TB: Right, it’s the Hiawatha meter.

JD: Yeah, so there is more of a history to trochaic verse, but it won’t be named, like a sonnet; it isn’t assigned as an exercise in writing programs. I try and say, “I’m going to try X kind of meter, matched up with X number of syllables.” And in trying that with random subjects, some of those turned out legibly, and most of those are in this book. Also I got a chance to take on, as you’re well aware, the Golden Sonnet, which is your own invention, a sonnet based more faithfully on the golden ratio of 5 and 8, to be a Golden Sonnet for writing about the Golden State, so a deeply Californian formal structure. Sorry, I don’t remember when you first showed me the Golden Sonnet.

TB: I think I came up with it in 2008.

JD: So is the Golden sonnet 10 years old?

TB: Yeah, I guess it is! I came up with it just playing with the Fibonacci sequence, and then realizing, “by golly, there’s an 8/5 ratio here, and that’s very much like the sonnet ratio [of octave to sestet]!” And then it turned out that the sonnet writers of the past had thought of that; it’s not like I was being new. But then I kind of isolated that into 8 lines of 8 syllables and 5 lines of 5 syllables.

So, what do you think the difference is between when form works and when it doesn’t? Why do some subjects fit some forms, and then why do some forms fail? So, your sonnet about Pentecostal worship, it’s a heck of a sonnet. It really worked. Why does that work, and maybe a sonnet on some other topic or conceit not work?

JD: I feel like if I knew, poetry would be a lot easier, right? I feel like a more traditional sonnet might be easier to make different themes fit into. There’s not so much of a dramatic shift from one end to the other. A Golden Sonnet pushes you to just work much more concisely into the last quintet, which I think you once described to me initially as taking the poem from a very Western metered poetry to Eastern and japanese haiku-like poetry.

TB: Yeah, haiku and tanka use that 5-syllable line.

JD: So for the Golden Sonnet to work you need to be a little bit more elaborate and discursive in the octave, but in this quintet, you have to say “everything is more immediate, more sparse.” And so that kind of move fits some subjects really well. You say, “Let me give an experience, and then elaborate on it. Let me give you a location, perhaps, and then dig into it.” And I think that’s what unites the two Golden Sonnets in this collection: “Excavation Below St Peter’s” and “Feast of Entrance.”

“Feast of Entrance,” is a poem that was written initially in a very different form: long free verse that was disconnected and had probably come from reading a lot of Kerouac and T.S. Eliot… It was long, free verse, ungrammatical, awful. And then just in the last month, I felt like it was a really appropriate poem to make it into this collection. And I thought that it seems like all the parts of it that I really like and want to keep around are much closer to the length of a golden sonnet than this multi-page, long poem; let me see if it will fit! And it was a little bit of an experiment… you’re trying to cook without a recipe for the first time. And then, what do you know, it fit! The important parts were able to navigate and fit into that structure.

TB: I love that description of writing in a received form as experimental. Often we have this idea that experimental poetry can’t be formal, or it has to totally invent a new form. That’s a really frustrating idea to me. It’s wonderful to hear a poet say, “No, putting it into form, having to follow rules, is in fact itself an experiment, maybe even an adventure.” It’s Chestertonian, right? To rediscover the old forms is always an adventure. But let’s step over the the Kerouac/Eliot side of things for a moment, because some of these poems are in free verse. How do you decide to write a poem in free verse, as opposed to form? What’s the difference between a poem that ends up a sonnet and one that ends up in free verse?

JD: To an extent there’s a historical answer, as in the month was I writing them in. Or even as quick as the week I was writing them in: am I feeling like counting out lots of syllables this week, or do I feel different? I think the less dismissive answer is to say that poems that didn’t ever fit into a form are poems where a few lines jumped out and me at first. I want lines like this to fit into the poem, and I couldn’t ever find a common denominator between those lines. Even if I tweaked each of them, they are just too different in length or in meter to belong in the same formal poem, so why not write a free verse poem? I think that’s where “The First Luminous Mystery” fits in. The first line “This wistful and luminous wet is bright” was where the poem started for me. Other lines like the phrases “multifoliate bruise”, “benediction of hot wind” came about early in drafting and wanted to be in the same poem. There was also a desire for there to be something unexpected in the end of the poem, a sort of clearing of the throat and a changing of tone with the appearance of the imperative “Now”, and the second person address there. I think those elements, while a formal poem isn’t just rote, isn’t unsurprising, I do feel like there’s a level [in free verse] of introducing a new thing that doesn’t always gel with formal poems.

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