Jacqueline Allen Trimble lives and writes in Montgomery, Alabama, where she is an associate professor of English and the chairperson of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University. She is a current Cave Canem fellow and the recipient of a 2017 literary arts fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Her work has appeared in various online and print publications including The Griot, The Offing, and Blue Lake Review. Her first collection, American Happiness, published by NewSouth Books, won the Balcones Poetry Prize and was named the Best Book of 2016 by the newly launched Seven Sisters Book Awards.
Joyce Brown: In the simplest of terms, the theme of American Happiness seems to be about how people often pretend things are okay when they aren't. Is that a fair assessment?
Jacqueline Allen Trimble: It's absolutely a fair assessment. I was interested in thinking about how we are more enamored with the America we imagine rather than the America we actually live in. The title poem began as an academic article. I had an idea to write about the two top-rated shows at the end of the 1960's, Gentle Ben, which starred Clint Howard, and The Andy Griffith Show, which starred Ron Howard. Gentle Ben is about a boy and a bear, but it's also about a forest ranger in the Florida Everglades and of course, The Andy Griffith Show, is about a Southern sheriff.
It was fascinating to me that these popular shows starring brothers were, I believe, the number one and number two shows in the country at the time. The popularity of these shows was growing even while sheriffs in southern law enforcement were beating people and trampling them with their horses. It struck me that one of the reasons that we loved these shows so much is they presented this kinder, gentler version of America but at the same time they were almost absent of people of color even though they were set in Florida and the Carolinas.
Black people and white people alike loved these shows. So it seemed that we were enamored of the fantasy. We love Disney World where everything is fake. We're oblivious to what's happening in our world. Those thoughts and feelings are what inspired the poems of American Happiness.
Political rhetoric is also fascinating to me. With the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement social protest against violence aimed at people of color grew, before and during the election. Whether it be the women's movement or LGBTQ communities, to people in other communities who are not considered mainstream, whoever they may be, as people began to lift their voices and demand better treatment, there was a backlash of politically incorrect language and insensitivity. So many people say that's not true and believe we don’t have a problem with race in this country. They say we don't have a problem with misogyny or xenophobia in this country, even though all the evidence to the contrary says we do. Again, we're oblivious to what's actually happening in our world.
Joyce: In the preface of American Happiness, you say your mom taught you about the power and pleasure of ironic juxtaposition. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Jacqueline: My mother, Erna Dungee Allen, died in 1984, and I had not realized how much she influenced my poems and stories until I was asked to write the preface. I didn't know what I wanted to say, so I just sat down and started writing. The first sentence I wrote was, 'My mother was a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights,' and by the time I got to the end of the essay, I realized that almost every one of my poems comes from the sensibility of the world that my mother taught me.
She was terribly funny. I mean, she loved to laugh and even though she was dealing with some complicated things. Learning the power and pleasure of ironic juxtaposition comes from a time when I dressed as a ghost for a fall festival at school. I was a grown woman before I realized why my mother was laughing and took so many pictures of me that night. There I was, the only black child in the school wandering around with a pointed pillow case on my head like a Klan member.
Of course, she knew what was happening, but I didn't. My mother had a very ironic sense of humor, and it's where I get my sense of irony. Even though some of the poems in American Happiness deal with things that are painful, I always try to return to moments of ironic humor. For me, that's the way we cope with the world. Sometimes you have to sit back and look at things that are sad and ridiculous at the same time. I can cry and laugh at the same time, and I know that I got that from my mother.
Joyce: I read that you began writing after learning the word 'swiftly' from your first-grade teacher. Why was that word especially significant to you?
Jacqueline: My first-grade teacher's name was Edna T. Mosley, and we were reading those horrible Dick and Jane readers. I remember what the classroom looked like, with its wooden floors and large windows, while Ms. Mosley read and then we would repeat the sentences and stories back to her. The sentence was something like, 'Fluffy jumped off the TV swiftly,' and after I had read the word swiftly, I thought what a beautiful word. The word was, to me, the perfect sort of combination of sound and sense. I remember that moment and my six-year-old brain thinking that language was beautiful and I began to devour books.
Shortly after that, I wrote my autobiography on my grandfather's typewriter. It was one of those actual typewriters with the keys that had the letters on the ends. I ticked it out, and it was a paragraph long, but it was the beginning of my writing life.
Joyce: What do you see as your role as a poet in today’s society?
Jacqueline: Poets are activists. I think writers have always been activists because they write about culture from an angle that other people often don't see or don't want to see. For me, poetry is an opportunity in non-combative space. You can change someone's angle of reflection. You can stand for a moment in my space and take a look at the world. I think all writing is political. If you don't write about politics, that's a political choice. For me, the purpose of poetry, particularly now, is activism, activism, activism.
Joyce: Tell me about some of your research interests. How do you feel about representations of race and gender in popular culture?
Jacqueline: Race and gender are in my wheelhouse. I'm interested in the way they collide with the way we imagine ourselves and the way we really exist in the world. I wrote my dissertation, Confounded Identities: Race, Gender, Culture, in Adrienne Kennedy in One Act, on Adrienne Kennedy. She’s a playwright of the black arts movement who was about 30 years before her time. I was fascinated by how Kennedy critiques the culture that she is a part of. To be able to look at a culture that created you and critique it at the same time is a hard thing to do.
I wrote an article with a colleague of mine, Carlos Morrison, about Tyler Perry’s Madea as an aging superhero. You can read it in, Aging Heroes: Growing Old in Popular Culture. Madea swoops in and saves the day in a dress. We write about performativity and why she’s a black woman and why she can't be a large black man doing some of the things she does. She would never be able to get away with wielding a gun as a large black man, but she puts on a dress, and she can be simultaneously powerful and innocuous. It's a fascinating kind of thing.
We just wrote another article that came out in the Howard Journal of Communication about marching as visual rhetoric of social protest and how that enactment takes place in the Million Man March and also in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act or the Selma-Montgomery March. I wish we had written that article just a few months later because so many states now have started trying to institute legislation to make it a felony offense to march in some cases.
Right now I’m working on an article called Precious Politics. It’s about the angst that people felt when Barack Obama became President. The Obama’s were, in so many respects, the quintessential American family. They were educated, and had lovely children who were well-behaved. They exuded the American success story from humble beginnings. Obama didn't have any side women. He was not beating his wife. Many people could not accept the fact that these brown bodies had moved into the biggest plantation house of all, the White House.
Now, President Trump has moved into the White House, and it has not gone without notice that he has children by three different women. He's engaged in crude and harsh rhetoric. He’s the quintessential baby daddy.
Joyce: I read comments online written by some of your former students, and they all seem to love you and your teaching style. What keeps you engaged and excited about teaching?
Jacqueline: I love to learn things. Even after 32 years of teaching, I never teach the same course twice. I have a friend who teases me because when I go to museums, I'm the one that goes through and reads every single sign or fact about the things I’m looking at. I'm happy to learn about anything, and that’s what teaching is about, a love of learning.
Teaching isn’t about promoting particular ideologies; it's about pointing out that there are different beliefs and sometimes they are at odds with each other. To me, that’s the interesting part, the fact that people can think different ways about the same things.
One of my happiest moments as a teacher came a few years ago when I ran into a former student, a young man who had gone on to become a teacher. He said he had always hoped he would get a chance to tell me that he loved my class. He said it made him start reading American Literature and he fell in love with it, and it inspired him to be a teacher. That's what I want to hear. He left my classroom, and he didn't stop reading. He didn't stop learning. He didn't stop expanding his mind. To me, that's what a teacher does. It's not about the grades; it's about loving the feeling of learning something new.
Joyce: What writing projects are on your horizon?
Jacqueline: I'm a Cave Canem fellow, and so I'm going back to Cave Canem this year. It's a week-long writer's retreat, and I'm excited about it because it renews me so much. I'm working on a new collection of poetry now. I got some great advice from Mark Childress, a novelist who wrote one of the blurbs for my book. He had told me before American Happiness was even published to start working on my next project. He was right. I started writing poems for this next collection immediately. The working title is How to Survive the Apocalypse. It's divided into two sections; Love and Rage. I'm really excited about it. People thought American Happiness had some tense moments … just wait.