BJ Ward’s books are Gravedigger’s Birthday (a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize), 17 Love Poems with No Despair, and Landing in New Jersey with Soft Hands, all published by North Atlantic Books and distributed by Random House. His poems have appeared in Poetry, TriQuarterly, Mid-American Review, The Sun, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Literary Review, and have been featured on National Public Radio’s “The Writer’s Almanac” and the web site Poetry Daily. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Worcester Review, and Teaching Artist Journal. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and two Distinguished Artist fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. One of his poems discussed in this interview (“For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims”) has been cast in bronze and acquired as part of the permanent collection at Grounds for Sculpture, an outdoor sculpture museum in Hamilton, New Jersey.
For his work with schoolchildren, Mr. Ward has received the Governor’s Award in Arts Education from the State of New Jersey and has been designated Distinguished Teaching Artist by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Mr. Ward was also named Teaching Artist of the Year by Playwrights’ Theatre of New Jersey for his work in the New Jersey Writers Project. He is a member of the faculty at Warren County Community College.
INTERVIEW WITH B.J. WARD
by Russell Bittner
December: Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa. Season of giving and remembering. What better gift could I give the readers of this little corner than a few poems from BJ Ward?
I owe my thanks for this introduction to Diane Lockward. She gave me BJ’s name; it meant nothing to me at the time. Such is the bell for poets: it tolls very faintly, if at all. I Googled and found “For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims” (which we’ve included here).
I really didn’t need much else to suspect I’d found a gifted poet. However, an article titled “Poetry in Motion” in The New York Times of November 26, 2000 convinced me I’d found more than a gifted poet. I’d found a Mensch. In Brooklyn, a Mensch is worth a thousand poets. Put the two together, you’ve got a godsend.
I don’t use the word lightly. I believe neither in God nor in gifts from. However, I like the notion and keep it for very special people. BJ is one of ‘em.
He sent me a collection of poems under the title Gravedigger’s Birthday. (Mind you: BJ’s budget for stamps is as limited as my own—and yet, he didn’t’ ask.) I read the entire collection within twenty-four hours. You and I both know reading poetry is, itself, a labor of questionable love. You start out on a verse or maybe even on an entire stanza that catches your eye. You read on, and the work begins to disappoint—as most work does. You go for a drink, for a piss, anywhere to find distraction. If the work doesn’t disappoint, however, you continue. It doesn’t get any easier. If anything, the better the work, the harder the read, the greater the effort.
I wonder sometimes as I’m reading good poetry (this never happens with bad poetry) whether the exhaustion I’m feeling is a battle of synapses—a kind of beauty versus the beasts. The ‘beauty’ is the work itself; the ‘beasts’ are my assumptions, my habits, my aural experience of how language defines my assumptions and habits and of what happens when a poet—a good poet—challenges them.
I’ll let you be the judge. As the Romans had a habit of saying in their heyday—and rather charitably, I might add—De gustibus non est disputandum (There’s no accounting for taste.) BJ’s poetry may just be my taste. I don’t want to impose it on anyone else.
For starters, then, the bio of our so-called “godsend”:
December: Christmas, Chanukah, Qwanza. Season of giving and remembering. What better gift could I give the readers of this little corner than a few poems from BJ Ward?
RRB:I have to say, BJ, that’s a pretty goddamned impressive résumé for someone who would appear to have been born deep down in the grease pit of a truck stop. Seems to me you wiped the grease right off your lip, looked at your middle finger, raised it to the world around you, and went to work.
I was also born in New Jersey, but into a little hamlet (and circumstances) sounding only slightly less idyllic than ‘Cherry Hill.’ The fact of it has haunted me ever since.
You, toot au contraire, have raised yourself up by your proverbial bootstraps and moved on. If you will, give us the spark that lit your fire, that gave us the body of work we suspect has only begun to re-ignite this thing called “modern poetry” that is—at least in my opinion—so dead it doesn’t deserve an epitaph.
BJW:A high school English teacher changed my life—or, at least, revealed my life to me. His name is Edwin Romond, and he’s a fine poet as well as a terrific teacher (now retired). I was one student during one year of this man’s 33-year career. His job was largely thankless—135 papers or so every week or two, all to be read, pored over, marked with nudgings toward clarity and style, hour after hour, night upon night, while his family waited for him in the next room, while other teachers, for the same pay, fed forms into a Scantron, which to me has always looked like some kind of paper shredder. Ed Romond understood how learning not only took place in his classroom but also in the margins of his students’ papers—particularly for the most marginalized of students. When is this country truly going to honor our teachers as some of its heroes? I mean the great, dedicated ones—and there are plenty of them (although the lousy ones seem to get more press)—who have taken their hands and eyes and sculpted rough intellects one supporting paragraph at a time. In any case, Russell, I was affected profoundly by Mr. Romond’s often overlooked and tedious but miraculously tenacious efforts. He was the spark that lit the fire, as you put it.
He and Springsteen concerts.
RRB:I believe you, BJ. And I believe, too, there are a lot of well-meaning, hard-working teachers the world over, and not just in New Jersey. I had one in Switzerland, another in Italy, and two right here in River City during my years at Columbia—all phenomenal professors. Sometimes, that’s all it takes—a good teacher and a curious, conscientious student—to start the fire. In fact, I suspect that many people who are fortunate enough to have such a teacher find a field and take up their life’s work thanks to the inspiration they may have found at the hands of that one good teacher.
I sympathize with the lot of most teachers—particularly here in America. They inherit a wasteland of kids whose parents have little to no idea about parenting. And so, they’re expected to be both parent and teacher. It is, as you say, a largely thankless task.
But enough of that. And, as long as we’re on the subject of children and parents, let’s take a look at the piece that, perhaps, has gained you the most attention to date. (I hesitate to say “fame” only because poets don’t generally become famous until they’re dead.) Let’s first take a look at “For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims” and then let you tell us, please, how you came to write it and what has become of it—and of you, as the author of it—since you first wrote the piece, I assume, shortly after September 11, 2001. For the benefit of our readers, I should mention that this piece and the ones that follow appear in the collection you sent me, Gravedigger’s Birthday (published by North Atlantic Books).
BJW:The mass murder disoriented me into a silence. Like so many others immediately in the New York/New Jersey area, certainly across the country and well beyond our borders, I was stunned by the loss. The different sections of the poem—each beginning with the word “Note”—were beginnings of attempts to record something about the loss. Finally I realized it was this inability to frame the tragedy on the page that had to be part of the testimony. This truncation, it seems to me, is quite consistent with what happened that day. There’s also a certain incapacity to conceive of the event—and the resultant silence or incompleteness itself—that is a necessary, if partial, testament to the tragedy. The silence of stopped traffic, the silence of the plane-less sky, and, most horribly, the silence of the newly dead.
But there is no way I could have crystaLlized this then. At the time, I’d been working as the Artistic Director of the Warren County Poetry Festival in New Jersey, which was to take place on September 29, 2001. As part of my duties, I was to moderate a panel entitled “Suffering and Transcendence in Poetry.” The four panelists were the poets Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dobyns, Yusef Komunyakaa and Gerald Stern. The topic of conversation had been established well before the terrorist attacks occurred, and all the poets agreed not to alter the subject. They wanted to address it, even if they didn’t know how they would do so. They struggled with silence, anger, profound sadness—without reaching a conclusion, but working just the same towards a light. At the conclusion, the audience was quiet for about five seconds, then rose to a standing ovation. Being in the presence of that panel and listening to what four of our greatest poets had to offer in the wake of one of our greatest tragedies was seminal to the development of my own poem. That one-hour discussion enabled me to shape the silence into something concrete. In other words, I felt empowered to attempt to arrange the language in such a way that the silence between the words resounded.
What has happened since then? Gravedigger’s Birthday, with that poem in it, came out the following summer. (I was working as a faculty member at the Frost Place Festival in Franconia, New Hampshire when the first case of books arrived in time for my evening reading there—delivered to Robert Frost’s old front porch.) I did a small tour for the book and was a very proud father of it. In fact, I’m still fond of the book. But then, a year after the September 29th panel discussion, almost to the date, I attended a discussion by Li-Young Lee at a church in Waterloo Village, part of the 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. At one point, Li-Young said, “Every illusion we have is much narrower and shallower than reality, which is sacred. Poetry is the Supreme Yoga. It uncovers, it connects, it links us back to our original condition.”
Li-Young’s insight illuminated, but also dovetailed with, that panel’s conversation in the aftermath of 9/11. The shaping of silences in poetry—an approach to the silences that we have in common on some level—has become much more important to me in my work. And here I mean the good silence that remains after intuitive construction and winnowing: the fecund, seemingly primordial kind that is present in so much great poetry. It’s been seven years since that book came out. I’ve written steadily since then, but the work seems much more difficult than in previous periods. I’ve come to learn that silence is much more difficult to make than noise. So, to answer your question in one way, that’s what has become of me.
RRB:I suspect, BJ, that this poem will outlive us both. Dare I say congratulations?
Bringing your poetry a bit closer to home—and what could be closer than an experience like that one? Perhaps only one’s own mother—your next piece, “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not a Single Poem in There About Her” (also appearing in Gravedigger’s Birthday) deals with that very subject. Tell us about it if you will before we get a read for ourselves.
BJW:My first book, Landing in New Jersey with Soft Hands, was dedicated to my mother, yet there’s no mention of her in it. Occasionally, a reader would ask me about the dedication. Such occasions became the energy that triggered the poem. In the course of writing the piece, however, I came to realize it was not so much about the dedication of my book, but rather about the dedication of my mother.
Gravedigger’s Birthday has an arc of a story in it. About a quarter of the poems depict a family that’s a lot like mine. When the reader encounters this poem (“Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not a Single Poem in There About Her”), he or she already understands that the matter of substance abuse lurks in the background. One of the often-overlooked by-products of substance abuse is that the money’s gone. Readers of this interview who have been through a similar experience know exactly what I mean. The poem is a meditation on the morally ambiguous action of my mother in one instance.
My eighth-grade class was given Flowers for Algernon as a reading assignment—a beautiful book full of words I didn’t know. At my family’s supper table, any word over two syllables was considered fancy, and you might get a pork chop winged at you for attempting to use one. My mother recognized—without really knowing what these words meant—that I had no hope of doing well in school. The fact is, I did do well at school and got a decent education, which gave me some options in life—one of which was to become a writer—which is “why I dedicated my first book to my mother when there’s not a single poem in there about her.”
RRB:That, BJ, is one hell-of-a dedication.
Tell us briefly, if you will, about the next two pieces.
BJW:Since we’re getting towards the end of the interview, Russell, I want to say thanks for such a great experience. It’s been a pleasure.
Gwendolyn Brooks once observed that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a lie. She said that words scratch the soul. “Trash” tries to capture some of that, and also grows out of the substance abuse/“where’s the money?” situation I described above.
“Bandages” was written at a time in the late 90’s when a lot of male teachers were rightfully being arrested for inappropriate behavior with students. Since English teachers engage students with poems and fiction—which, in turn, touch them deeply—students will often confide in them more than, say, in math or physics teachers. This poem grew out of that tension.
RRB:That, BJ, is about as strong a piece of poetry as I’ve ever read. And so, I’ll just leave it at this and say ‘thank you’ for the privilege of your verse, of your conversation, of your collaboration. From one Jersey boy to another, ya done good, kid.
Nothing could have prepared you—
Note: Every poem I have ever written
is not as important as this one.
Note: This poem says nothing important.
Clarification of last note:
This poem cannot save 3,000 lives.
Note: This poem is attempting to pull your father
out of the rubble, still living and glowing
and enjoying football on Sunday.
Note: This poem is trying to reach your mother
in her business skirt, and get her home
to Ridgewood where she can change
to her robe and sip Chamomile tea
as she looks through the bay window at the old,
untouched New York City skyline.
Note: This poem is aiming its guns at the sky
to shoot down the terrorists and might
hit God if He let this happen.
Note: This poem is trying to turn
that blooming of orange and black
of the impact into nothing
more than a sudden tiger-lily
whose petals your mother and father
could use as parachutes, float down
to the streets below, a million
dandelion seeds drifting off
to the untrafficked sky above them.
Note: This poem is still doing nothing.
Note: Somewhere in this poem there may be people alive,
and I’m trying like mad to reach them.
Note: I need to get back to writing the poem to reach them
instead of dwelling on these matters, but how
can any of us get back to writing poems?
Note: The sound of this poem: the sound
of a scream in 200 different languages
that outshouts the sounds of sirens and
airliners and glass shattering and
concrete crumbling as steel is bending and
the orchestral tympani of our American hearts
when the second plane hit.
Note: The sound of a scream in 200 languages
is the same sound.
It is the sound of a scream.
Note: In New Jersey over the next four days,
over thirty people asked me
if I knew anyone in the catastrophe.
Yes, I said.
I knew every single one of them.
As Prometheus must have pocketed fire,
slipping it from Olympus in the folds
of his compassion and duplicity,
so my mother stole a Webster’s pocket dictionary.
The Mansfield Jamesway Department Store
was all discounts and lighting that refused
to flatter, commerce sliding through its aisles
as my mother slipped that book into her jacket,
getting 30,000 words fatter. I know the arguments—
that’s stealing; what about the owner?;
what about teaching her son what’s right?
In truth, the entire Jamesway corporation
would go out of business twenty-one years later,
and I’m sure it had to do
with the Webster’s Riverside Pocket Dictionary
whose pages held all the words of Ulysses
and Paradise Lost and Look Homeward, Angel,
but jumbled in alphabetical order.
What can I say? She stole a dictionary for me
because there were no words
a judge could use that would be worse
than her son starving
for a lexicon he could grip like a wrench
and loosen all those dumb bolts in his brain with.
Receiving that dictionary taught me rectitude
and the many dictates that come down
from its cloistral mountaintop. I was suddenly rich,
a son from the most indigent family in Hampton.
How lucky—when I first started to rub against my language,
sidle up to my own tongue,
my mother stole me a book.
Years later, I gave her one back.
It was something like love
that called my mother up at 3am
to rise for the Star-Ledger—
deliver the papers to the paper deliverers,
her Chevy truck, laden with its bundles, rumbling
down Route 31, passing the same cops, the same delivery trucks
heading northbound. It is something like love
that made that memory part of my history—
how many other moments do I have to pull hard on
to remember, like pulling a pike through
swamp water to eat it? Yet that comes so easily,
and now I can say it was love that put potatoes
and spam on the table. And it is love
that makes me cringe at the term “white trash”
because potatoes sometimes were all we could afford
and how we dressed is how we had to dress and I
watched tv a lot because everyone was working
or sleeping off the work and all the money we got
we paid to other white folks who weren’t white trash
because they owned used car lots or worked
as loan officers and even though I am the only one
in the family who even went to college or graduate
school or is a professor and author and distinguished
fellow I am still a dopey student of this world and love my family
and how hard they worked and still work
but really worked then just to be called white trash
while giving me the wings of encouragement
and “day-old shelf” bread in my soup
to make it and write this poem which I write
because I love them and love them deeply,
old no-good-for-nothin’ jagged-toothed white
white white trash that I motherfuckin’ am.
—One week after my student is raped
In the hallway while classes were in session
my student quietly confided to me,
shaking like a lake in an earthquake.
She began to break down and in three seconds
moved her hands quickly enough to shield
her face, then chest, then opposite forearms,
as if trying to cover a huge country with body parts,
or the shadows of them. Then she burst
her arms open and threw herself upon me,
murmuring she had only told her two best friends
before me and then her head was buried
in my chest and I put my arms around her
tentatively, looking over her shoulders
to see if anyone could see us. I wanted to shove her
away, thinking of my job, of headlines,
of how this kind of comfort was outside
the behavioral guidelines of my contract.
She began to sob more softly while holding me
tightly, and I let her. I let her have control
of me for that moment. I let her break
behavioral guidelines as more important ones
had been broken on her. And then we stopped
being student and teacher—just a couple people
at a loss when the powerful and unexpected
had been suddenly thrust upon us.
The principal and three students turned the corner
and stopped short. I knew it might be years
before I cleared my name, but far longer
for her to reclaim her life. “Mr. Ward!”
from the principal’s thick throat, crashing
down the hall, drawing teachers out
like echoes from their doorways. Mr. Ward!
Mr. Ward! I had already closed my eyes
and could smell her hair. Sweet. She had stopped
sobbing and we hugged in silence.
As they drew closer, she tightened
so I did too. We were as quiet and taut as bandages