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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with Fontbonne University professor Jason Sommer

Jason Sommer is a Fontbonne University professor whose body of work has focused on his identity as the child of a Holocaust survivor. Sommer will be doing a reading today in Greenlaw Hall as a part of the English department’s Armfield poetry series, which honors UNC alumna and poet Blanche Britt Armfield.

Sommer spoke to staff writer Sarah Ang about his latest compilation, “The Laughter of Adam and Eve,”and the ups and downs of writing poetry.

Daily Tar Heel: What is “The Laughter of Adam and Eve” about?

Jason Sommer: It isn’t a book necessarily about one thing — it’s really a collection rather than a project. Among the other things that are in it, gender is an issue in the book — men speaking of women, women speaking of men. Speaking of things from their own perspective — but of course, it’s me, so I’m ventriloquizing like a maniac.

There’s art in it, formulating things, particularly through narrative. They’re often stories and some of the stories are about stories themselves, how we formulate themselves against and with story or myth, or stories of war.

There’s an interest in language itself — etymology, even. There’s a poem about the origin of the word ‘brouhaha.’

DTH: Where do you get your inspiration?

JS: Story, mostly. I’m sort of a narrative junkie. I hear in story some essential thing. It could be a story someone’s told me, or something that forms out of a narrative that’s happening to me. Sometimes there’s an image or a thing that you look at that just wants to open up into something more. You don’t fully understand it and you want to get it out somehow. I feel something, and then I want to know what the hell that was.

DTH: What’s the biggest challenge with writing poetry?

JS: One way or another, being heard. I’m interested in an audience that may not exist — a general audience. I’m not interested in being read only by poets.

I want to mean something to people’s lives.

You have to read widely and openly. There are poems I absolutely don’t understand that I like. They have some effect that gets at me in some way. But I much prefer those poems that give me words for my life that I didn’t have before, but that seem apt and memorable. I went with someone who’d won a wine tasting once. I was ready to scoff at what was going on, but the fellow who gave us things to taste went on to describe them — the adjectives he used were exactly right. In some sense, a poem can give you words for an emotion, even a sense of life that would be fugitive without it.

DTH: Why write poetry at all?

JS: Poems do things that other pieces of writing can’t do. They can get in you, in a way, that is very particular to poems. The rhythm does something — the intensity of imagery, in particular.

Poems just stick in there and they’re portable. They’re at a size that you can read and re-read and partake in that intensity.

DTH: What do you hope people get out of your reading?

JS: That’s a hard question. I hope they get the pleasure of language out of it, first of all. And what one hopes one gets out of all art: to be moved. To understand something in the way I understand it. To be in dialogue with me, in a way that’s a little bit more permanent than just chatting. I guess if you’re interested in poetry, I like the notion that you don’t need the writer there. I like the notion that poetry travels from a private space to a private space. But sometimes hearing a writer gives you more insight on how a poem works.

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