Award-winning poet A. Van Jordan discusses his new movie-inspired collection The Cineaste and recommends his favorite underappreciated films.
Zola: What made you choose cinema as the setting for a book of poetry?
A. Van Jordan: I love film, and it’s one of my first artistic loves. It has an almost inordinate influence on our culture—almost from its very inception, really—and yet I don’t feel that it has the artistic freedom of the poem. I often describe poetry as a visual art form to my students. It’s important for them to understand that the poem operates through a system of images. Film, more obviously, also has an image system at play, and film worked well for this project because it offers room for an ekphrastic rendering. 1) I can look at the film structurally and borrow from that structure as I render the poem, and 2) I can approach the poem by posing questions as artistic problems: “What can I bring to the poem that may be missed by a viewer of the film?” and “Why would someone read the poem after seeing the film?” Once I answered those questions, I was ready to write the poems. Usually, this was an issue of figuring out how to render some specific emotional resonance that I felt from viewing the film.
Zola: The core of The Cineaste contains a sequence about Oscar Micheaux, one of the first prominent African-American feature filmmakers. What drew you to his story?
AVJ: Oscar Micheaux represents the emerging artist in all of us. He taught himself how to make film; there was no such thing as an MFA program around in the 1910s. While an emerging art form was taking the country by storm, he approached it fearlessly. I think it’s hard for us to imagine what a new art form would look like today. It’s kind of beyond my scope to imagine it, at least. That being said, I’m drawn to both the intellectual curiosity and the blue-collar work ethic of Micheaux; I think every artist needs this duality.
Zola: The history of African-American cultural figures has been largely influential to your work, from Micheaux to MacNolia Cox. How do you feel that history allows you to discuss issues of race?
AVJ: In America, I think we see the issue of race always as conflict. When we look at these moments in history, we find that the subject of race can be celebrated outside of the frame of conflict. There’s nothing wrong with conflict—good things come from conflict, and good things have come from conflict in this country—but race exists beyond the construct of racism and conflict. Despite all the hype, I don’t think we’re “post race,” and I don’t see any reason why we have to be. We need to learn how to deal with race without seeing it as a problem to push into our past.
Zola: What’s an underappreciated film that every movie buff should see?
AVJ: This may come as a surprise, but I think The Untouchables by Brian De Palma is a real gem. The script was written by David Mamet, costumes were designed by Giorgio Armani, De Palma directed it, and then we have some of the best performances by Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia, and, yes, Kevin Costner—who is phenomenal in this—that we’ve seen on film. Every frame of this movie is a lesson in composition. I don’t have a poem about it because I had nothing that I could add to it. I think it’s a near perfect film that most people see as just a fun commercial movie.
The other film I would put on that short list would be American Gigolo by Paul Schrader. I did write about this film. In 1980, the idea of having a vulnerable male hero was probably the most forward-thinking move any filmmaker could make. When Richard Gere swaggers onto the screen in this film, the characters played by Eastwood, Stallone, and even McQueen felt cliché and flat in comparison. Again, this one has a great script, great clothes by Armani (again, coincidentally), and beautiful acting. In both films, we also learn a good deal about the human condition, which makes all art worthwhile.
Zola: What’s your next project?
AVJ: That’s a question to which I don’t know the answer. Everything I’m writing right now comes in the form of prose, so that might be the shape of it, but who knows what it will say.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.