Monday, January 22, 2007

Connecticut Review Interview With Poet Jon Andersen

Connecticut Review Profile

Poet Jon Andersen

By Heather Gunnoud

Jon Andersen’s collection of poems, Stomp and Sing, reflects the life of a man brought up in a blue collar household in Southeastern Connecticut. Andersen’s poetry has a decidedly anti-war slant, but embraces the Groton Submarine base. He reflected on the potential closure of the base by talking about his family growing up.

“We struggled financially, and the economy of the whole area, of course, was, and still is, tied to the military infrastructure, which creates a real bind. We need to put food on the table, but our livelihoods are tied to building the ships that promise the end of the whole green world. There’s no easy liberal or conservative answer to this bind. I don’t want to see people lose their jobs, and I don’t support a nuclear military bent on global domination. I believe that we can do better by each other and for each other. We have to.”

Andersen’s answer shows his ability to see both sides of the coin. This ability is especially present in his poem about the tragedy surrounding 9/11. Anderson writes the piece from the perspective of a person living in 1994 who imagines that the twin towers will someday need to be disassembled. In a time when various mediums were flooded with post-apocalyptic images from the tragedy, Andersen offers a very different voice and message.

Andersen says, “The horror of 9/11 had to be written about and couldn’t be written about. I mean, there just seemed to be no way for me to directly describe the events of the day that were so thoroughly burned into our collective consciousness. Amidst all the flag-waving and grief, it also became difficult to speak with any kind of moral clarity or perspective. So I decided to go back, before the towers fell, in order to get at the complex truth behind that terrorist atrocity. There’s a tension or a dramatic irony in the poem because the speaker is innocent of the knowledge of 9/11; he’s unburdened with the images of the towers burning and falling and the nearly 3,000 human deaths inside that scene. So he’s able to look up at those things and think about how the towers stand for – not democracy – but an economic system requiring oppression and inequality. He hopes for a future of peaceful transformation when people will really work together and honor each other. He imagines that someday ‘our great-great grandchildren/ will take these babies down—very carefully, gently even, piece/ by piece/ they’ll ship out the windows/ to be used on cold frames in ten thousand winter gardens.’ He doesn’t know that the towers would be taken down violently by Islamist extremists who, ironically, had once been bolstered by the CIA in the late 1970s”.

Andersen is not only a poet; he is also a teacher at E.O. Smith High School. What does he tell his students that he wished he had known at that age? “I try to genuinely encourage their voices and risk-taking without patronizing. I try to expose them to many techniques and forms, but most importantly they need to learn to deeply embrace two aspects of the writing process: first, to write drafts without censoring or second-guessing themselves, and two, they need to return to those drafts at some point and engage in serious revision. They’re full of surprises and are always delighting and challenging me.”

Andersen also participates in a writing group with his wife. He thinks writing groups are valuable. “I feel as if I've not only become a better writer, but a better critic and reader. And while I'd like to say that I get up at 3 am and write a poem every day, I don't, and sometimes a looming writers' group date on the calendar is the extra push I need to finish a poem that's been stewing in my head for a time. It's hard to make the time for the meetings with our hectic lives, but it's absolutely worth it. And, yes, I think I would recommend it to all writers. It's good for writers to get together and knock ideas around, to get perspectives -- even ones -- maybe especially ones -- with which you might not readily agree.”

In Andersen’s book Stomp and Sing there is a progression from the first poem to the last that leaves the reader with the sense that they have grown with the author. The title of the collection is taken from a poem three quarters of the way through the book. “Stomping and singing, to me, is at the heart of the book, and there’s quite a bit of stomping and singing that go on in other poems. It’s about resilience—even celebration – in the face of social disintegration and personal hardship—a refusal to give in or give up. The book is roughly autobiographical and broken into three sections. Since this poem claims some wisdom, it seemed to me it would be best if that wisdom were ‘earned,’ if you will, through the experiences of work, love, family and struggle chronicled in the poems of the first two sections”.

While being drawn into the stories of various characters, the Connecticut reader can’t help but have moments of recognition, “Hey, I know where that is” moments that bring the local reader deeper into the piece.

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