Interview: Jaydn DeWald
Jaydn DeWald is a writer, teacher, jazz bassist, and the author of two chapbooks, The Rosebud Variations: And Other Variations (Greying Ghost, 2018) and In Whose Hand the Light Expires (Yellow Flag Press, 2018). His poems, stories, and critical essays have appeared in Best New Poets 2015, Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz & Literature, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, south: a scholarly journal, West Branch, and many others. He lives with his partner and two kids in Bogart, Georgia, where he’s a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia.
Sutra Press: Where did you grow up? Does environment and place play a role within your writing?
Jaydn DeWald: Absolutely. Now in the South, I feel the significance of environment/place perpetually. I grew up in Elk Grove, California—the pacifist son of a Zen Buddhist jazz trumpeter—and now drive past three armories on my way to work every morning. My writing frequently returns to California, especially to San Francisco, where my partner and I spent most of our twenties, in order to escape this ever-present clashing of values.
But more to the point: Some of my childhood memories have acquired in recent years an almost magical atmosphere, and so exist both in and outside of locatable places. In as counterpoint to this compressed mass a longing, I explore two such memories—of watching my father practice his trumpet (“there I sat under your brass galaxy of notes in an outsized shirt”) and of skateboarding with a once-close friend at night (“so like two night trains distortion & power chords side by side we rode”). These, now, are psychic landscapes, though once upon a time I could point to them on a map.
SP: You’re not only a writer and a teacher, but also a jazz bassist. How does your musical practice influence your work?
JD: Great question. Jazz is a genre of music that challenges, expands, resists, and gives the slip to Western musical expectations—a music built upon rhythmic and harmonic tensions. Unsurprisingly, then, its strongest practitioners tend to be guileful and not a little subversive: opposing normative conventions, seeking out ulterior versions of (musical) reality and ways of being. Though music can provide a writer with many practical lessons—twelve notes is plenty; the body’s quicker than the mind; silence, too, is music; listen and react, listen and react, listen and react . . .—this attitude or spirit has influenced and continues to influence my writing far more intensely than any strictly musical practice. In fact, I often pursue highly formal/structured poems solely for the fun of “playing” against their rules.
SP: You describe the chapbook as a series of prose poems disguised as operating instructions, product descriptions, fine print, the “traffic of a dead world” (Devin Johnston). What inspired you to write this chapbook, as counterpoint to this compressed mass a longing?
JD: The chapbook began—for me—as a side project, occasional respite from the intensity of lyric poetry or from the labor of narrative fiction. I liked gleaning language, recontextualizing set phrases and adages, discovering the metaphorical potentialities of authoritative, mechanistic prose. One might say I was “inspired” by Frankensteinian attempts to stitch together disparate material—“dead” language—and lightning-strike them to life, a process that in the end proved to be filled (thank goodness) with intensity and labor anyway.
SP: Some of the most common words within the chapbook are as follows: “time, space, see, still, hear, black, dark, outside, hair, body, eyes, shadow, heart, floating, window, orange, winter, night, light, bed, yellow, silent, naked.” Do you have a favorite word? What three words capture the themes and essence of as counterpoint to this compressed mass a longing?
JD: I love so many words. How can I choose a favorite?
In as counterpoint to this compressed mass a longing, a single word is often the engine of a poem’s composition: the chosen word will appear in every sentence, like a common tone in a series of chord changes. With the exception of “time” and “space,” however, most of these words are pretty mundane (“turn,” “straight,” “see,” “hear,” “this,” “that”). I’m drawn less to the rarity, mellifluousness, or peculiar meaning of a given word—riparian? glossolalia? scintilla?—than I am to its flexibility or mutability, its ability to facilitate unusual movement. Put simply, it’s difficult to identify three words that “capture the theme and essence” of this chapbook because, for me, the poems are about the slippage between sentences and/or phrases, the sudden shifting of voices, pronouns, contexts, and emotional registers; composing them, I was all the time feeling for fissures (a Carrollian rabbit hole, or secret Super Mario Bros. warp pipe) in the surface of the language through which the reader and I might pass—together. As Marvin Bell likes to say: “Poets use words to get beyond words.”
Still, I do love “dark,” “body,” “hair,” “shadow,” “night,” even if it makes me feel like a brooding teenager plunking minor chords on a piano, sustain pedal to the metal.
SP: The form of the poems resembles tidy, self-contained columns of prose. What inspired you to use this form for these poems?
JD: as counterpoint to this compressed mass a longing consists of prose poems with justified margins. I justify the margins because a jagged right margin looks like a lineated poem, and I don’t want to confuse readers: Are these prose poems, or are they lineated poems with very long lines?
The poems remain, however, extremely formal. In addition to the form discussed in the previous question (a chosen word repeated in every sentence of a poem), there are quite a few prose poems in a hybrid form: a chain of unpunctuated, non-lineated haiku whose “lines”—five- or seven-syllable phrases—repeat in the pattern of a pantoum, thus:
inside him for years a river of her brown hair floating round organs as he walks silent a river of her brown hair under sulfur lamps as he walks silent his shadow reaches backward under sulfur lamps clutching a moment his shadow reaches backward . . .
Inspired by the repetition of Steve Reich compositions, I try to make the rhythm of these poems mechanical and hypnotic.
SP: Can you tell us about your writing process? Do you practice any personal or creative rituals?
JD: For me, reading and writing are quotidian activities—like meditation, free-throw shooting, or solfège warmups. Rather than ritualize or romanticize the writing process (i.e. isolate it as an “important” bourgeois leisure pursuit), I aim to obliterate the distinctions between art and life. At this very moment, my kids are drawing at our kitchen table, and I’m scribbling these words on green construction paper in rust-colored colored pencil. Mine’s a catch-as-catch-can writing process. No time for rituals. Yet politically, too, I believe artists should treat and discuss their processes as unremarkable behavior, even if such behavior can save them and can, sometimes, produce remarkable art.
SP: Was there a religious or spiritual background to your life? How has this transformed? How has it influenced your writing?
JD: I’m not and never have been religious. But in the polytheistic kingdom of art, I worship those who enlarge our lives, who unveil our silently active interiors, and who reveal the vital connections we maintain for one another across time: John Coltrane, Chris Marker, Samuel Delany, Ellen Douglas, James Baldwin, Jackie Kay—my list of “gods” goes on and on . . .
SP: What’s your golden thread?
JD: It’s hard to regard Ariadne’s thread as anything but a metaphor for the creative process, especially of art that announces and comments upon its own construction, since Ellen Douglas uses it as such in her 1982 epistolary novel A Lifetime Burning, which I often teach.
There is, fortuitously, another “golden” metaphor for the creative process—the final Brothers Grimm’s tale, “The Golden Key,” translated thus by Jack Zipes:
One winter when the snow was very deep, a poor boy had to go outside and gather wood on a sled. After he had finally collected enough wood and had piled it on his sled, he decided not to go home right away because he was so frozen. He thought he would instead make a fire to warm himself up a bit. So he began scraping the snow away, and as he cleared the ground he discovered a small golden key. When there’s a key, he knew, there must be a lock. So he dug farther into the ground and found a little iron casket. If only the key will fit! There are bound to be precious things in the casket. He searched and he could not find a key hole. Then, finally, he noticed one, but it was so small that he could barely see it. He tried the key, and fortunately it fit. So, he began turning it, and now we must wait until he unlocks the casket completely and lifts the cover. That’s when we’ll learn what wonderful things he found.
Isn’t that beautiful? I find these two metaphors extraordinarily useful: some poems require a ball of thread to find our way out of them; others a key—to pique our anticipation/imagination.
SP: What’s your labyrinth?
JD: To avoid mixing metaphors: the subject of a text.
SP: What are you working on now?
JD: Mostly a cross-genre manuscript entitled Angular Chorus—a book of poems/prose that enacts, from a gathering of distinct personae, in a series of obsessive poetic sequences, love, grief, music, storytelling, and desire. A lyric book for collectivists, it is (I hope) an anarchic call and response in which each narrator/speaker sacrifices his or her lyric privacy—his or her individualistic literary “success”—on the altar of the social, effectively celebrating mutuality by converting individual preoccupations into a social body.