Adam Sol is the author of two collections of poetry, Jonah’s Promise, which won Mid-List Press’s First Series Award for Poetry, and Crowd of Sounds, which won the Trillium Award for Poetry. He is also the author of numerous essays and reviews, and teaches English at the Laurentian University at Georgian College Program.
Dani Couture interviewed Adam Sol in September 2008.
In your latest book of poetry, “Jeremiah, Ohio,” the protagonist, Jeremiah, sets forth upon a pilgrimage that begins in The Buckeye State. While spiritual pilgrimages can begin anywhere, why did you choose Ohio?
The simple first answer to that question is that I lived in Cincinnati for a few years before my wife and I moved to Toronto.
The more complicated answer is that I often find it hard to write about a place until after I’ve left it. When I visited after we’d moved away, I kept thinking about the mix of the bizarre, the sad, the saintly, the historic, and the flatly modern there. It’s got these terrific biblical town names. It’s produced more presidents than any other state. Hell, it’s even shaped like a heart, or a shield. But it’s been suffering badly for a while now, and that suffering tempers everything. There are all these pretty little old towns that are almost completely empty of people, while the strip malls near the highway are bustling and alive. It’s that sort of confusion of signals that helped bring Jeremiah into focus.
How difficult was it for you to maintain Jeremiah’s intense pace and manner of speech and prophecy throughout a book length project? Did the second voice in the collection, Bruce–a much quieter voice than Jeremiah’s–help in any way?
I started working on Jeremiah almost 10 years ago as an experiment. I was trying to take on a voice, with the biblical prophet as a model, that could go beyond what I saw as a frustratingly even-toned, contemplative style in most contemporary poetry. We so value the thoughtful and self-deprecating that it’s tough to find a voice that just wants to rip the roof off. We need radio talk shows for that, which is a shame.
Anyway, I had written about a half-dozen poems in Jeremiah’s voice when I realized that I either had to stop there, or think of another character. Jeremiah’s voice is SO lyrical that he can’t narrate himself across a room. In order to develop any kind of story, I’d need somebody else. After a couple of fits and starts, I went to the bible again.
It turns out that the book of Jeremiah has more biographical information than any other prophetic book. Including the name and a bit of description and narrative about J’s scribe, Baruch. (Note the BRC of his name…). There’s one sad story when J is in jail or hiding and wants to deliver a message to the king. So he gets Baruch to transcribe a prophecy, which Baruch then delivers. The king burns the manuscript, at the urging of his advisors. When Baruch returns to J, J makes him transcribe it AGAIN (this would take a long time with the writing utensils at his disposal, of course!), and to deliver it AGAIN. Something started to click for me about Baruch’s devotion, and the Sancho-Panza-esque attitude he might have about all this rigamarole. Although it would be a long, long time before I would be satisfied with Bruce’s character, that would be the start of it.
I guess I knew right away that Jeremiah’s voice would need a foil of some kind. Bruce’s voice emerged out of that need — narrative, tonal, and structural (all of Bruce’s poems are in syllabics, although that shouldn’t be too obvious). But as far as maintaining voices, I had much more trouble discovering Bruce’s than Jeremiah’s. Once J started to click, he had a momentum all his own. I could put him anywhere and, with a bit of a pinch, get him going.
In the poem “Come spend a great day downtown” you write:
“It turns out even
the fiercest prophets
change to comforters
once the disaster
has befallen us”
Who do you believe are our North American prophets–do we have any–and who or what are they turning to now for comfort as the globe erupts in environmental and political conflict?
Who are our prophets? Yikes. That one is impossible. The people I know about who take on the role of prophet are generally con men of one kind or another. To me, the central characteristic of a true prophet is that he would rather not have to speak, but that he is compelled to do so by a force greater than himself. Reluctance is a nearly universal characteristic of true prophets.
You won the Trillium Award for Poetry for “Crowd of Sounds” in 2003. Did you begin work on “Jeremiah, Ohio” soon after the award? Was it difficult to begin a new project after receiving such recognition for your work?
I already had those half-dozen Jeremiah poems and a few starts on a proto-Bruce when 9/11/2001 happened. I watched TV just like most everyone did that morning, and then I went to a coffee shop to clear my head. It occurred to me that my Jeremiah would go completely nuts over the events of that day, which meant two things: one, I was really onto something here. And two, I needed to put it away for a while.
Luckily I was already fairly close to a completed manuscript, which would become Crowd of Sounds, so I didn’t have to start anything from scratch. And once that book was finished, well before there was any talk of awards, I had Jeremiah calling me back. He was getting a bit impatient, actually, so I was happy to get to him. I remember getting a fair bit of work done on Jeremiah while touring with Crowd of Sounds. I remember a Starbucks near the Parliament building in Ottawa that was especially helpful, with all those suits running in for their fix.
In recent years, there have been a number of full-length poetry collections that explore the lives of well-known people whose stories we already know.
While your characters were inspired by two biblical figures, “Jeremiah, Ohio” is fictional, thus the ending of the book was purely of your design. In a collection that explores seemingly endless and hotly political subject matter, how did you know when, or how, the stories of Jeremiah and Bruce ended?
I was very aware, as I wrote, of some of the other full-length collections out there that focus on a biographical character — Houdini, Mandelstam, Sawchuk have all been done recently. But those collections, to me, always feel constrained by their subjects — in the end, they seem to be about the writer/researcher’s relationship to the subject, rather than about the subject. That’s not always a bad thing, but it wasn’t what I was after.
Of course, I was somewhat tied in my mind to some of the things that happen to the biblical Jeremiah, but I took a lot of liberties with how I interpreted those events. At first that was liberating, then it was completely intimidating, and then it was liberating again. I really felt like I had to learn how to write a novel while I was working. That was unquestionably the hardest part.
Some of the language in Jeremiah’s poems is reminiscent of passages from the Bible, yet his voice is unmistakably modern and familiar. Can you speak to the familiarity that some readers might experience while reading his poems? Where have we heard his voice, or one like it, before? Have we?
Speaking of the bible: yes, I’ve stolen liberally from the book of Jeremiah, and from Lamentations, which legend claims was also written by Jeremiah. I like to think that those references are a little pleasure that’s available to some readers, but that they aren’t crucial to the understanding of the book. I was just reading something that Ezra Pound (of all people) wrote on symbols that relate to this: that references and symbols must be used so that “a sense… is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk.” I like to think that a reference that I’m stealing verbatim from Jeremiah will still sound like a hawk in this book.