“Write to Me”: An Interview with Poet Phillip Aijian

We are pleased to present the following interview with poet Phillip Aijian, whose chapbook Homeless God is out now from Californios Press. Head over to our Chapbooks page to order it!

How did you first fall in love with poetry? 
Poetry was part of my literary diet very early on, and I began writing it as early as second grade.  My mom has a poem somewhere about a lamb.  There were the usual nursery rhymes and Psalms followed closely by the works of Shel Silverstein and authors like that.  I think the love, however, probably began to set in with, oddly enough, Bill Watterson.  Much has been made of his artistic skill and the breathtaking imagination with which he composes Calvin, but little has been made of his poetry.  If I do another Ph.D. I will correct that injustice.  His poems are infrequent, but they often feature the odd combination of formal meter and end rhyme and ostentatious tone directed at the absurd subject matter of Calvin’s imagined exploits—often involving Spaceman Spiff.  The whole effect was to demonstrate a quality of playfulness in language that does not diminish for its marriage to discipline.  I loved it.  The same kind of thing can be found in the poetry of Robert Service, whose verse is breathtaking in both his humor and formal prowess.  I came to see that poetry expressed some of the truest and loveliest aspirations for other characters I loved in fiction, like Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader while it marked important occasions in my own life both at school and at events like birthdays and anniversaries.

Which influences have shaped you most as a writer?
 
My influences as a writer seem in constant flux.  For principles of writing and the creative act, I’d have to point to Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet I try to read every year.  I’m also eternally enamored of Annie Dillard, especially Holy the Firm and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  Dillard is a lesson in sight and seeing and patience.  I’ve also been very shaped by my father, who was a career doctor but also has written quite a bit.  He introduced me very early on to the discipline of revision.  This practice has only reasserted itself in the vocations of being teacher and student.  The practice somewhat disenchants some of the more poetic notions of inspiration (with my apologies to Plato and and Coleridge).  In terms of more modern poets, I’d be remiss not to mention Elizabeth Bishop, who is one of the most enjoyable, demanding, and skilled poets I first encountered in college.  I’ve also been very fortunate to have studied with Scott Cairns.  His devotional poetry grapples with the questions of faith and doubt that I’ve grappled with for much of my adult Christian life, and in ways I’ve found honest and compelling.  And, finally, it’s hard to imagine my poetry existing without Scripture.  All of Homeless God assumes the first-person perspective, so in that way they’re “about” me, or distorted versions of me.  But in another very real sense they’re focused on the person of Christ as he is both revealed and concealed as suggested in Matthew 25.  So much of my poetry assumes Christ and the stability of his character and actions, even if I occasionally forget or lose sight of them.

We often think of “homeless” as a simple word, describing the bum on the corner, an object of sympathy, annoyance, or worse. Tell us about what the word “homeless” has come to mean to you as you wrote these poems.
 
As a term, “homeless” describes a wider range of situations than I can possibly account for, though I think the collection endeavors to show a pretty wide range.  In one of the poems, one of the speakers is a bit outraged to discover that Jesus has the resources to buy things like a bike lock or watch television.  Growing up, particularly with conservative parents and grandparents, the strong-work ethic that I was encouraged to cultivate contributed to a visceral, reflexive regard for “homelessness” as the predictable and ultimate consequence of laziness and a victim-mentality.  The realities are, of course, much more complicated.  “Homeless” has come to describe such a broad variety of people, even in America, in which their experiences of need do not preclude, for example, the fact that many of them have multiple cell phones.  The first time I encountered this I was a bit resentful of what I regarded as audacity on their part in possessing these things that I regarded as luxury while also asking for charity.  It seems to be a common resentment, at least in the West.  Iron & Wine has this really incisive line in his song “Monkeys Uptown,” where he observes that “no one likes a beggar slightly overdressed.”

When Jesus describes the division between the sheep and the goats, it seems implied that homelessness is a chronic state of isolation and/or deprivation that shapes an individual’s dietary, geographic, communal, and even political experience.  I try to reflect that instability in my poems, where Jesus seldom has a roof over his head, or a room of his own.  But of course that homelessness is also felt, in some ways, as estrangement and judgment, as when one of the speakers reacts with disgust to Jesus’ lack of table manners.  Writing the sequence has expanded the definition and, in expanding, has also hopefully widened the horizons in which I see the Lord in the faces of people that I am accustomed to ignoring, at best, or worse, criminalizing.  In some ways, writing this collection has only intensified my experience of helplessness or anxiety when I encounter such individuals.  I recently crossed paths with a visibly homeless and mentally ill man who came storming into a Taco Bell where my family was making a pit stop on our way home.  He was cussing uncontrollably and his actions were manic.  I was afraid for my kids, and felt unprepared to answer the questions they would inevitably ask if we lingered any longer.  We left as quickly as we could, but I’m still bothered by the encounter—both in that he’s not getting the help he clearly needs, and that I was unprepared or unable to give it to him.

You play a lot with the name “Jesus” in these poems. This name has, of course, a very sacred meaning for people the world over. Why was it important to you to associate the concept of homelessness with the name of Jesus in these poems?

The deliberate naming of Jesus throughout the poem is meant to expose a certain tunnel vision in Christianity, which is to say, in my own Christianity.  I do hold his name as sacred and I like to think that when I address Him in prayer or worship or regard him in art, that I do my best to assume a posture of reverence.  This sense of urgency to be (and appear) reverent is a pervasively felt need in quite a bit of music and art.  Many representations of Jesus feature a carpenter’s lithe frame, clean complexion, modest beard, strong jaw.  These perfections overlap with many physical ideals in ways that I think sometimes serve to flatter our vanities.  But for having read Matthew 25 many times throughout my life, the dignity and reverence which Christ commands often vanish when I regard the homeless and poor.  This is why the poem begins, and I think must begin, with the line “Jesus has gotten fat.”  It directs vain and dismissive judgment toward the sacred form in ways that I normally fancy I could never utter or think.  But this is precisely the thought I had, even numerous times, as I drove by the man who inspired me to write these poems.  His “being fat” here is treated with the same tone of contempt and outrage as the bike lock and television in the other poems—like I’m off the hook for helping him out because if he were really needy and destitute, he’d be rail thin.

The poet Alexander Shurbanov has said that “A poem does not relate an event; it tries to be it.”  As the collection grew from a single poem into a series, I realized that the thing I wanted to do was to inhabit different roles and perspectives that are united in their rejection and misapprehension of Christ.  Hence, per Shurbanov, the poems are my attempt to inhabit those rejections and misapprehensions, and to make them a space that my reader can inhabit as well.  They are, I admit, spaces that I don’t expect my readers to always comfortably occupy.  It was very difficult to write the Fullerton/Golgotha portion, partially because the poem invites the reader to identify with the policeman who, in a fit of anger, loses control and beats Jesus to death.  At the same time, however, I have attempted to craft these “events” in ways that also feature unexpected moments of grace or tenderness that make the discomfort more bearable until the very end, where the speaker’s encounter with Christ is pure and overwhelming gift and relief.

At Californios we care a lot about form, and the formal principles I think of most when reading “homeless god” are narrative principles. Tell us about how you approached shaping the narratives in these poems.

In terms of narrative, the sequence of the poems is also critical, though it took years to recognize it.  The number and variety of narrative episodes I could have crafted in which I encounter different forms of homeless Jesus were/are endless.  Some of my readers have vocalized a desire to see more, and some have even written their own poetic responses, imagining their own encounters with Jesus.  But I wanted the poems to participate in the narrative of the Gospel with a greater sense of connection than the “mere” discovery of Jesus as homeless in different situations.  I have to give significant credit to my wife, Janelle, for helping me discover that this was the larger story I wanted to tell.  I had written many of the more dour poems, and the whole series just seemed in danger of wallowing in a kind of poetic self-flagellation.  The poem sequence kind of begins with the Beatitudes, where the final line of the first poem asserts “Bless the poor” which is also a cheeky way for someone to ask for money.  But then after the first few, the rest of the poems are organized around the passion and resurrection.    Building to the resurrection and atonement gives context to the sorrow and cruelty, and makes them easier to bear.

In addition to writing poetry, you also teach writing to undergraduates. What is your view of the role of the creative writing teacher in the university and in the larger community?
 
I don’t teach creative writing, per se, as often as I’d like, but even writing an argument is a creative act.  And I find that the thing that I most want to teach them to do is to develop the courage and curiosity to explore and to play with language.  To cultivate patience in the face of words and images and characters that puzzle them.  These sensibilities make the acquisition of discipline more palatable.    I’m teaching Homer’s Iliad right now, and I try and find one or two moments every class to just sit with an image and close read it.  I invite my students to speculate about what the image is doing and how it’s shaping their perceptions of the text.  I have to reassure them frequently that there’s not a secret list of answers.  I tell them I’m willing to entertain any claim or argument provided it can be reasonably supported.  I emphasize the values or experiences of play and experiment and exploration because I want them to feel authorized to take what they learn and like back into their own communities and relationships.  I know they won’t if they can’t enjoy something about it.  The other thing about creative writing is that learning to like it is a profound lesson in the discipline of patience and humility, which are requisite to the life of the student and academic.

In one of his letters to the young poet, Rilke commends, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”  Creative writing is one of the purest forms of a self-directed and self-sustaining discipline; kind of like long-distance running.  The author should be able to find some satisfaction in the craft itself, independent of the sustenance that might be conferred by the praise of an audience.  I have found this to be the case even in my experience of particular words; I wrote a poem several years ago because I fell in love with the term “hootenanny” and decided I had to do something with it.  And while creative writing creates spaces like this for me to play with language, it’s also a place where I can wrestle with the those problems or questions that beset me and, to some degree, my community or culture.  Creative writing has taught me to love something for its own sake, even when (and perhaps especially when) my skills haven’t been the equal of my ambitions.  And learning to love a thing for its own sake is truly essential for students and apprentices the world over.  Especially graduate students who must spend solitary years in libraries and must learn to delight in well-crafted arguments long before they are awarded with tenure-track positions.

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What role can poetry play in 21st century America? Why do poets and poetry matter in the age of social media and global awareness?

In the 21st century I think poetry’s role is, at least in part, to reforge communities that have been fractured by a deluge of outrage and fear or even apathy.  Social media has, for good or for ill, made the question “who is my neighbor” much more complicated than it used to be—and it was already complicated.  The sheer amount of media available to us contributes a good deal I think to what Flannery O’Connor prophetically described in her own epoch; that ours is “an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”  This despair paralyzes, among other things,  faith in the possibility of my own change, and the possibility that my own words or acts of kindness or sacrifice can matter to others.   I long for poems and poetry to reforge communities that have been fractured, and to remind us of who our neighbors are.  Some of my critical research is interested in the way that Shakespeare stages moral ecologies; the idea that individual decisions and actions aren’t as discreet as they might appear, but are bound up with community of people around us.  I think I was led to this belief through Dostoevsky.  One of his characters, Fr. Zosima, insists, “But when [a monk] knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved.”  Homeless God tries to imagine what such guilt would look like and feel like in the hope that the process of writing the poems will have conditioned my vision a bit better to see the Lord in my neighbors.

For poetry to do this, I think it must be more than written and read in the privacy and silence of our various couches and chairs.  This is the flip side of the coin for writing poetry; learning to love creative writing for its own sake justifies the time and acquisition of the discipline, but I think even in the midst of those long seasons of solitary discipline, we must always have some audience or beneficiary in mind.  Some years ago, Dana Gioia puzzled over whether or not poetry could still “matter” at a time when MFA programs were pumping out professional poets who wrote to and for each other in small academic cells.  I think the hard work to be done is to continue “de-institutionalizing” poetry.  Gioia said, “As long as poets belonged to a broader class of artists and intellectuals…they [could avoid] the homogeneity of academia.”   I sort of lucked into this artistic ethos on accident.  I was writing poems for friends and relatives long before I had any notion of the subcultures of the academy.  I wrote because poems were ways for me to display affection or assert the significance of an occasion, and did so in a family where the creating and giving of art was a standard practice.  I’ve done this even more, recently, with the help of amazing musical and visual artists, especially Phil Glenn, who was in the band The Show Ponies.  He and I occasionally stage music/poetry events called “Phil & Phil.”  We did one this last December to celebrate the release of Homeless God.  The event paired a different reader with each poem and then we performed a song or song/medley for every poem which Phil had chosen and arranged.  I also enlisted nine amazing artists to respond visually to an element in one of the poems.  It was a really special and amazing opportunity to gather together with a shared purpose.  Writing and then relinquishing my poetry to both the audience and different artists was a way to make “new neighbors” and kindle deeper affection for the older ones.  I think this format of the poly-genre event, where there’s some good, old-fashioned ekphrasis happening among friends also helps to bring poetry closer to fulfilling Shurbanov’s vision of the poem as event.  I’d be remiss to point out that I’m only the latest arrival to this particular kind of party.  Chris Davidson has been involved in a similar enterprise with Salon/ la société de personnes intéressées, which has also included poetry from our other mutual friend, Amy Cannon.  We should keep doing things like this.  We should write poems for each other.  I recently wrote a limerick for my uncle on the occasion of him surviving a surfing accident.  I managed to rhyme “pelvis” and “Elvis.”  I wrote a three page ballad for friends who moved to Oregon, and I miss them.  Agha Shahid Ali has that great line, “The world is full of paper. / Write to me.”  So I do.

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