That same fearless hybridization comes into Jordan's newest poetry collection, Quantum Lyrics. Rather than follow one character's story, this book explores cultural identity by moving among historical, fictional, and autobiographical figures. The likes of Albert Einstein and Richard Feynmen rub shoulders with comic book superheroes, which in turn are juxtaposed with narrators that tell tales resembling the author's own life. Jordan revisits the pain of racism, recounting Einstein's letter to Harry Truman in support of the Anti-Lynching Law because "trees need only to drop leaves to prove gravity." He also discusses his own experiences with racism, describing how he was pulled over while driving the slow roads of the South by a police officer who was surprised to find out that this black man was a poetry instructor. Scenes from the films The Battleship Potemkin and Triumph of the Will are spliced in, ultimately building a documentary atmosphere as Jordan creates spaces where physics and poetry, comic books and jazz, memory and loss, come together.
Anna Clark: From your work, it's clear that you have deep interests in film and music; how did you come to choose poetry as your life's work?
A. Van Jordan: To quote Neruda, poetry found me. I wasn't really looking for it. While living and working in D.C. as an environmental reporter [at The Environmental Reporter and the Air & Water Pollution News], started spending time in coffeehouses that played jazz and had open mics for poets. I got to know the poets in the area, and after establishing myself as a regular at these venues, poets started asking if I wrote. I did an open mic and enjoyed it. I found that it was a new way to communicate with the world, particularly as an African-American man. When I read a poem to people publicly, they listened in a very different way from the way they listened in daily conversation. I could tell that people leaned in, which had never been my experience before the poem. For the first time, I found that I was communicating across a racial/cultural line that I thought -- up to that point, at least -- was insurmountable.
Clark: With Quantum Lyrics as your third poetry collection, how has the cross-cultural, cross-racial communication evolved? Any surprises?
Jordan: If physics had a Race Theory, my hypothesis would be that we have more to fight for together than we have reasons for which to fight each other. The older I get, the more I see the proof. It's always been there. Any strides made in civil rights came from a joint effort between blacks and whites, men and women, straight and gay. Einstein embodies this theory. Who would think that a Jewish immigrant from Germany and Switzerland would be a champion of civil rights in America before World War II? Einstein had great foresight in this way.
He gave up his German citizenship as a teenager before World War I. Adults living in Germany during World War II couldn't see the horrors ahead, but he intuited it. I think he saw the same conflict coming in America with the '60s, which he never witnessed. It's one thing to think of how prescient Richard Wright was with Native Son and Black Boy before the '60s, but he felt the sting of racism his whole life as a black male living in Jim Crow, pre-Civil Rights, pre-Brown v. Board of Education America. Einstein had a very comfortable position as a Princeton professor and international acclaim and respect as a genius. He didn't have to have the empathy that he expressed. It's as preternatural a gift as his insight into relativity.
Clark: In "Quantum Lyrics Montage," you note the controversy over the paper in which the equation E=MC2 first appeared. The lead-in reads, "... in a Russian publication, both (Mileva) Maric and Einstein's names appear; in subsequent printings, only Einstein's." What do you think about poetry's role in collective memory, of drawing out voices that were erased through sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination?
Jordan: I think those voices are beating hearts beneath the floorboards. They clearly exist, but many want -- and, more accurately, really hope -- that they will just go away. Poetry has a long tradition of chronicling the history and culture of society. In this way, I suppose these voices are working in this tradition.
Clark: Also in "Quantum Lyrics Montage," we see Einstein at a forum held by Philip Lenard, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who denounces "Jewish physics." How is that dangerous mix of intolerance and science present today? Who, like Einstein, might be able to say: "Let them taunt; my mind is taut"?
Jordan: Unless he runs for public office again, I think Al Gore will be able to quote that line. Like most great leaders, I think he's most effective when he isn't beholden to a political party but dedicated to a cause. I read his book The Earth in Balance long before An Inconvenient Truth, and it's clear that Gore is a futurist. He can forecast what needs to happen long before the need is evident to others; that's a sign of genius, as I see it.
Wynton Marsalis will be able to make this claim because he understands the importance of keeping tradition alive, while pushing to extend the boundaries of it. I hear a lot of criticism of the Lincoln Jazz Orchestra and of Marsalis as an ambassador for jazz. The truth is, jazz would become an art form held sacred in Japan and Europe more than America if it weren't for the work he's doing. It is our national music. Period. It's for America what classical music is to Europe. By keeping a finger on the pulse of its tradition, we never lose its direction. Blood on the Fields is one of the most underrated jazz albums of all time.
Spike Lee and John Sayles would round out my top four. Both of these filmmakers allow for a discussion of race in their films that most Americans are afraid to have in their communities, classrooms and churches. Their work is cathartic for the entire nation: those who dare watch them in the dark, those fortunate enough to have a theater in their community showing their films. There's a near pathologic fascination with the horror sub-genre of slasher films, which is as feebly plotted as a porn film for gratuitous misogyny. The slasher film and the hyper-violent, Tarantino-esque films are packing theaters, but despite the important films both of these filmmakers have made, I don't think they have a blockbuster between the two of them. If Lee and Sayles had the following of James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, the country would have a more truthful conversation about race, which is still a source of tension as we can see by the Jena 6.
Clark: Have you written poetry about the Jena 6?
Jordan: No, I want to, though. I need space between these events to write about them. I'd need to talk to people from there, too, people involved. I don't write poems about events like these and simply imagine the voices; I approximate the emotion as much as possible when the primary source is unavailable. In this case, the people are alive and vocal. So, I'd have to ask why I would write a poem about it, first. That's a heavy responsibility. What can I say in a poem that they can't say themselves better. At that point, the poem would have to transcend that daily conversation and live up to my definition of poetry: the highest form of communication. For that to happen, though, I'd need time to digest this phenomenon of Jena and the varied responses to it. I'd want to get it right. My mother went to that school, so I'd probably start by interviewing her and move forward through time.
Clark: Elsa, Einstein's second wife, wonders about the German government's response to her husband, how they don't know "what to do with him," but once Einstein's assailed with honor after international honor, "they kept putting him in their buttonhole." Is it possible for our society's most awarded scientists, artists, and other achievers to resist being manipulated for political ends like that?
Jordan: Well, of course the answer is yes and no. We are in a time of war, and Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C. said that "In war, truth is the first casualty." There will always be people who appear to have a higher calling than a political appointment or an award attached to their name, but just as some will stay true to this calling others will fall to the temptation of those with power. Unfortunately, I think many physicists working in the field of String Theory are too conscious of their place in history. I was happy to see the team of scientists who won the Nobel Prize last year for Black Body Theory, though. They were dedicated to a field that wasn't on the tongue of popular culture. And in poetry, moving to the artists, you see the poets who came to the White House at Laura Bush's invitation and those who refused like Sharon Olds with her eloquent letter. There were poets who went to Iraq for the NEA, too, and then there was a beautiful refusal by Eleanor Wilner in Poetry magazine. So, yes, it is possible to resist even in the face of those without the courage to resist.
Clark: You spend a lot of time with Einstein’s vocal challenge to institutional racism in the U.S., his adopted country. The epigraph to the second section of your book quotes his 1946 address at a historically black college:
‘The social outlook of Americans…their sense of equality and human dignity is limited to men of white skins. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape complicity in it only by speaking out.’
While this ‘speaking out’ was a major part of Einstein’s impact on American society, today, it’s culturally forgotten. Americans remember Einstein primarily as the very manifestation of the word “genius.” Why has Einstein’s constant challenge to racism fallen out of our historical memory?
Jordan: Specific to Einstein is the fact that many of his letters were just released last year, so there’s much about the great man on a personal level that we didn’t know. That’s the polite answer. I also believe this has fallen out of our historical memory of Einstein because the public concern over racism has fallen out of it. With the advent of “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” Americans stopped talking about racism; it became impolite. It’s to the point where if someone white wants to describe someone black, they describe everything they’re wearing down to their underwear before the say Oh yeah, and he’s black, as if this would be a denigrating observation to make up front. People are afraid to talk in racial terms even when the discussion is benign.
Clark: Given that limiting fear, what does it mean for writers to be identified as a "black poet" or "Asian poet"?
Jordan: Well, the first thing is that it means no single author can speak for all who fall under those nomenclatures. For myself, I don’t find being labeled an African American any more limiting than Lorca being called Andalusian, or Chekov being called a Russian writer. The problem comes in when the gaze of others considers this a limitation. If you want to label me an African American poet instead of simply an American poet, though, understand I’m still centrally American. Don’t expect African kings and be disappointed when I write about a Russian wrestler or a DC Comic super hero. It’s something readers must wrap their minds around. If we can see the universality in the specificity of a Russian playwright or a British poet, that same logic must apply to an African American poet. It’s an issue of tapping into your own humanity, not mine. Mine is intact.
Clark: You juxtapose Einstein’s anti-racist activism with the experience of being a black male poet. In “Que Sera Sera,” we read of a cop’s racial profiling on a country road: “…he takes a step back/when you tell him you’re a poet teaching/English down the road at the college,//when he steps back--/ to assure you, now that this has nothing to do with race…”
Even in the context of longstanding societal racism, why does there seem to be particular suspicion of artists of color? And how does it relate to your DC Comics series, which features superheroes like The Atom and The Green Lantern?
Jordan: Quantum Lyrics is an exploration of male vulnerability, and these figures are pop cultural examples of men who, ostensibly, are invincible. If we delve deeper, though, into their characters—particularly today with the work of comic book writers like Alan Moore, Geoff Johns and Gail Simone—we see that these are male figures with insecurities and weaknesses. They’re the perfectly rounded characters, and I think these heroes are just as valid as any Greek god or goddess.
Clark: Your collection moves to the places where science and poetry, the factual and the lyrical, the personal and political, all intersect. Do you think our society traditionally limits knowledge by segregating it?
Jordan: Yes. I think we over professionalize our knowledge. With the advent of increasingly more specialized graduate programs, people are afraid to venture beyond their comfort zones. Poets read other poets; investment bankers don’t read poetry. When someone can do more than one thing, if they even have interest in other fields of study, we call them geniuses, a bit too easily, really.
Clark: Do you think we're a country starved for people to call “geniuses”?
Jordan: After McCarthy, Vietnam, Watergate, and the last two national elections, I think we’ve become anesthetized to believe in collective protest, so we hope there’s one person who can stand for something in which we believe. A genius emerges as a hero among his or her people. So, we’re looking for some hero to open our eyes to a new field of science, a new art form, a new political position, something that will change our lives without having to sacrifice food, clothing and shelter to do it.
Clark: Throughout the book, you borrow the languages of cinema, science, public lecture, comics, letters, music, monologues and dialogues. Fusing them together into poetry, what is the impact?
Jordan: Sergei Eisenstein, the filmmaker and film theorist, talks about the Synchronicity of Senses in his work: dialogue, lighting, ambient sound, props, music, actors and all the elements of a scene working toward a singular effect. As a theory, I can’t think of anything that has been a greater influence on my aesthetic. As a result, I don’t feel a need to compartmentalize these areas; they simply complement one another. I’m more interested in the intersections between them and how they can work toward a singular effect.
Clark: How can the language of poetry influence the social conversations that are often so tense, even hostile?
Jordan: Well, as I said, I can say things in a poem that people will listen to in ways they never hear them in causal conversation. This may be my own shortcoming; I'm certainly more eloquent in a poem than I am in conversation. Most people have a limited view of what can be said in a poem, which allows for underestimation. People expect rhymed iambic pentameter about unrequited love, and you offer them another truth in blank verse. This is a powerful tool in these instances. Poems can say what needs to be said in our lives, the things we rarely have the courage to say to one another. Often when we don't know what should be said, we simply quote poems anyway.