Interview with James Allen Hall on Now You're the Enemy —
September 18, 2009
James Allen Hall's debut collection of poems, Now You're the Enemy, was published in 2008 by the University of Arkansas Poetry Series; it won the Lambda Literary Award for gay poetry. He was the 2009 Fieries and Snuffies Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
Christopher Nelson: I’d like to hear about the title of the book and the epigraphs by Louise Glück and John Donne. They seem to be part of a motif of love and destruction being wed.
James Allen Hall: My younger brother and I were talking one night while we cooked dinner. Dustin had met this beautiful man, they dated briefly, and we were analyzing the demise of the relationship over dinner. Dustin said to me, “Whenever a man says I love you, the first thing I think is, Great. Now you’re the enemy.” It was the saddest and most lacerating statement; it nailed exactly the feeling of the poems I’d been fashioning—this book about loving a self-destructive mother figure, how that shapes subjectivity, and what happens when we find ourselves shipwrecked on the shores of Love Always Fails Us.
The epigraphs are blueprints to a narrative arc. They provide an entryway into the work and a resting place for the reader after the first section. An original incarnation of the book had no sections, and it felt perhaps too claustrophobic, too violent a reading experience. Glück’s poem, “Witchgrass” (from The Wild Iris) sprang immediately to mind as a way to frame the emotional and philosophical considerations of Now You’re the Enemy. I hesitated including the Donne: it seems maybe a little self-consciously poet-y. But his words form the exact doorframe through which the speaker moves. This speaker has loved a self-destructive mother figure in the first section, and that fascination and love shape the ways in which he experiences adult romantic relationships.
Nelson: When considering the collection, discussing the mother seems inevitable. My experience was that through a sustained engagement with the mother—who accrues into an archetype—, we see ourselves through her.
Hall: I excavate archetype because of its power to enlarge specific and individual experience into a shared history. The speaker’s history, too, is indelibly watermarked with his mother’s. He sees her everywhere: at the all-night cafes, in King Lear, at the movies. It’s an obsessive book, one that seeks to understand how bonds both oppress and free us.
Nelson: In “Song,” from the moment of birth, the speaker wants to heal his mother. At the risk of conflating speaker and poet, are these poems part of a healing process for you? These poems feel to me like an act of bravery. What was it like to write them?
Hall: I don’t mind the conflation, though of course the speaker is and is not me in very important ways. Autobiography is an airport runway: it allows me to lift off into my imagination.
Composing these poems was probably healing. I found taking experience and putting it in a different form—the forms first of language, then the line, the stanza—very satisfying. As all artists do when they discover shape and color and revision. The very nature of art is to make a controlled, beautiful pattern out of chaos, to order.
When Now You're the Enemy was finally published, I felt relief. I could move out of the dark town I'd lived in for years and into a new house whose rooms constricted less, had more light.
I don't know that I have courage. In addition to courage, I also lack shame.
Nelson: Many of the poems are portraits—several titled “Family Portrait” and several variations on portraits of the mother. I love the device, but can you talk about why you chose it? And I’m thinking about what that does to the reader, positioning him or her as a viewer in a home or gallery. It’s a sort of intimate and uncomfortable voyeurism.
Hall: Thanks to Susan Sontag, I once ran across this quote from Breton: “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be.” I employ convulsive imagery and deploy intimate subject matter. I know that the book isn't easy to read, but I wanted to create a portrait of love that was emotionally true to me. Here I go again, using that word: portrait.
The portrait is kind of a quotation, itself. It represents something or someone that existed. In that way, it's also undeniably elegiac: the moment has passed, and this is all that's left. Let us make art in the ruins that time makes.
I like your description, Chris, of the “intimate and uncomfortable voyeurism.” The speaker tells stories about adultery and betrayal, sexual abuse, coming out, s&m sex, and a host of other discomfiting intimacies. The poem “The Enemy” comes closest, I think, to capitalizing on this dynamic, by employing several versions of “you”: first, a “you” who is a beloved, then the generalized “you” of the law, and then you, the reader.
If I am implicated in this story—if James Hall is both poet and speaker—then so too are you implicated in this story. You, Chris. You, blog. You, reader in your comfortable home with your sadness and your joy.
Nelson: Several of the poems are ekphrastic; for example, the longest poem in the collection is a poem in six parts, each a response to a Manet painting. Why Manet? And do you have an ekphrastic process?
Hall: Manet just really turns me on. Several paintings—dejuener sur l’herbe and Olympia immediately spring to mind—concern the politics of observer and observed. Manet ruptures the idea that the represented figure is turned into a thing. He gives the model agency; she is the viewer and the viewed. We are at Victorine Meurent’s mercy.
I don’t have an ekphrastic process, but I would die without art.
Nelson: The cover of the book is beautiful and haunting. How and why was it chosen?
Hall: I’m pleased you like it. I found it in the Getty archives as I was obsessing about cover art. I thought it perfectly captured that dangerous intimacy you described before. The cover shows a woman behind a blue screen in the middle of what looks like a hurricane. Behind her, a palm tree threatens to uproot. She is forbidding you; she is protecting you. You must save her; she will never let you.