A Conversation with Troy Jollimore

Troy Jollimore’s first book of poetry, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry in 2006. His third book, Syllabus of Errors (2015), was chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best poetry books of 2015. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, Conjunctions, Poetry, The Believer, McSweeney’s, the Kenyon Review, and Best American Poetry 2020. He makes his living as a professor of philosophy, and is the author of Love’s Vision (Princeton University Press, 2011) and On Loyalty (Routledge, 2012). He has received fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Guggenheim foundation. His most recent collection of poems, Earthly Delights, was published by Princeton University Press in 2021.

James Moog: One thing I found intriguing when we chatted about this new book was your comment that you were thinking about a DVD format as a kind of model for the book. I wonder just what you meant by that?

Troy Jollimore: I was thinking of how a DVD contains so many different items—the feature presentation, deleted scenes, alternate versions, director’s commentary, special features. It’s more than just a single, unified artistic product. And it gave me the idea of making a book that was somewhat less unified, a little all over the place. Like, not every poem had to be part of the feature presentation. Some of them could provide meta-level commentary on other poems. Or on other people’s works. And the reader could get glimpses, here and there, of what the book might have been, had I made different choices. Of course, I’m also probably attracted to DVD as a technology because it will soon be obsolete, it’s already becoming obsolete. And you know, in the old days, you’d go to see a film and you’d get a cartoon first, and a newsreel, and someone would be playing the organ—it was a variety show, not just a movie. I wanted to put together a book that felt a bit like a variety show.

JM: I was thinking that maybe this should be thought of as an open collection of poems, in that I think it is natural for the reader not to read it straight through. Like the poems themselves, the book seems to leave a lot of room to breathe.

TJ: Poetry is all about room to breathe, right? About white space on the page, and silence, and what goes unsaid. Well, as much as poetry can be “all about” any one thing. And people’s relation to space just depends on the circumstances of their lives, on all sorts of things. If you’re in Manhattan you’re on an island, you use every bit of available space, you build up, you invent the skyscraper. Whereas if you live in, say, Edmonton, you build out, you leave vacant lots all over because there is, quite literally, more space than you know what to do with.

JM: Maybe it’s just that so many of them are about movies, but I think many of the techniques you use in your poems seem quite cinematic. I think of your stanza breaks as cutting to a new shot, for instance.

TJ: One of the books that I feel like I’ve learned so much from in terms of writing poetry and so on is that wonderful book, The Conversations, with Michael Ondaatje talking to Walter Murch about film, and film editing, and editing in novels. You make similar decisions regardless of the medium. Like, what’s the impact, the effect, if you let it go a little longer before ending the shot, or the line, or the sentence? What if you take these two things and place them next to each other as opposed to separating them and having some distance between them? What does that do to the experience? In a sense, filmmakers and poets work with the same basic materials: sounds and images. And time, of course.

JM: There are a lot of poems in the new book that take specific films as their subject. How did you start writing those?

TJ: I think the first one I wrote was “No County for Old Men,” and the way that got written was I was thinking about the fact that of course the phrase “no country for old men” comes from the first line of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” so that it’s naturally already a poetic phrase. And it occurred to me that you could have a similar poem that started out almost the same way, with basically the first line of Yeats’ poem, but then went on to be about the film rather than going on to become the Yeats poem. And that struck me as an amusing idea.

JM: Were you ever tempted to make it just a book of poems about movies, and nothing else?

TJ: I think the idea occurred to me on occasion. But there are so many connections, you know? Between movies and life. And art and life. And poetry and life. They don’t exist isolated from one another. I appreciate poetry and movies largely because they contain life, and are contained in life, and interact with life. So all along I was writing movies on other topics too, and I started to notice common themes and intersections between the film-specific poems and other poems. “Marvelous Things Without Number,” for instance, seems to me connected: that poem is largely about repetition, and one of the interesting things for me about film as art is again that it repeats, and every time you watch the movie your experience isn’t the same, but the movie itself is exactly the same, which is different from live performances, where they change with every repetition. We think of movies as immortal, for this reason, even though, of course, their material substrate will eventually decay. And of course you could say the same thing about us, and how we think about ourselves.

JM: “All the Mysteries” seems connected to this somehow.

TJ: I have this sense, when I think about our relation to time and the way we inherit the world we live in, of the world as a very haunted place. Even though so many people don’t seem to see it that way, but seem to see the world as if it didn’t even exist before they showed up in it, so that they can claim, and apparently believe, that they have created their entire lives for themselves, and can exist with no sense of humility or gratitude for the incredible gifts—the language, the culture, the technology, civilization itself—that they were just lucky enough to be born into. So in “All the Mysteries” I was, I suppose, trying to write about this thing that I don’t know how to write about, this sense of time, of how we inherit this world that other people built, and try to make ourselves at home in it, and not notice or at least try not to be obsessed with the fact that it’s filled with ghosts, all these people that used to be here that aren’t here anymore, the ones who made these buildings and lived in them, and walked these streets. And of course there will be other ghosts for the people that come along in the future.

JM: It’s kind of like in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia when they’re holding the fire and everything, the fact that the fire goes out, or is in danger of going out, and that it goes from father to son, means you’re important too. 

TJ: Which, interestingly, is echoed in the final pages of No Country for Old Men, and in the final shot of the film version, where Sheriff Ed Tom is describing his dream about his father. Which I hadn’t thought of before, that connection, even though there are poems about both Nostalghia and No Country in the collection.

JM: Nietzsche said the weightiest thought was a recurrence and then the lightest thought is that everything happens again.

TJ: Yes, but you have to approach that repetition with the right attitude. Like Sisyphus, you’re just going to keep pushing that rock up the hill, but the question is, can you learn to love it or take pleasure in it? The book’s epigraph is from Keats: “Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” Delight and melancholy are inextricable, two dimensions of the same thing. And the deepest, most profound delights always have a melancholy, because they carry an awareness of finitude, of their own mortality, and ours. You’re aware they’re not going to last forever. You’re aware that these delights wouldn’t really be as good as they are if they were going to last forever. You have to accept all of that to really feel delight, and you know, I think delight is a very profound feeling. 

JM: In my own life, sometimes when I’ve experienced joy, it’s often something I built up to, like finishing a paper I worked on for three years, but at other times something just completely surprises you. Joy can be a long-awaited deliverance, or a complete surprise with no context.

TJ: I remember many years ago, around 2004, I spent some time in France, and we would go to the art museums, and there were always a lot of children there, with their families. I remember being in the Musée d’Orsay in particular, and watching these kids look at paintings, and they were just so spontaneous and natural about it. Because they would just look at a painting, decide okay, that one doesn’t do anything for me, go onto the next, and they’d do this until they found one that they liked, and then they would stand there, happy and a little amazed. There was this completely spontaneous and authentic relationship to paintings, with no worrying, [no,] “What is the point of it? What am I supposed to get out of this? What if somebody gives me a quiz on it? What if somebody asks me why I like it and I don’t know what to say?” All those anxieties that older people so often have about art of various forms, certainly about poetry. Those kids just hadn’t learned to feel those things, and they just thought about paintings, first and foremost, that they were just there to look at. Some of them are really nice to look at and they make me happy. They delight me to look at them.

Whereas so many adults around here, we fill ourselves with anxiety about art to the point where people just avoid even engaging with art because they don’t think they’re going to get it right. They think, “Someone’s going to ask me, ‘Why do you like that and not this?’” And they’re not going to know what to say, and they’ll be humiliated, or they already pre-humiliate themselves by imagining it, instead of just saying, “I like some things. I enjoy this.”

It’s like a pop song. I don’t know what the point of a pop song is. It just sounds really good. I like to listen to it, end of story. You know? Or a good meal. What’s the point of chocolate? It just tastes good.

JM: They say that art creates an expectation in order to fulfill it. It’s not scary that way. And when you are surprised by something it draws you on, and when you’re overjoyed by accomplishing something, you’ve been delighted by the release of a burden, and you’re no longer afraid because it’s like you’ve just been unshackled.

Sometimes education can be so counterintuitive—you’re constantly being told about all these things you have to do, just write it this way, it’s like, why? It’s like, don’t ask me. It’s like, it’s that way. And then, suddenly people have to think that there’s a point to everything because they’re constantly second-guessing themselves. Maybe that has to do with fear though, somehow.

TJ: I think it really does, that fear and anxiety, and to a large degree bad education. When poetry gets taught in schools, the most common thing that happens is the teacher says “So, what is the meaning of this poem?” And they treat the poem like a riddle that you have to solve, and then you read the symbols and figure out what it stands for and what it really means. And then the kids very naturally are like, “If that’s the meaning of it, why do we really need the poem? Why not just give us the meaning if that’s all there is to it?” Which I think is actually a very fair question, because that’s not how to teach poetry to begin with.

JM: There is this idea of taking a poem back to what you know now, based on the assumption that you know now what you need to know to understand this poem, but to be delighted is to be drawn on and to exist in anticipation of new things, to recognize that you don’t know the meaning and that’s why you have to continue to engage with the earthly delights. That face is not knowing and still searching, like, “This sloth could be a Rembrandt. Late Rembrandt.”

TJ: So, one of my favorite books about beauty ever is the book by Alexander Nehamas called Only a Promise of Happiness, and this is basically his main idea, that we find something beautiful as long as we think there’s still some mystery in it that we haven’t gotten to the bottom of yet, and it still has something new to offer us, and he says at the point where we really come to feel that we completely grasp it and we’ve drained it of everything it has, it’s not beautiful for us anymore, because there’s no more in it. We’ve used it up, essentially.

When I think about things that I really think of as profound works of art I always feel that. A movie by Tarkovsky, any of them. Do I not need to see it again because I’ve gotten what’s there? No. I can go watch it again and I know I’m going to get stuff I’ve never seen before, and it’s going to have a different impact on me, and it’s going to be a different work for me, and that’s true of every work of art that is really meaningful for me. It’s inexhaustible.

JM: Yeah. I think you’re so right, and people talk about poems being difficult and that’s why, but I think it’s because they’re mysterious and that’s why they’re new, and draw you on. It’s so inspiring to talk to someone who has such humane goals and whose work embodies that, and I think that I’m asking some of these things because your poems really do draw me on and make me want to read another thing and think more, and I think it’s a good balance between building into the poem some of . . . There’s some guide posts, but there’s also unfamiliar things, and I think the two of them really help to create an open experience that does bring you back.


James Moog

James Moog lives in Saint Louis, where he paints and writes poetry. James is a student of Troy Jollimore and was delighted to perform this interview. James also presented an academic paper on Leonardo Padura’s Heretics at the international conference CILH XXVIII. James thanks his mentor Professor Joseph "Pepe" Schraibman for this achievement.

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