Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, poet Esteban Rodríguez is joining us to discuss Jay Wright and the complexity and inspiration behind both Wright’s and his own poetry.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: What inspired you to choose Jay Wright for today’s feature?
Esteban Rodríguez: Jay Wright has always been fascinating to me for a number of reasons. His work (that is his work after his debut collection The Homecoming Singer) is considered quite complex, and he seems to be overlooked when we discuss contemporary American poetry, despite the fact that he has won numerous awards and fellowships (the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, a Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, the American Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship). No doubt there is still conversation around his work, but enthusiasm seems to be absent, or at least minimal. I am enthused with Wright’s work precisely because of its difficulty and because I believe his poetry, in more ways than one, extends into philosophy, myth, and history, and brings its readers closer to the sublime. Any chance I get, I reread Wright’s work, and I recommend it to writers and readers.
Esteban Rodríguez reads “The Lake in Central Park” by Jay Wright
AH: At times, in the poems you’ve chosen, there seems to be snapshots of moments that are quietly intimate. During the past year, I’m sure we’ve all had a moment like this. Are there any specific moments from your life that have inspired you?
ER: I am always looking for the moments that upon reflection were actually much more meaningful than I had originally thought, and that show up in my poetry, especially in The Valley: Playing in a plastic pool in the middle of summer (“Recuerdo: Summer, 1996”), microwaving leftover food (“Recuerdo: Nuked”), or watching my uncles work on customizing their cars because of the promise those cars offered (“Recuerdo: Lowrider”). I don’t think the mundane is uninteresting, rather, I think it hasn’t had a chance to be looked at thoroughly, and I’m constantly referring back to these moments for inspiration.
Esteban Rodríguez reads “The Healing Improvisation of Hair” by Jay Wright
AH: The poems here are both from the same collection, Transfigurations: Collected Poems. Transfiguration means a metamorphosis, typically into something more beautiful or in a spiritual sense. So, to follow-up on the previous question, do you think these poems exemplify the idea of transformation, or, perhaps, the idea of beauty in the mundane?
ER: I think they do, especially over time. Rereading “The Lake in Central Park” now from when I first read it (back in 2018) has been a completely different experience. I’ve obviously changed and grown as a person and writer, so maybe I am seeing a transformation within them that doesn’t necessarily exist. Nevertheless, the best poems don’t try to be portraits a person, event, or moment, but rather they attempt to transform an idea into another, and I believe Wright’s work does exactly that.
In “The Healing Improvisation of Hair,” the speaker gives the following account:
How like joy to come upon me
in remembering a head of hair
and the way water would caress
it, and stress beauty in the flair
and cut of the only witness
to my dance under sorrow’s tree.
This swift darkness is spring’s first hour.
Wright takes what appears on the surface to be mundane (washing hair and viewing the way water caresses it) and he makes it meaningful, tying it in to spring’s first hour and a new phase in the speaker’s life. This is what makes Wright great, revealing how the ordinary is actually extraordinary.
AH: If it has, how has Wright’s work inspired you?
ER: Wright’s work has inspired me in the way that I approach not just a poem, but an overall manuscript in progress. There has been some debate in recent years about the book project versus the book of poems, and while I appreciate the latter, my work always veers toward the project. I don’t want to leave poems abandoned, and in my early days, when I was writing my first book, I left a lot of poems behind. Wright reinforced the idea of cohesion in a book, as well as the idea that poetry can incorporate various other elements, such as history, philosophy, surrealism, myth, and folklore, while still focusing on the complexity of the human condition. If I can do some of that in my work, then what more can I ask for?
Jay Wright is a poet hailing from the Southwestern United States. He has published fifteen poetry collections since the start of his career, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, the Academy of American Poets, Princeton University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His most recent collection of poems is Disorientations: Groundings (2013).
Read more of Wright’s work here.
Purchase Transfigurations: Collected Poems here.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Valley (Sundress Publications, 2021). His debut essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us will be published by Split/Lip Press in late 2021. He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for Heavy Feather Review. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Purchase Rodríguez’s newest collection The Valley here.
Stay updated with Rodríguez on Twitter.
Read three of Rodríguez’s poems on The Rumpus.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Into the Void Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She currently reads for Mud Season Review and EX/POST Magazine, is the Playwriting & Director’s Apprentice at New Perspectives Theatre Company, was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and is the co-Editor in Chief of Juven Press. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com