The Colorado Poet, Issue #30, Winter 2022

Interview with Jeff Franklin

Jeffrey Franklin on Poetry and Where We Lay Down
Interviewed by Beth Franklin

Jeffrey Franklin grew up in Chattanooga, TN, but for over 20 years has called Colorado home. His previous poetry collection is For the Lost Boys, and his poems have appeared in journals such as Crab Orchard Review, Hudson Review, Measure, New England Review, Rattle, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, etc. He is the recipient of the Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and his poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry. He is the poetry editor of the North Carolina Literary Review, selecting finalists for the annual Applewhite Poetry Prize. He received his MFA and Ph.D. from the University of Florida and works as a professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His recent scholarly books are The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire (2008) and Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain (2018), both from Cornell UP. He lives in Denver with his lifetime partner, Judy Lucas. For more about him and his writings, go to

If I may, Beth, before we begin, I’d like to thank you, specifically for reading my poetry with such care and inviting me to this interview and, more broadly, for your service to poetry in Colorado as president of the CPC. You and Bob King invited the formation of a community of poets that your work continues to build and support. Thank you

Beth:  I love the title of the book and the title poem on page 88.Why did you decide on this title for the book?I also found the titles of the six subsections interesting.Can you talk more about the process for organizing the book and poems this way?

Jeffrey:Two recurring themes in the book are childhood and loss, starting with one of the sea-change events in my life, the death of my sister, Charlotte, in a car accident when I was in my early 20s and she 18. “Where We Lay Down” is for her, but also for my brother, Henry, and opens during our childhood but from the point-of-view of decades later, long after Charlotte’s death.

I think I also made it the title poem in part because my friend and colleague, Jake York, published it, and said to me, “It’s beautiful.”

It seems to me that many poetry collections are “project” books with a single unifying theme. For a long time I thought I had to work toward that, but, then, realized that I write poems at diverse times over years about diverse topics. But, I wanted the book to have coherence, too, so I looked for groupings invited by the poems and found these sections.

The themes of several sections are pretty obvious: “Fathers and Sons,” “Making Love,” and “Making War”—anti-war poems from the Civil War to video war games, ancient Ireland to recent American wars. And, “Homing,” like a homing pigeon, but without a single clear home.
The poems in “Totem Animals” are comic relief, mostly about rodents and marsupials, plus years ago I was guided on a shamanic vision-quest and discovered myself as a porcupine, a giant one—not the sexist animal, which I embrace gingerly.
And the last section, “Full Emptiness,” a translation of the Buddhist doctrine śūnyatā, is where I work with loss and identity, both of others and of the sense of my own autonomous, unified self, which Buddhism teaches is an illusory construct that generates immense human suffering.

Beth. You include your dad’s artwork on your book’s cover and inside the book also. Why did you decide to do this?
Jeffrey: As an homage to Dad. He showed and sold his artworks for many years, and so they are fairly scattered to the winds, though especially around Chattanooga, where I grew up. I wanted to give him what may be a last hurrah—he died in 2013, I miss him—though his art will continue to hang in a hundred homes and some galleries. I relished the chance to put his art in dialogue with mine, to build him in to this collection. Each section of the book is marked by one of his artworks, and I selected them to be thematically resonant with those poems

Beth: Your poetry expresses a male perspective that is unsure and vulnerable at times.  You seem to interrogate what it means to be male.  Can you comment more about this theme in your work.
Jeffrey: Being male is precarious and hazardous, to self and others. Women are the superior sex, in regards to what’s most important, and I wish they’d take charge and save the world from the dicks of greed, war, and ecological disaster. Gender, rather than being strictly binary, is on a sliding scale. Sex, while great fun, is scary as hell, since at any moment it can be integral to or divorced from love. Part of me wants to celebrate boyness and manhood and part of me wants to show its vulnerability as I have experienced it.
So, some of the poems, such as “Commerce & Gender in the New South” and “My Self My Other,” touch on sexual exploitation and the fluidity of gender identity and sexual preference. Some, like “To a Student Who Reads ‘The Second Coming’ as Sexual Autobiography” and “The Otter and the Shark,” are about the perils of sex. Some like “Living Right” and “The Persistence of Place” are set squarely in middle-class married love, while “Among the Surma of the Kormu Valley, A National Geographic Photographer” is spoken by a woman photographer in Ethiopia faced with how marriage works in a different culture.
Beth: You bring contemporary events and occurrences into your poems.I am thinking of “Honk for Peace,” for example.How do you decide which of these occurrences you will incorporate into poems?How does the process work for you?
Jeffrey: Most of the contemporary events in the collection are personal ones of relationship and family. Like most poets, I draw upon and process my own important emotional experiences. The section “Making War” focuses on what has become an unending “contemporary event” in American society and culture: war. Where is the boundary between contemporary and history? “Honk for Peace” reflects upon an anti-war protest in front of the Colorado capital, though I hope not dogmatically. 

I strive to write from immediate experience, rather than from ideology, and to let the narrative—many of my poems tell stories—show rather than tell. So, “Huck Finn at Forty-One” allowed me to imagine Huck a grown man, a paddle-wheeler captain on the Mississippi River, and to show his disapproval of the Civil War at its outbreak but also his opposition to slavery—he transports fleeing slaves northward. The poem is an anti-war poem, but I let that come from the character. I admit that a poem such as “War Porno” becomes more directly didactic.
I suppose the process for me is that I hold a strong conviction and I encounter a situation, either in life or literature, that can serve as a vehicle for social critique but, first and foremost, is an evocative moment or a good story in itself. I know that I don’t want to read diatribe poetry that isn’t both well-made art and entertaining.

Beth:Your knowledge of history also enters into your poems.I am thinking of “Sons and Fathers.”How do you decide which historical events to use in your poetry? Do you focus primarily on the history you write about in your academic work?

Jeffrey: Does one decide, or does one draw upon life’s experience and observations?
“Sons and Fathers” starts with the story a plumber in Denver told me about his father being killed by a gunman at his front door. As a scholar of the 19th century, I drew upon what I know about the industrial revolution and how it changed the roles of fathers and sons. I also draw on examples of the killing of Marvin Gaye by his father in 1984, the Bible (Abraham-Isaac), and Freud on the Oedipal complex.
I feel like I’m naturally using what I know that illustrates a poem’s meanings in ways that make sense. But, perhaps, I over-freight some poems with historical allusion? You’d have to tell me. I am aware that some readers find my poems dense, but I hope I’m not cultivating that.

Beth: One of your reviewers, James Najarian, comments that you write poems in a “startling array of forms.” How does the process of selecting a poetic form work for you? Do you start off with a form in mind? Does the form get selected as you write?

Jeffrey: I love the way you ask that question. I have experienced both.
Some poets are adept at allowing a formal choice to generate poetic creativity. They allow the choice to rhyme, for instance, to lead them to startling, beautiful places that were not consciously planned: the language led to the meaning. The form challenges creativity to exceed the predictable. Though, of course, the opposite more often happens: clichéd rhymes, forced rhymes, inverted syntax to get to a rhyme, etc. On the other hand, some poets, some the same ones, are adept at allowing a poem’s theme or content to suggest the form that most suits it.
Most of the poems in the Where We Lay Down are “formal,” though loosely conceived, in contrast to a good deal of New Formalism poetry, which generally is stricter about form. Blank verse is a go-to form for me; the rhythm is its own mood. If asked, I could go through the book and identify poems that were the product of a self-assigned formal choice and those that seemed to arrive with the content of the poem as I was writing it. My hope is that the reader a) cannot tell the difference and b) experiences the meaning of the poem as part of the form without needing to be conscious of the form itself.

Beth: How does your knowledge and experience with Buddhism connect to your poetry?
Jeffrey: Perhaps not very much. I am a poet who happens to be a Buddhist rather than a Buddhist who writes poems about his religion. Only one poem in the book is explicitly about Buddhism, a meditation experience years ago, titled “Anatman,” the doctrine often translated as “no self,” in high contrast to Western individualism.  
Perhaps very much. Buddhist philosophy colors my conceptions of identity, mutability, the shared human experience of suffering, and the interconnectedness of all beings and things, spiritually, socially, ecologically. My deep engagement with this spiritual path cannot but inflect my poetry, as it has my last two scholarly books. Certain poems—“Living Right,” “Awake,” the section “Full Emptiness”—resonate with Buddhism without becoming preachy.
Beth: What is next for you? Do you have another project in the works?
Jeffrey: Well, being more honest than comfortable, I don’t know, and not yet. I have struggled with my relationship to poetry, especially the po-biz and self-promotion aspects and trying to overcome deadly perfectionism and the lure of ambition. I’ve spent years unsure about my identity as a poet, doubting the value of yet another poem about X [fill in the blank with any subject]. I know why Marianne Moore wrote, “I, too, dislike it,” and I could learn from her further instruction. I’m working now on getting back to the joy of writing and finding space to allow poems to come as they may.
Part of what I am doing, which I’ve never really done before—go figure—is trying to find community with other poets, those locally here in Colorado and those elsewhere whose work I love, including fellow graduates of the UF MFA program Otherwise, it’s just me hangin’ out with the dead poets and failing to live up to them—a wee bit lonely, that.

But, I’m not lonely. Judy remains my most faithful reader. One of the benefits of publishing this book is that it has become the impetus to reconnect with family and friends, old and new, across the U.S. and in Australia and Canada. Brothers-in-law who are not regular poetry readers have called me out about dense moments in these poems! What fun!