Chicago resident Richard Jones has been publishing his poetry for over three decades and is editor of the journal Poetry East. His new collection, Stranger on Earth, discusses his complex yet loving relationship with his parents, communication with his own children, and what it means to be home. These universal subjects are nothing new for Jones, but he approaches this collection from a perspective that is exceptionally patient and forgiving. His poems, as always, are prose-like in their directness yet lyrical in their expressive insight.
We spoke about the themes that he’s been mulling over in his daily life. This interview has been slightly edited for length.
I love how your poems often narrate your day-to-day life—sitting with wine at night writing or reading, going for a run with your sons, conversing with your daughter or wife. Can you discuss how the intimate can translate into something universal?
I like that you use the word “intimate.” Intimacy is always the same desire: to be understood and to understand. When I was young, I may have been reading alone, but I could feel the fellowship of poets who were confiding in me, telling me things about life that I didn’t know. The poems that spoke the language that explained everything were especially clear, unambiguous, and deceptively simple. It’s such a miracle the way a poem travels through time and space to find us. The poem arrives and joins us in our sorrow or joy. Poet and reader enjoy a miraculous exchange. This act of solidarity is necessary and important. It is sharing our lives with one another.
In the poem “Dickens’s House” you describe how Dickens wrote books for his children and explained concepts to them in great detail. You then write, “My father had few words and wrote no books / yet even the way he would always open the door for me / was a kind of eloquence. . . Still / I remember many times as a child / I wished he would have spoken.” Do you think the way you and your father interacted compelled you to become a writer? And do you find you’re more like Dickens with your own children?
My father and my mother had everything to do with my becoming a writer. My father was a pilot in World War II, a Virginia gentleman, and yes, he would hold the door open for me, a small act of kindness for which I am still grateful. But during my childhood he was often away on flying missions or stationed for long periods of time somewhere far from the family. So early on I pretended to find ways to speak to him. As a small boy, whenever I saw a plane, I’d climb a tree to the highest branch to whisper my messages to the pilot. Isn’t that a kind of poetry? And my mother—she lost her hearing around the time I was born. My mother and I were both deprived. She wanted to hear me and I wanted her to hear me. The blessing from this is the intimacy of my mother taking my face in her hands to read my lips. Obstacles in communication are varied, but the desire to be heard is universal.
As for your question about how I interact with my sons and my daughter, I strive to be their trusted listener. As in my poetry, I find our most successful conversations are when I am lucid, concrete, and clear as rain, and like my mother, tender, and like my father, willing to open the door for anything.
How to do you define what makes a place feel like home, a theme you touch on in many of these poems?
I suppose that for many people home is a place. But I grew up moving from place to place, from London to Cape Cod to Savannah to Carolina to Nova Scotia to Virginia. Many homes, many different schools, many friends left behind and lost. I was repeatedly the new stranger. So home is the place I’ve always been looking for, in life and in my poems.
In the old hymns, people sing about going “home,” as if our true home is elsewhere. There’s truth in that—we are all just passing through this world. But then there is a family. And suddenly it is hugely important to create a home, a safe haven, a refuge, and sanctuary for us all. I wanted our home to be a place of rest with a warm fire no one wants to leave and longs to return to, table fellowship at an evening meal with shared stories and laughter. In our home, my wife and I articulate everything differently, but with the same goal—to love unconditionally.
In “Canto 10,” you write about your mother and how you could feel her loneliness when you were a child, unable to reach her. Brother Aloysius, your confidant while at the monastery, corrects you: “What you saw as a child was your own loneliness.” This is an important idea, that our lives are so incredibly informed by how we interacted with our parents. But children don’t know how to be anything but selfish, really. Do you think this type of self-centeredness stays with us as adults, in terms of our relationships with our parents?
I certainly hope not. I like to think the arc of life moves from the self-centered world of the child, to the mystery of youth, to the wisdom and forgiveness that comes with age. But we know this is an ideal, and that people are wounded during childhood, often so much so that it seems impossible as adults to be anything but selfish and insecure, trying in a thousand self-destructive ways to find that meaning our hearts desire but that we can’t get our hands on.
My parents loved me, there’s no doubt about that, and they were a solid pair, yet the circumstances of my childhood wounded me. But we all have the opportunity to dress and heal the wound, change the pattern, and write a different story with our own family. Reading poetry helped me see I was not alone. And writing poetry unmasked the doom of self-centeredness, the disaster of narcissism and self-aggrandizement.
Are Paris, London, and the other cities you write about just as powerful entities of inspiration as the authors you grew up reading and emulating?
I think about Paris and London almost every day. To me, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. Everywhere one looks there is something wonderful and lovely—it lifts the spirit just to open your eyes. And it’s not a static or private beauty; Paris is a place where joy can be seen alive and well in open, public spaces. It’s marvelously human. You see people walking together in the Tuileries or enjoying conversations at one of those impossibly tiny café tables. In Paris life is uncontained. Life overflows. That’s how it should be.
And London. What a complex city. The seat of empire and the long, bloody history stretching back to the Romans. The Black Death in the fourteenth century, the plague pits. Shakespeare and the Globe Theater. I think of the poor inhabitants of the Bedlam madhouse, its many horrors. I think of the night skies filled with German bombers, the city burning and in ruins. And I’m overwhelmed when I think how many of my heroes lived there. Eliot, Dickens, Shakespeare, William Blake. Emile Zola and Béla Bartók. Monet and Turner. Keats and Aldous Huxley. Lenin and Marx. Freud. Hayden and The Beatles and Charles Spurgeon. As my wife says, “So many people trying to change the world.”
So yes, I think you are right about the connection between books and places, the way they inform and inspire, educate and enlighten. Reading is a kind of travel, and travel is a kind of reading.
In your poem “Madeleines,” your daughter says she’ll always remember your morning together baking, and she says “your books will remind me / All things find their way into a poem.” Does this constant documentation ever change the daily dynamic with your children?
No, I don’t think so. I prefer not to think of it as documentation, but examining later the moment and its many gifts. Life is not meant to be lived in a hurry.
In the poem you are referencing, what is important is my daughter’s wisdom. She recognizes, “All things find their way into a poem.” The poet is the gatekeeper who determines that all is a blessing, the good and the bad. So I say in unison with my daughter, include it all in the poetry—sorrow, tears, broken hearts, as well as the delicious madeleines and the glass of cold milk. Every morning, we open our eyes. There should be anticipation and gratitude for the gifts that will be delivered that day.
Any new projects on the horizon for you?
When I finish a book, if the season is right, my garden awaits, a blank canvas is on my easel next to my daughter Sarah’s easel, my guitar needs tuning, my wife and I both need a dinner for two, and my boys, away at college, need letters. The writing begins. And just for myself, I practice my daily quiet time—some call it just looking out the window. But I know from experience that if I sit long enough, new poems will gather like clouds on the horizon, and before long I’ll once again strive to keep my boat afloat in a storm of writing.
Stranger on Earth by Richard Jones
Copper Canyon Press
Published June 19, 2018
Richard Jones has published eleven books of poetry and his poems have been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He is the founder and editor of Poetry East, and he teaches at DePaul University in Chicago, where he lives with his family.