In this enlightening interview, Rushi Vyas asks poet Terrell Jamal Terry (author of Aroma Truce, out July 2017 from Black Lawrence Press) about sound, obsession, and illumination.
Rushi Vyas: First of all, thank you for sending us these beautiful poems! I keep returning to them. It seems that these are pieces of a longer work under the name "Burlap, Trumpet & Night Owl.” Is that the case? Could you talk a little about the process of writing this series of poems? Were there any particular inspirations?
Terrell Jamal Terry: First off, thank you to the editors of Timber for appreciating and accepting the poems. Yes, "Burlap, Trumpet & Night Owl" is a twelve poem series, with each poem containing ten lines. The length of the line is arbitrary. The idea was to try and contain the poems, or create a sense of uniformity if it was possible. Sometimes the process was arduous because I don't respond well to prompts, subjects, or constraints. Originally there were sixteen poems and gradually the more meandering, less fresh, or less meaningful phrases got cut or reconstituted into other parts of the numbers. I've never really trusted a series of poems, and yet my second manuscript has five sections and three of those are composed in this fashion. It usually starts off accidentally, and after a few recurring scenes/impressions I'm either too lazy or too excited about the possibilities to try and break the spell and write "individual" poems. I quote that because hardly any of my poems seem separate entities. They all feature the same obsessions. I feel like the same director trying some experiments, things I've read or basic intuitive leaps. The first four poems seemed so natural and bounced off of each other quite nicely. They were like tiny units or colorful rooms in a strange minimalist house. I just took my mind off the end result and kept writing in a non-narrative style, yet within the manufactured form, until I ran out of gas on that trip. Some general inspirations are from my interaction with other art: abstract art, film, contemporary small press poetry, music, photography, etc.
RV: I notice many mentions of light and darkness in these poems. How does the visual element impact your approach to these poems and poems in general?
TJT: Light and sight are frequently referenced in my second manuscript. Mostly in a metaphysical and visionary sense. How dark is the light? You know, those sorts of questions. These poems are definitely something akin to muted visual explorations. Maybe not muted, but perhaps trapped in objective passion—trying to find a balance in the usefulness of light and darkness. Sometimes I could only see and hear the poems. I tried to write them as if I were limited to those senses. Less colors on the palette. Ultimately, I think I failed in that regard because I did indeed taste, touch, and smell these poems. That's simply how I come to poetry. These poems are minimalist in that they are less philosophical and narrative in description. Yet they are not naked emotional performances. Not for me at least. The poems are as close as I've come to language games. My associative responses were like briefly stitched revelations. My mind gets active at night. These poems are dedications to the frustrating fire of thoughts at night.
RV: What about sound? I notice certain vowel clusters that gently flow the poems along and this line from No. 11, "They know me by ambiguous vowels." How does sound play into your writing process? Do any influences come to mind?
TJT: Sometimes, I'll read a first draft of a poem I have written and find entirely too much rhyme. It's distracting. I mean one note from beginning to end. I'll then go in and try to disrupt the poem's sweet music. I appreciate a lot of rhythms as well as dissonance. I try to read poems aloud but I hear music in poems differently in my head. I prefer to quietly read poems. Poems can have a very rich and intense architecture, and a lot of times that's what I strive for--language that can be read and reread. Some more general influences on sound in my poetry: avant-garde jazz, chamber music, art rock, etc.
RV: Similarly, do you have other writers in mind as you're writing this series of poems? If so, who do you imagine you are in conversation with or responding to, and what aspects of their poetics draw you to their work?
TJT: I look to the work of too many writers who are actively writing to do them all justice. I'm having a hard time answering this question because the conversation is with(in) the community, but the invitation is for all who enter. I find that I'm often inspired to write when I've read a poet who has delicious images, subtle philosophical inquiry, and a unique expression of experience; but my perspective at the time has just as much to do with it. It is overwhelmingly great to have the quantity and quality of writing that is being published by independent and university presses, in this country and abroad.
RV: Your debut book, Aroma Truce, is coming out this summer from Black Lawrence Press. Congratulations! I know many of us are excited to get our hands on it. Anything you'd like the Timber readership to know about the book and everything that went into its creation?
TJT: Thank you, Rushi. I'm very enthusiastic about its publication. Aroma Truce (Black Lawrence Press, July 2017) is my first collection in any form. I'm proud of the poems. It's meant to be a fully realized book. G.C. Waldrep and Adam Clay created a couple of lucid blurbs that I'm grateful for. The poems were composed between late-2012 and mid-2015. About half of the poems in this collection are published online and the other half in print literary magazines. The cover art is "Stone Memories" by the incomparable Brenda Goodman. I was really walking on the soil of small poetry press publishers like New Issues Poetry & Prose, Alice James Books, Black Lawrence Press, Wave Books, Coffee House Press, Flood Editions, Graywolf Press, and on and on. These and other book publishers, online literary and print magazines as well, introduced me to a poetry universe, to the life work of poets that I admire as literary artists. I'm very fortunate that the Black Lawrence Press staff accepted the manuscript because they've been publishing powerful books these last several years, and they really are on some kind of a roll. When I felt like the manuscript was coming to its completion in early 2015, many more poems began to arrive that had their seeds in the obsessions of Aroma Truce, but they did not belong to the "seasons" of that manuscript, in style and direction. Therefore, the second manuscript that I have so often mentioned in this interview is something like a sibling to the debut. Aroma Truce is where that cosmology begins.
Terrell Jamal Terry is the author of Aroma Truce, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2017. His poems have appeared (or will soon appear) in Denver Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, The Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, West Branch, The Journal, Guernica, and elsewhere. He resides in Pittsburgh, PA.
Rushi Vyas is a poet, regular Timber online contributor, and coordinator of the Creative Writing Reading Series at the University of Colorado - Boulder. He lives in Boulder, CO.