Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Peep Behind the Bead Curtain

James's brother Allen sent James some questions about poetry. He answered them, and then left those answers open in a word document. That's how they got here. Why they got here: I do love an series of questions. Also, I'm fascinated by writing processes. Particularly the process of one I'm so close to. I know virtually nothing of it, so, I think this is all fantastically interesting.

Why poetry?

I think it started with learning I could get what I wanted from manipulating language. Maybe it came from lying. It taught me that language was maneuverable. And since then, I’ve always been fascinated with malleability within language. I tried fiction, essay, plays, and comedy and while I still write in some of those genres, I find the most freedom within poetry.

I like the economy of poetry. The exercise of parsing out a sentence and cutting it down to its bones. Of finding the exact word to convey, instead of circling around it with less precise wording. I like the surprise of language. And I like to surprise myself with language. Especially the language of the everyday.

What do you think you can contribute to the history and world of poetry?

I don’t know if I’ll contribute anything to the world. I don’t have any delusions of that. I think I’ll write and some people will read it and that will be enough. I do believe in art as communication though. So I find no use creating in a closet. I think that what I should create should be shared in the modern artistic conversation. You can’t predict what noise it will make there. And you shouldn’t expect any. If you made a dent, that’s great. But that’s not why you set out to make art.

What influences your writing? Other authors, nature?

Other writers. My own history. The history of my family. Dreams and possibilities are a big part of it.

Other writers inspire me. Sometimes I read a poet I like (Phillip Levine, Sharon Olds, Nick Flynn, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Kimiko Hahn, Marie Howe, Stanley Kunitz, etc.) and I have to figure out how they do it. I have to solve the puzzle. How does Kimiko get away with all this meta imagery? How do I write myself into every portrait like Phillip Levine? How can I be more open and powerful like Sharon Olds?

Nature does very little for me. It’s in there. I write about lakes a bit. But God is such a great architect, I can’t see the building blocks. I don’t know how to make what he’s made. I can only create from writers. Because I can understand how they build.

Briefly explain a process you have for creating a new piece.

I usually steal away somewhere. Sometimes at my desk, maybe in a crowd of people. I’ve learned to shut people out, I have no problem with noise. And then I just start jotting something. Maybe a phrase or two. I’ll start on a story I’ve never told. Or I’ll start describing something and then suddenly move to a deep memory or a forgotten fascination. I’ll follow that path and sometimes it leads somewhere great and surprising. And other times, it ends abruptly. Or the path widens into a boring highway of oft traveled poems. And I turn around.

From there, if I’m near my computer, I sit down and transcribe it. And expand it. And just let it be written. This is an all fire process. I just let it consume. I don’t edit or self check myself here. Unless what I’m writing sucks already and I know it. Usually, I finish the typing part of it within half an hour to an hour.

And then I let it sit for a few days. Maybe a few weeks. And then comes the editing. Which is cold and calculating. It’s all ice.

Where do you see the future of poetry headed?

I can’t say I’m ready to assess that. I have no idea. I see some trends. I see a very post modern movement still. There’s a lot of consciousness in the current movement. A lot of self pointing. Can’t say I could point to everything. But I’m always open to what people are doing. I pick what I like and integrate it.

Does your life and history influence your work directly or do you choose to draw from a different place?

At this point, most of my writing deals with my history. Which is by extension my family’s history. I had a teacher that told me she only wrote about her Big Four: her mother and her father, birth, sex, and her daughters. I’m similar. I’m not trying to plumb every topic. I’m just writing about the things that matter to me. The wells I have the most to draw from.

How does your personal view and beliefs affect your writing and the critiques of those who do not share your views?

I don’t know if my beliefs ever butt up against anyone else’s. I don’t swear in my poetry generally and my politics aren’t ever in there. But most poets follow that line. 50/50 maybe. I don’t have much to say about God in my poems. Maybe because I don’t have anything new to say about him yet. So no one comments on the times he appears. But I would argue that much of my poems have God underneath. He’s a subtle score beneath.

What has poetry taught you?

It taught me a lot about language, like I’ve mentioned. About family and how deep relationships go. Maybe I have also learned the need for art in the world. It teaches me mostly how to identify art in the world. It’s made me listen to people more. People say beautiful profound things if you listen. If you get them past the hellos and weather, they can surprise you. And I’ve learned about myself mainly. Especially during those rare times when I write something I feel a little beyond me, better than I could have imagined.


  1. I love this. I am fascinated (the shreds of Grandpa Irvine in me, I like to think) by the interview process - how the asker chose the questions, how he used those to direct the kinds of answers he can use, what he will do with the answers. I have been doing this kind of thing talking to scientists for several years now, then trying to translate their answers into short articles that are readable by a lay audience (or press releases to attract media attention). Interviewing a poet would be different, but sort of the same because a lot of people think of poetry as being as separate from their lives as particle physics or something. Which is a shame.

    Anyway I would love to hear where these answers go.

  2. I liked reading this. It felt like I was already an hour into a conversation. Interesting too.