Featured Poet Jacqueline Trimble Interviewed by Amy Patterson

Photo by Jasmine Trimble

Jacqueline Allen Trimble lives and writes in Montgomery, Alabama, where she is a professor of English and chairs the Department of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University. Her work has appeared in various online and print publications including The Louisville Review, The OffingPoet Lore, and the anthology, The Night’s Magician: Poems About the Moon, edited Philip C. Kolin and Sue Brannan Walker. American Happiness, her first collection, published by NewSouth Books, won the Balcones Poetry Prize. She is a Cave Canem fellow and an Alabama State Council on the Arts Literary Fellow.


Previously Published in American Happiness

 Let the dishes go unwashed,
and the children uncalled. Let them run forever
through pools of streetlight. Put the dog out
and let the cat go too. Unhinge our house
and come to me:
mountain, blue, cup, lush,
blossom, fire, kumquat, tongue,
mango, mouth, sassafras, maroon.
Open me
a ripe papaya.

American Happiness

Previously Published in American Happiness

 It used to be in Mayberry
folks were never colored
—not even black and white—
but beige, khaki,
a little gray. In Mayberry
Deputy Barney had one bullet
and no need for rope.
The only burning he did was for his Thelma Lou.
The sheriff had no gun,
just an Aunt Bea baking pies
and an Opie full of freckles heading off to fish
or sing or court. Whatever Opies do.
In Mayberry, no doors were barred or locked.
The jail was mostly empty.
The only water hose we ever saw
lay peacefully
on Sheriff Andy’s lawn.
Mayberry was a Southern town.
Technicolor must have killed it.
Made Andy a cranky lawyer.
Sent Opie running all the way to Hollywood.
But we remember.
Black and white,
from Chicago to Watts to Selma,
we tuned in to connect the dots of Opie’s face
while we dined on mashed potatoes and buttered corn
right before our TV sets,
that in this Southern town,
the sheriff used his hose to water Aunt Bea’s roses.
We were so happy and relieved
we laughed until we could not think
until we fell off our sofas and wing-backs and cane-bottoms;
we laughed until we could not see or hear
until we could forget
that outside our own windows
other sheriffs with loaded guns, snarling dogs, and ready hoses
made quick work of a world on fire.

Even the Moon Must Have Troubles

Previously Published in the Negative Capability Press anthology,  The Night's Magician: Poems About the Moon.  

Must sometimes climb off its golden swing
drown its sorrows in moon pies
or throw back bottle after bottle
of moonshine with the boys. 
At some point it stalks a quiet street
moons the ladies and local preacher,
throws its beams indiscriminately
through every window in town,
howling, as it has seen wolves do,
 at the old man who lives inside it
and feasts on green cheese.  It marvels
at its round reflection on the lake,
joins a group of revelers, sings loudly
around a campfire, I see the moon,
the moon sees me
The moon sees the one
I want to see.
 “Lunatic,” the locals call
as if they have never been moonstruck,
have never mooned over  Ala
or Diana, never, not once,  lost themselves
to loneliness and lunacy in a lover’s arms
beneath its harvest light

Counting Race

Previously Published in Poet Lore, Vol. 113, Number 3/4

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, just wait a minute,” he said,
trying to put on an all-knowing smile. “This is called statistical noise.” 

Day after she walked downtown with her dark husband,
her alabaster arm looped casually through his,
her hazel eyes sparkling with laughter,
my mother ran through those same Selma streets,
down quiet sidewalks, across every friendly
back yard until she reached home
and the welcome of neighbors.
The car of white men pursuing her
wanted a word or two[2]
about her white legs, her blonde head
thrown back, her fingers in his woolly hair. Too bad
they couldn’t see her blood.
How can we measure one drop?
By thimble or spoon, by paper bag
or fine-toothed comb? Once, the lexicon noted
the count—hexadecaroon, one-sixteenth black;
octoroon, one whole black grandparent; mulatto, half
and half. We don’t like to talk of it that way,
or remember on the 4th of July that Sally Hemmings,
quadroon, one-fourth black, bore Thomas Jefferson six children,
or think of Strom Thurman, rabid segregationist, taking
the fifteen-year-old daughter of his maid to bed.
How he hated miscegenation. Even his own blood
in a mulatto daughter’s heart could not sway
his rant against her voting rights. How he loved
untainted blood, as much as that man
on the talk show yesterday, who wants to build
a white town for whites like him. He smiles
beneath his certainty, his eye calm
as the Dead Sea. He does not know purity
is a trap as treacherous as gerrymandered
districts and black-on-black crime. He does not know,
until the host tells him, the parsing of his blood:
one-seventh black, nearly an octoroon,
almost as black as my mother, child of a tobacco-colored man,
mixed race, and a quadroon. I can’t remember
what they call that or if I ever knew.

[1] Craig Cobb, white supremacist, disputing a DNA test result that he was 86% European and 14% Sub-Saharan African.


AP: If you could choose any place for this interview, where would we be right now? 

JT:   In a beautiful garden, outside a museum, anywhere in the world. The Tuileries would be ideal, but the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts garden would do just fine. 

AP: What was the first book you fell in love with and why? 

JT:  The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I’m pretty sure it was the first book I could read by myself. It was beautifully illustrated, and snow was an adventure to a little girl living in Alabama. 

AP: Which authors continue to influence your work today? 

JT:  Wow. There are so many. Toni Morrison. To me her brilliance lies in her uncanny ability to notice how extraordinary the ordinary is and to write in a way that is visceral and intellectual at the same time. She gets at the underneath of things and shows us what we knew all along if we had just had the words to name it or the courage to face it. That’s what I want to do. Flannery O’Connor. There is a certainty about her writing, an ability to see why we do what we do. She made the fantastic ordinary and did so with enormous humor. I am awed by her use of humor. I know this list is leaning toward fiction, but there are so many poets too who have inspired me with their lyricism and their ability to tell the truth: Honorée Fannon Jeffers, Natasha Trethewey, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks—this list could go on all day. I learn something of craft from each of them and so many more. 

AP:What is the Cave Canem, and what does it means to be a Cave Canem fellow. What are the potential impacts on contemporary black poets? 

JT: Cave Canem is an organization dedicated to the nurturing of black poets. It was founded by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricote, two magnificent writers, who wanted to see more African American poets being published, winning awards, being included in American letters. So, they made a space. Created a community wherein emerging writers could interact with some of the best teachers in the world. Many of the most significant names in poetry writing today have come through and out of Cave Canem. Though “best of” lists and award lists often feature Cave Canem fellows and there so many editors and decision makers who have come through Cave Canem, to me the organization’s most lasting contribution is the way it has created a network of writers who can connect with, interact with, and encourage each other. I just did a reading at The New School in New York with Tim Siebles and Sayfia Sinclair. I would never have had that opportunity if it had not been for Cave Canem. I am really a beginner. But this is what Cave Canem does—it opens the door and provides access to whole new audiences. 

AP: What is it like being a black poet in the South today, and how does that influence your work? 

JT:  The South is my bailiwick. It is fertile ground for writing and always has been. Maybe that’s why we produce so many writers. There is something about this place that cries out to be written down. Weird. Scary. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Funny. All of the above. Plus, I think in “Southern.” The cognitive dissonance of this region runs through my work, and it is through the sensibility of the South that I understand all of America. Most of my work is overtly political. I write about race and gender and violence and justice (or injustice). These are things that the South grapples with constantly and clearly, yet with enormous befuddlement. The time is perfect to be a black poet, witness, and observer. 

 AP: You have a doctorate and have taught college English for many years. In what ways has this experience influenced your writing? 

JT:  No doubt it’s my reading history. I have taught English so long I think I’ve read everything. Or at least I feel as if I have. A writing life always best begins with a reading life. I think, too, for me, poems have arguments. That analytical approach to texts and phenomena that is so inherent to the study of literature comes out in my work. I am always dissecting. Thinking about what is hidden or not said. Thinking about the why. My poems are full of questions. This is what academics do best. Ask questions. 

AP: What is an interview question that no one has ever asked you and you wished they would? 

JT:  I love that question James Lipton asks on The Actor’s Studio: What is your least favorite word?

AP:What is your least favorite word and why?

JT:  Trifling. I consider myself a doer. I’m always doing something. There are people who minimize that. In every marriage there is a button pushing word. My spouse knows that word is “trifling.” I even wrote a poem about it in American Happiness, “The Retort I Wish I Had Made After I Forgot to Pack Your Favorite Trunks on a Family Trip to the Gulf of Mexico and You Called Me Trifling”.

 AP: Tell us about your upcoming book. 

JT:   I’m working on a collection tentatively titled How to Survive the Apocalypse. It’s a book about survival—what we can live through—and love—the thing that helps us live through anything. There are historical persona poems about Lillian Baxter Dungee, a children’s advocate and federated club woman; poems about racial violence of the past and present; and a series of satirical parables. 

 AP: Would you share one of your favorite writing prompts? 

 JT:  My favorite is actually a prompt I was given in a workshop taught by Jane Hirshfield. She had us write a poem in which the pronouns follow the pattern of conjugation: I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they. It was great fun, and as with all good prompts, it helped me discover a poem I would not have otherwise written, “Family Photograph: A Conjugation.” 

 Family Photograph: A Conjugation 

 I am standing in a doorway. My dress is blue. 
My hair swept up like hope. You stand beside me,
young and thin. You hold our new son, a bright penny. 
She is there too, her head thrown back in laughter, her hands
in her pockets. It is Christmas. 
We do not know this will be her last. You never know. 
You cannot know. 
They tell you everything but this.