Interview with Jordan Windholz, author of Other Psalms

Jordan Windholz’s first poetry collection, Other Psalms, is a provocative, emotional examination of humankind’s relationship to religion and language. Jordan, a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and teacher in the Poets Out Loud outreach program, won the 2014 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry for this collection. In this interview, he and I discuss his work and the process of cultivating poetry and spirituality. 

Erin Coughlin: First of all, congratulations on winning the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry.

Jordan Windholz: Thanks. I’m pretty thrilled about it.

E: How long have you been writing poetry?

J: I dabbled in it when I was in middle school, but I didn’t take it seriously. It was only later, when I was in college, my freshman year, I took an Intro Class and I read a poem. I think it was by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It blew my mind open and so then I became more and more interested in poetry. I took a course in contemporary American poetry, and then I started playing with the sounds of words, writing and experimenting. I was an English major and hadn’t had a ton of experience with poetry before that, so it really affected my reading practices. Then I just started writing and I didn’t really stop. I got my MFA. I went to the University of Colorado kind of on a whim. I guess it’s been, more or less, from undergrad years till now.  

E: Was this always going to be a collection or did you find yourself returning to similar themes in multiple poems and then decided to put a collection together?

J: Some of the work started during my MFA program. You have to put a thesis together. I was going to keep writing poems and have a collection to show for my thesis. Then my mentor said, "You should really work toward thinking about a book." So that’s when I started to think through what might happen. I took another course on poetic sequence, and then I arbitrarily picked psalms as my sequence. And so the seeds of this book were planted there, in that course. And then I got out of the program and kept thinking about what this book would look like. As I wrote more and more poems, I cut out a lot and added more in until it started to feel like it had a shape. “The Nomads” was new, “Of Apocalypse” was new, whereas a poem like “Myth” was pretty early.The manuscript had been a finalist in several contests for several years, it just never hit. But I kept refashioning it every year. This last year was the most aggressive reshaping of the book and fortunately, this was the year it got chosen. 

E: “The Nomads” is one of my favorites in the book. I love how violent it is, while also being so funny. And it tells a narrative story.

J: I love it, too. As a poet, you’re always trying to get your work out there, but I’m finding that the poems I love the most, like “The Nomads” and “Necessary Angel,” just never hit. I feel like they’re my most poet-y. Maybe not poet-y, but they’re doing the most stuff and I find them the most interesting.

E: “A Necessary Angel Recalls Unearthing its Terrestrial Existence” is another poem I loved. I went to Catholic school where there were statues of angels everywhere. I imagined one of these statues coming to life and discovering this powerful past existence.

J: I feel like that was probably at the back of my mind. “Necessary Angel” refers to Wallace Stevens’s statement that poetry is necessary in part because God is absent. Poetry does God's work. And so I was thinking about a kind of angel that exists in a world without a God, culling from its past incarnated life. 

E: I was going to ask you why you refer to it as a “Necessary Angel," unaware of the Wallace Stevens quote.

J: Sometimes I feel like some of the allusions I draw upon are kind of esoteric, but they feel very personal to me. That’s why my one regret is that I didn’t put a Notes page. I think I was just lazy about it. I had one at one point and never put it in.

E: Well, it allows the readers to fill in the blanks themselves.  

J: That's true. I like the statue imagery. I like the idea of this ossified symbol having a voice.

E: Can you describe the book in your own words?

J: For me, the Biblical scriptures are often about God’s absence. There’s a longing for a kind of divine presence, but most of my faith experience is about God’s absence So for me, faith is often the willful movement towards the divine in what seems to be a palpable absence of the divine. It springs out of the apophatic tradition, which focuses on how we can’t even describe or approach God through language. The only way we get close to the divine presence is by negation, describing what God is not. Just like how we see a black hole in space through the absence of light. That’s the story around Other Psalms -- What it would mean to use the religious forms inherited through the faith tradition as a willful way of approaching a god that I don’t really feel like I believe in most of the time? The original ending of The Testament of Mark has an anonymous man, believed to be the author himself, fleeing the empty tomb, terrified and naked. That response seems more human and more real than what we might get in Sunday school or even from the pulpit.

E: It’s interesting that you describe it as a willful movement because I feel like having faith is often seen as a passive state, like ‘Okay, I believe in God. I’m just going to stand here and let whatever He does happen to me.’ When really, it’s an incredibly active relationship -- you are always working on your faith. Obviously you studied the Bible academically.

J: Yes. I went to Messiah College in Central Pennsylvania. I have a lot of friends there and things I love about it, and things I really don’t like about it now, some of the policies. And I think that’s emblematic of my own experiences. I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. It seems like every day the question of my belief is up for grabs. I grew up knowing the Bible. I’ve had some preachers who were quite literary and academic in their interpretation. I feel like I had a healthy and thorough understanding of the complexities of the stories in Scripture, the ways they could be interpreted, and the ways they intersect with our lives.

E: In several of these poems you use scientific terminology to describe parts of the body. Why did you make that choice?

J: That might have been a passive choice more than an active one. Immanence is important to me, implicitly, theologically. Where I stand right now in my own faith is that I don’t much care for salvation. Things that draw me back to Christianity are the ideals and promises it has for this life.. The fact that there’s something deeply spiritual about all that we are. And then, too, some of the scientific terms are just fun words. There is a precision in bodily language that I’m drawn to.

E: These poems are well-suited to being read aloud. I read “The Talk” out loud a couple of times, trying to understand it. I find with poems, the first time you acclimate, the second time you really explore. “The Talk” reads almost like a nonsense poem.

J: Yes, definitely. 

E: And with a poem like “The Prayer” with that repeating use of O, which makes it sound like a lament and also like a hymn. Many of these poems reminded me of hymns. I love poems where when you read them, it means one thing, but when you read them out loud, you discover all sorts of new things about it.

J: Both poems came out of reading and writing them out loud. Originally, “The Talk” was going to be called “Babel.” That, too, is an apophatic approach. What are we trying to do when we name God and where’s the line between sense and nonsense? In the Babel story, humanity is getting close to divinity and so God’s response is to destroy their language. He destroys it, and (language) becomes a kind of nonsense. That idea was working in the back of my head as I was writing. And I wanted to see how few words I could use. 

E: I like that it’s called “The Talk.” “Babel” would certainly make sense, but I feel like “The Talk” leaves that element of it up to the reader. And it makes you talk. You almost have to read that poem out loud.

J: I like your take on that.

E: You experiment with many different styles throughout the book. Some poems use slashes, some use dashes. Some are extremely short, like “The Shepherd’s Song,” while “Other Psalms” is spread out over the course of eleven individual chapters. What was your reason for doing that? More experimentation?

J: I’m drawn to couplets, so part of it was trying to break out of little pairings of lines. If I wrote a poem like “Gospel,” which I feel is a kind of a narrative lyric poem, and is conservative in a traditional sense, my impulse would be to do something that wasn’t that. How can I do similar things in another poem, but reorient the form so I could bring to the surface different sound patterns or different attentions to line breaks and enjambments? I was probably bored with writing one way and trying some other things. Once you have a glut of poems, then it’s looking at them, too, and thinking, "How am I going to layer these so that a reader won’t feel like they are reading the same patterns over and over again?"

E: So that helped inspire the order they went in?

J: When this manuscript went out, I exploded it. Before I had all the poems printed out and I was gathering them together into sections and thinking about what would go on the page, the pace, the theme. Where did I want one section to start and what poem did I want to end the section? So some of it was a little arbitrary, but some of it was a gut feel. On the one hand, you’re writing the poem across different forms and then as you’re compiling the book and thinking about what you want the book to look like, you’re also then thinking about larger movements and arcs. And then you’re just trying to imagine what it’s like for someone who hasn’t encountered your work, where would they feel they could enter a poem? If I have a more abstract poem, maybe with denser language, I want to alleviate that with a shorter lyric, so that the reader comes out of a poem like “A Necessary Angel", and can move into “Epiphany” just a couple pages later.

E: Yeah, I definitely noticed that. The book moves at a good pace, denser poems contrasted with the shorter, lighter poems. You’re in the process of completing your doctorate right now --  how do you balance the creative and the academic work?

J: (laughs) It’s all creative work! No, the answer is, you don’t. Right now, I’m in the thick of revising a chapter for another article. That’s a lot of writing, so I’m writing all the time and it’s on my mind all the time. Poetry tends to not be the center of my writing life. It becomes the periphery, so I’ll write maybe when I’m on the train or when I get a chance to grab at something. I often find that I end up revising another manuscript and a lot of my poetic energy will go back into revising and tinkering with that. I don’t even think I finish a poem. I just have to abandon them. The scholar in me, the reader in me, can always return to the same book and get something new from it, so when I translate that impulse to writing, it means I can always go into a poem and think of another way to tinker with it. Both of them [academic and creative work] involve close reading. They feed off one another. I don’t even know if I’ve figured out the puzzle of how to balance them.

E: I think you’re doing a great job, considering you completed a collection and you’re still working on your dissertation.

J: I feel very lucky. This collection was finishing as I was still in course work. I did return to it and shape it and send it out as a kind of release from the intensities of research and scholarly work. I could step back, do the poetry, and take my brain out of Shakespeare for a moment. 

E: Your dissertation is about the nature of the bachelor in literature. Can you describe that? 

J: I’m interested in the ways that bachelor identity is explored in early modern literature. The 16th and 17th century did not have the identity of the bachelor that we have today. They certainly didn’t have the reality show. Nonetheless, there were figurations of the single life beginning to emerge and they became instrumental to certain genres like comedy. The comedies staged the lives of single men and single women, but there are also  a lot of essays with theories about marriage and what marriage is for. The single person gets intensified scrutiny. I’m particularly interested in how figurations of bachelor identities come to structure and inform larger questions. Some of those are about marriage. Some of those are about labor status. Some of those are about the nature of gentility or what it means to be a gentleman. And what it means to be a scholar. In some ways it’s a kind of genealogy of manhood.

E: A bachelor seems to be in an enviable place in life, while a spinster is to be pitied because nobody wants her.

J: That's right, but some bachelors are pitied, or even openly mocked.  The questions are framed very differently for maids, widows, spinsters. The single man might be imprisoned to his desires. If he’s a laborer, he might not have the same of economic agency a husband has. It’s a transitional period in which the assertion of a bachelor pronouncing his autonomy really begins to surface. For instance, if you were a scholar in the university, you had to remain single, but the masters of those colleges could be married, so a lot of the questions of marriage and singleness for men map out across hierarchies of power. With maids, there might might be power in preserving autonomy, whereas with men there’s a kind of queerness to virginity. There’s something wrong with you if you want to remain chaste when you’re a man. And so, there are similar questions, but the answers are different.

E: It’s telling that marriage has always been indicative of power.

J: Yes, and at the same time in the period single women could have more legal economic power because they didn’t forfeit it to a husband. You have widow discourses where young men want to marry widows because women have financial means that the men want access to. Then legally, when they marry, men gain control.

E: It’s actually much more complex than the idea that a bachelor can do whatever he wants while a woman is chained within this societal expectation of marriage.

J: That’s what drove my research. We tend to talk about bachelors in a modern sense; how they tend to have more freedom. They, more or less, do in a modern society. A single man is in a privileged position. The market tends to privilege the idea of a single man, and it doesn’t do that for women. But in the period, that question of, “What were the conditions that animated the notion of the single life?”, seems very different from how we think of it today. Sometimes it’s a matter of autonomy and freedom, often it coincides with the class position. 

E: So a laborer would have more economic freedom if he were married?

J: Generally, it coincided with economic mastery. For instance, if you’re a journeyman in the livery business, what should be the economic autonomy that coincides with the public demonstration of being married? Your household is also your workshop. Your wife is working in the workshop along with you. You’re indenturing apprentices. So that’s not the same process that a single gentleman might have if he has money. Marriage is a way of drawing up property in a way that’s not the same for a (single) laborer living in the city.

E: So you’re looking at literature from the 16th and 17th century?

J: Yeah, mostly plays: Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Marlowe. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

E: How far along are you?

J: Revising. I’m finishing up the fourth chapter now and revising another chapter for an article. Next year I’m going to be a senior teaching fellow, which I hope to be my last year. I was on the job market this year. It was good experience. I got some interviews and visits, but didn’t land, so the decision between my adviser and me was to wrap up the dissertation and then polish it so I have a book proposal going forward. So it’s done, but not done.

E: You’re working on a second collection now?

J: It’s mostly done...very different. It’s called The Grand Eloquence and a couple of years ago it was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. There are a lot of poems in Other Psalms where I thought, “These are poems that will be published.” I can tell they’re doing the things that might appeal to a reader. The second manuscript is much looser and riskier. I’m writing in a tradition that feels, in some ways, like a reaction to what I was doing in Other Psalms. These poems are lighter. They’re more conversational. In some ways, the volume’s playing with sentimentality. I don’t even know if all the poems succeed. The times that I’ve read poems from that volume, people come up at a reading and say (referring to the new manuscript), “I just love those poems.” The ones from the new manuscript tend to get a more enthusiastic response. I don’t know if Other Psalms are the more contemplative poems and the ones from The Grand Eloquence hit the heart in a different way. I don’t know what that means for the poems’ quality. 

E: The poems in Other Psalms feel so deeply personal. I needed to go back and reread them a few times. So maybe when you’re hearing something at a reading with a more conversational air, it hits an audience harder in that setting. Doesn’t mean it’s any less rewarding, but it’s a different kind of experience.

J: That seems to be my gut, too. They feel like poems you can just take away. I wrote the volume as a response to the idea that a poem needs to be an eternal object. As in, what if I wrote some poems that you could hear, and then throw away? You like them and then it’s just…okay. I’m interested in eternal questions in Other Psalms, and in The Grand Eloquence I’m interested in the ways that writing is ephemeral and the poem itself is an object that only lives at the moment of its reading. And then it’s gone, cast in oblivion until someone comes back to retrieve it from that.

E: That sounds like a poem.

J: (laughs) Maybe.

-This interview has been edited and condensed.