Interview by Zoë Brigley
I didn’t write this with an agenda, but it pulled together several fractures in my nostalgia.
CONTENT WARNING: discussions of grief and death
marinara as the world ends
you can make fire with flint & steel compassion is the cheapest path toward light i don’t know if it really tasted that good it was pasta comfort in the quick roadstop diner we dipped into amidst the torrential & slid inside booths waitress came by with her hair-robbed head wrapped in teal cloth she later brought my plate of steaming spaghetti i ate it like it was my last meal it brought such joy to me she lit up like a billboard watching it unfold & was so flattered when i asked for a box to take it home though i knew the effect would be hard-pressed to happen again as when we left once the storm let up our stomachs were full to the brim perfect battleground for nausea to set in as we faced more fully the news of a stroke harming the only grandfather i’ve ever met. Mom cried as clouds unleashed we drove from the campsite in silence convinced that when the whole family convenes in the wild we conjure something awful maybe it was the pasta sauce truly or the wounded home in me looking for any joy it could grasp a bit of warm tomato & oregano remedy to ease the ensuing family apocalypse finding footing within hoping that our fleeting shared joy helped our waitress beat her sickness & that at least one member of our encounter turned out for the better
Because there is little punctuation in this poem, the whole story tumbles out rapidly and effectively. Some poets see punctuation as almost like instructions in music (e.g. piano, forte, staccato). What’s your view and what inspired you to do away with it in this poem?
I wanted to remove all moments of pause to capture the immediacy of the moment and reflect the overwhelming power of an external loci of control. We were subject to the whims of the moment, shock from a grandparent’s stroke, sorrow from the downpour, the moment of calm running out without regard for our need to attach onto it. I wanted to create a doldrum in the undertow, a moment so removed from the context yet still ephemeral. There was no time to enjoy this moment, we had it, it was beautiful, and with one blink we returned to doom. We didn’t get a comma to stop and think, a period to pause and breathe, a semicolon to separate disparate thoughts. I typically use punctuation sparingly, I think it’s difficult to place pauses where others might not naturally pause.
I do love a good caesura, which I use to break up some poems I affectionately refer to as my “juggernauts” where I’m throwing so much information at the wall with each line. Caesura is a great long poem divider, where techniques and schemes are switched up to acclimate the reader to a new “elevation” without shocking them out of the poetic trance. I think enjambments are an exception where a sentence is divided because its last “leg” fits with the next line. To me, the true punctuation of a poem is the manipulation and choreography of sound. I’m constantly evaluating “where does this poem sit in the mouth and throat, how can these sounds cohere the poem without beating them to death, when are the syllables braced, chopped, or thrown forced.” Mary Oliver and Wallace Stevens are who I consider masters of using syllables to compose the poem, which requires a wide and accurate vocabulary (not thesaurus.com) to convey the ideal message through precise sounds along with room for the poem to breathe, to be imperfect enough to avoid uncanny valley where the poem feels like AI spat it out.
I like the bathos in this poem which is obvious from the beginning in the marinara versus the world ending. Is that a strategy that you use often?
I often find bathos is one of elements of poetry I seek out in literature. In One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez employs a distinct kind of bathos within the context of magical realism. The act of sweeping a house is elevated to this magical level and conversely legitimate acts of magic, flying carpets for example, are treated as normal, trivial things. I think when bathos gained traction it was used as an insult, but the element of an anti-climax to me is a great poetic risk. I could have written this poem as a recipe for marinara and get really hammy with it, have each line be an ingredient or a step and make it a bit of a puzzle. I could have lingered on the torrential downpour as a literary device comparing it to grief and fear which I jokingly call the first line treatment in a poet’s grab bag.
I chose something so simple as the pasta sauce at a random restaurant we stopped in to purposefully show that when sh*t hits the fan, the smallest details are cast up into the sublime. It’s that abrupt contrast where the title announces a dramatic situation and doesn’t deliver. Is this a narrative poem about subsisting on canned spaghetti in a bomb shelter after a nuclear fallout? No. It’s the moment before shock subsides and you face that your grandparents aren’t going to be there your whole life, that their death will be a gradual decline that becomes more about analgesia than restitution where all you can do is watch. It’s the end of that childhood worldview based on permanence, the end of the world for innocence. Watching the deepest attachments to your lineage die in slow motion.
There’s a very kind emphasis in this poem on the mother and the waitress for example. I wondered in a way if this poem is celebrating ordinary people?
I think so often our generation’s culture, worldwide, desperately look to celebrities or stories of mindblowing achievement as sources of comfort. It’s easier to be so massively distant from a famous person. Save for the lone case of a person stalking a celebrity, devoted consumption of that person’s media despite not knowing them personally. I wanted to emphasize the magic of meeting a stranger who is obviously facing difficulties in life akin to your own. Meeting them without need to explain or vent or address it. There’s this mutual kindness and care that is way too rare. I think the Pandemic has made the mistreatment of food service workers apparent and before this poem ever came to be I thought about this moment and how much happiness we brought out in each other despite the service context. I always believe that you can judge a person by how they treat food service workers. I worked in an elder care facility in food service, and whenever someone lashed out we knew it was because of other difficulty in their life. It’s surprising how many “normal” people pull up to a steakhouse for therapy. There was an undercurrent to this poem, yearning for a time when I thought restaurants were fun places to work. I didn’t write this with an agenda, but it pulled together several fractures in my nostalgia.
They celebrate one of the greatest love languages, per Samin Nosrat: food, yet they’ll send you through trauma triage for acute stress disorder sooner than a knife cut to the hand. This poem is a celebration of ordinary people and is also a call to action to treat everyone ancillary yet undervalued as deserving of grace, kindness, and love. To me, poetry can be a vessel, a mission, a confession, a eulogy, a map, or a moment that isn’t just captured, like a quick iPhone picture of a sunset. It documents what angle to view it from, beyond what a human can access with ease, devoid of care. I love to do a drone flight, an affront to pedantic tendencies to over-engineer the technical details. Moving up from the ground, to a bird’s eye view of what the subtle interactions have to say about human nature. To borrow from ecology, it’s tracing the trophic energy exchanges from the bottom rung, where sunlight is at its purest, diluted up to the apex. Conversely, negative situations behave like arsenic, accumulating and poisoning at higher percentages as you move upward. These “ordinary” moments have more to say about the pulse of our world than a pop culture analysis of an awards show red carpet, in my view.
Thomas Jackson is a queer man, currently a Senior at North Carolina State University in the United States. Thomas self-published a poetry collection centered on his experiences with suicidal thoughts and nature growth through Amazon when he was seventeen years old. In February 2020 delivered a spoken-word poem at TEDx NCState which was shared to the official channel. You can watch it here.
You can follow Thomas on Twitter @tommybbyboy, on Instagram @jtommyj, and on his website www.thomasjwrites.com
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