Where Physics, Poetry, and Politics Collide

A. Van Jordan is the author of Rise and M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, the last of which imagined the life of MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee. In that highly praised volume, Jordan played with the written forms of film, jazz and blues to tell the story of how Cox's life was shaped by racism and poverty in 1936 Ohio.

That same fearless hybridization comes into Jordan's newest poetry collection, Quantum Lyrics. Rather than follow one character's story, this book explores cultural identity by moving among historical, fictional, and autobiographical figures. The likes of Albert Einstein and Richard Feynmen rub shoulders with comic book superheroes, which in turn are juxtaposed with narrators that tell tales resembling the author's own life. Jordan revisits the pain of racism, recounting Einstein's letter to Harry Truman in support of the Anti-Lynching Law because "trees need only to drop leaves to prove gravity." He also discusses his own experiences with racism, describing how he was pulled over while driving the slow roads of the South by a police officer who was surprised to find out that this black man was a poetry instructor. Scenes from the films The Battleship Potemkin and Triumph of the Will are spliced in, ultimately building a documentary atmosphere as Jordan creates spaces where physics and poetry, comic books and jazz, memory and loss, come together.

Anna Clark: From your work, it's clear that you have deep interests in film and music; how did you come to choose poetry as your life's work?

A. Van Jordan: To quote Neruda, poetry found me. I wasn't really looking for it. While living and working in D.C. as an environmental reporter [at The Environmental Reporter and the Air & Water Pollution News], started spending time in coffeehouses that played jazz and had open mics for poets. I got to know the poets in the area, and after establishing myself as a regular at these venues, poets started asking if I wrote. I did an open mic and enjoyed it. I found that it was a new way to communicate with the world, particularly as an African-American man. When I read a poem to people publicly, they listened in a very different way from the way they listened in daily conversation. I could tell that people leaned in, which had never been my experience before the poem. For the first time, I found that I was communicating across a racial/cultural line that I thought -- up to that point, at least -- was insurmountable.

Clark: With Quantum Lyrics as your third poetry collection, how has the cross-cultural, cross-racial communication evolved? Any surprises?

Jordan: If physics had a Race Theory, my hypothesis would be that we have more to fight for together than we have reasons for which to fight each other. The older I get, the more I see the proof. It's always been there. Any strides made in civil rights came from a joint effort between blacks and whites, men and women, straight and gay. Einstein embodies this theory. Who would think that a Jewish immigrant from Germany and Switzerland would be a champion of civil rights in America before World War II? Einstein had great foresight in this way.

He gave up his German citizenship as a teenager before World War I. Adults living in Germany during World War II couldn't see the horrors ahead, but he intuited it. I think he saw the same conflict coming in America with the '60s, which he never witnessed. It's one thing to think of how prescient Richard Wright was with Native Son and Black Boy before the '60s, but he felt the sting of racism his whole life as a black male living in Jim Crow, pre-Civil Rights, pre-Brown v. Board of Education America. Einstein had a very comfortable position as a Princeton professor and international acclaim and respect as a genius. He didn't have to have the empathy that he expressed. It's as preternatural a gift as his insight into relativity.

Clark: In "Quantum Lyrics Montage," you note the controversy over the paper in which the equation E=MC2 first appeared. The lead-in reads, "... in a Russian publication, both (Mileva) Maric and Einstein's names appear; in subsequent printings, only Einstein's." What do you think about poetry's role in collective memory, of drawing out voices that were erased through sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination?

Jordan: I think those voices are beating hearts beneath the floorboards. They clearly exist, but many want -- and, more accurately, really hope -- that they will just go away. Poetry has a long tradition of chronicling the history and culture of society. In this way, I suppose these voices are working in this tradition.

Clark: Also in "Quantum Lyrics Montage," we see Einstein at a forum held by Philip Lenard, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who denounces "Jewish physics." How is that dangerous mix of intolerance and science present today? Who, like Einstein, might be able to say: "Let them taunt; my mind is taut"?

Jordan: Unless he runs for public office again, I think Al Gore will be able to quote that line. Like most great leaders, I think he's most effective when he isn't beholden to a political party but dedicated to a cause. I read his book The Earth in Balance long before An Inconvenient Truth, and it's clear that Gore is a futurist. He can forecast what needs to happen long before the need is evident to others; that's a sign of genius, as I see it.

Wynton Marsalis will be able to make this claim because he understands the importance of keeping tradition alive, while pushing to extend the boundaries of it. I hear a lot of criticism of the Lincoln Jazz Orchestra and of Marsalis as an ambassador for jazz. The truth is, jazz would become an art form held sacred in Japan and Europe more than America if it weren't for the work he's doing. It is our national music. Period. It's for America what classical music is to Europe. By keeping a finger on the pulse of its tradition, we never lose its direction. Blood on the Fields is one of the most underrated jazz albums of all time.

Spike Lee and John Sayles would round out my top four. Both of these filmmakers allow for a discussion of race in their films that most Americans are afraid to have in their communities, classrooms and churches. Their work is cathartic for the entire nation: those who dare watch them in the dark, those fortunate enough to have a theater in their community showing their films. There's a near pathologic fascination with the horror sub-genre of slasher films, which is as feebly plotted as a porn film for gratuitous misogyny. The slasher film and the hyper-violent, Tarantino-esque films are packing theaters, but despite the important films both of these filmmakers have made, I don't think they have a blockbuster between the two of them. If Lee and Sayles had the following of James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, the country would have a more truthful conversation about race, which is still a source of tension as we can see by the Jena 6.

Clark: Have you written poetry about the Jena 6?

Jordan: : No, I want to, though. I need space between these events to write about them. I'd need to talk to people from there, too, people involved. I don't write poems about events like these and simply imagine the voices; I approximate the emotion as much as possible when the primary source is unavailable. In this case, the people are alive and vocal. So, I'd have to ask why I would write a poem about it, first. That's a heavy responsibility. What can I say in a poem that they can't say themselves better. At that point, the poem would have to transcend that daily conversation and live up to my definition of poetry: the highest form of communication. For that to happen, though, I'd need time to digest this phenomenon of Jena and the varied responses to it. I'd want to get it right. My mother went to that school, so I'd probably start by interviewing her and move forward through time.

Clark: Elsa, Einstein's second wife, wonders about the German government's response to her husband, how they don't know "what to do with him," but once Einstein's assailed with honor after international honor, "they kept putting him in their buttonhole." Is it possible for our society's most awarded scientists, artists, and other achievers to resist being manipulated for political ends like that?

Jordan: : Well, of course the answer is yes and no. We are in a time of war, and Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C. said that "In war, truth is the first casualty." There will always be people who appear to have a higher calling than a political appointment or an award attached to their name, but just as some will stay true to this calling others will fall to the temptation of those with power. Unfortunately, I think many physicists working in the field of String Theory are too conscious of their place in history. I was happy to see the team of scientists who won the Nobel Prize last year for Black Body Theory, though. They were dedicated to a field that wasn't on the tongue of popular culture. And in poetry, moving to the artists, you see the poets who came to the White House at Laura Bush's invitation and those who refused like Sharon Olds with her eloquent letter. There were poets who went to Iraq for the NEA, too, and then there was a beautiful refusal by Eleanor Wilner in Poetry magazine. So, yes, it is possible to resist even in the face of those without the courage to resist.

Clark: How can the language of poetry influence the social conversations that are often so tense, even hostile?

Jordan: : Well, as I said, I can say things in a poem that people will listen to in ways they never hear them in causal conversation. This may be my own shortcoming; I'm certainly more eloquent in a poem than I am in conversation. Most people have a limited view of what can be said in a poem, which allows for underestimation. People expect rhymed iambic pentameter about unrequited love, and you offer them another truth in blank verse. This is a powerful tool in these instances. Poems can say what needs to be said in our lives, the things we rarely have the courage to say to one another. Often when we don't know what should be said, we simply quote poems anyway.

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