Devil’s Lake


Interview with Jacqueline Jones LaMon

Q: When you came to Madison to read from your Felix Pollak prize-winning collection you started with the title poem“Last Seen,” which you said later is a found poem as it gleans police notes from missing children reports. The voice is stark, and it creates, I think, an ominous tone. Given that the majority of the poems in this collection are persona poems, I was curious if there was any other found text in the collection. Or perhaps was it your intention not to look for any quotes or tidbits about the family so as to allow for your own creative space?

There are no other found poems in the collection. I made a conscious decision to not write from the perspective of the children, but to write from the perspective of their absence. I write about the spaces they would have occupied, how circumstances would have been different had they been present to witness. I didn’t want to write the narratives of the families; I wanted to write about the losses we experience as a society as a result of not acknowledging their absent existence. We know that the families of these children are fractured and in pain, but what we don’t often take the time to realize is how we are all painfully fractured by this same loss.

Q: The poem “Preface,” which clearly identifies the genesis of the book’s project, comes after the first section. As a result, I was reading "Polygraph: The Control Questions" (the first six poems) as a unified frontispiece, one in which several voices use the “The Control Questions,” I think, to examine how their stories build, fragment, and then somehow continue on. Was the placement of “Preface,” as it stands now, your impulse the whole time, or had you moved this around? Besides it being a successful but gutsy move, I also think it amps up the tension surrounding each individual poem in the first section. What was your thought process surrounding the placement of “Preface”?

There were many different configurations of this collection. I’d been writing poems for it for over five years and at least twenty-five other poems did not make the collection. “Preface” was one of the last poems I wrote for the book because the collection was in need of a very specific kind of continuity right there. It needed a bridge from the first-person polygraph voice(s) to the emptiness of entering the space of elsewhere.

Q: With the first and last section of the book comprised of titles stated as questions, you allow your speakers the latitude to approach the question on a literal or associative level (“And What Would You Say If You Could?” and “How will you begin?” for example), which I think makes for successful poetry as it helps prevent the kind of rote response that could grind the reader to a halt. To that regard, as I was going through these two sections, the titles seemed to bleed from one to the next as they would, perhaps, in an actual interview. I was noticing how well certain poems read with the question meant for the previous or next poem. I’m thinking most directly how well the first couplet of “What do you remember about the earth” worked for the next poem’s question, “What are the Consequences of silence?”

When they call off the rescue, you wonder whose voice Commands the divers to resurface, the lifeboats to return to shore, empty.
Do you think this “bleeding” or positive ambiguity is more a product of subject matter and narrative than of order?

The title questions in the Polygraph sections are questions posed by the poet, Bhanu Khapil in her collection, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. I used them here to begin a consideration about the presence and disregard for truth in our lives. I think this may be what you’re experiencing here when you speak of this bleeding. I tried to make all the poems in these sections resonate with a stark yet distanced view of life events. So yes, I do believe that this bleeding or fluidity is more a result of narrative and subject matter, although varying the order of the questions and their poems provides a very different experience for the reader. The order here was very intentional.

Q: The San Francisco Sonnets are unrhymed and generally consist of longer lines, anywhere from 10-15 beats per line. While nearly all of them turn on the ninth line, there are a few (“San Francisco Bridge Jumper Considers Relativity,” “Prom King Goes Stag His Senior Year,” and “The Missing Girl’s Father”) where the emotional break occurs in the final couplet. I think this variance lends both surprise and authority to the form and to the section as a whole. Aside from the 14-line structure, what kind of restraints, if any, both technically and emotionally, did you place on yourself and the speakers as you approached this group of sonnets?

I didn’t place any restraints on myself (or the speakers) as I approached the poems—other than that they would need to be unrhymed because there was nothing neatly resolved about any of the events. The first poem I wrote from the section was “San Francisco Bridge Jumper Considers Relativity” and I didn’t know that it was going to expand my gaze of the scene in the way that it did. From the jumper’s vantage point, I was able to see the gulls, the toll-taker, all the others who could have seen this abandoned car at some point surrounding Toni’s disappearance. I knew that I wanted the poems to reflect some degree of emotional distance because I didn’t want them to feel like rants or Public Service Announcements. As I discovered more speakers, I noticed the important work of the volta and how that was a critical movement to the poems in the section.

Q: I read in a previous interview a question regarding how you approached the delicate issue of anonymity and privacy with regard to the families of the missing children who come up so often in Last Seen. The movement around the actual cases and the victims of each crime are vital to this collection as they more poignantly reveal an absence. However, has this project and book now turned into a more personal movement for you? Is there any chance this will become a point of advocacy on your part (apart from the collection itself)?

Definitely. There are so many long-term missing African American children that we’ve never seen on the evening news or the sides of milk cartons. News is only media-worthy when it’s breaking and fresh; we’ve become this sort of media-crazed society that thrives on exclusives. A child missing for twelve years with no substantial leads is not a story that will make the evening news. But we can’t stop looking for them; they are all around us. They are us.

JACQUELINE JONES LaMON is the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Adelphi University. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, UCLA School of Law, and Indiana University Bloomington, she is author of the poetry collections Last Seen (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, and Gravity, U.S.A. (Quercus Review Press, 2006), winner of the Quercus Review Press Poetry Series Book Award. A Cave Canem graduate fellow, she is also the author of the novel, In the Arms of One Who Loves Me (Ballantine, 2002).