By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Lois Roma-Deeley, winner of the Samuel T. Coleridge Literary Prize, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Competition, and the Emily Dickinson Poetry Competition, is the author of three collections of poetry: High Notes, northSight, and Rules of Hunger. In 2012, she was named the U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). This past summer, I caught up with her at her home in Arizona to talk about music, voice, poetry, and much more.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: High Notes, your latest collection, fuses the tensions and history of the Civil Rights movement with the muscle and sensuality of jazz, all while framing a compelling narrative verse. How would you describe the relationship between poetry and music? Do you see any notions of this past creeping into our present?
LOIS ROMA-DEELEY: In High Notes, the relationship between poetry and music determines the book's content and theme. For example, the entire structure of the book mirrors the structures of jazz. That is, there are free verse poems alongside formal poems which are meant to mirror the content and form of the characters' inner and outer lives. These juxtapositions of form and content echo jazz improvisations as well as the thematic "riffs" which occur throughout the book.
The characters in High Notes simultaneously are rooted in—and transcendent of—their time and place as they struggle with their various states of addiction. Jazzman Jake has his trouble with drugs. Sugar Baby, his wife, is addicted to liquor and grief over the loss of her children. Jasmine has to face how she had viewed her sexuality as her only source of power. Harry Jones, the resident drug dealer, is addicted to power, while the Angel is addicted to hope. However, each character's struggles are shaped by their relationship to the intersecting outer realities of race/class/gender as well as hope and despair.
For example, Jake, an Italian-American, is married to Sugar Baby, who is a young woman of mixed race. Their union was considered illegal in many states during those times. Jasmine June is an African-American who is drawn to the Civil Rights movement which is beginning to bloom in the 1950's. Both women are caught in the powerful intersection of race and gender. Harry Jones, a white man of undetermined ethnicity, unconsciously responds to class expectations. Even the ethereal Angel struggles with the friction that arises out of the seeming impossibility that human beings can fail, grow and change.
Finally, these characters deal with the most basic of human questions: What does it mean to be fully human? And this aspect permits these characters to transcend time and place.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: It has been said that the characters in High Notes are a cast "worthy of Dante." Is the experience of writing from the male perspective any different for you than writing from the female perspective? What would you say drives your voice?
LOIS ROMA-DEELEY: Yes, I did a lot of research before I wrote any of the poems for this book. I entered the jazz world of the 1950's through a careful study of the language of jazz, which took me back to the early part of the 20th century. What I discovered is that the language—both in origin and actual meaning—reflected a highly stylized and sexualized paradigm. In order to make my characters sound authentic, I had to understand the paradigms that shaped their world view and in turn their choices and actions. As a longtime feminist and Women's Studies professor I had to set aside my own belief systems. This was emotionally difficult but also intellectually challenging. In addition to my own studies of the time and place, I interviewed many of my male colleagues, several of whom are musicians. I was most fortunate to interview a man who actually lived in Harlem, knew famous jazz musicians of that era and was familiar with the types of people on whom I was basing my characters.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: What compelled you to compose a collection in multiple voices? How does the voice of High Notes differ from Rules of Hunger, your first collection?
LOIS ROMA-DEELEY: My colleague/composer/friend Christopher Scinto came to me with this project. Previously Chris and I had collaborated on a 9/11 Fifth Anniversary Tribute. Our collaboration of music and poetry was highly successful, challenging and a lot of fun for both of us. Not long after that event, Chris suggested we try something really bold like writing a jazz opera. I knew nothing about jazz and he had never written an opera before. No doubt he was thinking of the voice range and music needed to carry out such a project, so when he came to me with the idea, he also said we needed five characters. So I had a basis from which to begin creating the personas.
In each of my poetry collections—Rules of Hunger, northSight and High Notes—I set a different challenge for myself. The first book explored silence and speech. The second collection was informed by my teaching of Women's Studies. The last book explored persona poems.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Which strong female poets or writers do you find yourself turning to? In the same sense, are there any female musicians or vocalists who have comforted or inspired you?
LOIS ROMA-DEELEY: My list of favorite female poets, writers, musicians and vocalists is much too long to recite here! I am so indebted to my "literary mothers and sisters" it is impossible to give a brief summary. I can say, though, that I turn to them often. Some inspire me with their boldness of theme or structure. Some comfort me with their words. Others teach me how to be a strong woman and a strong artist. Still others show me how not to give up or give in or give over. My debt to each of them is enormous. Simply, they sustain me.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Besides your "taut and tough" orchestration of "clear, crisp, starlight" poetry, critics have hailed your style for its humor and playfulness. What innovations would you like to see in poetry? In other words, how do you suggest poetry be more playful?
LOIS ROMA-DEELEY: The spontaneity that comes from everyday observation provides a rich resource for playfulness and newness.
Poetry should not be some echo or derivation of the past or the poet or even the previous poem just written minutes ago. Poetry should be true to itself. All else springs from that.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: What shifts or changes have you noticed that poetry has undergone since you entered the field?
LOIS ROMA-DEELEY: What is interesting to me is how poetry, in some quarters, is struggling to reinvent itself. I am always moved by the reach of contemporary poetry—whether it is experimentation with typography, language, content, or form.
I always tell my students that our response to art often moves at a glacial pace. For example, what was once thought to be artistically outrageous—even ugly—100 years ago is now thought to be what art/poetry/music should be. The old outrageous "how-dare-you-do-this" becomes the accepted standard while the new outrageous takes its place. We are in a continual state of flux. So it will be interesting to see what innovations taking place today will be regarded as the new standard 100 years hence.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Each season, my column for Stay Thirsty highlights the work of some magnificently talented emerging poets. Do you have any advice for writers who are beyond aspiring and hopeful, but deserving, talented, practically bursting-from-the-page voices?
LOIS ROMA-DEELEY: This is what I learned from my mentors—those in real life and those I only know from the page—is this: do not give up. Work hard. Read hard. Take chances. Be a good cultural citizen. Support your fellow poets. Be a good mentee. Be polite. Work harder. Be nice to everyone. Remember we are all in this together. We are the makers of culture. Create your own poetry universe. Poetry is a "long game." Your perceived weaknesses may be your greatest strengths. Buy books. Go to readings. Forget about asking permission. Work even harder. Don't give up again. Be bold. Never say "Mother May I!"
ABRIANA JETTÉ: What can we expect to see from you next?
LOIS ROMA-DEELEY: I'm working on my fourth collection of poetry. It is different in terms of content and form from the other three books I've written. That's all I can say about it right now. Wish me well!