Jordan E. Franklin is a Brooklyn based poet with two projects coming out in 2021 – When the Signals Come Home, a full-length collection from Switchback Books which won the Gatewood Prize, and a chapbook entitled boys in the electric age which will appear with Tolsun Books. In this interview, she talks with Columbia poetry MFA candidate Catherine Fisher about music, family and being a native Brooklynite.
Since this is your first book and chapbook, I’d be interested to hear how you found your publishers, and what the process of publishing was like. Do you have any advice for people who are working on their first collection or looking for publishers?
Well, it took me a few years to find a publisher. I started submitting my manuscript in 2016 when I was in my MFA program [at Stony Brook Southampton] and putting the finishing touches on my thesis. My advisor told me it was great, and that I should submit it. Unfortunately, while she was optimistic and kind, it wasn’t there yet.
I used Poets and Writers and Entropy magazine’s submissions lists to find first book prizes. As I kept applying, I began focusing more on presses publishing work I like, and presses that were responding well to my poetry. I submitted to the Gatewood Prize in 2019, and was selected as a finalist. I submitted again and, lo and behold, 2020, the middle of June, I got news I had won the Gatewood Prize, and that Tolsun Books wanted to pick up my chapbook. So, it was like a double-whammy for me! And a bright spot in the middle of the pandemic.
My advice would be to cast a wide net. Maybe at one press they didn’t like your book, but another will pick it up and say this is really great! Another thing to consider is you can’t work alone – you need extra support. Don’t be afraid to take workshops. For example, when I was getting my collection up to snuff after graduating, I took this really cool manuscript course with Shira Erlichman at Brooklyn Poets and it was through that class that I was able to put the finishing touches on my book.
Did you find major differences between working with your full-length publisher and your chapbook publisher, or was the process fairly similar?
I would say the process was similar. I’m lucky that the publishers I worked with are very supportive and warm. They really spent time with my manuscript. They saw my vision and didn’t try to change it.
They also supported me on the craft side. They noticed an error here, a little hiccup there. And that’s what I needed, because even though I’m a writer, my grammar can be a little off.
Your full-length collection, When the Signals Come Home, deals largely with the speaker’s father’s illness. When did you know you were writing a book about family? Did you decide you needed to write about the subject and go from there, or did the poems come to you individually before you assembled them into the book?
That’s tricky, it’s a chicken or the egg situation. My full-length collection is about my relationship with my father, who got really sick in 2014. He’s been hospitalized ever since. As a result of that, I used to visit him and look out for him. I had power of attorney; I was a health care proxy. I had written one or two poems about my father, but I didn’t have my idea of the book until I was in my MFA program, where I learned about ekphrastic poetry. I’m a big music fan, and when I was developing my thesis, I mentioned to my advisor, Julie Sheehan, that I wanted to write a book about family in response to different kinds of music. She wasn’t the biggest fan of the idea, but in 2016, that same summer, I brought her a poem called “Dive,” which is inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s song, “Swimming Pool (Drank).” After she read the poem, she said, OK Jordan, I can see this becoming a manuscript.
In an interview with the University of Arizona Poetry Center, you talked about how after finishing When the Signals Come Home, many people thought your father had died, while in reality, you are estranged. That interview got me thinking about confessional poetry, and the distinction between the speaker and the writer. I was wondering what you think about this space, how a writer can play with people’s expectations of what happened versus reality, and where fiction makes its way into a more confessional, often autobiographical mode.
I honestly didn’t go in with the intention of writing something autobiographical. I just wanted to say this is how I feel, this is what I’m seeing, here it is. When I was writing these poems, it never occurred to me that they could be read as autobiographical. I’m thinking of one poem about my father called “Center Mass,” for example. I can’t tell you how many people thought I was being surreal when they first read that poem. They asked, are you being surreal or are you being literal? And I’m like, I’m being literal! The funny thing about it is I love reading surreal poetry, but I don’t get it. I can sit here right now and read Octavio Paz or Lorca, and think, this is beautiful language, but what are you talking about?
When I was writing this book, I focused on what I was feeling. And maybe part of me was hoping that writing these poems might help me cope. Anybody who says poetry is therapy, I admire them. For me, it wasn’t. I’ve had some people say to me, oh, Jordan, you’re so honest and brave, but that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to write, I just had these lines and ideas swirling in my head, and I wanted to write them down. [I think my resistance to autobiography] is part of the reason I’ve always been drawn to using fancy and broad imagery. This language is my way of seeing the world, and it’s up to the reader to decide whether or not I’m being literal.
Do you see the chapbook as related to your full-length collection, or do you consider them two separate projects?
The chapbook includes a bunch of poems that didn’t fit into the full-length manuscript. I wanted the chapbook to dabble more with gender, which I touched upon in the full-length collection, but the chapbook gave me more freedom.
It could be considered a continuation of the full-length collection, because I wrote it when my father and I stopped speaking. The chapbook is me distracting myself, and getting caught up in language. When I’m feeling really hurt or angry, I distract myself. It’s part of the reason I play music all the time, I like being distracted from my own thoughts. While in that distraction mindset, I started realizing this chapbook is about gender, and how I view things like relationships, sexuality, and even media. Gender has always fascinated me. When I was growing up, I spent every other weekend with my dad. He firmly believed a woman could do anything, but he had some hang-ups about women due to his upbringing. I grew up in that juxtaposition, and thought, especially where my father’s concerned, if I was more masculine, more of a tomboy, we would be closer.
You mentioned music, and I noticed throughout both of these collections, music is a linking thread. There are so many references to songs, from the lists of what you’re listening to on the way to visit your father, to the epigraph of boys in the electric age. What role does music play in your practice?
I could talk all day about music. I’m often listening to music when I write. Sometimes when I’m writing a poem, I’ll listen to the same song over and over, even as I’m revising it to get me back in that mood and that mindset. With both collections, I saw them not so much as poetry books, but as albums. In fact, the full-length collection takes its cues from The Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie, good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar and the double LP, Songs in the Key of Life, by Stevie Wonder. Once I started thinking about my collection like an album, it became easier to write.
Music allows me to make a space for myself. I could be on the most crowded train in the world, but if I have my headphones on, I have my little space. Often when I visited my dad when he was sick, I’d have music on. My only regret with the book is that I didn’t put more music in it. Music helped me deal with that time and gave me a frame of reference for the book.
You talk about music allowing you to exist in your own world on a crowded train. Reading both of your collections, I was struck by Brooklyn’s presence in your work. I am wondering how you see a sense of place impacting your poetics.
Being a born and raised Brooklynite, I feel like much in the same way that Brooklyn has evolved my writing has evolved. One of the things I hope my work gets from Brooklyn is the idea that there are so many different cultures and ideas and voices that intersect or melt. I hope my poetry does a similar thing. I want to be the kind of person who can not only pull from T.S. Eliot or Diane Seuss or Etheridge Knight but also music and low budget horror flicks. There’s this stigma that if you include pop culture in your poetry, then that’s taboo, it’s a no-no. As somebody who grew up surrounded by pop culture, I have to include it in my work. Brooklyn to me is a constant bombardment of pop culture. Even down to the way certain people talk – the lingo and the slang. Especially if you’re writing about your own identity, there’s nothing wrong with tapping into pop culture.