CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: JORDAN KONKOL

konkolJordan is a poet from Ogden, UT. He recently read his poem "Jordan from Jordan from Utah" at the Thinking Its Presence conference. In addition to writing poems, Jordan has also recently been working on conceptual and audio/visual projects related to his work as a closed captionist for the University. As part of a series of interviews with students participating in the recent conference, Thinking its Presence: Race and Creative Writing, CutBank asked some questions of Jordan about his experience with race in academia, creative writing programs, his own writing, and Montana. The conference pushed writers, scholars, and institutions to engage in conversation about race in writing. Jordan gave a reading of his poems at the MFA reading at the conference on Saturday at 9. CutBank spoke with him a week before the conference.

CutBank: What made you want to get involved in the conference?

Jordan Konkol: I was just excited that it's happening, of all places, in Montana. I'm happy that the inaugural conference is happening here. This is a good way I think to get people to think critically about this.

CB: Is it surprising that it's happening in Montana?

JK: Yeah. I mean, I’ve lived in other states in the U.S. and I’ve never sensed race being such an issue as it is here. And that has definitely caused me to think more about how that occurs in the space of writing.

CB: In her book, Dorothy Wang, the keynote speaker, talks about the ways that writing by minorities—she's talking about Asian poets—get categorized by their ethnicity and read for content, and what they're doing that's innovative, their craft gets overlooked sometimes.

JK: Yeah, I can see that. And the categories are assigned to you whether you like it or not. If you have a certain last name, then you're a fill-in-the-blank writer. And if you live in Montana, congratulations you're a western writer.

CB: How is race important in workshop space?

JK: That’s a good question. I’d say that how we view race in workshop space is probably symptomatic of how we view it elsewhere. For the most part, people will not want to think about it. But I’m pretty sure race and gender always factor into how you experience text. I’d like to see an exercise in which you read poems and the names and author pictures are switched. How did you read the work differently?

CB: Why do you think race is an important topic for MFA programs right now?

JK: Well, honestly, the race conversation usually makes me uncomfortable. I wish I didn't have to think about it. I wrote this poem, Jordan from Jordan. I just sat down in front of the page and told myself to write everything I could think of about what I understand to be my “racial identity.” I didn't know what I thought about it, but I wanted to put every experience in, everything thing that came to mind. I read the poem at a couple readings and shared it elsewhere, and I had the same experience every time. Things like “thank you for sharing” and “this is a safe space.” Well maybe not that second one, but it was uncomfortable and I felt sort of patronized, like I had just told them that I was mentally unstable.

CB: So that was an especially strange experience because you don't normally write about race?

JK: Yeah. And I don’t think I was really writing “about” race but letting the poem come from experiences which in retrospect had to do with race—like people asking, “where are you from?” and when I tell them, “Utah,” asking, “No, but really, where?”

CB: So what's frustrating about how race is treated, or the conversation about race?

JK: Well I think it’s similar to how people talk about disability, something that I've become more interested in because of my work with accessibility for the university. I basically help to make inaccessible technology and educational materials accessible, and this has led me to think more generally about access and who is included or excluded, and how a space can be made more accessible. I think the problem with how both race and disability are understood is often this reduction to being a problem, to being something to be solved –  “they're making demands again, they're going to sue us, how can we deal with this.” But I think it should be the opposite— “how can we be proactive about this, how can we have an ongoing conversation, how can we make this issue a priority and a part of how we think about things and make decisions?” But most people want to pretend there's no problem until someone says there is, so they make concessions or remediations and then hope it will go away again. I think what I’m seeing with the issue of accessibility is that it’s not going away and that as a community we’re going to have to start seeing universal access as an ongoing, campus-wide responsibility.

CB: There is a sort of ironic sub-theme at the conference, “minorities with grievances.” I interpret that as a comment about how defensive people get, how people immediately assume that a conversation about race is accusatory and negative, that it can't be a positive conversation. Do you feel like people are defensive about the subject?

JK: That's exactly where it goes. But you aren't going to stop just because of that. And that’s also one thing I enjoy about poetry, communicating indirectly. You can step around that kind of direct conflict.

CB: Identity is so important in poetry, but it can be so problematic to assign someone an identity.

JK: Yeah, thematizing and categorizing, saying, this is minority literature, can be part of the problem. I want to say that it's important to let a writer identify herself, but that never happens. We don't have control over our public identities. And, I mean, regardless of our racial backgrounds or how we answer theoretical questions about it, every person has his or her own relationship to race, and it’s always complex and part of a narrative. The fact that I'm from Utah and half Arab, that I'm passably white in most of the places I've been but evidently less so in Montana, that makes my identity, my relationship to my race different than it would have been without that narrative. And you know I also might have problematic views on race.

CB: How so?

JK: I don't know. Maybe I've said things I won't agree with in a week. But what matters is that we’re having the conversation. Anyone's relationship to race is complicated and uncomfortable, but I think that's something we can take away from this conference. It's ok to be uncomfortable. We don't have to make it comfortable.