In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Darryl Holmes
Your poem in Vol. 24 “The Persistence of Memory” uses Salvador Dalí’s 1931 surrealistic painting (of the same name). Can you speak to the inspiration behind this poem? How did it come to be?
I went back to get my MFA late in life because I needed something to restore my faith in my ability to write. During one of our residencies, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to ekphrastic poetry. I guess I didn’t pay enough attention many decades ago as a young, African-American undergrad in Creative Writing when Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was being discussed. In the workshop, prints of famous artists were spread throughout the room. I was drawn to a 19th century French-artist Edouard Manet’s painting; interestingly enough it was a painting of his more well-known contemporary, Claude Monet, and his family. Claude’s wife Camille is the focal point of Manet’s rendering, and something about her sitting in the center of the garden in the lush green grass, with her chin resting quietly on her fist and the bottom of her pearl-white dress spread out like a fan, really struck me. The painting is called “The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil”, and I began to write about it. Since then, I’ve begun to look at art a bit differently, not just for appreciation, but for inspiration as well.
My heart sank when my son first sent me the photo. It seemed so surreal, him being in a prison cell, something I never expected but was waiting for as a father of three Black sons. In the poem I say “it took me moments to remember what day it was…” In truth it took me months to shake the thought of him being there until the emergence of the poem began to take hold. His face like the melted watches emerged as a rich simile. The Dali connection felt so clear: the surreal experience of time melting for me; melting for my son; his life possibly melting away forever…and the title of the painting seemed so apropos for the poem. The memory of my son in a prison cell truly was persistent.
Is there a medium of art that you particularly like? Does it work in tandem with your poetry?
I hope I’m interpreting your question correctly in considering “medium” in the broader sense of the type of art as opposed to the artistic material. I love traditional Jazz, and the two branches of the visual arts I’m most drawn to are paintings and sculptures. With paintings I’ve grown to lean more towards African-inspired themes and abstracts, but anything I can get lost in or look at over the course of multiple viewings and still feel something mystical or see something unpredictable is what does it for me. It is why I love listening to the greats of Jazz. I seem to hear something I hadn’t heard before or think about something different each time I experience a particular composition. Also, many years ago at an African Street Festival in Brooklyn, NY, I fell in love with Shona stone sculpture from Zimbabwe. The intricacy of the carvings, the juxtaposition of rough and polished stone in a singular piece, and the power of the medium’s density command an emotional experience.
The question of whether my affinity for art works in tandem with the creation of my poetry is an intriguing one. More often I tend to work and read in silence, so thoughts and music are invited to come through without me being plugged in. I often feel that if I plug into enough inspiration and stay open to enough of the world when I’m not writing, I may find the gift of the inspiration when I am writing coming through. For example, over a two-year period in an earlier time in my life, I listened to Charlie Parker’s music at some point of every day. I never missed a day, and yet I never actually wrote while I was listening to his music. It is impossible that it didn’t become a part of me. The same is true for the ekphrastic experience, but in this case I’ve actually experimented with it more directly to drive my creativity. Most recently it was a black and white photo of my grandfather on my father’s side. He died when my father was 13. My father is alive and just recently turned 100.
Who are some artists or works of art that you admire, and why do you like them?
Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane are the musical headliners for me, but I’ve been captivated by so many of the great established and aspiring artists I’ve come across over the years. Jazz forces me to think deeply. When I was introduced to Coltrane in my early twenties, I was initially intimidated by his music. It seemed too intellectually superior for me if that makes sense; but I hung in until I could hear him, and he opened up a space quite wondrous in me. I’ve always felt to some degree that I was born a few decades too late.
When it comes to the visual arts, it would be disingenuous to say I’m familiar enough with many of the past and contemporary greats to have an informed and honest opinion of the works of art I admire. Interestingly enough, when I think about the ekphrastic connection, I was introduced to the experience of Monet’s famous Water Lilies paintings through a poem of the same name by the esteemed African-American poet, Robert Hayden. In my home, most of the original paintings that dominate our walls are from gifted artists I met at street festivals or local galleries. Leslie Floyd is one of my favorites. He lives in the next town over from me in New Jersey. Not surprisingly, I’m particularly drawn to his musical pieces. When he’s at his best, the emotion he builds into the canvas comes out of the subject’s soul. I’m also fortunate to own a few pieces by the Jamaican painter, Paul Blackwood. His abstract art is quite jarring and colorful. I’m drawn to their work and artists like them because emotion in poetry is so important to me. I want the words of a poem to stay with me like the density of Shona stone.
The element of fire is heavily portrayed in your poem, from Dalí’s melted clocks, to the melting of identity and lineage, to the blacksmithing techniques used to forge the metal bars of prison cells. There’s a deliberate use of imagistic craft at work here. What are your intentions with language and word choice while writing?
My intentions with language are to keep my word choices simple (for the most part) and to create a level of complexity through craft; either through the right choice and placement of individual words in a line; through the arrangement of lines in a stanza; or in the arrangement and sequence of the stanzas themselves. Imagery in a sense is everything for me. It drives my poetry’s emotional core when I’m successful. I grew up heavily digesting the atrocities that have been committed against Native-American and African-American people. Fire has often been used as a destructive force to control or erase our existence; from firearms used to kill and contain us when we were captured; to burnings following the savagery of lynching; to the leveling of black lives and property across the charred-span of 35 city-blocks in a place known at the time in Oklahoma as “Black Wall Street.” Yet we are still here and making our way cautiously. James Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time. Richard Wright had Bigger Thomas put Mary in a furnace. I have vicariously become a part of a rich and painful experience, and I’ve come to realize that my poetry has no choice but to speak to this in some way or form. Sound remains important to me as well, so I find myself often working to balance the weight of assonance and alliteration in my work as I grapple with being the conduit for the right imagery. Lastly, I really appreciate your observation about the prison bars and how they play into the theme of fire. I wish I could say it was intentional on my part, because the prison cell was the impetus for the poem, but sometimes it simply comes down to having the patience not to force things.
Time is also a featured element here, though on the surface, it might be overlooked upon the first read. (I’m saying this because I actually didn’t notice it immediately!) But I love how each stanza has movement—past tense, present tense, a historical lens—which beautifully leans into Dalí’s distortion of space and time. I’m so curious how you envisioned the structure of your poem; can you talk a little about writing and revising until you locked each stanza in place?
Time is essential to the strength of the poem, particularly because of the placement of the third stanza. We experimented a lot with disrupting our poems in grad school; playing a lot of what if scenarios. Sometimes scrambling things just to see if the change in arrangement elevated or detracted from the poem’s strength. I must say it was an uncomfortable experience in the beginning, but it really drove home the point that the process of revision is equally as important as the process of writing. Sometimes we are simply too close to our own work and others can often help us to see something we are missing. What I learned in my own growth in order to work more effectively outside of an academic setting or shared environment like a workshop is that a disruption process as a regular exercise can actually serve to free a writer up. Nothing becomes sacred until it truly feels right.
I have to extend my sincere appreciation and give all of the credit to contributing editor Sean Hill and the editorial staff for seeing a greater possibility in this poem than what the original arrangement I submitted was achieving. I know how rare it is for a writer to receive a note from the editor with an offer to rearrange and resubmit a single poem for consideration when there are already an overwhelming number of submissions for a literary journal under review. I am grateful for the opportunity Water-Stone Review gave me: a one week extension to re-work and re-submit the poem with the ultimate goal of strengthening its tension by staying in the past even after the tension is apparently broken. I began to disrupt the poem even further, and found out that the movement of the second stanza into the third position was the prize that I was looking for; provided I could find the right language to replace what now was missing. Fortunately, I pulled it off. Even after the son’s reveal with “his spool of emojis” in his follow-up text, the father in the third stanza is still in the past struggling to regain his footing.
I feel like writers, particularly in poetry and nonfiction, are always grappling with the issues of memory—its accuracy, its nonlinearity, its literary representation. One of the reasons I love your poem is the satisfaction from the surprises memories and images deliver to the reader. What are some ways you mine your memory for truth, for inspiration, for clarity?
You raise an interesting question here. I’m not sure if I have a good answer because I’m not sure if it’s a conscious process for me. Where does memory stop and imagination begin? Perhaps that is part of the struggle, like grappling with the accuracy of a poem when its emotional core feels abundantly clear. Yet, I do believe that starting from a point of truth is crucial. I could not write about lemons authentically if I never tasted them, even if I had memories of a lemon tree growing up in my backyard. I have to be emotionally invested. I have to hear the voices calling; connecting me to a spark, whether it’s from my personal experiences or from owning the responsibility of being an honest caretaker of someone else’s memories. In the case of this poem, it emerged from the truth that Black parents live with every day, especially as it relates to our sons. We have persistent feelings about something going wrong because of the myriad of tragedies locked in our memories. A sense of buckling becomes a part of our daily breathing… I’m glad you brought up the point of nonlinearity. I’m a movie junkie, and I’m also vulnerable to the appeal of a good streaming series. I guess you can call it one of my vices in life. I’m fascinated by script writers who effectively move forward and backwards and backwards and forward across time to create a level of intrigue and tension in a story. Ironically, I tend to be too linear in my approach to writing, so it’s important that I remind myself to step back and experiment after I think a particular piece is done. The story of how this poem came to be accepted for this issue of Water-Stone Review is a wonderful reminder of that for me!
The title of Vol. 24, “Ghost(s) Still Living” comes out of a line from a poem included by Heather A. Warren. Given all that’s occurred in our world in the past year or two, what does the idea of “ghosts still living” mean to you?
I should start by saying I love the space and rhythm in Heather’s poem; the musicality and mystery they weave, so it was not surprising for me to learn they are also a percussionist.
I guess the simple answer to your question is that I feel I owe everything to my parents and our ancestors who came before us, so the ghosts I most want to embrace are healing. My mom transitioned several years ago at the age of 90, but she still comes back to visit my father and younger sister. I’ve been working on a poem for her that I have yet to finish. It opens with the following lines: When my mother surrendered to a stroke at 90/we buried her stillness/still she comes to visit my sister at night/sometimes to lay a hand beneath my father’s hair/it is soft and light, lifting to her touch like smoke… Often in my moments of deep reflection I find myself connecting to a song by Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson called “95 South.” It’s from an album entitled Bridges, and the song is both a tribute to those who came before us and a promise that we owe it to them to carry on. However, I do understand the other side, and the truth is we all have scars, and the events of the past few years have only served to exacerbate them. Sometimes they manifest as “ghosts(s) still living” that grip and inform our writing. Or, as Heather poignantly suggests by the title of their poem, they are “What Wounds Become.”
What projects are you working on now?
I honestly don’t have a regular writing process right now. I have every intention of getting back to one when I retire in the next year from the rigor of corporate life. I envision devoting time to my writing daily once I’m there. For now, I continue to read enough to keep ideas flowing for my writing, and I often use my journal and iPhone recorder to capture the sparks that could turn into something special. I’m also working on additional revisions to a manuscript of poetry entitled Reasons For Water, and I continue to look for opportunities to submit individual work to literary publications from time to time like Water-Stone Review.
Darryl Holmes received his MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he also served as an editorial reader for the university’s international journal of contemporary writing, The Literary Review. He has new work out or forthcoming in African American Review, Jelly Bucket, Kind Writers, the New York Quarterly, Obsidian, and Toho Journal. His first collection of poetry, Wings Will Not Be Broken, was published by Third World Press.