Out Over the Horizon: Jacqueline Trimble
An Interview with Jacqueline Trimble, author of American Happiness
Perhaps Jacqueline Allen Trimble didn’t stand a chance. After all, even the athletic teams at her Montgomery, Alabama, high school were called “the Poets.”
But whether it was through her growing up in the crucible of Civil Rights-era Alabama or spending three decades teaching college English, Trimble has been uniquely charged to write poetry.
Her debut collection, American Happiness (NewSouth Books), represents the “whole of [her] poetic life,” bringing pieces she wrote as a 22-year-old student (“Closure”) together with those written in response to recent news (“Emanuel Means God is With Us”), but it’s her artistic range that really makes the book sing.
She invites readers in with her sharp wit and laugh-out-loud humor—a result of the love for ironic juxtaposition her mother helped build in her very early on—but her poems are also arresting for their truth-telling and sometimes damning in their critiques of American society.
Trimble writes with all the fury of a prophet and with all of the precision, elegance and grace readers would expect from someone so well versed in the literary world.
In short, her work is a case study in poetic voice.
Teaching Shapes Writing
As a teacher, I was drawn to this collection’s origin story because Trimble had been an English professor for over 30 years before releasing this book. That’s 30 years of letting the academy shape her creative work and vice versa, and these two spheres of her career seem to have developed simultaneously.
“Every now and then I wrote a poem, during faculty meetings mostly. Every now and then I published a poem. Sometimes, I wrote conference papers and presented them. Edited a book. What I did mostly was read and teach, read and teach, read and teach,” Trimble told me.
In some ways, the connection between her academic writing and poetry is direct and content-related. For example, the title poem began as a research project that probed the romanticized portrayal of America found in television’s The Andy Griffith Show and Gentle Ben, two shows set against the real-life backdrop of criminal brutality perpetrated on black Southerners by law enforcement.
At other times, academic writing seems to offer her the organizational expertise to flourish in the creative world. But perhaps, as Trimble suggests, it’s not productive to create a dichotomy at all between the research-and-tenure grind and writing poetry.
“For me, poems have arguments.”
“For me, poems have arguments,” Trimble says. “Though each follows its own conventions, the main difference between a poem and an academic essay is often concision. The preparation for writing either can be very similar: a kind of relentless attention, reading, digging, thinking through an idea, figuring out how best to present the argument and so on. I know poets who are obsessive researchers, and researchers who are wildly creative.”
Still, teaching literature year after year has its creative advantages. There is arguably no deep connection with literature quite like the relationship that builds between teacher and book. The quest to make someone else’s writing familiar enough to drive an engaging lecture or active class discussion requires obsessive reading, which then makes the piece a part of the teacher’s own language—a perfect recipe for developing as a writer.
“I’ve read seminal texts again and again. For decades. The words, rhythms and notions of writers much smarter than I am are always in my head and probably undergird everything I write,” Trimble explains.
For example, the opening lines of “Everybody in America Hate the South”—“That land filled to the rafters / with ghosts of lynched boys”—echo Baby Suggs and Sethe’s conversation about the hauntings of 124 in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.” Trimble, “a Toni Morrison fanatic,” places this poem first in the collection and “undergirds” the whole book with the linguistic and thematic “notions” from the depth and breadth of her experience as a literature professor.
Sometimes, though, as Trimble points out, it’s not just the novels, short stories, poems and plays themselves that become part of the poet-teacher; rather, the process at the heart of good teaching can inspire the aim of poetry.
“Happily, teaching has given me more than thirty-two years of college courses. Thirty-two years to learn lots of stuff. That’s also who I am as a teacher. My job is to teach students to fall in love learning by asking questions. A lot of my poems ask questions. Lots of questions…I guess that’s how my teaching creeps in in an unexpected way.”
Finding “Other” Voices
Trimble’s teaching career becomes a major part of her writing voice, but one of my favorite dimensions to her poetry is her inclusion of voices beyond the speaker’s—sometimes dialogue—in her poems. The self-professed “eavesdropper by nature” uses these other voices to accentuate her writing’s potential for poetry-as-performance.
“This may be an environmental happenstance of being Southern or of growing up as an only child listening to grown folks talk in these rhythmic and, often, mysterious ways,” Trimble suggests. “People are fascinating. They say the most extraordinary things. My world has this kind of buzz of people talking, turning phrases, making music with their words. Sometimes I sit in my office and hear the snippets of conversation passing beneath my window. Every exchange is a story that I cannot know, but that I can imagine. I hear everything—anger, joy, despair, boredom. I also live in a household where everybody talks to him/herself. They are probably going to hate that I said that. I talk to the different characters inside me all the time. Active imagination.”
The poem “Church Women” demonstrates “rhythmic,” “extraordinary” and often “mysterious” ways folks talk by using little snippets of voices to punctuate the speaker’s narrative, which adds up to a more complete picture of a particularly Southern church experience.
For example, “The preacher preach and preach and preach” is already an effective line by the poem’s main speaker with its suggestion of interminable sermonizing, but it’s followed right up by “Well-a-hun-a hun-a hun / yeeeeesssssss,” which serves as demonstrative punctuation.
Later, Trimble uses those “other” voices to achieve moments of her famed ironic juxtaposition, including having religious exclamations arise from the lunch line: “Peach cobbler, Praise the Lord,” and “collared greens / mustard greens, turnip greens” followed by “Oooh, Lawd.” Even in the two spellings of “Lord,” Trimble shows a poet’s ear for the subtleties of language in context—its varied intensity and dialectal connotations.
I love to see poems that make use of sounds like this, and I can often tell how much I’m going to like a poet based on how many italicized lines or lines in quotation marks I see. In other words, am I going to be reading someone who really cares about how the folks around them sound? Can they capture sound as much as sight? Obviously, Trimble can. “The Street Committee Is Now in Session,” a poem in the last section of American Happiness, for instance, is simply 20 lines of recalled dialogue, and is a master class in listening to others’ voices.
But Trimble does not just use people’s voices as a prop; playing with these insertions of different speakers allows her to make a larger point about what poets are doing when they sit down to write with clear voice
“The idea of a singular poetic voice, well, how can that be when we are usually so many different people, play so many different roles?”
“The idea of a singular poetic voice, well, how can that be when we are usually so many different people, play so many different roles? I think the pretense is that an artist has one fixed voice. Though there is a ‘me’ that has always been there—I don’t feel much different in my head than I did when I was five—that ‘me’ loves to interact and play. I also think the academic side of me is curious to imagine the world from other perspectives, so I love being able to have other voices say things that I would never, or could never, say.”
To her point about a range of voices within, Trimble’s collection is so dynamic—so beautiful, so funny, yet so arresting and gut-punching. And in her most startling and striking moments, to call her work prophetic would not be hyperbole. When I use the term prophet, I’m thinking of those biblical examples who knew how to read complex social landscapes and respond with a piercing word, speaking truth to power—a tradition that continues in new forms in every generation. Trimble, a lifelong churchgoer-turned-Sunday School Superintendent, who credits much of her education to the “brilliant, erudite men and women [who moved] audiences with the beauty and truth of their words,” believes that to do so in contemporary poetry often means heating the poem with the righteous rage, but committing to craft so that the art does not slip out of control.
In American Happiness, this may be most apparent in “Ethnophaulism for the News,” a recasting of news clips with slurs in place of the networks’ coded language, or in “How to Survive as a Black Woman Everywhere in America Including the Deep South,” a piece with a funny-to-romantic schoolroom beginning that ends with chilling reminders of boxcars and gas chambers.
“The difference between standing in my backyard or on a street corner screaming and writing a poem is that screaming is a solitary action and the poem must invite others to join in.”
“The difference between standing in my backyard or on a street corner screaming and writing a poem is that screaming is a solitary action and the poem must invite others to join in. When I wrote ‘Ethnophaulism. . .’ and ‘How to Survive as a Black Woman. . .’ I was feeling angry and frustrated. But my task as a poet is to invite people into my point of view in such a way that they feel their own anger and frustration. I tell young writers all the time, if you just want to vent, text a friend or write a Facebook post. If you want to help someone see the world from your point of view, use craft. In ‘Ethnophaulism. . .’ I use the language of newscasting, and by deploying racial epithets I hoped to expose what I see as the ordinary racism which undergirds many stories about people of color. The piece is meant to be funny, but very intense. The reader often laughs in spite of not wanting to laugh. This is a strategy of craft.
“Or in ‘How to Survive. . .’ I again use humor and then raise the stakes slowly, from a teacher ignoring a student to historical genocide. But the transitions occur slowly and are connected by the repetition of word, rhythm and form. By the time the reader comes to that last verse, I hope I have brought him/her over to the speaker’s way of seeing the Trayvon Martin killing. The poem has to give the reader pleasure. It has to be fun or interesting to read or hear. The unfortunate truth is no one cares about your dead grandmother or even how upset you are about police brutality, so you have to earn their attention by entertaining them with craft.”
In the tradition of the prophets, Karl Barth advised young theologians to have their Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Trimble believes that this is the case with poets, as well. Poets can either commit to participating in the important conversations of their day, or they must accept that they are willfully abdicating their positions as truth-tellers.
Trimble says, “All poetry, all creative writing, is political because it reflects the cultural/historical moment in which it is created. Even when it is not overtly so. Even when people choose to avoid what’s happening in the streets to write about daisies and kittens, that is a political choice to look away from what’s happening in the streets. That’s why we loved The Andy Griffith Show, a comedy about a Southern sheriff who was so non-violent he didn’t carry a gun. Meanwhile, other Southern law enforcement officers committed profoundly violent acts against people. Crimes. That show, and our love for that show, becomes a way of mitigating what we don’t want to see. Something that appears apolitical is still a political choice. But I choose to turn my gaze toward social justice, or rather, social injustice.
“I think artists historically have shown us who we are—the good, bad, and grotesque. That’s what I want to do. I don’t want to run for office. I’m not a community organizer. But I believe in that old Black Arts Movement mantra, ‘Art is a tool of revolution,’ even if that revolution takes place one reader at a time. Chinua Achebe said, ‘The poet is produced by the people because the people need him.’ And for Achebe, the people need him, or her, to write against oppression. In my small way, that’s what I want to do.”
There’s a funny poem in the first section of American Happiness called “If I Didn’t Write Poetry,” in which the speaker—presumably Trimble herself—imagines robbing banks as an alternative to her calling as a poet. As the daydream (and thus the poem) plays out, an odd thing happens: Trimble proves why she’s a good poet. She condenses language in the first stanza. She brings immediacy to the narration in the third stanza by ditching the subjunctive for a more active present. She even takes a shot at the forced old forms by writing a couplet. Even though she imagines this other world full of adventure and possibility, she demonstrates her poetic chops.
I learned long ago in an ethics class that it is impossible to separate ourselves from our embodied experiences. Everything in Jackie Trimble’s life—her upbringing, her teaching, her ear for other voices, her passion, all of her embodied experience—makes her the poet we see in American Happiness. We need her informed, prophetic voice.
We should be thankful that bank robbing didn’t work out.
Jacqueline Allen Trimble is currently working on her second collection of poems, How to Survive the Apocalypse.