Excerpted from . . .
Quill and Parchment
Interview with the poetry editor:
James, tell us how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I suppose how I became inspired to write poetry might be connected to when. My first efforts were in high school, and I continued sporadically while in college. Then came a long hiatus, and it was not until what Jung calls “the noon of life” that I felt to urge to resume writing. After another dry spell, I found myself turning again to poetry when I retired from my academic career. So, I think my inspiration to write poetry might be connected to the seasons of one’s life, the ebb and flood of life’s stages, especially the discoveries found at the turning points of those stages. Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging,” comes to mind. Poetry is a way for me to dig below the surface of experience, to find where I am from and where I might be going.
What subjects are you most passionate about?
I think I might be interested in too many subjects, and as a consequence I just scratch around at all of them. Which ones might be a passion actually is a difficult question. I suppose it comes down to which pursuits are necessary to one’s psychic health. With respect to subjects for the poetry that I write, that would be Nature, broadly understood . . . how our connection to it, or disconnection from it, tends to define who we are. Another is the “hero journey.”
How much time do you spend on a poem before you consider it to be finished?
Well, first of all, I don’t consider any of my poems finished. I often find myself changing a word, perhaps adding or deleting a punctuation mark, in poems long after I thought they were finished, even after I have submitted them for publication. Time for initial composition, from genesis to near completion, can vary widely. I have written first drafts for some poems in as little time as a few hours, others have taken a month or more. Then, I like to set a first draft aside for a while – the longer the better – before revising. Also, I find feedback from other poets valuable. So, the process typically takes a couple months or more.
What aspect of writing poetry do you find the most challenging?
I can answer this question with words borrowed from Emily Dickinson. For me, writing a poem that “scalps your naked soul” is the most challenging aspect. Finding interesting diction and syntax that startles, what Coleridge calls “best words in the best order,” is part of the challenge, along with imagery that rises to the level of metaphor in the mind of the reader. Also, keeping the rhythm and tone of language consistent with the mood of the poem can be a challenge. These are all aspects of craft that require effort. But the real challenge, and frankly what I am still hoping to find, is a way to scalp the naked soul of the reader . . . for a way to make the reader set the book down, pause, and say, “Oooh, that’s the way it is.”
One of your chapbooks, Barely Still, Barely Stirring (Finishing Line Books, 2020) describes encounters with nature. To what extent do you find that you are drawn to writing about the natural world?
Yes, I am drawn to writing about the natural world, as are so many other poets. The tradition of pastoral poetry is as old as the first record of poetry. To try to understand our place in the natural world is to try to understand our place in creation. When I first began to take poetry seriously, in high school and college, I was drawn to the nature poets – from Wordsworth to Frost – and today I return to them and others for solace. What appeals to me most about reading or writing poetry is the demand it makes of me to pay attention to the particulars of the moment, which for me seems to happen more often in nature.
Your chapbook of poems on Rembrandt’s art, The Color of Prayer: Poems on Rembrandt Painting the Bible (Shanti Arts Books 2019) points to an interest in writing ekphrastic poetry. What challenges presented themselves to you when you were working on this collection?
There are two that come to mind. First, I have no background in art history or art criticism; so, I needed to school myself enough to appreciate Rembrandt’s work. A second challenge was the nature and purpose of ekphrastic poetry. Rembrandt’s paintings, especially these scenes from The Bible, are so complex there was the tendency merely to describe with language what he was showing visually. That approach, of course, makes the poem redundant of the painting. Ekphrastic poetry should do more than that; it should reflect upon the scene, or add new dimensions or additional layers of action to the scene.
The theme of pilgrimage seems to run through some of your poetry. This is particularly evident in your latest collection. Do you sense that poetry, which has come to you at a later stage in life, is to some extent a summation of your own long journey home?
Absolutely. We are all works in progress . . . pilgrims on a path. And, reflecting upon where we have been gives insight into where we are headed; or, it might give counsel to direction. For myself, poetry is an impetus, as well as a method, for that reflection.
Do you have any pieces of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?
First, read widely. Seek advice from mentors on who and what to read, both from the canon as well as from a broad field of contemporary poets. Next, finding a small group of kindred spirits is important, both for having an audience and for feedback. Also, realize that writing poetry is a habit of heart as much as anything else. Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, speaks to this as well as anyone. There are some excellent books on craft, and workshops, classes, even academic majors in creative writing, all have their place. But how one perceives is where poetry begins. In de Saint-Exuprey’s classic, The Little Prince, the fox says to the little prince, “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is good advice for poets.
What projects are you working on now?
At present I am working on a series of poems that is framed by passages from The Bible. Each poem begins with an epigraph from The Bible. I am using an approach that, in some ways, resembles the Hebrew tradition of Midrash, which interprets the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of the imagination rather than the usual analytics. Reimagining the stories in The Bible, or using them as entry points for a poem, is nothing new to poets. Poets as diverse as Milton, Frost, Bishop, and Plath all have done so. In many ways, it is like ekphrastic poetry.
Excerpted from . . .
Georgia Poetry Society Newsletter, June/July 2020
Interview with the editor:
You recently won the Charles Dickson Chapbook Contest. How many chapbooks have you written and on what topics?
I have published three other chapbooks. Stations of the Cross (Finishing Line Books, 2008) is a series of sonnets that are modern reflections on the Catholic tradition of prayer on scenes from the passion. The Color of Prayer: Poems on Rembrandt Painting the Bible (Shanti Arts Books, 2019) is a series of ekphrastic poems. Each poem corresponds to one of Rembrandt’s paintings. Rembrandt was not religious in any conventional sense, but his art depicts a lifelong spiritual journey. Barely Still Barely Stirring (Finishing Line Books, 2020) is a collection of poems that describe encounters with nature.
What appeals to you about the chapbook format?
I like it for several reasons. First, that it is a cheap, efficient way to make a collection of poems available to a broad readership. Second, its brevity allows the book to be read in one sitting, which adds strength to the motif holding the collection together. Internet can serve these purposes, and online publishing does have a place, but most of us still prefer to hold the book, to feel the pages as we read, and to keep it nearby so we can turn to it again and again. Another thing I like is that the format lends itself to book art. Chapbooks are ideally suited to being published on handmade paper, printed with letterpress, and individually decorated, letting the poetic and visual art forms work together.
How and why did you decide on your theme for Long Journey Home?
I have always had an interest in Greek mythology. My father was a scholar of the classics, and I grew up knowing the names and stories of gods and goddesses much as I knew names of the ball players on the baseball cards I collected. Later in life, I began to appreciate how these stories speak to us about our humanity—our human nature and how we embrace it, as well as how we sometimes want to escape it.
What was your process for writing this collection of poems and how long did it take? Do you always use the same approach in creating a chapbook?
I wrote a couple of the poems about twenty years ago. However, it was only two or three years ago that I began to write new poems with the intention of creating a chapbook. It was a case of recognizing that I had begun a chapbook without knowing it. The opposite occurred with Stations of the Cross and The Color of Prayer. With those two, I decided on the concepts that would hold the manuscripts together, then wrote the poems. Barely Still Barely Stirring was different again: I selected from poems that I had written over the past twenty-five or so years and which related to a particular aspect of nature.
What were any challenges or struggles as you were working on Long Journey Home?
One of the challenges in writing the poems in Long Journey Home was what to expect of the reader’s knowledge of Greek mythology. Poets often are advised to keep their poems accessible—to avoid esoteric allusions or academic vocabulary that cause the reader or listener to disengage from the poem. After drafting the first two or three of these poems, I realized that I was not going to be able to tap into the psychological depths of the myths without expecting the reader to know more than merely the subjects’ names. The ubiquitous smartphone and Google made the decision easy for me. So, with these poems I am assuming readers will be willing to do some of the work on their own, even if it is merely googling a couple of names. Although, I really recommend Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. The other issue particular to this type of series was whether to remain consistent with form. While I am fond of formal verse, especially the sonnet, some of the poems took on their own form. So, the manuscript is a mixture: a few sonnets, a villanelle, some blank verse, and some free verse.
Which poem in this winning chapbook is your favorite, and why?
Several come to mind. “Daedalus Laments Icarus” is a poem that underwent very little revision from start to finish. Also, the poem is an example of what I was trying to do throughout the series—to give the subjects different voices than found in traditional interpretations. “Demeter Tries Again to Pray” is another example—to make the subjects more human than archetypal. I also enjoyed writing the closing poem, a sonnet that attempts to show that the conclusion of the hero journey is never tidy.
Do you have a new poetry project in the works?
I do. I am working on a new series that uses midrash to frame the poems. Midrash is the Jewish tradition of interpreting scripture using the imagination, in addition to the usual analytics. For example, one of the poems I have so far pictures Isaac as an old man revisiting the site where his father almost sacrificed him when he was a boy. In another, I have Eve giving us her rejoinder.
Excerpted from . . .
Illinois Poets, Newsletter of the Illinois State Poetry Society, May/June 2018
Interview with the editor:
Tell us how you began writing poetry.
Being raised on a farm, I was surrounded by nature—the rhythm of seasons, the cycle of life, the raw physical sensation of it all—as well as ample time and space for solitude. Also, I was the beneficiary of teachers whose own love of poetry was contagious. Therein might be the origin of my creative process: paying close attention to nature in all its forms, reflection, and experiencing great literature.
What most inspires your writing?
More than anything else, other poets inspire me to write poetry. While life experiences give me the grist for my poems, it is reading and listening to other poets that gives me the courage to probe my experience and attempt to express what is only on the verge of language. It is as if I say to myself, “If they are brave enough to risk it, why shouldn’t I?”
Who are some of your favorite poets?
Oh, there are too many to list. Frost and Roethke helped me appreciate poetry as a way of exploring the interior self. Of the poets I keep returning to, Dickinson, Hopkins, and Wordsworth (his later work) hold a special place. Among today’s, I find that Mark Doty and Mary Oliver have much to teach me.
Recommend to our readers a few books about the craft of poetry.
Some favorites are David Lehman’s annual The Best American Poetry, a reliable one-stop source for keeping up with trends; books on craft by Mary Oliver; Edward Hirsch’s books on reading/writing poetry; and Poets Teaching Poets, edited by Gregory Orr and Ellen Voigt.
What advice would you offer poets about improving their skills?
The best way to learn to write is to read a lot of good writing; then, write yourself and seek feedback from other accomplished writers. Workshops and even MFA programs are helpful, but to learn to write, you must write with a readership in mind.
What are you working on now?
I recently completed a set of poems on Rembrandt’s art, titled The Color of Prayer: Poems on Rembrandt Painting the Bible, which has been accepted for publication by Shanti Arts. At present I am working on a series that plays off Greek myths; in each poem I am letting the story be the springboard to the poem.