Discussing the Experimental and Pastoral with John James

John James (co-curator of Speak Social) will read this coming Wednesday, January 9th, 2013 @Decca (812 E. Market St. Louisville, KY) for Subterranean Phrases, 9pm with accompaniment by fellow poet and improvisational guitarist Misha Feigin. Note: This event is late, but starts promptly whenever possible. There are also 5ish open-mic spots to open and 5 spots after the featured set.

Keep Louisville Literary: Your poems often embark on surrealistic journeys combining spiritualism and ritualism from several world religions. Please share where these inspirations stem from; what interests you about religions particularly?

John James: I wouldn’t say several world religions. In fact, I’m not a religious person at all. Anything “religious” in my poems, per se, has only to do with shedding the Catholicism of my youth, which really has more to do with the development of autonomous rational thought than with faith or doubt. As I’ve grown, the speakers of my poems tend to grow more critical of their environments, sloughing off religion in the process.

KLL: You implement a studied lexicon, by which I mean deliberate more than academic. Having many poems with naturalistic Kentucky themes, having grown up here in Louisville, and having completed your MFA at Columbia in NYC, how do you reconcile these seemingly disparate spheres of literary influence?

JJ: It’s always been a struggle for me. How do I reconcile the metropolitan with the provincial, the experimental with the conventional? The latter has been the most difficult struggle, actually. For a long time I felt, and sometimes still do feel, that I needed to write one uniform type of poem, that my work needed to fit into a mold, and that mold had to be either experimental or conventional, but not both. Once I started compiling poems into a manuscript, I realized that possessing some inclination toward experimentation, some toward convention, some toward playfulness and some more toward seriousness, actually enriched the book. The playful poems augmented the gravity of the serious ones, as hectic cityscapes contributed, by contrast, to the tranquility of the pastoral “Kentucky” setting. So actually, I reconcile disparate spheres by including and attempting to balance the very disparity that irks me.

KLL: I’ve noticed that, although your poetry is predominantly concerned with images and perception, you also muse on the ability of our language to capture memories and meaning. Could you expand upon your view of poetry’s role in framing our experiences or our living world?

JJ: My friend Kyle Thompson always says “the poem is a record of the poet experiencing the otherness of his/her consciousness,” and I think he’s right. There is the poem, and then there is the act of writing the poem. Writing is an active process, a brief time span during which the poet engages intensely with language and thought. For me, few other experiences are as pointed and intuitive as this one. All prior attempts to write are focused into that one experience of writing. In a sense, the poem is a sum of accumulated experience poured into a material product. Of course, that experience is transitory. The poem does “capture” memory and meaning, but it’s really just a memorial to the process of writing, a gravestone to an ephemeral state of knowing. At best, the poem is an object, a document; at worst, it’s a commodity.

KLL: Within the poems which take place on an unnamed Kentucky farm, we see extended observations which sprawl into hypotheses of events experienced by a lone person (i.e., “His Angels Especially Amaze the Birds”), or alternatively, swaths of memory recalled by a younger man or boy (i.e., “Years I’ve Slept Right Through”). To what extent are these poems autobiographical, or are they perhaps written based loosely on one or several persons you’ve known?

JJ: Actually, those poems aren’t autobiographical at all. In fact, almost none of my poems are, at least not in the sense that these events actually took place. They are autobiographical in the usual sense, in that I write what I know, and the landscape is definitely my own. The barn in “His Angels” and other poems was situated just behind a house I lived in for seven years, from seventh grade until I left for college. But the stories in those poems—the drug addict who doesn’t realize his lover is dead, for instance—didn’t necessarily happen. I did include some biographical elements here and there—the dog running circles in “Beneath the Trees at Ellingsworth,” or the goat with the splayed belly in “Kentucky, September”—but for the most part, I use narrative as a tool to explore some central idea in a piece, which is what I’m really after in those poems.

KLL: Your newer long poem, “from History of Sexuality”, is an experiment in which you’ve excerpted and collaged text from Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. In my observation, this is far removed from your usual poetic. Beyond the endeavor of collage, this rolling treatise on power relationships and the comparison of navigating sexual experiences to the pitfalls of political arenas eschews both characters and visceral observation. What led you to venture into this particular experiment, so far removed from your particular “voice”?

JJ: I’ve been playing a lot with textual appropriation recently—actually, I‘ve been doing so for several years, but few of my early experiments made it past the workshop. There’s even one poem in the chapbook, “The Healers,” which forms a narrative around fragments of appropriated text from Che Guevara’s journals, but that project works on a different scale than “from History of Sexuality.” The movement to pure collage, the change in subject matter, it all emerged from reading Foucault’s text and locating fragments that piqued my interest. Lineating those fragments brought an element of sensuality to Foucault’s clinical tone, eroticizing the text in interesting ways. If you’re familiar with The History of Sexuality, you know that Foucault argues for the liberating possibilities of transgressive eroticism, so the mere act of lineating (and therefore, eroticizing) Foucault’s language lent a derisive element to the text, which in a way embodies Foucault’s argument, but at the same time, satirizes it.

John James holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University, where he received an Academy of American Poets Prize. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, DIAGRAM, Pleiades, and elsewhere.

Note: John James will also be appearing later this month in Lexington, KY @ Al’s Bar for Holler Poets #56 January 22nd, 2013 at 8pm. The regular Holler crowd very hospitable, and the event features ten open-mic spots (1 piece per reader) to open.

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