The Lightning Room with Josette Akresh-Gonzales



–Interview by Diana Clarke


January author Josette Akresh-Gonzales makes a case for for caring about commas after the apocalypse and remembering even when it would hurt less to forget.


1. I was so struck by one line in “The Trumpet Player”: “Mercy for caring deeply about commas/instead of migrant slaves.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what, if anything, poetry can or should do when the world is more visibly messed up than usual. By which I mean, do commas have a use? Why bother caring about punctuation?

Without commas, there would be no small intake of breath between phrases, no pause; it would be all hard stops, choppy and unforgiving, like a drill sergeant yelling at you. Of course, I’m a copyeditor, so I have to care about commas. But, do I have to be a copyeditor? That’s the question I ask myself. If the world were to end (I just read the MaddAddam trilogy, by Margaret Atwood, so this hypothetical situation is fresh in my mind), would survivors who know where to put commas be able to make a living? Or would it be more useful, would it be more valuable in a postapocalyptic society, to be able to grow wheat, to weave fabric, to hunt squirrel. Atwood argues in these novels that storytelling matters tremendously to human beings and to survival. Should poetry address the problems we humans face? I really don’t know how it can’t and still survive as an art form. Those whose work takes big risks with big, troubling narratives—like Jamaal May, Martín Espada, Allen Ginsberg—are so rewarding to read, because they are not selfish: they give a huge gift to us in attempting to take on these topics that matter.

2. The speaker in that poem says, “I have two kids so I’ve forgotten everything.” But whoever she is, she’s writing poetry—which is a kind of memory, not to mention that she’s lying, and that the purpose of the yizkor service is to give people permission to remember, and to mourn family members they’ve lost. What’s the relationship between loving and forgetting?

I think our culture expects us to forget a lot. We seem to go out of our way to tell each other how forgetful we are — I hear people almost bragging about how aging and kids have made them forgetful. My friends say “I’m bad with names” all the time. It’s like we’re terrified of letting things or people actually mean something to us. There’s a mystery to memory, how memories are created and how they morph as time goes on—stories get told in different ways over the years. Who are you? A body of memories, and after you’re dead, only the stories people will remember about you.

3. I loved how you created the equation between teaching and punk rock. Adolescence—adolescents—are so anarchical. How do you think about form and structure in your poems, music being a species of poetry?

I try to cull out the fluff in hopes of creating a certain kind of edginess and tension. When opposite elements are placed next to each other, the juxtaposition causes both unease and movement. Repetition is important; it creates a memory and colors the words that come after the repeated element. Walt Whitman taught me that a poem can have rhythm and structure despite really long lines—that seemingly have no meter. But when you read Leaves of Grass aloud, you feel the breath of the poet inside you. As he wrote, “Through me many long dumb voices.” I used to do a lot of open mike nights and listen to the slam poets and get really pumped up. Rhythm is a kind of energy. “Behold! I do not give lectures, or a little charity; / When I give, I give myself.”

4. It’s exciting to find a poet writing about religion, and especially letting religion inhabit a positive and casual space in the poem. How do you relate to the Judaism you depict in “The Trumpet Player?”

Something that I learned ages ago, as a young yeshiva student in New Jersey or New York, long before I rejected most of what I learned of orthodoxy, has stuck with me, and that is that the great rabbis teach us to value actions over thoughts. I was taught that God doesn’t care what you think, as long as you act righteously. That’s why prayer is not silent and why mitzvot are mostly how you treat other people. These days I think of God more as a metaphor, but I’m steeped in traditional Jewish rituals…Remember that scene in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?, when the guy at the radio station asks Everett what kind of songs they sing, and he says, “Sir, uh, the Soggy Bottom Boys have been steeped in old-timey material. Heck, we’re silly with it, ain’t we, boys?” I can aveenu malkenu and o’seh shalom till the cows come home. This stuff was such a big part of my upbringing that sometimes it’s hard to dig it up, now, and show it to people. But I’m starting to realize that it is exciting, in a way, and it’s worth acknowledging to myself that often the lens I’m viewing the world through is a Jewish one. And I’m inspired by other Jewish poets, like Matthew Lippman, who just released a fabulous collection of poems, Salami Jew, tackling these issues, really wrestling with them. On a side note, it’s also worth mentioning Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, and the rest of the Jewish-American writers’ club—I was steeped in them, too.

5. What a delicious line in “Long Suffering”: “the rubber of his heels a cool shock to stop the shudder of his grief./He has a job to do, a life to go back to living.” What are the things you do in the physical world to walk yourself through mourning?

You can’t mourn like Allen Ginsberg in “Kaddish” for too long or you’ll die of madness: “Two years since I’d been there—I started to cry—She stared—nurse broke up the meeting a moment—I went into the bathroom to hide, against the toilet white walls…with your eyes strapped down on the operating table…with your eyes…” and so on. It’s an amazing poem but overwhelming. I don’t know how he lived through writing it, much less actually mourning his mother.

On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to make believe that you’re not mourning. Someone I used to work with didn’t even take a day off when her brother died, but it was easy to tell that she was feeling “off” at work and not putting two and two together. How can we expect people to function when they are in mourning? That’s what this poem was about: my outrage at all the people I have known over the years who have had to pretend to be fine. Here, take some Zoloft and go back to work.