“Life’s Largeness”: A Conversation with James Arthur




I MET JAMES ARTHUR six years ago when we both arrived at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars; he was new faculty and I was a new MFA student. By the time my cohort rotated into James’s workshop during our second semester, we were well used to a swift pace. We workshopped everyone’s poem every week, a model followed by every workshop I’d taken before the MFA. Ten poets in three intensive hours, once per week. James seemed completely mystified by this approach and promptly slowed us down to half that speed, sometimes less. When he did that (over my completely misguided objection at the time) an entirely different kind of conversation began to emerge. Workshop became about more than just these words arranged in order A or order B, more than a quick and dirty series of fixes. He asked us, and taught us to ask ourselves: Why these words? Why this poem? What do we understand about poems like this as a tradition? What’s the project produced by all this activity?

I had the pleasure of reading — and talking to James about — his most recent book, The Suicide’s Son (Véhicule Press, 2018). This quietly ambitious group of poems takes on the possibilities and limitations of poetry and the ways in which the poet can (and perhaps can’t) turn inward, maps the surprising and alien territory of new fatherhood, and seeks to reckon the imperfect and infinitesimal self with the American empire. It is a collection that, like my former teacher, invites the reader to slow down, read closely, take a breath, repeat. And repeat.

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AMANDA GUNN: In The Suicide’s Son, you address a poem to Chaucer, and as I read through the collection, I myself could hear Dickinson, and Bishop, and Auden, and even Frost in one place. I’m interested to know: who were you reading, and who was in your ear as you wrote these poems, and who you might be speaking back to?

JAMES ARTHUR: Auden has been one of my heroes for maybe the past 10 to 15 years, but writing the poems in The Suicide’s Son, I really tried to branch out and seek new influences. A lot of poems in my first book proceeded through juxtaposition and surrealistic imagery and through abrupt changes of tone and register. As I began to find my way into The Suicide’s Son, I realized that that wasn’t the emotional terrain that I was working with. So much of what I had to say was about parenthood and childhood, and about seeing generations reaching forward and backward. I felt like I had to switch the form and the style to get there.

Bishop was a really important model for me, and Chaucer was too, actually, because I think I’d imbibed this idea somewhere along the way that a poem can’t really tell a story or that narrative isn’t a viable mode for the contemporary poet, but The Canterbury Tales is all narrative — and what narratives!

Did you reread The Canterbury Tales recently, or has it just been with you for a long time?

Bits and pieces. I didn’t reread the whole Canterbury Tales, but I dipped into it for sure. I didn’t want to feel like I was just writing in the confessional mode. One of the ways I could prevent that was to seek out other voices. They are me to the extent that I’m relying on my own language and emotions, but I tried to bring in other personae. I wrote in “To Geoffrey Chaucer,” “Your ironies / hide inside other ironies, / making you difficult to pin down…” I feel that way about Chaucer. Sometimes it’s hard to know when he’s joking, and whether a character is being satirized or not.

You do ask that question about the knight.

Yes! Is he meant to be boring or not? “The Knight’s Tale” goes on forever and the knight keeps saying, I will not tell you, and I will not describe all the things, and then he proceeds to describe at length every single thing that is being served at the feast. Is Chaucer having a little bit of fun with this long-winded, entitled character who makes the other pilgrims listen to his endless story about chivalry? Or not?

You said something about moving into other characters and other personae in order to move away from the confessional. But even when poems are working with other characters, I feel this gesture inward, which is not to say that they’re confessional, they’re not. They’re operating differently, but one of the interesting things about those poems, like “Frankenstein’s Monster,” is that there is this arrow inward.  

Yes, I was trying to imagine Frankenstein’s monster as this kind of unabashed materialist, maybe an investment banker, but I wanted to be sure that I was also filling the poem out with the emotional content of my own experience of middle age.

Speaking of that, very often (I notice this in “Ode to the Heart,” “I Hear the Voices…” and the final lines of “Renaissance Fair”), the speaker gestures to the self by gesturing at a “you.” Why the “you”? As poet, what are you getting out of that gesture versus an ordinary “I”?

What I want often in those moments is to put the reader in the position of listening in on a kind of internal dialogue of the poet or the speaker, but at the same time, I don’t want the reader to feel cut out of the circle of that conversation.

“Renaissance Fair” ends, “Camelot is what you feel nostalgic for / even before it fades,” and on the one hand, I wouldn’t be unhappy to have that line be interpreted as “Camelot is what one feels nostalgic for,” but I also wouldn’t be unhappy if it were interpreted as the speaker speaking to himself. Or, if someone wants to take the “you” as the reader, I wouldn’t be unhappy with that either. I want those lines to sit in an indeterminate position between those possibilities.

Staying on this subject of the turn inward, I have a question about self-implication. One thing that I really enjoy about your speakers is that they’re never squeaky-clean. [Laughs.] I think sometimes poets want to seem smart and virtuous and loving, and, you know, humans aren’t always those things. I enjoy that your speakers are pointing a finger inward, and the revelation of a very human, very dark heart. Can you talk about that sort of self-exposure? 

Well, I would say that I know that some poets are interested in pretty directly testifying to their own perspective and articulating their own experience, and I would say that when I express my own experience it really is always a means to an end. Although I talk a lot about myself in the poems, I’m actually not that interested in talking about myself. I’m basically a pretty private person. I am interested in questions of psychology and in questions of sociology, and I feel like I get to those questions by exploring my own life and the emotions of my own life. I want people to look into the book and see something they recognize as being human, and so that means that I can’t just write from a position of saintliness and understanding and empathy. I have to let the dark stuff in too or it’s just not going to be a very full portrait.

I’m thinking of a poem from your first book. I read it years ago when I first met you, but I just reread it this week, about feeding, and getting fed …

“Omnivore.”

Yes. It’s in that poem where I feel like we’re dealing with a speaker who is a different, honest kind of animal. 

“Omnivore” is spoken by someone who claims to have no ethical principles whatsoever, someone who, in effect, says, I’ll take whatever I can get all the time and it doesn’t matter to me. I’m not going to make any ethical decisions — if it’s in front of me, I’ll eat it. Again, it’s not like these poems are at a total distance from me — it’s my emotions and my language that I’m using, and sometimes, it’s my own experiences that are being articulated through the poem. At the same time, the poem is called “Omnivore,” so the speaker is being identified as this person, “Omnivore.” So I hope, when people read it, they see this degree of distance between the poet’s perspective and the perspective of the speaker.

Often a poem for me is a distillation of a particular emotional impulse, or a particular social or psychological impulse, and what I express or feel one day might not be what I express or feel the next day. In both of my books, I try to have the poems crystallize a feeling or a stance that I think is authentic to me, but I wouldn’t want all the poems in the book to be like “Omnivore,” “Frankenstein’s Monster,” or “Wolf,” as it would make for a really cynical book, which wouldn’t offer a very full portrait of reality.

You seem to be thinking about and wrestling with the possibilities and limitations of poetry in these poems. In “Nostalgia,” you write, “There’s no going back to the garden, she said — / no more reading poetry / in the reservoir park,” and in “On the Move,” you write, “I might as well spend the morning talking myself, / and hoping for meaning and unmeaning to braid / and begin teaching me what to say.” And in “Eloquence,” you write, “I want things from poetry // that it could never give: / power to undo, to mend. To compel forgiveness / and forgive.” How have these questions around poetry — the parameters and possibilities — changed for you between your first book and second?

In my first book, there were a lot of poems about nothingness and minimalism. There was a poem called “Against Emptiness” that ends, “Can a man build a tower / out of air alone? He can. And the wind / will blow it away.” And there’s another poem called “Sprezzatura” that is also about making something out of nothing. In my first book, Charms Against Lightning, the poem is this kind of insubstantial thing, or this substantial thing that is made out of nothing. On the one hand, the poem is building something, but, on the other hand, maybe what you’re building is a mirage. That’s one of the central tensions of that book.

This time around, I really didn’t want to characterize poetry as being something so ethereal. I realized that the poems I was interested in writing needed to be full and earthy. I don’t know if I mentioned Toronto in my first book, although that’s where I spent the first 26 years of my life. There’s a line in “Utopia,” “The man, who’s spent enormously to feed a fantasy / of being from no place—.” I felt like in the first book I tried to leave out as much as I could get away with leaving out. This time around, I wanted to flip that, I wanted to bring in as much as possible, while still satisfying my definition of what a poem ought to be, what it can be. So this time, in characterizing poetry, as I do in the Chaucer poem, for example, I say, “teach me to bring life’s largeness / to the page,” and also in the Chaucer poem it says, “I give myself directives / to stay on the subject, to expand, / but the words clot into jelly, or just will not be / whistled up at my command.”

My own experience of fatherhood is that it has made life seem much more full, and I wanted to communicate that, but, at the same time, there’s this nagging doubt about the enterprise [of poetry]. I think that comes across in “Eloquence,” where it says, Make me a good enough poet and I’ll get it right, and then there’s another voice that says, Well, maybe it just can’t be said.

There’s also a thread in the book about inadequacy — the inadequacy of poetry, the inadequacy of ourselves to do in a moment what needs to be done. You dedicate the book to Henry, and write a lot about fatherhood that suggests a range of experiences from love to alienation. What kinds of things do you think through when you’re bringing this kind of material into the book, which is very sensitive because it’s about your son? 

Do you mean, how do I navigate the question of how Henry is going to feel about it or how Shannon is going to feel about it?

Exactly. Fatherhood is so present in the book and also so is this sort of unflinching eye. Are there things you wrestle with or think about when you’re bringing that in?

I never publish anything without showing it to Shannon, and she writes too, so she always encourages me to be bold. I don’t know if I could do it otherwise. I also think that I take it as an article of faith that if you try to be honest, and you try to get to the truth of things, then ultimately that is a net positive.

That seems right.

That ultimately it would be more meaningful to have someone write about their experience of parenthood if they allowed in the darkness that is true. 

I feel that so often in our lives we have to navigate and move diplomatically through the world, and we have to be circumspect in what we say and politic in what we say …

It sounds like you’re talking about academia. [Laughs.]

Yeah, but I’m talking about life, too. I find the conflicts that play themselves out on social media so frightening, I post nothing online but banalities. But when I write, I don’t think about anybody else. I just do the best I can to get at the truth as I understand it, and I try to push away from my mind questions of how other people are going to judge me or understand the poem. I think because I can’t always speak the truth in my day-to-day life, and can’t always say things that I find meaningful, it’s all the more important for me that when I sit down to write a poem, I try to be completely uncompromising. I just couldn’t do it, if that weren’t the goal.

Also in the book you turn toward thinking about empire in “Troy” and “Drone” and “The Death of Captain America,” among others. How do you navigate writing about these subjects of enormous scope and history from a position of relative safety and privilege? Where do these poems fit in for you in your body of work?

It’s always important to me to acknowledge the basic position that I’m in when I write the poem. To a degree, just by the fact of my existence, I uphold some of the systems that I’m criticizing, so I try to be straight about that when I write the poems. At the same time, I don’t want to make the poems all about me. There is a genre of poetry that seems to set out to address an issue, and is ultimately just about the poet, and the issue is just getting used as an occasion for self-exploration. That doesn’t satisfy me. At the same time, I feel like I don’t want to deny the subjectivity of my position and I don’t want to deny the limitations of my position.

Like so many Americans, I have a principled objection to the drone bombing that is being carried out in our name in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan and yet what am I doing about it? Nothing. Partly that’s because I despair of being able to doing anything about it, and so I feel like that poem, “Drone,” for me is an exploration of that kind of culpability. The poem’s voice is in some ways the voice of drone warfare and, in some ways it’s the voice of the drone bomber, but it’s also the “drone,” the voice of an undifferentiated person who thinks like everyone else. For me, the unpiloted aircraft seems like it’s a readymade metaphor for the policy that is being done in your name, and that is carrying out the collective will of the nation, and yet you’re not steering it.

Captain America has been a nostalgic figure since the day he was invented. He’s this propaganda figure that was invented to battle Nazis in World War II, and yet even from the beginning he represented an old-fashioned idea about what our country signifies and what it stands for. And so the idea of “Make America Great Again” is that somehow the country is in decline. I feel like “The Death of Captain America” is trying to dig into that nostalgia and ask, “What is it? What is this impulse?”

And that it’s not benign.

It’s not benign, no. And I feel like the poem is really saying, what does he represent? What specific ideals does he represent? And I feel like it’s a deeply uncertain poem and it’s about trying to understand what nostalgia is, and other poems, like the poem “Nostalgia,” are also pursuing that question.

You once told me years ago that you consider yourself very firmly a free verse poet. At the time, I was writing a lot of formal, Shakespearean sonnets, and I loved what regular rhyme could do in this very tight space, but it sometimes felt too constricted or predictable. One very striking formal element in your work that I’ve admired for a long time is your use of rhyme. The perfect but irregular internal rhymes in your poems feel sort of unhinged and surprising and really exciting. Can you talk a little bit about that music and also other decisions that guide you formally? 

I’ve always loved the musical element in poetry. I’ve always loved poems that can assert a hypnotic power over the listener, that can transport the listener through sound. That’s what I think I loved first in poetry, and it’s what I go back to when I feel that I need to remind myself why I love poetry. I take out a poem like “Train to Dublin” by Louis MacNeice or “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and I read it aloud and I think, Oh, yes, that’s why I love poetry. But I feel that in my own case, something that doesn’t sit quite right with me — and to be clear, I don’t want to legislate a particular style that I think everyone should write in, it’s just a matter of being authentic to who I am — are the signatures of order that seem to me almost, almost inevitable hallmarks of a poem in received form. In a sonnet, no matter how deft, no matter how subtle, there’s no escaping the poet’s mastery of the materials. That’s part of the message. You think, Wow, this is a beautiful piece of workmanship. And it’s that that I’ve always wanted to leave out.

Because you want it to be a poem.

Well, because I feel like I’m a mess, and I don’t want the sense that the poet has fully mastered the materials. So much of what I think and feel is volatile and improvised, and if I were to write the poems in a way that suggested that I had it all under control, then it actually wouldn’t speak for me in the way that I want. But at the same time, I want the feeling of formal inevitability. I want it both ways, I suppose. I don’t want someone to look at it, and think, Well, this poem’s actually a mess.

[Laughs.]

I want the poem to seem as it should be, but I want its emotional character to express some kind of volatile unsettledness.

In the book, there is a sort of a blurring of categories. We have inanimate things being imbued with human qualities, the wind being personified is just one. There is the real and the fairy tale, the living pressed up against the dying and the decaying — a house being haunted by its previous owners. Yet sometimes you seem to be thinking about barriers between human subjects, like in courtship and desire.

In a way, it’s related to the question about the taking up of social and political questions. I never see it as being my job to describe how things are for everybody — I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about how things are in any absolute or objective sense — but I do see it as being my job to talk about how things seem. I think a lot of things you mention are for me impressions, like the poem “On the Move,” that says, “I might as well roam all morning, / spying on the filthy squirrels, and on the shapes / that disintegrating leaves have painted on the sidewalk.” Are squirrels objectively filthy? I suppose they are, but not everyone would find them dirty, some people look at squirrels and find them charming. I feel like it’s my job in that poem to show this fastidious reaction on the part of the speaker who looks at squirrels and thinks how dirty they are, but the speaker is also willing to pick up earthworms after the rain and put them in the grass.

The poem is about the speaker’s consciousness of being a living creature. On the one hand. he’s squeamish about it, and asserts that there is no connection between him and cats and dogs, but on the other hand he is talking about them in the same poem that he is talking about himself and his son, and how “[e]ach bird pipes the song / that it was taught, and transmits the song / to its own offspring.” He is talking about the song of his own species. He’s saying both things, really. The human being is nothing like an animal, and the human being is an animal. Are human beings just another mammal like every mammal? I feel like I could give a different answer to that from one minute to the next, and so I want to get the question in there, and the impressions in there, but I don’t feel like it’s my job to settle the question. It’s just my job to crystallize the question itself.

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Amanda Gunn received an MFA in poetry from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and is currently a PhD student in English at Harvard University where she studies 20th-century American poetry, Black poetics, and Black pleasure.

 

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