Interview: T.J. Anderson

Interview with T.J. Anderson
Jessica Reidy

Born in Guthrie, Oklahoma, T.J. Anderson III is the author of River to Cross (The Backwaters Press), Notes to Make the Sound Come Right: Four Innovators of Jazz Poetry (University of Arkansas Press) the spoken-word CD Blood Octave (Flat Five Recordings), and the chapbook At Last Round Up (lift books). He lives with his family in Roanoke, Virginia, and teaches at Hollins University.

1. How would you describe the influence of music in your book Rivers to Cross?

Because my father is a composer and my mother was a librarian, I grew up in a house full of music and books. Our tastes were fairly eclectic, but mainly rooted in African American culture. From classical to jazz, everything was listened to on the radio and family stereo. Alongside recordings of Vivaldi, Beethoven, Charles Ives, Ellington, Basie, and Robert McFerrin, I discovered and laid claim to my mom’s Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas albums, and subsequently I became enraptured by the spoken word. So, the connection between music and poetry has always been instrumental (pun intended) in my work. Of course the collection’s title alludes to the spiritual “One More River to Cross” and more abstractly to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the first poem I memorized as a young child. There are references to musicians and music in Section V, which is specifically informed by my love of jazz. My sense of what to do with sound and the function of the poetic line come directly from that listening experience. Beyond the apparent musical references, I am mainly an aural poet. I hear things in terms of musical phrases during my composition process, and while “silent reading” is important to the text, orality is crucial. I remember attending a poetry reading in Boston, where Ethridge Knight introduced his poems and referred to them as “pieces.” Given Knight’s delivery, I felt this was recognition of the integral role that music plays in his texts. This had a profound resonance with me, and I became further interested in how we hear things as audience and reader-performer. For me as an artist, poetry and music are inextricably tied and the two share a symbiotic  relationship.

2. How do you think your writing has changed since your first book?

The poems contained in River to Cross span about a twenty year period in terms of when they were written. During that period, I was experimenting with poetry in different ways, and now that I think about it, I was trying to find my voice with the expectation that once found, the search would be over. In retrospect, that’s a stagnant view as I wasn’t seriously taking into consideration the progression of growth and change. Throughout this process, my voice was being “cut” by different factors: the things I read, my travels, being a father and married to another writer, teaching in the academy, etc. After the book was published, I experienced the classic “writer’s block” and didn’t write beyond my daily journaling. Of course I thought about writing poetry all the time and that just knotted me up further. Then one day, I saw a painting, “The Sorry Route,” by Brian Counihan, a local artist. Seeing the painting and having a conversation with Brian about it had a startling effect on me. The semi-abstract painting portrays two racially indeterminate male figures: one chained, the other wearing a Napoleonic-styled hat. The work became my muse and a series of poems emerged, different from anything I had written before. Still musical, but with a kind of “Mixtery” that incorporated autobiography, African American history, and popular culture. The work opened up in me a kind of freedom that I hadn’t experienced before. It’s difficult for me to fully explain it. I became less concerned about linear clarity and concrete meaning. I began to embrace the idea of slippage, loss, recovery. The poems grew an amorphous skin and depending on how one looked at them or understood the historical references, the meaning would shift. They became hard to understand at first reading. The poems are loosely narrative and orientated around an African American character named “Dickerson” who traverses time but is unable to engage in a linear understanding of his shifting experiences. Everything seems to happen at once as if he lives in a continual state of déjà vu. So, in terms of changing, I guess I can say I began to consider working on a more “focused” project and less concerned about implying static meaning. I began to see the process of writing as creating a kind of “word-alchemy.”

3. What do your travel experiences lend to your work?

As an adult, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, and for a time I lived in Cairo, Egypt. Besides being in a new environment and experiencing new sensory stimulation, I have begun to think of myself more as a “motherless child” in the sense that I feel as connected to people from different cultures as I feel with my own compatriots. Traveling has made me aware of the dangers of an extreme nationalism, here or abroad, that refuses to recognize the nature of the human community and keeps us from seeing ourselves as citizens of the world. M.B. Tolson once talked about the “artistry of circumstance.” In the context of travel, I think about that often. How is it that I write in English, a language that was imposed on my African ancestors who were brought to this country against their will? What about my place as an artist crossing from the 20th to the 21st century? How does that limit my understanding and create certain assumptions that influence the way I create and see the world? All in all, I think traveling and writing reminds me to be cognizant of assumptions and the limits of direct experience.

4. What would your ideal adventure be?

Ok, here’s the thing, my ideal adventure is limited by the current parameters of my imagination. If I had to think of one ideal adventure right now, it would be going to a secluded place where I had limited human contact, and I would bring along my Kaisen (small steel tongue drum), flute, djembe, a journal and simply meditate. This fantasy comes from my desire to occasionally exit the “grid” and get deeper in touch with the rhythms of the natural world.

5. What kinds of writing exercises do you find yourself returning to again and again?

I come back to two writing exercises. One is the old Dadaist cutout exercise that involves cutting up a text and dropping the fragments in a random fashion to see what emerges. During this process, the brain naturally searches for meaning, but sometimes it is the juxtaposition of words or syntactical fragments that inspire an opening or closing line to what may become the genesis of a poem. The second exercise isn’t really an exercise as such but rather a part of the revision process. The poet Richard Tillinghast taught me about reading a poem backwards, line by line. This practice presents an opportunity to see a poem in a different light and allows me to think further about Charles Olson’s observation that the poem is a high-energy construct. Reading the poem backwards gives you the opportunity to hear a different kind of musicality and make connections to images that may not have been so apparent in the linear composition/reading, to open yourself up to a different kind of energy.

6. How does surrealism play into your aesthetic?

The practice of classic surrealist experimental techniques like automatic writing, photomontage, and “The Exquisite Corpse” continue to have a place in my writing. In fact, I often come back to André Bréton’s 1924 manifesto in addition to the brilliant writing of Antonin Artaud. Aimé Césaire and Will Alexander’s use of surrealism has been particularly important to me. There is a liberating aspect to these experiments that allows me to free up my awareness that I greatly appreciate. For me, surrealism evokes the “real-real” in a manner that doesn’t delegate things to a discursive mind and limit our ability for play and imagination.

7. Which book do you reread the most?

Clayton Eshleman’s Novices: A Study in Poetic Apprenticeship and Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art continue to have resonance. What I admire most about these books is the bridging of Eastern and Western practices and the acknowledgement that the writing of poetry is both mystical and spiritual.

 8. What do you think it means to “live poetically”?

For me, to “live poetically” means to be in continual engagement with the creative process. This does not mean venturing out with the purpose of “living a life of poetry” as this has come to imply a certain sensibility in our culture informed by reverence for the “book” or the idea that the purpose of living is to create a text that has perhaps already been formulated in the mind. It means to simply open oneself up to the possibility of vast experiences, to ride the moment of creation without expectation, and to recognize the unutterable gift of silence. During my period of so-called writer’s block, I came to realize that I was deep in the throes of the ongoing creative process and all I simply had to do was not “think” and open myself to the cosmos.

9. How do you think practicing mindfulness supports good writing?

Practicing mindfulness is indeed a struggle. I believe it can be helpful in terms of developing a more focused concentration when it comes to writing but one shouldn’t view the two (writing and mindfulness) as separate skills. To engage in the seamless practice and integration of the lived/living experience no matter how it manifests itself is the desired idea.

 10. What are you working on right now?

I continue to work on “Dickerson Travels the Sorry Route” and hope to have a completed manuscript within a year. From there, I’ll allow my intuition to lead me.

Jessica Reidy is an MFA candidate at Florida State University, where she teaches about creative writing, rhetoric, and Romani culture and representation. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine as Story of the Week, Quail Bell, The Los Angeles Review, and other journals. She is the Art Editor of the Southeast Review, co-founder of The Poet Time e-reading series, and also works with VIDA–Women in Literary Arts. She is currently writing her first novel.