A Conversation with Poet June Jordan
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Writer June Jordan’s new book is “Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood.” It tells the story, from a child’s point of view, of her first 12 years of life. Jordan is a poet, novelist, essayist, and writer of children’s books. She is professor of African American studies at the University of California at Berkeley where she also teaches poetry.
Thanks for being with us.
JUNE JORDAN: I’m so happy to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is a book about a little girl– you, who grew up in New York in Brooklyn– whose father wanted her to be a man, a soldier.
JUNE JORDAN: A soldier, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why did he want that?
JUNE JORDAN: Well, my father, as an immigrant, he came to this country with the highest possible hopes. As a black man, he met with many humiliations. And I think what he wanted for his only child was the best possible route to a prideful, kind of a standing up, head up, proud existence. And so given his ideas about things, he thought that necessarily I’d have to grow up to be a man rather than a woman. And in fact, he really wanted me to be a prince, actually.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he trained you. He taught you breath control. He taught you to box. He taught you…
JUNE JORDAN: Yes, he did.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us more about the training.
JUNE JORDAN: He taught me many, many things. My father taught me how to fight, literally, and also the attitude. And he also taught me about dedication to beauty, I mean, making things beautiful and also…
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He would bring things in and put them on a table.
JUNE JORDAN: Yes. My father would travel far, you know, into another neighborhood and come back with just the right avocado, or banana, or whatever, for a still life composition that he would then photograph. I mean, he was… my father was entirely addicted to beauty; he really was. And that, coupled with his intense training of me– intellectually, I would say, and also physically– as you mentioned, there is a whole thing about physical stamina and toughness and so forth — I think he didn’t give me much chance to become a quitter. (Laughs)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He also demanded that you read a lot.
JUNE JORDAN: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Your mother also loved reading.
JUNE JORDAN: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what did you read and how young? It seems to me you were very, very young to be reading Shakespeare.
JUNE JORDAN: Well, yeah. I started reading when I was two, and my father gave me as quickly as he possibly could things to read, such as Shakespeare and Dunbar — Edgar Allan Poe — because he thought these were beautiful things. I mean, these were works of art, and I could not understand them. But I would have to read them, and in some manner, some kind of a report to my father in order to avoid punishment. So I began very, very early on to really think of literature as something that was part of my daily life and something that really mattered.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read to us from the book about how you began to love words.
JUNE JORDAN: “It was peaceful to read, and sometimes I could feel the words kissing my face. I would put my nose that close to the page. And because no one was watching me, sometimes I would just trip a word from the page to my eye to my ear to the page– the, the, the, the. ‘So funny,’ I thought. Such a soft funny thing showing up again and again– the, the, the, the.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is really the beginning of your life as a poet.
JUNE JORDAN: Oh, it sure is. Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So his intellectual training and the reading brought forth that.
JUNE JORDAN: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He also beat you.
JUNE JORDAN: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why?
JUNE JORDAN: I’m not really sure. I think… I mean, I don’t have any idea, to tell you the truth, but I would assume from this vantage point, that as an adult, that probably my father was terrified that he would fail to prevent me from failing, you know, because he had so little resources available to him. And out of that fear of his failing to prevent me from failing, I think he probably went into a kind of frustration mode, you know, and in a rage about his helplessness, because he had so little available to him. I mean, my father, when he came to this country in his late teens from Panama, for example, he could not read or write. I mean, he had to teach himself how to read or write once he arrived here. So he had everything to invent, you know, and to build with the most meager sort of start. And then he had this one only child to heap upon with his hopes and his fears.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read about that, the beatings.
JUNE JORDAN: “Like a growling beast, the rollaway mahogany doors rumble open and the light snaps on and a fist smashes into the side of my head. And I am screaming awake, ‘daddy, what did I do?’ And now he lays on a belt, slapping the leather and the buckle hard against the blankets or my arm exposed by short- sleeved teddy bear pajamas. And I am trying to cover my face, and he tears away the blankets, and I can barely recognize this man, my father. It is 2:00 A.M. or 3:00 A.M. He has just come home. He has finished the night shift at the post office. He’s tired. He’s furious. ‘You dumb black devil child.’ And with every word, another blow bludgeons my body or my head again. I am silent and I concentrate on blocking the blows as they fall, or I begin to answer back, ‘stop,’ or, ‘don’t hit me. Please, Daddy. Please don’t hit me.’ And his beating me continues until he’s spent and his fury subsides. Then he snaps off the light with a warning, ‘we going to talk some more tomorrow.’”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The amazing thing to me in reading this book is that that and other passages like that are very strong parts of the book and they leap out at you. It’s the fire you were forged in, in some ways. But the parts about poetry and books and everything wonderful that happened, those parts are just as strong. Is that the way you really feel inside about your childhood?
JUNE JORDAN: I absolutely do. I mean, I feel… I feel in many ways I had a blessed childhood. I don’t think many little girls have the privilege of having a father who not only adores her, but also respects her possibilities. And I had that, and I think that was a blessing for me. And I do feel about my life that it’s my privilege to try and honor his expectations for me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You wrote the book, as we can see from what you read, in a very stripped-away style. It’s almost poetry.
JUNE JORDAN: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And from her point of view, you never analyze anything that’s happening in the book because a child can’t. Why did you make that decision?
JUNE JORDAN: Well, I think it’s about time. We’re always hearing about children, children. And I thought, let’s hear… let’s hear the story of a child from the consciousness of a child. Let’s respect that, you know, because it’s entirely different from our own. As you said, a child’s consciousness means that you don’t make judgments, you cannot analyze things; you’re not capable of that. You don’t make connections. Things happen to you, and you try to find the words to identify what they are, and in a way to report them to yourself and to your friends and your mother and father. And that’s the task, you know? But basically I think what all children try to do is to be ready. Well, whatever is next, they try to be ready, and they try to please us. They really try to please us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s interesting the way you deal with your mother in this. You loved her very much. But it’s clear that you wondered where she was. She didn’t really protect you.
JUNE JORDAN: Yeah. She was a very shadowy presence in my life, I’d have to say. And again, my mother, at that time, she had very little available to her as an alternative to her situation. And at that time, we definitely did not argue with the head of the household, who was my father, and certainly not in a West Indian household. She might disagree, but she would not press it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you have a broader goal in writing this book?
JUNE JORDAN: Yes, I did.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What was it?
JUNE JORDAN: I wanted to honor my father, first of all, and secondly, I wanted people to pay attention to a little girl who is gifted intellectually and creative, and to see that there’s a complexity here that we may otherwise not be prepared to acknowledge or even search for, let alone encourage, and to understand that this is an okay story. This is a story, I think, with a happy outcome, you know? I’m very proud and happy to have been able to write this story, and I hope that folks will pick up on it, because then I hope that it will help them to understand about themselves that we are responsible for the outcome of whatever happens to us, whatever it is — as grown-ups, we have the responsibility and the chance to determine what that means.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: June Jordan, thanks very much for being with us.
JUNE JORDAN: My pleasure.