Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of Red Clay Suite. She teaches at the University of Oklahoma. Here are her answers to our twenty questions.
1. What poet should be in Obama’s cabinet, and in what role?
Elizabeth Alexander, as Secretary of Education.
2. If you could send Obama one poem or book of poems (not your own), what would it be and why?
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey. This book powerfully chronicles her life as a daughter of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a sadly neglected region of the United States.
3. What other poetry-related blog or website should I check out?
John Keene’s blog. He is author of a novel, Annotations and a poetry book, Seismosis and a professor at Northwestern University.
4. Who is the most exciting young/new poet I’ve never heard of, but whose work I ought to find and read?
Remica L. Bingham, author of Conversion. She’s brilliant.
6. William or Dorothy? Robert or Elizabeth Barrett? Moore or Bishop? Dunbar or Cullen? “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully” or “No ideas but in things”? Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or Tender Buttons?
Paul Laurence Dunbar, without a doubt. His range was incredible.
7. Robert Lowell wrote a poem called “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid.” What supposedly immortal poem puts you to sleep?
William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” But don’t tell my college English teacher (who also happens to be my mother. Long story.)
8. Even for poetry books, the contract has a provision for movie rights. What poetry book should they make into a movie? Who should direct it, and why? Who should star in it?
Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess would make a great movie filled with lovely musical moments, little-known American history, and some naughty, gritty love scenes. Denzel Washington should direct, and Derek Luke should star in the leading role, with Kerry Washington as his love interest.
9. What lines from a poem you first read years ago still haunt you now?
“What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?”
From “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
10. What poem do you love, love, love, but don’t understand?
“Nightmare Begins Responsibility” by Michael S. Harper—but one day I will understand it. I truly believe that.
11. If the official organ of the AWP were not the Chronicle but were the Enquirer, what would some of the headlines be?
“L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet caught in public bathroom buying bootleg copy of ‘Sonnets of the Portuguese’!!! ‘Not mine, I was holding it for a friend,’ he says”
12. If you were making a scandal rag for poetry in the grocery store checkout stands, what fictitious poetry love triangle would you make up to outsell that tired Hollywood story of Angelina and Brad and Jen?
I know of some real poetry love triangles that are delicious—I do regularly attend the AWP conference after all! But since I’m trying to be good, Harvey, I have to keep my triangles to myself. Let’s talk—off-blog.
13. This is the Best American Poetry blog. What’s the best non-American poetry you’ve read lately?
A poem called “Under her Rib,” by Hwang Isuk. A student of mine Andrew Jeon (a brilliant young fiction writer) gave me the anthology, Echoing Song: Contemporary Korean Women Poets (edited by Peter H. Lee). I discovered the poem in there.
14. We read poems in journals and books, we hear them in readings and on audio files. Sometimes we get them in unusual ways: on buses or in subway cars. How would you like to encounter your next poem?
Falling from the lips of a beautiful young man—or a beautiful old man. As long as he’s beautiful, I don’t care. Does this make me sound like a cougar?
17. Tell the truth: is it a poetry book you keep in the john, or some other genre (john-re)?
I do keep literary journals in the bathroom. I hope this isn’t tacky. Now I’m nervous about that.
18. Can you name every teacher you had in elementary school? Did any of them make you memorize a poem? What poem(s)?
My favorite teachers are Mrs. Yokeley from second grade at R.N. Harris Elementary and Mr. Hunter from sixth grade at Fayetteville Street Elementary. This was in the seventies, but in the South (where I was reared) the schools were still de facto segregated, and there was only one white kid in either school. Mrs. Yokeley was very kind to, and really encouraged me to read; she constantly told me how smart I was. Mr. Hunter made me memorize a very long poem to punish me because I was misbehaving (which I did frequently), but for the life of me I can’t remember it now (this was thirty years ago). I still can remember Mr. Hunter’s facial expression when I finished reciting the poem from memory to the class—he was shocked, but then he started smiling. Mr. Hunter was such a great teacher!
19. If you got to choose the next U.S. Poet Laureate, who (excluding of course the obvious candidates, you and me) would it be? Of former U.S. Poet Laureates, who did such a great job that he/she should get a second term? Next election cycle, what poet should run for President? Why her or him?
I would choose Marilyn Nelson as our next U.S. Poet Laureate, because her poetry is exquisite, she’s had an ongoing, distinguished career and she’s accomplished so much. Equally as important, she’s so elegant and diplomatic in her manner. I think she would be the perfect ambassador for American poetry.
Rita Dove was an amazing Poet Laureate, and I think she’s already had a second term, but I’d still like to see her serve as Poet Laureate again.
I think Lucille Clifton should run for President because Miss Lucille has this way of making people of all backgrounds love her even when she’s telling them difficult truths. That’s exactly what we need right now.