Works with Soul: Interview with Jay Kidd

Works with Soul: Interview with Jay Kidd

by Keira Havens October 01, 2013

Issue 29 features our 2013 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize winner, Jay Kidd. Keats said that "Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance."  That’s certainly what the winning poem, "Runaway Dorothy" did for me, and I’m excited to share some more of Jay’s thoughts on poetry, song, and surprise in our latest Works with Soul interview.

Ruminate Magazine: "Runaway Dorothy" was a vivid experience for me. The onrushing couplets practically feel like train cars (or maybe racing thoughts), with barely a space in between. You’ve spoken before about the ‘sculpture’ of poetry, building meanings from the blank space and silences that surround the words. I’m curious about the way you integrate the poem and its form–Are the words completed before sculpture begins? Or does the way a line looks on the page change your perception of those words?

Jay Kidd: It is an interesting question and one that of course every poet grapples with. I find that the words and the shape and look of the poem often occur simultaneously; the sound, shape, and feel of the words seem to lead to a certain structure. I think poetry is an embodied art form; it is best read aloud so we feel it as it come out of our mouths, we hear it and the sound of the voice reading reverberates in our bodies, we see a poem as a shape on the page, and each line or image or feeling is a breath, whether its an exhalation or inhalation, or even a breath being held, suspended, or not quite released, all of this determines the architecture of the poem. As poems are, in many ways, stories, the correct form is critical to the effective telling of the story. In the case of this poem, the actual experience was acute, so pronounced and felt, I knew that it was a poem almost while it was happening. When I sat down to write it the words and images willingly emerged and flowed onto the page as if I was reliving the moment. It was powerful. The couplets were a happy coincidence. I was reading Tony Hoagland, who often uses couplets, and I knew that they would be perfect for this poem; they could replicate the descent down the subway steps, the arrival on the platform, the rhythm of the music, the onrush of feeling. It was very satisfying to write and I felt it deeply as I was writing it.

RM: Issue 29 is themed “In Search of Song”, and I love that the narrator of "Runaway Dorothy" is unable to find the words they need to share their experience in conversation, but they are able to do so wonderfully and completely in the poem.

I try to speak, to explain what

just happened but it doesn’t come out right except
to
comment on the exquisite juxtaposition of the music

and the setting but what I couldn’t convey was the
Appalachian horizon, vast and deep, the hoe in the soil,

JK: I love this question and it involves a good bit of what I have said about the structure of a poem. I understand the tone of a poem as the music of it. To do so allows for the necessary separation from the poem’s mood. This poem for example is about loss and the sad inexorable passage of time but it is filled with a kind of buoyancy because of the tone or musicality of it. The narrator is able to recall a moment of great poignancy in a way that is musical and engaging. The contrast is part of what makes the poem work. The reader is taken on a journey of discovery just as the poet experienced it. We are all living our lives, going about our days and at any moment something can occur that penetrates the surface of things and connect us to ourselves or to some basic fact of our existence. This is exciting, and the challenge of getting it down on paper as a poem is in part the challenge of getting the music right.

I have often thought that I would’ve enjoyed being somehow involved in the production of recorded music. I love music so much, and I like so many kinds of music, and the production of it is key. If you listen, for example, to Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic Records recordings, the ones her biggest her hits were with, the production value is so high—the band, the back up vocals, the studio setting, are simply perfect—tight and focused—and they bring into being those amazing songs that have such excitement about them with nothing extraneous. That happened because of choices made about how they were going to be recorded. Lately I have been listening to an old Roberta Flack recording—her version of “I Told Jesus” and it is simply breathtaking. I sit very still when I hear it and imagine what it must have been like to be in the studio when she recorded this, like some spirit was moving through her and she was connecting to something deep within. It never fails to move me. But as a writer, I need lots of silence. I need to be alone because there is music being made and I have to be able to hear it and most importantly, to feel it.

RM: I think you’re right, the production of music has a lot in common with the shaping of the poem, in the way it enables the experience to be shared in full with the audience. The strength of the experience itself seems tied to the element of surprise—an everyday occurrence that suddenly cuts to the bone, or the dawning realization something is being built that goes beyond every expectation. What has surprised you most as a poet?

JK: Of course the element of surprise is critical to the experience of poetry, both as a reader and a writer. I believe it was Robert Frost who said “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” If I am not taken into some experience of truth, of emotional honesty or awakening while I am writing a poem then of course the reader will not experience it either—and this is the biggest challenge and of course the greatest joy in writing, to get something right and true. 

What was particularly exiting about this poem was that the actual event the poem describes did happen to me, which was in itself surprising and moving. It was one of those moments where the envelope of normal time that we all walk around in was pierced, ripped open, by an unexpected event. The deeper surprise came as I was writing it and found myself writing about my mother and the eventual loss of her. And behind that realization was my father’s death the year before. Both of my parents were from the same small town in West Virginia and to go there as a child was a tremendous experience, like going backwards in time to some enchanted place, some gentle place that could hold you, so very unlike the suburban New York, Mad Men like existence my family was living. The familial roots there are very deep, something I feel in my bones even now. All of my relatives there have either died or left and so increasingly it is becoming only a memory. The poem then became both a celebration of this place and an expression of grief and loss. It was indeed a surprise on so many levels and to have gotten it down as a poem, a poem that speaks to other people, that allows the reader to experience that piercing of the surface of things, is extremely gratifying.

RM: Maybe the biggest surprise we encounter in the creative moment is that someone else in an entirely different time and place has shared in our experience. C.S. Lewis said "We read to know we are not alone." I’m curious to know if you consider poetry a natural extension of the career you have made reaching out to people as a counselor, therapist, and now life coach.

JK: I think fundamentally they come from the same place, the place that is listening for truth, for connection, for ways to be in the present moment, more fully engaged. I think it was Kafka who said that a book must “serve as an ice-axe for the frozen sea within us,” this was a very psychological statement and true for a poem as well. So, yes they are quite connected.

I think therapy, like poetry, is an art form and both have elements of being a kind of spiritual vocation because you are getting at the essential questions of what am I here for and how do I live, what is the nature of existence. These things are being addressed by both psychology and poetry. Thinking of your C.S. Lewis quotation, I think literature and poetry can makes us feel less alone or perhaps our aloneness may be affirmed but we understand that we are not alone in experiencing it!

I have only really wanted to do two things in my life, one was to be a therapist and the other was to be a poet. To have embarked on the vocation of poet in mid-life is very satisfying. I find that I use myself, listen to myself, in a more finely tuned way than I ever have before, and I am doing so in the service of art, of making something which hadn’t existed before and has some kind of beauty and truth such that readers respond and are affected. Like the work of therapy and counseling, other people are affected and that is a wonderful feeling.

RM: Thank you for speaking with us, Jay! We’re excited to publish your work in Issue 29: In Search of Song, and wish you well in your new vocation. 

Jay Kidd lives in New York City with his husband Ken, and they have had the very deep satisfaction of living on the same street in Greenwich Village for nearly twenty-five years. Jay’s work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review and the Burningword Literary Journal, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He studies the craft of poetry at the Writers Studio. After many years of being a psychotherapist, Jay now works as a certified life coach helping people navigate the human experience. He is a graduate of Earlham College and Union Theological Seminary. Jay is a practitioner of Bikram yoga because he likes the heat, and some of his best poetry ideas have often occurred to him in the middle of an asana. Also, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” hovers always at the back of his mind.

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Keira Havens
Keira Havens

Author

Keira Havens grew up in Hawaii where she was fascinated by flowers, bugs, and the ocean. After receiving her bachelor's in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2004, she accepted a commission in the United States Air Force. She left active duty to pursue a degree in a synthetic biology laboratory and received her MS from Colorado State University in 2014. Along the way, she has volunteered and worked in nonprofit marketing and outreach. She joined Ruminate’s team in 2010 and currently serves as Ruminate's Marketing and Outreach Director.



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