Wednesday, June 3, 2015

In the Spotlight: William Jolliff

The writer of “Explanations for the Night” and "For Rebecca, Off to Spain,” two poems published in The Worcester Review Volume XXXV, William Jolliff is a professor, old-time country and traditional music enthusiast, and poet who here offers writing tips and insights into his own work as a poet. 

You have noted on the George Fox University faculty page that you are interested in traditional Appalachian and Midwestern music. Could you discuss how your interest and involvement in these genres has influenced your poetry?

That's really hard to say. I assume there may be some mutual influence but not much that would lend itself to easy correspondences. I've loved old-time country and traditional music since the cradle, but other than the shared fascination with words, such art forms seem very different to me from literary poetry. When I write songs in those genres, I put a very different kind of formal demands on myself than I do with my poetry, which is largely (more or less) free verse. Probably the main influence might simply be that the kinds of people who show up in my poems are often people who like old-time country music and live in that little demographic slice. I did happen to notice a few summers back that I'd written about forty poems of sixteen lines each: four, four-line stanzas with about four pulses to the line. That happens to be the structure of a traditional fiddle tune... So I suppose on some deep structural level there's a bit of merging going on.

You have also noted that you like to focus on countercultural writers. Could you share why and which works in particular have stuck with you and your writing? 

The old Quaker idea of "speaking truth to power" is a pretty constant part of what informs my thinking, if too seldom my practice. So I admire writers who give voice to folks who often don't have one and who speak truly to issues that tend to be overlooked, usually for reasons grounded in a lack of economic power. Denise Giardina's novels set in the coalfields of West Virginia, Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth, are strong in this vein; Kentucky novelist Silas House is another master. And one of my favorite books on the planet is a piece of literary nonfiction, Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain; he writes truly and with great sensitivity and respect about people who, as the culmination of a deep spiritual journey, are led to take up poisonous snakes in worship.  And he does so without a hint of condescension. What these writers have in common, along with creating good art, is that they work with the assumption that simply because people are not educated, that doesn't mean they aren't brilliant and insightful and admirable.

I see I haven't mentioned any poets yet in this strain; right now one of my favorites is the Ohio poet Jeanne Bryner, especially her collection No Matter How Many Windows. Another writer who I see as giving voice to people often overlooked is former poet laureate Ted Kooser. In terms of poetic craft, he also happens to be as close as I have to a model.

“For Rebecca, Off to Spain” is a beautiful sonnet. Why did you choose this structure? How did you decide when to break away from the rigidity of form? What do you believe is the importance of aligning with and deviating from structure in poetry?

I wouldn't consider that poem a sonnet; you're right that it has the feel of a sonnet, though not the structure. I tend not to think of form until I'm at least a draft or two into a piece.  Once I have a draft down that is getting the effect or spiritual resonance I'm after, I try to distance myself from the poem and see what aspects of potential formal gratification seem to be offered by the poem. That piece seemed to want to rhyme, and since I love rhyme when it throws itself my way, I tried to capitalize on what the poem was offering on its own. I wrote that poem for my daughter's graduation from college, and I wanted it to be a kind of appreciation for the person she had mysteriously become, apparently while I wasn't looking. So I was pleased that it came out as a rather traditional sounding tribute to her at a very important point in her life. Sometimes formal elements complement a piece, and I try for that advantage. Forcing a form never works for me. When I just have the craftsman's urge to write something that scans and rhymes for its own sake, I'll usually write a song instead of a poem.

Could you discuss the role of dialogue in “Explanations for the Night?”

One thing I've noticed after writing for so many years is that most of the poems I don't mind claiming as my own are little narratives, stories. I don't have a strong lyrical gift, though heaven knows I wish I did. Well, when you're writing narrative, dialogue is extremely important. If I can catch exactly how characters talk—exactly—I feel like I'm really beginning to understand them at a deep psychological level.

I didn't grow up in an environment that lent itself to highbrow literary enrichment. But I had the wonderful advantage of growing up in an extended family in which people would sit around the table and drink coffee and eat pie and tell stories, often the same ones over and over. As they did so, I would sit and listen to how their voices changed, the tones and the rhythms, as the stories became richer. If I can catch the memory of the voices and get them on the page, the rest of the writing takes care of itself. If the finished piece communicates the feeling it gives me to somebody beyond me, I'm happy. And, for what it's worth, I can usually publish it.

Many unpublished writers find the publishing process overwhelming and may not even know where to start. As a writer who has had his work published in over a hundred publications, what do you believe are the top three things writers can do to improve their submissions’ acceptance rates?

The first one is easy: write a lot. The more you write, the better your poems will be and, just as importantly, the more poems you'll have to choose from when you're putting those little packets together.

Second, read a lot of contemporary poems in the little magazines. Just as you can't write a hit song if you don't listen to the radio, you can't write poems publishable in the little mags if you don't read the little mags. Wannabe songwriters listen to their target music all the time, but I often find that my poetry students read very little among their contemporaries. When you think about it, that's silly. I often tell my new students to list their five favorite contemporary poets. Many can't come up with five. Fortunately that's a weakness that's easy to remedy. Read.

Third, keep the "business" part of your psyche separate from the part that makes the poems. If you don't, you'll take every rejection of your poems as a rejection of your artistic being, and your soul will get bruised—or worse, calloused—pretty quickly. When I'm putting my submission packets together, I don't use my poet's heart. I become a door-to-door salesman for a few hours or days. I try to be as cold and productive as I can be. Once those submissions go into the mail, I can go back to being a poet.

The Worcester Review would like to thank William Jolliff for contributing to volume XXXV and for participating in the online blog series. 

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