Getting to Know Joy Ladin and her book The Future is Trying To Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
I don't remember my first encounter with poetry, but my family didn't read poetry, so it was probably in kindergarten or first grade. I started writing rhyming lines I thought of as poems as soon as I could learn to write. It felt to me like something very important and magical was happening whenever one word would reach back and chime with a previous, different word. Although I certainly didn't think this way when I was young, I've come to think that my sense of the power of rhyme had something to do with being transgender – I always felt that who I really was inside rhymed with the girls and women who, because of my male body, saw me as being unlike them. There was nothing I could do in life to make people see the sense of likeness, of kinship, I felt, but whenever words rhymed in my “poems,” it seemed like for a moment the kinship hiding inside external difference became visible, audible, undeniable. I felt rhyme was so meaningful in itself that I didn't care wheter I actually knew what the words I was rhyming meant.
As I grew up, the one part of my external identity that felt true, the one part of me that others could see and that I could live, was my sense of myself as a poet.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
My favorite time and place to write are still in bed, first thing in the morning, but once I started having children, I realized that if I insisted on any special conditions for writing I would never write. Since then, I write when I can, including (don't try this at home) while driving, on Peter Pan buses and New York subways, while walking, and even sometimes in the dark while watching a movie.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I have been writing since I was six, and so my poems have come from all kinds of places. I think the origin that most often leads to poems worth working on is when I experience a strong feeling that is associated with a tone or a rhythm, but I also really like working on projects that aren't dependent on moments of inspiration alone. For example, I'm currently writing a series of poems in which I observe, talk with, and try to console a rather down-hearted character named “America,” and another, very different series of poems written in the voice of the Shekhinah, the immanent, female-associated aspect of God in Jewish mystical tradition that fuse language from the Biblical prophet Isaiah with language from Cosmo magazine.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Well, the writers I most wish would influence me have long been Emily Dickinson – I've studied and written a lot about her –, Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, W.H. Auden and Tomas Transtromer. Each of them exemplify aspects of poetry that I aspire to; each reminds me what great poetry is, and can be.
What's the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? Did you have a process and was it a project book?
The title came from a short poem I wrote in the midst of a terrible divorce, that conflated the future with a young child who, the poem said, was trying to tell us something, specifically, that it didn't know how to grow. The phrase “the future is trying to tell us something” has a much wider resonance for me now: between the assault on democracy here and around the world and the accelerating human and ecological devastation of climate change, I literally feel, all the time, that the future is trying to tell us something. That “us” is not just a rhetorical device. On the one hand, I hear the future trying to tell each of us, very much including me, what we have to do now so that it can grow. On the other hand, the collective pronoun is a wish and a prayer that we can find an “us,” a broadly inclusive sense of belonging to and with one another as Americans and as human beings, that leaves none of us behind, that makes each of us part of something larger, something worth saving and sacrificing for. I guess that “us” is what I hear the future trying to tell us: that we are, can be, and must be, us.
Read an excerpt from her book here:
The Problem with Death
Poor little death
over fresh-baked bread
laughing at things no one will remember
no one but you our uninvited guest
You scribble notes on the palms of your hands
pool in the melted butter
search for your reflection in silverware
smeared with our leftover pleasures
What are you doing here death
Is this all you are after
this skulking and terror
sometimes bodies in the rubble
sometimes an empty chair
If I were your mother
If I were your friend
but you death will never have either
no one to shake you in the middle of the night
to tell you you're having a nightmare
that there's nothing to fear
that no one can touch you
or that everyone can
that no matter what you do in your dreams
the smell of fresh-baked bread
will waft from the ovens of the world
you don't know how to end