J Bruce Fuller’s The Dissenter’s Ground (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017)
MHR: Did you envision the chapbook before writing many of the poems or did the poems come and you sensed their cohesion for a collection?
J: This chapbook was written as a complete piece and I wrote it essentially as one long poem, from start to finish. To me, it is a book of questions that had been bothering me for a long while. It is also a love letter of a sort, a love letter to Louisiana, but also a love letter to William Blake.
MHR: “It is that I have no one else to turn to.” Why William Blake?
J: Since the book came out a lot of people have been asking me this question. I’m not sure why a late 20th-century swamp kid would turn to a pre-Romantic British poet for answers. I have been to Blake’s grave, which was a dissenter’s ground outside of the consecrated burial space used for believers. I have always been interested in that idea, that even in death we can be separated for our beliefs. It seems so foolish to me. But in Blake’s time, religious dissent was much more consequential than it is today. I have always loved Blake’s work of course, but even I find it strange that he showed up in my work this way. I think the differences in our work and times didn’t matter to me much. What interested me about Blake was his life, his views on religion, and his prophecies.
When I thought about the politics of my region, climate change, the natural disasters we’ve been through across my lifetime, it seemed to me that we too are surrounded by prophecies. There is a new warning about our environment every day, and yet many ignore or refuse to believe them. It dawned on me that in our current political climate, people of religious persuasions refuse to believe these scientific prophecies, just as in Blake’s time people of reason refused to believe his religious ones.
MHR: Do you experience a type of prophecy when writing poems or in the moments before a poem comes to the fore?
J: I wish I could say yes, but at least in the last few years that moment of spark has been more mechanical than prophetic. Either I am more disillusioned now than I was as a young poet, or I have learned so much more about the process of how a poem is created that my process itself has changed. I will say that sometimes I have an idea for a poem that needs to ferment in my mind for a while before I start writing it down. Those moments could be considered a sort of prophecy.
MHR: Do you see yourself using the device of epistolary poems in the future, speaking to other poets or non-poet persons?
J: I do love the epistolary form. I think of all the voices/personas in my poems the epistolary voice I use in The Dissenter’s Ground is the closest to my own real voice. I really was talking to Blake about my fears, and it is a vulnerable place to be. I think we can achieve much in epistolary writing. I love call and response poetry between two poets. I am sure I will continue to use it.
MHR: To what else do you dissent beyond the scope of the chapbook?
J: I mentioned vulnerability, and I think I need to be more vulnerable not just in my poems but in my life as a poet. I have been silent on many issues for too long. I laugh things off and joke around, I rarely say anything political, either online or in daily life. It’s not that I am not thinking about these issues. It’s that I have a fear of disappointing anyone, a fear of causing dissent. I am afraid to use my platform as a poet to speak on issues I am passionate about, and I am ashamed of that because so many poets around the world have had their voices silenced politically. I am very fortunate and often I am very ashamed of it. There is a culture of humility in my upbringing, and there are social and familial repercussions for anyone who tries to rise above their raising. Because of this, it is hard for me to even suggest that I have a platform. But I have a responsibility to tell our story and our situation to those who are unaware of the serious political and environmental problems we face. To speak for others is to dissent in my culture. To acknowledge that we have done this to ourselves is to dissent. It is a betrayal. To get an education is to dissent in my culture. To achieve success. To leave. To return. There is an irreversible cost.
I just got back to California a day ago and shouldn’t even be answering these questions right now, because I am particularly homesick. But I can’t hide behind professionalism out in the world, no more than I can hide behind the status quo back home. To be vulnerable is to dissent in the macho southern culture I was brought up in, but I am realizing that vulnerable is exactly what I have to be.
MHR: Are we doomed to our drowning here in south Louisiana? Can you speak to this to increase awareness for those who aren’t as environmentally conscious about the plight of our coast?
J: It hurts me to say so, but yes, I think we have done irreversible damage. The changes in society needed to reverse it are generations away. I have no faith in the government to reverse course on the thousands of policies that caused it. I hope that eventually, the world at large will come around but for us, it will be too late. Maybe it will happen when New York City starts to flood, or other major economic areas around the world are threatened. But as with many Pacific islands and many low-lying areas across Southeast Asia, we will be lost before it is fixed. This is an economic issue as much as anything else. It is too economically unfeasible to save small populations of wetland fishermen in remote areas that many Americans have never heard of.
Many of Louisiana’s problems, in particular, are man-made. We have built a levee complex on the Mississippi River that stretches for over 2,000 miles. We have tried to control flooding not understanding that floods built the land we live on. We have built canals for logging and the oil industry that introduce salt water from the Gulf of Mexico into brackish and freshwater ecosystems. We have traded meager returns on our oil and natural gas reserves for devastation to our wildlife and fisheries.
And what the outside world must realize is that we didn’t do this because we are stupid hicks that don’t know any better. Louisiana is a poor state with rich resources. That paradox is a result of the fleecing of us by Washington for generations. It has created a culture where we are the ones destroying ourselves for the profit of others. Many in my family work for the same oil and gas industry that is sucking us dry and destroying our environment. When they want to build a pipeline through the Atchafalaya Basin we won’t have the national outcry that we saw with the North Dakota Access Pipeline. There will be no hashtags. We will build it ourselves and be grateful to have the work, and that is a direct result of the poverty of this place.
MHR: In our lifetimes, we have not had an unobstructed horizon on the Louisiana coast. Can you relate personal experiences from your youth and another from your adulthood that illuminates your disillusionment that is touched upon in The Dissenter’s Ground?
J: The oil rigs on our horizon have a large role in this book. To me, they are the image of climate change. They are a symbol of beauty in a way, but they are also unnatural, and to me, sublime. I was terrified of them as a child. They are dangerous places and I have known many who have been injured or killed out there. They stand over our coast like monuments, to remind us.
I have lived in many places around the state, and as a child, I spent a lot of time in rural areas where the landscape shaped my view of the world. In my poems, landscape is a major character, if you like, and as a boy, I loved the fields and the marshes and the swamps. The woods loom large in my work as well. The thought of the loss of these places weighs heavy on me, especially because I picked a career that is almost guaranteed to take me away from home for the majority of my adult life. It is a sobering thought to think that the home you grew up in may not exist when you are able to return. I am terrified of being lost from this place forever, and Americans, in particular, would do well to remember that it can happen to us too. The immigration debate in this country comes from a place of incredible privilege, the privilege that most Americans cannot even fathom the idea of being a refugee.
Many of us learned that lesson with Hurricane Katrina, which has turned out to be one of the most life-altering events of my adult life. Many of us scattered and tried to build a new life in other states, states that if you recall, did not want us. They didn’t want our poverty, our crime, our burden on their infrastructure. Those of us who were able to return found military guards with machine guns patrolling the streets. I remember returning to New Orleans with my father and saying to him how much I thought it looked like an occupying force. But America has forgotten that too. Once it left the news cycle it was out of sight out of mind. We had to pick it all back up again, and I have felt in the last decade that people have forgotten how nasty some people were towards us. I heard talking heads on the news say over and over, Should New Orleans rebuild? Why don’t they just tear it down and start over somewhere else? I heard people say You knew it would happen and chose to live there anyway. Some thought we deserved it. And I won’t forget it. I am incredibly angry still.
MHR: “We will take drowning too far” is a powerful statement and holds mystery in that it goes beyond physical death. How did this line come to you, if you recall?
J: I think I realized that we are culpable in some way and that hurt me. But I also realized that we are a part of a system that makes us culpable, sometimes without us realizing it. These realizations led me to think about culture and memory. There are so many things we have forgotten. Parts of our own history that have been erased or assimilated into some form of new cultural memory. Louisiana voted overwhelmingly for the people who have imposed these destructive policies on us. Louisianans, whites especially, have bought into this narrative that our problems come from somewhere else, someone “other.” But we are forgetting a few things. When America purchased Louisiana they found themselves with a large population of French-speaking Catholics whom they did not want. Assimilation became law. It became illegal to speak French. Our culture was reduced to Mardi Gras beads and drive-thru daiquiris. A show for tourists. And we have forgotten. And the Acadians were brutalized and forced to flee their homes and settle here, to eke out a living on land no one wanted, the same land that is being destroyed now. And the crawfish we learned to live on is now a rite of passage for tourists who think us quaint and backward, who think we are stupid, the same people who profit from our oil, the same people who told us not to rebuild. And we have forgotten.
And now is it our turn to harm those we deem too different from us? To refuse refugees? To abandon equality and human rights? Have we forgotten who we are? Cajuns, Creoles, we too are “other,” and once they have removed all the easy targets America will remember it too, and we will have to face our own reckoning.
And Louisiana, whose land is disappearing faster than anywhere else, we have elected a man who thinks climate change is a hoax. We ourselves believe it. We who have suffered hurricanes and been told by America not to rebuild. We who have suffered floods and been told not to rebuild. We’ve suffered their oil spills, their sinkholes, their pipelines, and gotten nothing for it and still, we have forgotten. Do you think Trump will save us when we drown? Why would Americans act any differently towards us than they have in the past?
We have forgotten who we are. Pourquoi, pourquoi, pourqoui? We are drowning ourselves. Prends garde à toi.
MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. How can someone purchase The Dissenter’s Ground?
J: Directly from the publisher at hyacinthgirlpress.com, or feel free to contact me via my website jbrucefuller.com and I will be happy to send you a signed copy or just chat a while.
Hyacinth Girl Press is a micro-press that publishes up to 6 poetry chapbooks each year. We specialize in handmade books of smaller press runs. We consider ourselves a feminist press and are particularly interested in manuscripts dealing with topics such as radical spiritual experiences, creation/interpretation of myth through a feminist lens, and science.
J. Bruce Fuller is a Louisiana native, and is currently a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. His chapbooks include The Dissenter’s (Hyacinth Girl Press 2017), Notes to a Husband (Imaginary Friend Press 2013), Lancelot (Lazy Mouse Press 2013), 28 Blackbirds at the End of the World (Bandersnatch Books 2010), and Flood which is the winner of the 2013 Swan Scythe Chapbook Contest. He is the co-editor of Vision/Verse 2009-2013: An Anthology of Poetry (Yellow Flag Press 2013). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, Pembroke Magazine, The Louisiana Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Louisiana Literature, among others. He is the editor and publisher of Yellow Flag Press. He received an MFA from McNeese and a Ph.D. from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.