A Conversation with Jack Collom

In the second part of our three-issue celebration of Jack Collom’s work, we are proud to present this special interview with Jack Collom from Elizabeth Robinson.

Jack Collom was born in Chicago in 1931. Jack has had 24 books of poetry (including chapbooks) published. He’s been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in poetry, and a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, plus many other grants for magazine and book production and, especially, work with children. His books on leading children into producing excellent creative writing are: Poetry Everywhere (with Sheryl Noethe), Moving Windows, and A Slow Flash of Light, all published by Teachers & Writers Collaborative, New York. He has given readings widely throughout the United States and sometimes beyond. He continues to write experimental and nature poetry abundantly.

Elizabeth Robinson is an editor at Instance Press and is serving as the Hugo Fellow at the University of Montana this spring. Her most recent books are Three Novels (Omnidawn) and Counterpart (Ahsahta).

January 13, 2013
Boulder, Colorado

Elizabeth Robinson: You’ve told me that you consider Second Nature the culmination of your writing life, and I’d like to hear you talk a little about why that is so.

Jack Collom: Hm, time is one thing. Just the pile-up of one’s years. As I’ve gone along, I mean, now I’m an old man. I’m 81. I don’t necessarily speak of the wisdom of the elders. (You could say the neurosis of the elders as well.) But there is this accumulation of attitudes, so that I can select from viewpoints rather than just act from right in the thick of changing impulses as when one is younger.

Another thing is the fact that making Second Nature was editing by committee, and the time it took allowed me to soak in every little nuance that I could see in, or pick up, the phrasing and so forth and arrangement of things. I mean, the time we spent on it was invaluable.

ER: For those who don’t know about the project, a group of us conceived it as a necessity that your [Jack’s] essays and poetry about nature and ecopoetics come into the world in a book form. Marcella Durand, Andrew Schelling, Jonathan Skinner and I organized the project and helped with the editing, which nonetheless fell principally to your hands.

JC: And also, the book is sort of purposefully the apex of my writings on nature, which have been central to my personal attitude about life since I was a kid. As an aside, I could say: nature is god to me. Here, I found a plan that was sort of complicated—to make a big mix of poetry and prose, of different textures of language, as well as ideas, so that the writing reflected nature’s energies in a physical way.

ER: I’m really interested in this idea that language reflects the physicality of nature, of the natural world, and this is not something I’ve discussed with you before. Can you say more?

JC: I can try. Language is not just intellectual statements; it’s got its rhythms, its whole varied music, its emphases. It is a dance in a lot of ways. Bells and whistles. Previously, in a lot of nature discourse, people have spoken as if they were professors leaning over a bush and speaking condescendingly about it rather than responding to it. I don’t try to sound like a bush, but I want to act out that language overlaps with nature. Language is a fringe or foam on and of nature.

ER: I’ve heard you say many times that nature is comprehensive, that nature is EVERYTHING. That sense of inclusiveness manifests in this book in a way that really reflects your attitudes. Could you cite an example from the book that shows how you perceive such expansiveness?

JC: I’ve been playing a lot with this little string of definitions. Jonathan Skinner was talking with me about how Timothy Morton and some other ecologists want to abolish the word “nature” because it’s become debased, abused, sentimentalized, perverted even. But what I would like is to let the meanings proliferate, even the pile-up of contradictions that come with different definitions. Contradictions are important, by the way, because nature is full of contradictions when you look close.

I mean, we wouldn’t, I think, change “I love you” to “I experience interpersonal gravitation in regard to you,” although “love” has been debased and corrupted.

In the preface at some point I have a few nature definitions listed, and I’ll just read them to you:

Nature is everything and something.

It’s the ocean in which culture swims.

It’s that which is not manufactured.

It’s a stick, a ladybug.


It’s its logic.

It’s causal essence.

It’s a lost purity.

It’s a rose and it’s a photographed rose.

It’s the desire to smash something. Therefore it’s an entity of great simultaneous scale. We need to be in touch with these to some degree all at once.

Incidentally, what I’ve been doing in my current writing in the last couple of weeks—I’ve been trying to make an expanded list of “Nature is,” of really expanded scale. It’s difficult to be selective and still convey infinity.

ER: Along with being encompassing—nature and its great simultaneous scale—what comes through so strongly here is this sense of play. Nature plays amid us, among us, with us. I can’t think of your writing without thinking of the play, whimsy and humor of it. How do humor and nature interrelate or interact?

JC: Yeah. I think play represents freedom from one’s own preconceptions. I think humor is just accuracy. Humor’s mechanical basis is incongruity, and when you look close anywhere, in nature and anywhere else, if there is anywhere else, there is a lot of incongruity. I think the universe is very funny. It’s just seeing that first you have one thing and then another thing too, and there are many ways in which they are mismatched. We tend to slur over these processes and get overviews too quickly, too simply for an overall idea of what we are looking at.

ER: This is interesting to me because of an idea you’ve expressed in another work which I so love, called Lumping and Splitting—and that is the conception that holds both the big picture, possibly universals, as well as specificity, the little things in all their distinctiveness. There seems to be a delicate, ever-shifting balance that you are working out constantly in your thinking and poetry

JC: That’s wonderful language. Seems kind of perfect as you put it there. (Of course nothing is perfect.) It’s like fractals, identity tricks up and down the scales.

I could just say this unofficially: some people deny that the “balance of nature” is not any sort of an accurate or real thing at this time. People say that, but what’s true is that the balance of nature is ever-shifting: nature doesn’t have a perfect balance. People are expecting stasis when nothing is ever static, and so nature is a constant reworking of balance. Even that word “is” is suspect because it sits there in an unmoving fashion.

ER: So what verbs would you replace “is” with?

JC: Does, jumps, carouses, contorts, slips, garbles, revolves, involves, evolves, grasps, pops, sniffles.

[Laughter] Maybe that’s enough.

ER: Great word choices! I notice a lot of deformation and turning: that root “volve,” turning, so the sense of movement and change is always there. What’s next?

JC: One could go to variety and Darwin. So, I was inspired by some words of Charles Darwin in Origin of the Species where he says, “The greatest amount of life can be supported by great diversification of structure.” People think of Darwin in terms of a very blackand white idea of survival of the fittest, adaptations, causality. The giraffe’s long neck eats more leaves, has more children and therefore spreads giraffeness over the planet, as if it’s all causality in this simple black and white way. I think that’s missing the point because the mutations are the heart of it, the leaping mutations that pepper ourselves and make us who we are, unique as snowflakes.

ER: I think your work is an excellent model of exactly this. In that way, your writing is a true enactment of, and participation in, nature, in the natural world. For example, you play continually with patterns—following them, breaking them, exploiting their possibilities. So I would also note that you take old and sometimes very stale forms like acrostics and make them hop to life.

JC: I love to write sonnets. I write a lot of sonnets, and then I write real spacy experimental things as well.

ER: Still, the sonnet is also an experiment in form and sonnets can be as spacy and experimental as the way some of your more graphic poetry plays with the page. What seems intrinsic to your work is the sense that form is there, actively, and absolutely ready to engage with and through us for mutation and exploration.

JC: I think to write a good sonnet, one has to experiment, every syllable. Well, that sounds like it’s against flow, and I like the flow of regular vernacular language too.

ER: If you have flow on the one hand, what’s on the other—flow and experiment?

JC: In a sense, but, with both hands—experiment and flow can be immersed in each other. Maybe this is what it is to be growing old, but I just see opposites always tangling up with each other, having sex together. Somebody said they’re alike in every way but one.

ER: What is the offspring when these contradictions mate? There’s one to stump you.

JC: Could be poetry, could be nature. Nature with a poetry head?

ER: I think one of the other distinctives of your writing is a willingness to embrace what I hear you call “shagginess.” The poem doesn’t have to be all tidy and polished. It can have a bit of lint on it and a leaf stuck in its hair. Want to enlarge on this?

JC: It goes along with the rest of what we’ve been saying: shagginess is irregularity. That’s really what we’ve been talking about, the generative energies of regularity and irregularity. If I’m writing an acrostic, I like to sometimes place a word to the left of the acrostic line just for a bit of violation. And then the problem is that you get shagginess on your mind and shagginess itself becomes a plan and you have to figure out how to violate it.

ER: I’m interested in your tendency to “violate” any set rule or plan, and I do observe a vein of defiance in your work. Do you have anything to say about it?

JC: Defiance? Hm. Well, I have this little form I love to play with that I call a lune, a simplification of the idea of haiku—good to use in schools, but also in one’s own writing. It goes:
3 words
5 words
3 words
I kind of hew religiously to that 3-5-3 and I think it would be too easy to violate that and put 4 or 6 words, etc. That would make a soup of the thing and I haven’t got anything against soup. I love it and like it. But in some cases, exactitude is refreshing. It’s part of a larger inexactness. Which brings me to the idea of swamp formalism. It’s idea I had a long time ago and still like highlighting the contrast of the apparent sloppiness of the swamp—but when you look close into the swamp, you see the little teeny weeny exactitudes; everything is exact, and beyond that exactness is uncertainty. And beyond that—you could go on splitting those things forever. Then sometimes you have to forget all these little baby physics moves and just talk about something.

ER: What do you mean by that?

JC: Well, we’ve gone into a sort of an infinity of shuttles and shuffles here, thinking about the moves of language, but sometimes you just have to stare at a leaf and say what you think about the leaf. Or just observe it in words. Or highlight it. Or discuss the need to “save a leaf.” Or tell a story.

ER: One thing I like about Second Nature is that it turns in all these directions—play, formal experimentation, really searching essays that show how impassioned you are about creation(s).

JC: I hope this brings to readers a fresh way of looking at things, or various fresh ways of looking at things. I hope it expresses that we are part of nature and we must not look at it as something outside ourselves, although it exists outside, inside, all over.

We haven’t mentioned time, and I think that in various ways the book plays with time: it helps us sharpen our senses that time is not only infinity and immediacy, but all kinds of gradations in between.

ER: How do you imbue this understanding of time with import and even urgency?

JC: Well, things become urgent on a weekly basis, second by second, in chunks of a hundred, thousand years. Soil loss. Mass extinction. And on and on. We have to be aware of all these scales at once. I think we were evolved to be immediate, but we have to transcend that “let’s-build-a-fire”-only mentality, and of course we have transcended it to great degrees, but sometimes—well, we’ve created TV advertisements, and those are some kind of anti-poems in the sense of anti-Christ.


ER: I’m going to try something out on you. If I were to articulate in a phrase or two what I think Second Nature has to offer people is that it’s a model of responsiveness—response to these scales of time and experience, to the contradictions that can throttle us, but which you show instead are actually ideal sites for exploration and play. Second Nature embodies a sense of participation and engagement. You are very easygoing in conversation, but this work is impassioned both in its concern for nature and in its joy in the vitality of nature.

JC: What I could say to that is: [Jack lets loose a yodel]