A Conversation with Troy Jollimore


Claremont, California
October 21st, 2013

Troy Jollimore was born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Princeton University. He has been an External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, the Stanley P. Young Fellow in Poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Jollimore’s philosophical writings frequently concern ethical issues connected to personal relationships. He is the author of On Loyalty (Routledge, 2012), Love’s Vision (Princeton University Press, 2011), and two collections of poems: At Lake Scugog (Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, 2011) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory (Margie/Intuit House, 2006), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Jollimore’s poems have appeared in publications including the New Yorker, the Believer, McSweeney’s, and Poetry. He is also a frequent book reviewer, writing for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Review, among others. He has lived in the U.S. since 1993 and is currently Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico.



FOX: It is October 21st, 2013, and Tim Green and Daveen are with Heather Altfeld and poet and philosopher Troy Jollimore. Is it true that you are jolly more than most people?


JOLLIMORE: Oh, God. Decline to comment. [all laugh]


FOX: Okay. Do your parents understand your poems or your philosophy writings?


JOLLIMORE: [laughs] That’s a great question. I don’t worry too much about whether people understand my poems, whereas it’s nice when people understand the philosophy. I know that my parents have read my poems and they say that they like some of them. I often tell people not to worry about understanding poetry, mine or anyone’s. If it’s fun, it’s like a song that you like, right? It sounds good to you, it makes you want to dance, whatever—don’t worry about whether you understand it; just throw out your inhibitions and read.


FOX: Absolutely. I see your first book, which won a major prize, includes a long sonnet sequence. Are sonnets difficult for you to write, or easy?


JOLLIMORE: I don’t think they’re ever easy, but of course it depends on the writer. There is something natural about the form, and when I’m really in the groove—one of the reasons there are so many sonnets in that book is because I fell into a sonnet groove—it becomes easier. When I was in the middle of that sequence I found that almost every time I would have a poetic idea, it was already in pentameter. I was already looking for the sonnet form, just sort of naturally thinking in sonnets. And most of the ideas that were coming to me were just about the right size for a sonnet, which in a way isn’t surprising because one of the reasons the sonnet form has endured is because it’s just the right size for a certain capsule of thought. So I would never say it was easy, but a lot of them did happen pretty fast.


There were a few in that book, and a couple in the more recent book as well, that I wrote almost straight through, that I didn’t really have to go back and mess with. And then quite a number of others where I would write something which was initially close to a sonnet—not a sonnet yet but it didn’t take that much playing with and re-arranging; it was clear that’s what it wanted to be, and so I felt like the poem was helping me along, sort of telling me what it wanted me to do with it.


FOX: How do you know you’re in the groove? What does that feel like?


JOLLIMORE: I think you’re not really sure until afterwards. I think you can feel good about it at the time when you’re writing a lot, but it really isn’t until later, probably months later, that you look back at what you wrote. It’s like the middle of the night syndrome everybody talks about: You wake up in the middle of the night, you’ve got a brilliant poem in your head, you write it down, look at it in the morning—it’s terrible, just the worst. I’ve had cases where I wrote something that I thought was pretty hot and I was pretty excited about, and I’d look at it later and there wasn’t really anything there; it was actually pretty awkward and stilted, just not doing what I wanted it to do. So I think you don’t really know when you’re in the middle of it. You hope you are and then you find out later on.


FOX: Do you associate anything with getting into the groove, or does it just happen?


JOLLIMORE: I’ve had to think about this because, even though teaching writing is not my main gig, once every year and a half or two years I get to teach a writing workshop. So I’ve had to think about this because I want to know what to tell students, what advice to give them. And I haven’t found anything incredibly useful, nothing that is guaranteed to work, but there are things that you can do to make it more likely you’ll get in that special state. The writing-poetry-state is not quite like the normal state that we’re in most of the time. And you can do everything right, get all your ducks in a row and still not be able to get into it. And that’s one of the reasons people talk about inspiration, because you can’t just decide to be there; you’ve got to be visited by the muse.


And then the other thing I’ve found is that as far as what those ducks are that you have to get in a row, and what the row needs to look like, it is not only different for each person, which is bad enough, but for me at least it’s different for me at different times. The ducks are always different. So I will find a ritual, like a time of day, a certain spot, a certain coffee shop, a certain table if I can get it, and if not I sit there and I glare at the person who is sitting in my spot, until they move. [all laugh] Time of day, place—I can sit there and I know I’ll have an hour of good writing, and that’ll last for a month, maybe, and then I show up one day and it’s just gone. I’m at the right table, it’s the right time of day, but, you know, the sun is in a different place, different time of year … who knows? The spirit has fled. Something has changed, anyway, and now I need to find the next thing that works. So if you’re like me, a large part of your writing life is going to be this continual search, continually asking yourself, “What is it you need right now to get yourself in a state of inspiration?”


FOX: Yes.


JOLLIMORE: And it never ends. Unless you’re one of those lucky people, and there may be a few, for whom it’s always the same thing, same desk, same table, same time of day. If you’re one of those people you can take that energy and just put it toward writing, and that must be really nice to be that way. For the rest of us, it’s a constant search; it keeps changing. But there are things that make it likely to happen.


FOX: So you’re not one who says, “Sit down every morning at 9:00 a.m. and write for four hours no matter what?”


JOLLIMORE: No. [laughs] In so many ways, that is not me. A couple of years ago, at Chico State, where I teach, we had, in the course of the year, two poets whom I like very much come through and give talks. One of them is James Richardson, who I knew from Princeton—an amazing poet, finally starting to get the recognition he deserves. And the other was Jane Hirshfield, from here in California. And both of them during their visits were asked at some point by a student, “Do you think it’s important and necessary to write every day? Because we keep hearing that; people tell us you have to write every day.” And both of them responded pretty much the same way: “No,” they said, “that’s crazy! Why would you drive yourself crazy? That’s just too much.” There’s times when it’s good to do, if you can manage it. You’re not wasting your time. Even if you sit down for four hours and you don’t write anything good, you’re not wasting your time. You had to work stuff out during that time; you had to get bad stuff out of your system so the good stuff can come, whatever it is.


But there are times in your life, for most of us, where we can’t do that, and there are times I think when maybe we could if we really tried hard but we don’t feel like doing that. We feel it isn’t going to happen, that this is a time for refreshing, recharging the batteries and not a time for outputting something. And that’s okay. I think—again, different things work for different people. It may be that there are some people who will never really write a great poem or a really good book unless they write every day. If that’s what you have to do, then that’s what you should do. And hopefully you can figure that out about yourself. But I think for most of us, it’s more flexible than that; it’s a little more random.


FOX: I’d say the same—when the muse knocks, boy, answer the door and start writing, because she may not come back for a month … Tim knows; I might send him twelve poems in one day and nothing for five months.


JOLLIMORE: See, you should hold on to some of those poems and then sort of dole them out over time. Like, “Look, I’m constantly working!” [all laugh]


FOX: Well, you were talking about the Princeton poet who’s getting more recognized—


JOLLIMORE: Yeah, James Richardson.


FOX: Right, and yet you wrote in a poem, perhaps you were facetious, but that you were jealous of reading a good poem written by somebody else.


JOLLIMORE: Yeah, they’re both true. [all laugh] They’re both true. It’s the Gore Vidal quote—wasn’t it Gore Vidal who said, “Every time a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies”? I think everybody feels that to some degree, no matter how successful you are. And yet at the same time, I’m genuinely happy for my friends when they do good work, when they get recognized for their good work. We’re complicated people. I think we feel many things at once. There’s always some little part of me—because like most people I’m insecure, so every time a friend or someone that I know even succeeds there is a part of me saying, “God, he’s doing so much better than me; what’s happening; when’s the last time I got recognized in any way?” It’s dumb, it’s stupid that we have those thoughts, but we do. We’re human.


FOX: How do you deal with your insecurity?


JOLLIMORE: That’s a very pertinent question because, again, going back to teaching, one of the things that’s happened over the last few years as I’ve done these poetry workshops is I’ve found myself focusing more and more on the question of anxiety. There is so much anxiety connected with poetry, and the first thing, and maybe the last thing, that students or anybody trying to write needs to learn to deal with, is that poetry, no matter who you are, makes almost everybody nervous. That’s just our society. People are afraid of it; they’re afraid of getting it wrong and not understanding. And if you’re trying to write it’s even harder because you’re afraid of writing a bad poem, and if you do you’ll feel bad about yourself. That’s one of the first things I say to students, and I’ve actually taken now to saying it on the first day of classes: Give yourself permission to write bad poems. Everybody does. You think that the poets you love don’t, because you never see them, because they’re smart enough, they put it in a drawer. They keep it for a while, then they look at it and say, “Is this any good?” I mean, they might know it’s bad right away, that happens too. But if they don’t know if it’s bad right away, they hold onto it for a while to see if it’s bad, they check back again in a few months, and if it’s bad you never see it. And so we walk around thinking, “Oh, James Richardson never writes a bad poem.” I’m sure he’s written bad poems, but he hasn’t shown them to anybody. He’s smart that way. And that’s what we need to do.


And it’s very hard. It’s hard for me not to feel bad about myself when I write something and it’s not very good, it’s not working. I think, “If I were Paul Muldoon, this would be brilliant. There would be something amazing on this page right now after an hour’s effort instead of this, which is just really ugly and terrible. I should’ve just gone for a walk in this hour; I’ve wasted my time.” Maybe there are one in ten thousand poets who literally never write anything bad, everything off their pen is gold, but if that happens at all it’s got to be so ridiculously rare it’s not even worth thinking about. It’s like the three-year-old kids who can play piano like Mozart—it doesn’t matter. Their existence is not relevant to us. We’re ordinary humans, and so we have to deal with that.


FOX: It seems to me that one of the essential problems in life is finding truth, because we have all kinds of reasons for dissembling. How do you get to truth?


JOLLIMORE: Boy. How do I want to respond to that … As a philosopher, I’ve come to a view of the world and of human life that sees both of those things as incredibly complicated, so that to really get at the truth is very hard. I mean, there are banal true things that you can say but nobody cares. It’s hard to say something that is interesting, that isn’t something that we all already know or something that we’ve all heard. I’m not going to remember who said this but there is this great quote about fiction, that a great short story is about what everybody knows and nobody is talking about. Is that Raymond Carver? Anyway, I think there’s so much truth in that; an articulation of these things that we all know or have approached, or it’s passed through our mind but we haven’t managed to capture it and then somebody gets it in art, and there it is.


Some people think of poetry, or fiction, as a matter of creating something artificial purely out of the imagination, so that there’s no resemblance or correspondence or relationship with reality, and therefore it—the poem, the story, whatever—doesn’t have to be true in any sense. But that can’t be right. I mean, it’s a fiction in some important sense, but I think that fiction better have some truth in it; it better get something right; we better read that short story and recognize that character or think, “Yes, that’s what it’s like,” or we better read that poem and say, “I’ve had that experience,” or “I could have that experience; I could imagine; that must be just what it’s like to have that experience even though I’ve never had it myself.” And that’s a question of truth, it’s a question of accuracy; you’ve got to get the world right. Otherwise, you know, if I tell somebody, “This is what it’s like to be someone who fought in the Crimean War,” and in fact that’s nothing like what it was like to fight in the Crimean War, I haven’t done anybody a service. I’ve just wasted people’s time.


FOX: I think about the truest truth, and by that I mean not only true, meaning accurate, but it’s important, it’s deep …


JOLLIMORE: That’s the interesting part, right? It’s got to be true and interesting.


FOX: Exactly.


JOLLIMORE: And that’s the hardest thing. That’s why most of us struggle to make art.


FOX: So how do you teach that?


JOLLIMORE: It is a funny thing to be a writing teacher. Because, of course—I mean I really believe, and I think most other writers believe, that despite the fact that we as writers have done it, we don’t really know how to do it. It’s not like being a surgeon. A surgeon knows how to perform an operation and they can describe the steps and so on but if I say, “How do you write a poem?” beyond the sort of bare, “Well, you get your pen and your paper, or your laptop, or whatever, and you sort of sit there until something great happens,” it’s hard to say anything intelligent because there’s no formula. I’ve probably said this too many times because I like it a lot but I think it’s true: I got to take a couple classes with Paul Muldoon when I was in grad school and one of the things he said that really stuck with me was “Every time I finish a poem I feel elated because I wrote another poem and I feel terrified because I think to myself, ‘It might be the last one.’” [Fox laughs] Because I don’t know how to do this, right? He said, “What I know is how to write the poem I’ve just written, but I can’t write that one again. What I don’t know is how to write the next one.”


So as a teacher of writing, all I can do is talk about my experiences, things that have worked for me, things that they might try that might help them and might not. And in context, I think that’s most of what teachers can do. And I’ve known some really good ones. I think about Paul, who really was great at getting those ideas across and getting us comfortable with the idea that the poem writes itself; you’re just there as the conduit. You’ve got to listen to the poem: What does it want to be? Don’t try to make it a sonnet if it doesn’t want to be a sonnet; if it wants something else, let it be something else.


FOX: It seems to me that’s a difficult idea for relatively inexperienced poets to understand.


JOLLIMORE: Yeah. They want to feel—I mean, we’re often taught to feel—that we’re the creators, so we’re in charge and we can make the artwork do anything that we want it to do. I don’t feel that I have many lessons for people, but this is one, and it’s a good one, and it’s important that this gets passed on to people who want to write. I don’t want to underestimate the writer’s creative role; obviously the poem’s not going to happen without the writer. The writer is necessary, but he’s not necessarily in control. You might or might not take this literally—I know people that do and I know people that don’t. I know people who really believe in the quite literal existence of the muses, and it’s something divine or something like that and they really think the poem’s coming from somewhere outside them. Or I know other people who think, well, it’s just coming from your unconscious, right? But it doesn’t matter; the back story, the metaphysics of it, doesn’t really matter. What’s important is to have the attitude that the poem, in all relevant respects, is coming from somewhere else and you are just going to channel it; you’re going to be a kind of midwife. And your role is to be sensitive, be kind of a medium who can hear those things and invite them in and in they come and they happen and you help guide it into the world. So you listen to it and say, “What do you want? What are you trying to be?” Not to try to force it. You know, you might sit down one day and want to write a nature poem. You give yourself that assignment and you end up writing a poem that has nothing to do with nature but it’s still a good poem. Or you’re trying to write a sonnet and it turns out it’s free verse; it’s something you weren’t expecting. But it’s a good poem, it’s just not the target you thought you were aiming at.


I always tell my students, “If you get a decent poem out of it, it’s a good day, and even if it wasn’t the assignment you gave yourself, it doesn’t matter. Don’t beat yourself up about that. You wrote a poem. Take yourself out for a drink; congratulate yourself. You wrote a poem.” The nice thing about assignments and forms and all that, and subjects even, is just that, well, they can get you writing. You’re not staring at a blank page saying, “I want to write a poem.” What are you going to do with that? There’s no content there at all. So you say, “I’ll write about nature; I’ll write about my relationship with my mother; I’ll write a sonnet about my dog,” whatever it is, and it gets you started. And then it changes, because you hook onto something that’s in the ethosphere somewhere and you’re starting to write and it may have nothing to do with what you’re trying to write about—you let it be what it is, you’ll surprise yourself.


FOX: I think you have a truest truth there. You channel it—I mean, sometimes I look at something I wrote months or years ago and I say, “Wow, that’s really good,” and then I say, “I can’t possibly write that well.” Not possible! [Jollimore laughs]


JOLLIMORE: That’s right. That’s how you feel about the poems that really stay with you, your best ones: “I couldn’t have done that.” And in some sense you didn’t do that. But you did, and you get to put your name on it. For the rest of your life, it’s your poem. It came into the world through you. It’s your poem. But yeah, how did I do that? You have no idea.


FOX: Who are some of your favorite poets?


JOLLIMORE: Lately I’m reading Craig Arnold, Ciaran Carson, Linda Gregerson, Carl Phillips, Dean Young, Jane Kenyon, Weldon Kees, August Kleinzahler … It’s a different list every time you get asked. But there are some people who are always on the list: Paul Muldoon, Kenneth Koch, Robert Hass, John Berryman … Berryman has been a huge influence on me—the more I read him the deeper and richer and the more human he gets. He’s fantastic. It’s funny about Berryman—talking about insecurity, I was just saying to somebody the other day that Berryman worried his whole life that he would be forgotten and Robert Lowell was the poet of his generation that would be remembered, and he always felt like he was second fiddle to Lowell, and I think now 70, 80 percent of the poets you ask would say, “No, Berryman interests me more than Lowell.” Or Berryman moves people more. Lowell’s great—he’s amazing; he did amazing things, but Berryman is the guy that you feel like “I’ve met this guy,” or “I could have a drink with this guy,” whatever it is. He’s so human, and I think so far ahead of his time, whereas Lowell looks a little bit aged in a way—he’s of his era, and Berryman feels like he wrote these poems yesterday. So I think he’s incredible—The Dream Songs, in particular, and also his sonnets.


FOX: You talked about his concern with being remembered—I remember clearly when Daveen and I were with Father Daniel Berrigan, and I asked him, “What would you like to be remembered for?” and he said, “Alan, that’s not important. It’s the work that’s important.” What would you say about that?


JOLLIMORE: I’ll say the same thing he said! [all laugh] I’m not going to come up with a better answer than that. No, it’s hard. I would like to be remembered; I would like to be read in my own time—I don’t know, you hope for all those things.


FOX: What difference does it really make? There are fifteen thousand books published on Abraham Lincoln. He’s dead. So what?


JOLLIMORE: That’s right. So what? Yeah. No, absolutely, there’s no—was it Galbraith who said this or John Maynard Keynes? They were talking about long-term thinking and they said, “Well, in the long run, we’re all dead.”


FOX: Right, Keynes.


JOLLIMORE: Well, there’s a truth to that. There’s part of me, though I know that it’s the judgment of history that in some sense really determines literary worth, that would rather be read now. I mean, you get to enjoy it; you’re around to meet your readers. It would be nice to be one of those forgotten poets. I mean, you look at people that won the Pulitzer Prize a few decades ago and in most cases you haven’t heard of them. They were a big deal at the time; everyone talked about them; they were amazing—now nobody knows them. It would be nice to be one of those people even if nobody remembers. How egoistic is it to be concerned with the idea that in a hundred years from now when I’m dead people will be reading my books or not? It doesn’t really matter. And then, on the other hand, there’s part of me that still thinks it does. It’s a funny thing—none of these ideas about what matters hold together if you pursue it far enough; you end in absurdity no matter which path you take, right? “Well, that can’t matter because this, that can’t matter because of that,” and ultimately, I don’t know what matters. And so I don’t know what I want. And I’m a philosopher! But you don’t want to feel like you’re writing in a void. You don’t want to feel like you’re not reaching anybody.


FOX: Well, Emily Dickinson?


JOLLIMORE: Yeah, I mean, it would be great to be Emily Dickinson—so she had no idea, she never got to enjoy it, but still, who wouldn’t want to be Emily Dickinson? But there again, it was really the work that mattered, because it’s not so much that she’s read now, it’s what she wrote. Who wouldn’t want to have written those poems?


FOX: Yes.


JOLLIMORE: So there it would be the work that matters.


FOX: Let’s talk about philosophy. Why don’t you assume you’re talking to a philosophy philistine. My question is, because you’ve had this extensive education and thinking and reading and all that good stuff, you got a two-minute shot at me—what do you want me to know about philosophy?


JOLLIMORE: [laughs] What do I want you know about it …


FOX: If anything! [both laugh]


JOLLIMORE: I want you to know everything about it …


FOX: For that I’ll give you three minutes. [Jollimore laughs]


JOLLIMORE: There’s part of me that resists the question, but only in the sense that it makes it kind of about content, whereas what I really want people to do, what I want my students to do in some way—this is a very Thoreau thing to say, but I want them to live philosophically. Rather than knowing the work of any particular philosopher—although there’s plenty of great philosophers out there that I think really enrich people’s lives—I would like them to live in a way that asks questions and that involves self-reflection and self-criticism. It’s the practice of looking at yourself and saying, “Why is it that I believe the things I believe? Where did that come from?” And once I realize where they came from, do I still believe them? Are they still that plausible, or am I seeing I just think them because my father thought them, or I just think that because my father thought the opposite, which in some cases happens? Whatever it is, you just get it from your culture; you absorb it. And part of the value of reading the great philosophers is that it helps you with that. The better you get at argumentation and the more ideas you assimilate, the more of Western intellectual history you absorb, the more possible it is for you to look at your own place in that history and say, “Okay, I see now why I believe the stuff I do. I see where it came from. I’ve had this idea in my head and it almost felt like my idea because it was always there but I know now where it came from.”


When we talk about John Locke, and Locke’s political ideas, in our philosophy classroom, I always have students put up their hands and say, “Well, you know, this guy wasn’t so smart. Everything he’s writing’s so obvious!” You know, the government should work for the people—well, duh. [laughs] And I have to try to explain that it seems obvious to us because he wrote this and he argued for it, he convinced people, and it got passed along and we grew up in the world that he made. So sure, it seems like common sense to us, but when he wrote it some people wanted to burn him at the stake for it. It wasn’t obvious to people then; they were radical ideas. So the more you can learn about your ideas, especially I think the ones that seem like common sense to you, but which in fact, when they first originated, were radical new ideas, the better you know yourself, obviously. And the better able you are to separate yourself from those and say, “Here are the ones I really actually believe, the ones I’m going to embrace and really endorse; and here are the ones I can do without or I’m not sure that’s really part of me, the ideas that have just been foisted onto me by my tradition, so that I’m not really sure whether or not they’re true.”


FOX: And if your students went out and did exactly that, do you think that they would be more moral in the sense of empathetic, caring about others, rather than being entirely self-absorbed?


JOLLIMORE: I think so, in general. There’s no guarantee, certainly, and some very cultured, educated, philosophical, sophisticated people have done terrible things, so it’s anything but a guarantee. I do think that in general both philosophy and any sort of creative or imaginative literature—I think philosophy actually has a lot in common with poetry and fiction and so on—they take us out of our minds and into those of other people and so we get better at empathizing; we get better at imagining. And that’s more than the first step towards empathy, it’s a large part of it. It’s knowing or being able to imagine what it’s really like to be somebody else, maybe a person who, until you found yourself able to imagine them from the inside, was someone you saw as a threat or an enemy, somebody you were willing to ignore or have deported or thrown in jail or whatever it was. It’s largely a matter of factual knowledge; they need that, but it’s also imagined knowledge, fictional knowledge, if we can speak of such a thing. And I think we can. I think all of those develop the mind in a way that takes you out of yourself. It makes you less self-involved. I think it makes you happier, too, actually—self-involvement is not a good strategy for happiness. People pursue it as if it were, but it’s not.


FOX: Absolutely. I’m in the world of big business a lot and my reaction is that most out there, notably including very large companies, are as immoral as they can get away with.


JOLLIMORE: Yeah, there’s a lot of that.


FOX: Which is disappointing. I mean, they seem to worship the god of money and no other god, and that’s it.


JOLLIMORE: Yes. Which among other things is just a colossal failure of the imagination, I think. It’s not just a failure of morality, though it’s closely intertwined, but not being able to imagine that there is any other value than money is … I mean, money is so boring. [Fox laughs] You can buy some great things with it, but in itself it’s so boring, and there’s so much else in life. It’s shocking to me how many people—I’m thinking of my students in another context as well—they only seem to be able to imagine that far; they think about the money.


Heather had an example—we’ve talked about this, she has a—[speaking to Heather] I hope this is okay to say, I can talk about your group of business students? This won’t come out until after you’re, you know … [laughs] and I’m sure most of them don’t read Rattle, so it should be okay. [laughs] Heather has a group this semester of students in her freshman comp class who are mostly business students and she asked them why they wanted a business degree and they said, “Well, to make money,” and so she asked them, “Okay, what are you going to do with that money?” Well they couldn’t go any further. Other than the most banal of answers—“I want a nice car”—they couldn’t say why they wanted it. And they didn’t care about the means for getting it. They couldn’t say, “I want to get into this kind of business because I care about it,” or “I want to tune pianos because that’s what my father did,” or “I want a tanning salon,” or whatever—I mean, at least it would be something with content, even if it were shallow. They didn’t even have that; they didn’t have anything. They just wanted the money, because society says that’s what we should want. They just thought they wanted to maximize that number, and that’s all it is; it’s a number. I mean, you can do things with it: you can go on vacation, you can travel. You can help people. You can publish poetry! But if there’s nothing in your head, you’re not really going to enjoy travel—where are you going to go that’s going to be very interesting? You’ve got nothing to think about. It’s disappointing, people who—I mean, I feel bad for them. I also feel bad for us, because the people who have money and no imagination are doing such bad things to the world, but I feel bad for them, too. They’re missing out on such richness.


FOX: To play devil’s advocate though, maybe they don’t have your capacity to understand much and they live on a relatively superficial level and they’re doing the best they can.


JOLLIMORE: [laughs] Yeah … I doubt it. [Fox laughs] I do, I do doubt it. There may be a few out there who really are doing the best they can. I think human beings are capable of a lot more than they generally—I should have said “we” because we’re all complicit in this; we are all capable of more than we do, using our imaginations better, using our time more wisely, just living richer lives. I think what human beings are capable of is actually quite incredible. I think that from the very beginning people in this culture get the message that you don’t have to strive so hard for that, you don’t have to worry about that, just feed into the big machine, be a cog, and everything will flow smoothly. It’s a shame they get that message; it’s the opposite of the message they should be getting.


FOX: Yep. Alright, you’ve written a book on love. What’s the elevator talk on love? We meet on an elevator and we’re going up to the tenth floor and I want to know everything I should know about love.


JOLLIMORE: [laughs] Oh here we go again, everything you should know!


FOX: I want you to be the Cliffs Notes on love.


JOLLIMORE: Boy. [laughs] Okay, here’s the really short answer to that question, and then a slightly less short answer. I had an advisor in grad school who had written on love. He was a very smart guy whom I respect and admire very much, but at the time I thought that almost everything he had to say about love was just completely wrong! I no longer think that, by the way—I mean, we still have some fundamental disagreements, but I’m much more sympathetic to a lot of his view now than I was at that point. But back then, I thought he was completely wrong, and I wanted to write a book about why he was wrong.


The crux of his view was that when we love people, it has nothing to do with having reasons for it. You never love somebody for a reason: because they’re funny or because they’re beautiful or anything like that. There’s just nothing to be said, so the proper answer, if somebody asks, “Why do you love Heather?” would be, “That’s silly; it’s not for any reason. I just do.” And I think that’s totally wrong. Or at least at the time I thought it was totally wrong. Now I think … well, that gets complicated.


But in my view it seems obvious that we often do give reasons, that we do love people for reasons. I mean, you don’t want to take this too far. I can never prove to you, for instance, that you should love somebody. I might list all of a person’s good qualities, what makes them attractive and so on, and you might look at the list and at the end of the day say, “I agree with you; she has all those qualities. I still feel nothing.” And that is true. That’s how human psychology works; that can and does happen. So if there are reasons for love, then the way that they work must not be the same as the way a lot of other reasons work. In a lot of cases I could actually prove that you—it’s hard to have proofs with emotions, but at least with actions or beliefs, that type of thing, I can say, “Here’s a compelling argument that you should think this, or that you should do that.” I can prove to you that somebody is an American citizen, through certain documentation of her being an American citizen, or that someone has a certain medical condition, by examining the medical evidence. And I may not be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that somebody is a good person, but I can normally give you a lot of evidence for that, too, if it’s true; I can give you a pretty compelling argument, and that would give you reason to think certain things, and reason to act in certain ways toward her. So reasons for love, whatever they are, must work differently than those. Nonetheless, I thought that there were reasons. And so the project of the book was trying to figure out how there could be reasons and how they did work. So that’s what the book is about.


FOX: Alright, well, suppose I said that love is basically a projection. You know, I’m projecting on Daveen …


JOLLIMORE: What you want, what you want to see.



FOX: Yeah …


JOLLIMORE: Right, that’s the Stendhal view, right? What he says about the “crystallization.”


FOX: When we met, she was working in a shop and I went into the shop, saw her out of the corner of my eye, said “Whoa!” I don’t think that’s rational.


JOLLIMORE: Well, but you wouldn’t have said that about just anyone. You wouldn’t have said it about a hamburger or a houseplant. You did have your reasons; you were responding to what you saw. Still, it’s not totally rational, you’re right. [both laugh] Nothing personal! And in particular—and this is one of the places where I came around more to Harry’s view—I started off disagreeing with him on everything, but I ended up accepting his part of the view that says that the explanation of why we love the people we do is often quite irrational, or it just has nothing to do with reasons—or reasons only in the sense of causes. There are causes—you know, “I happened to meet this certain person at a certain time; they happened to fulfill a certain psychological need I have,” or whatever it was. Those things aren’t necessarily about having reasons in the strong justifying sense, and I think that’s right. We have reason to love whom we love, but that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t possibly have loved anyone else (had you, say, met them at a different point in time), and it certainly doesn’t mean that you would have been irrational if you had failed to come to love them.


One of the tricky things about the idea of having reasons to love someone is that pretty much anything you can say about the person to explain that love can also be said about other people. Like if I say, “I love her because she’s beautiful and funny,” you can come along and say, “Here’s somebody else who’s beautiful and funny; I don’t love her.”


FOX: Good point.


JOLLIMORE: And so I really spend a lot of time in the book explaining why it is that despite that I still think it’s true that we can say things like “I love her because she’s beautiful and funny,” and that turns out to be a very complicated story. But I do think ultimately that is true, but at the same time, I do think that, as reflective people, if we do really think about it we do realize that we could’ve been with somebody else had things gone differently—“I love this person because of all the wonderful things about her but had things gone differently, I could’ve been with that person instead, maybe; she also had many wonderful things about her.” That’s life. There’s a lot of chance and arbitrariness in life.


FOX: Did you find any difference between—many people write about conditional and unconditional love. Is that …


JOLLIMORE: Yeah, I’m skeptical about the idea of unconditional love—


FOX: [to Daveen] Ha! [to Jollimore] Go right ahead! [all laugh]


JOLLIMORE: I’m glad I gave the right answer. [laughs]


DAVEEN: Not yet! [all laugh]


JOLLIMORE: The reaction I find myself having when I really think about genuinely unconditional love is that I wouldn’t want to be loved unconditionally, because it would almost have nothing to do with me. I think what we really want is strong love that it would take a whole lot to threaten. Like if somebody said to me, “I love you but if you change your hairstyle I won’t love you anymore,” that’s no good. That’s not nearly stable enough. So I want somebody who’s going to stay by me and continue to love me even through some pretty radical changes that I might undergo. But if somebody said to me, and really meant it, “I would love you no matter what. I would love you if you became a Nazi, if you became a child murderer and just went around killing children randomly—I would still love you,” I would think, “Well, that’s terrifying.” I don’t want to be loved that way. It’s unconditional but I don’t want to be loved unconditionally, partly because—Freud said this, actually, that part of why being loved is valuable is because you feel like you’re being seen as worthy of it; this person admires you, they see these positive things about you. If someone said, “I would love you no matter how awful you became,” then suddenly the love is worth less. You’d say, “Wait a minute, no, I want you to love me because I’m wonderful, and I want you to keep loving me even if some pretty bad things happen, but I don’t want you to love me no matter what I am.” I mean, what good is your love if it’s just sort of a brute attachment? So I agree with Freud that I wouldn’t want to be loved that way.


FOX: There’s a movie, Carnal Knowledge, that starts with a black screen and two guys are talking and one says, “Is it better to love or be loved?” How would you answer that?


JOLLIMORE: Are we asking if I had to live a whole life with only one or the other, or just …


FOX: No, just a preference.


JOLLIMORE: They’re both pretty great … it’s really hard. There is something about—I don’t know, this is such a romantic teenager thing to say, and it probably depends on when you ask me, but tonight I’ll be the romantic teenager and I’ll say that there is something great about loving that energizes your life, even if the other person doesn’t love you back or doesn’t know you exist or whatever. Unrequited love has been the subject of so many wonderful literary texts and works and so many pop songs. I would hate to lose the capacity for love, so I suppose if that were the question, you had to either lose the capacity to love or keep it but go through the rest of your life and no one will ever love you, I think I’d keep the capacity to love, as painful as that would be. Because I’d still be me, at least, in that case. I think the capacity to love is a pretty deep part of who a person is.


FOX: I agree with you, so you must be right. [Jollimore laughs]


JOLLIMORE: That is always the test, right? [laughs]


FOX: Of course! I have two favorite definitions of love, and I appreciate your commenting. One is “Love is what you do for each other.”


JOLLIMORE: It’s nice; there’s a lot of truth in it. Some people have complained that my view of love concentrates too much on vision and on belief and on things we think but not enough on what we do, or, to go even deeper, on what we are. And I wouldn’t want to say that it isn’t important. There are ways of behaving which would disqualify a person’s claim to love somebody, so he might say, “I love her,” but when you look at how he’s treating her, it’s apparent that he actually doesn’t. And so if nothing else, at the very least, certain forms of behavior are necessary minimal conditions for love.


FOX: My favorite definition is—I’ve read three translations of Rainier Maria Rilke and the one I like is: “Love is when two solitudes know and touch and protect each other.”


JOLLIMORE: Yeah, that’s really nice. There’s a lot of stuff in Proust about the inner life of the person and how love is the desire to somehow touch that inner light, which we know is impossible. Each of us has his own consciousness, his own perspective on reality; we can never literally become another person or touch another person in that metaphysical sense. But we constantly strive to approach, to touch. I love that quote too; it’s beautiful. We’re always striving to do the impossible, to somehow get outside of ourselves and transcend what we are and make that direct contact with another human being and our whole lives are sort of the effort to get as close as we can, and they end in failure. That’s life. You still try.


FOX: Tim?


GREEN: Well, I know you write love poems. I saw on YouTube you introduced a poem as a love poem, anyway. And this is the love poem’s issue that we’re doing—all love. So how do you write a love poem?


JOLLIMORE: The challenge, of course, is that you feel like it’s been approached by every possible angle, so where do you start, to make it new? And of course it’s one of those subjects that I think we often do feel has been totally depleted and therefore it’s impossible to write it, until somebody comes along and writes a good love poem that is new and different, and you look at it and say, “Wow,” you know, “Where did that come from?” One of my favorite love poems in recent years is by Paul Muldoon in his book called Hay—it’s called “Long Finish.” Really, really lovely poem, very moving. Dean Young has got a couple poems in his book Fall Higher that are love poems, and a lot of his poems could be considered love poems. I mean, he’s hard to classify; it’s hard to say, “This is a this poem.” Some of his poems are clearly elegies, some are clearly odes; beyond that it’s hard to say, but I think some of them can be considered love poems, and every time Dean writes a poem about anything you think, “Wow, nobody would have ever thought to do it that way before Dean.”


So he can do it; there’s poets who manage it. But the love poem is certainly a particularly knotty challenge—knotty k-n-o-t-t-y, although it can be naughty as well—because they’ve been done so much; their ground has been so thoroughly planted and harvested that it’s one of the few types I’m not sure I ever actually set out to write. It really is the sort of thing where I’m writing something I have quite other intentions for, and I realize at a certain point, “This is going to be a love poem; this is what it wants to be.” I have written poems I consider to be love poems.


But no, I never set out to write them—unlike political poems, which I do sometimes set out to write and then I almost never do because they’re so hard. You know, people ask me, “Why don’t you write political poems; don’t you care about politics?” And of course the answer is I really care and I really would like to. They’re just so hard. It’s not that I haven’t tried to write them, it’s just you’re not in control of what you write.


GREEN: Why are political poems so hard, though?


JOLLIMORE: Partly it’s the same thing again, that they’ve been approached by many angles. I think partly because with a political poem there’s almost inevitably an element of preaching to the converted, which is very difficult. I mean, the people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values. It’s the same reason it’s hard to do protest music that really lasts. It can be really good in the moment, at an event, like when Bob Dylan—well, that’s actually a terrible example because I think “Blowin’ in the Wind” is still a great song, but some of Bob Dylan’s songs, or Pete Seeger’s—I’d love to be able to come up with a specific example—I think at the time those songs energized people in an amazing way, but they were so much of their time that even a year later, yet alone 10 or 20 or 30 years, we wouldn’t really go back and listen to them. Their time is gone. So there’s a real challenge with a political poem not to have it so timely that it’s time-bound. And I think part of that is again because they have a certain function and it is maybe just to energize people and to get people into a community, and that’s all great stuff, but when those functions are sort of fulfilled, what’s left is not a poem. It’s not really doing what a poem is supposed to do.


GREEN: So what is the function of a poem?


FOX: [laughing] Ah!


JOLLIMORE: What is the function of poetry? [laughs] I don’t think of it in terms of function. What’s the function of a pop song? You like it; you listen to it; it sounds good. What’s the function of a good meal? You could say, anything that has nutritional value, but that’s the false virtuous answer—you can get nutrition from something that doesn’t taste good at all. You can say you get pleasure, but I don’t think that’s the function; I just think that’s what I like about poems, that they give pleasure. And I do think one of the wonderful things about poems—I mean, we’ve been talking a lot about what makes them hard to write, why they’re so hard and so on, but one good thing about poems which makes it easier to write is that there is no one thing they have to do. You can start off writing a poem you think is going to make people cry and it turns out to be really funny and it makes people laugh and you don’t have to throw it away; you can say, “Okay, great, I wrote something that makes people laugh, that works too. I wrote something that sticks in somebody’s mind for whatever reason, that makes them think about it and recite lines back to themselves and want to go back and read the poem again. Great.” There’s many different ways a poem can accomplish that and I think all of them are valid. What are poems for? They exist to enrich our lives. I mean, imagine life without music and without poetry, and no stories, no films—it would be pretty dreadful and boring. Art is here to make things more interesting; it’s here to enrich our lives.


FOX: I think that’s a good place to end, actually.

from Rattle #43, Spring 2014
Tribute to Love Poems

Rattle Logo