“Poetry As a Way of Thinking: An Interview with James Arthur” by Emilia Phillips

Drawing of a scene from The Sorcerer from 1877.

James ArthurJames Arthur is the author of Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press 2012). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, The New York Review of Books, and The American Poetry Review. He has received a Hodder Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, and a Discovery/The Nation Prize, as well as residency at the Amy Clampitt House. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and son and teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

Emilia Phillips, 32 Poems Prose Editor: I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you read twice now, and what I always hear the audience remark on is that you recite your poems rather than read from the text.Why have you chosen to commit your poems to memory? Talk to me about the lost art of recitation. Do you believe that we, as poets, should memorize not only our own poems but those of others?

James Arthur: Thanks, Emilia. I began by memorizing other people’s poems when I was in grad school, because I was forced to by one of my professors, Richard Kenney, a brilliant teacher and a brilliant poet. Memorizing the work of others definitely made me a better writer.

When I started reciting my own poems in public, I worried that it would seem too theatrical, but now I find recitation very natural, because it allows me to address audiences directly. When you recite you’re giving a performance, in the way that an actor or a singer performs, and some poets are not interested in doing that, maybe because they’re writing for a readership as opposed to an audience, or because they see poetry as a very private art. I have no quarrel with them. But, in my case, performance is part of the medium. Sometimes I feel that it’s my main medium, and that the presentation of my poems on the page is secondary.

I often write from memory by walking around and talking to myself. Even when I’m working at a computer I write out loud, so that I can hear the poem’s rhythm. Every time I hear the poem, I know it a little better. By the time I’ve finished revising a poem, I usually have it committed to memory, or almost committed to memory.

And treating poetry as a performing art emphasizes its ephemerality. A printed poem can be endlessly reprinted, photocopied, scanned, uploaded, cut and pasted—but a performance, even if somebody’s there with a video camera, is one time only: the audience experiences something that won’t exist when the performance is over, and which won’t ever be reproduced in exactly the same form. I find that appealing.

EP: Ephemerality of language, especially of poetry, has long compelled me to write as well as, on occasion, to doubt the necessity, even relevancy, of poetry. One could say we are makers of the impermanent, but perhaps I’m navel gazing into the pot belly of our specific art. Aren’t all makers making something that will not last? Eventually all our great art will moulder. The instruments will change so that our music cannot be played exactly as it was before. Our pottery will crack. Our files will corrupt. The food will be digested and expelled. The buildings will be overtaken with wildlife. And this is no apocalyptic pronouncement. We all know this as artists, as makers, as laborers. I also think of those artists who purposely create pieces out of fast-reducing substances. A sculpture of ice in the sun. A whistle made out of sugar.

Much of the writing community, perhaps against your view, values the poem on the page first and sees the reading of the poem as secondary. I’ve had many students interested in spoken word. I tell them that poetry and spoken word are both valid art forms, but they’re different mediums. They’re as different as painting and photography. Neither art is better, but they have different expectations. Your poems don’t read as spoken word either. So, a few questions here. Do you see your poems situated in the international airspace between poetry on the page and poetry off the page? How does your interest in the performance of poetry interact with your ideas of spoken word? And is there a place for—is there enough adequate expression to justify—even more ephemeral poems: poems spoken with one’s head out the window of a speeding car, poems written to be burned, poems written with acid that dissolves the paper? Can these be called poetry as we understand poetry today?

(Devil’s advocate: Wouldn’t this be the ultimate lyric gesture, to write the poem upon the flood plain, the quake zone, the sand at low tide?)

JA: Despite what I said about ephemerality, I know that feeling of wanting to create a poem that will last. And you’re right: it’s not realistic to imagine that any poem will last forever. Our species won’t last forever! We try to capture and preserve our impressions of reality because it’s all going away: everything we think and remember, everything we’ve ever felt, everyone we love. We hold onto it as well as we can, for as long as we can. Poetry isn’t an efficient tool for preserving experience, any more than it’s an efficient mode of communication, but who says that it should be efficient? For me, poetry is a way of thinking, and like many poets, I’m driven by the idea of trying to find the impossible, perfect words: the words that will hold my subject.

I don’t see why a poem couldn’t be spoken out a car window or written on the beach at low tide. In fact, I’m sure people are doing it. Apparently some Tibetan monks spend weeks creating exquisite mandalas out of colored sand and then erase their sand paintings to signify an acceptance of impermanence. If art requires an audience, where does that leave Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who published so little when they were alive? Did they become real poets only posthumously? If art doesn’t require an audience, can an intimate conversation be a work of art? Can a thought be a work of art? Maybe. I don’t know. These questions are completely hypothetical for me, because I love interacting with audiences. I want my poems to be heard.

My poems are probably partly on the page, and partly off, as you say. But I write less for the eye than for the ear. I do think carefully about line breaks, stanza patterns, and other visual cues, but sound is what directs my associative leaps. My ideal reader is somebody who reads my poems out loud.

EP: “Poetry as a way of thinking” got me thinking about how when I was a kid one of my teachers brought a guest in to my classroom; he spoke something like eight languages. I remember asking—or maybe someone else asked—what language he dreamed in. He didn’t understand the question. He said he had never thought about that. Have you ever dreamed in poetry? Dreamed of poetry? Written in your sleep?

JA: That’s interesting. It makes sense to me that the polyglot wouldn’t know what language he dreamed in. Are dreams verbal? I’m not sure mine are. Not all the time, anyway. When I’m most deeply involved in my writing, sometimes I do dream about poetry, and occasionally I wake up from a dream with a phrase that I like well enough to put it in a poem. But I couldn’t tell you which of those dream phrases I’ve kept, if any, since they get broken up, added to, and mixed in with other lines. Years ago I used to set my alarm for 4 am, so that I could wake up in the middle of a dream and move directly into writing. I guess my favorite poems contain a mixture of intuitive and analytical thought.

EP: This idea about poems containing both “intuitive and analytical thought” makes me wonder if this is a balance that you’ve achieved naturally in your own poems from years of writing or if this was a goal that you set out to establish in your own poems after seeing it in the work of others. Or both? I’m always a little suspicious of goals we set for ourselves in writing, as they are a kind of checkpoint we have to pass to keep going. I wonder sometimes if goals are limiting in writing. What do you think?

JA: I think that the desire for collaboration between the two hemispheres of the brain comes naturally to me, and surely to most other poets, too, even if they have a different way of describing it. For me, intuitive thinking means associative thinking; intuition causes us to introduce narrative or figurative elements into a poem before we’re able to explain why those elements belong. Our analytical faculties, on the other hand, allow us to look critically at our writing and interpret it. Sometimes we make bold, impulsive edits to our poems, but most forms of precision and economy in poetry, it seems to me, are signatures of the analytical mind.

Think about the opening lines of W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

The occasion for the poem―the idea that every year the poet’s death-date is passing by, unheralded, a kind of anti-birthday―is a weird, original observation, and phrases like “When the last fires will wave to me” are highly imaginative.

But for my money, the real inspiration is in line 5. By imagining a “lightless star” presiding over his death-day, Merwin inverts familiar tropes that connect stars and starlight to birth: tropes like the star above Bethlehem, or the notion that a person can be born under the influence of a certain star. And I’m haunted by the idea that the lightless star can emit a lightless beam, a beam of darkness, that tracks the speaker through the years. Merwin’s metaphor is so strange that only a leap of intuition could have produced it, and yet the conceit is very carefully worked out, so that it unfolds into many satisfying complexes of meaning. That full, integrated thinking is what I love.

And I agree that having specific artistic ambitions can be inhibiting. We write most easily and naturally when we surrender completely and allow ourselves to be led. On the other hand, I don’t think I’d ever get any better as a poet if I didn’t push myself, very deliberately, to grow. My best poems surprise me, as they should, but I fight them at every turn, possibly just because I’m stubborn.

EP: My husband’s back in school, and he’s been having to take some writing courses. He’s not a writer, but he’s had to write several papers recently. “Writing is so hard! I wish it came as easy to me as it does to you,” he told me one night when he was up working. It’s strange to me, because I don’t think writing is easy. Of course, there are times—because of practice—that poems just arrive. Most of the time, however, it is a struggle every time I sit down to write.

My own struggle at the writing desk makes me wary of poems that feel easy when I’m reading them. How much challenge should a poem present us as readers?

JA: I try not to think in terms of what poems or poets should do. Most of us appreciate a wide diversity in music, in cooking, in movies―I for example like Ingmar Bergman movies, and Adam Sandler movies, too―but in our own medium, poetry, we often fail to make allowances for tastes and projects other than our own. If poems very different from my own bring pleasure to a group of readers, who am I to say that the poems should have been written differently?

But here’s what I like: I like poems that immediately claim my attention, instead of taking my attention for granted. At first read, I want to feel compelled to pick up the poem again; I want to be curious about its byways and secret corners. I like poems that affect me emotionally and also provoke me to further, deeper thought. I enjoy challenge, but not, I think, for its own sake. If a poem is difficult, I want that difficulty to exist because the poet is struggling to communicate what is genuinely mysterious, not because the poet is throwing roadblocks in my way.

EP: I really like this distinction between difficult poems that strive to describe the mysterious and poems that are difficult for difficulty’s sake. Do you think that poems still retain something of the spell in them?

JA: I think that highly rhythmical poems can suggest spells, especially when they’re heard. Listening to certain poems by E.E. Cummings, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, or John Berryman, or Heather McHugh, I can imagine that the poet is binding up his or her materials and gaining power over them―even if that power is actually nothing more the ability to express with force and precision what at first had seemed inexpressible. And that’s what I mean by “mystery”: the unsayable, the ambiguous. In one of my favorite essays, “Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home, and Nature Poetry,” the Canadian poet Don McKay defines wilderness as

. . . not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations. That tools retain a vestige of wilderness is especially evident when we think of their existence in time and eventual graduation from utility: breakdown. To what degree do we own our houses, hammers, dogs? Beyond that line lies wilderness . . . The coat hanger asks a question; the armchair is suddenly crouched: in such defamiliarizations, often arranged by art, we encounter the momentary circumvention of the mind’s categories to glimpse some thing’s autonomy―its rawness, its duende, its alien being.

By that definition, I would say all poetry, or at least all the poetry that I love, treats with wilderness. When we’re two or three years old, we find mystery everywhere, but as we learn to sift and categorize―to match like with like, and to separate what is supposedly important from what is not―the wilderness recedes from our field of view.

EP: Your note about finding mystery everywhere when we’re small makes me think of your poem “Goodnight Moon,” in which the speaker addresses his young son:

                                                                      Goodnight soon,
my little son. You’re a toothy, two-foot-something sumo―a giddy,
violent elf―jabbing your finger at the moon, which you’ve
begun noticing in the last week or two. Moom, moom―for you,

the word ends with a mumming, as it begins.

The poem takes a turn here:

                                                                    For me, beginnings
and endings are getting hard to tell apart. There was
another child your mom and I conceived, who’d now be reading
and teaching you to read―who we threw away when he or she

was smaller than a watermelon seed.

The poem then acts as a kind of temporary apostrophe, one that’s addressed to but not explicitly spoken aloud to the small child―at least not yet. Part of the tension of the poem is in the idea that the child wouldn’t quite understand what’s being revealed in the address, and this also allows the poem to live on beyond its conclusion. The thought that the child will one day be able to see this poem, read the poem, and finally understand.

Would you mind talking about this poem and how you approach fatherhood in poetry? Are there any particular challenges that you’ve faced with the subject matter?

JA: That particular poem upset me as I was writing it. I didn’t expect the turn at the end of stanza 3, and once the poem did turn, I felt that I could only follow along, even though part of me recoils from making an exhibit of something so private. For me, the poem is about having a child and only then being able to imagine the value of another life, which has been cut short.

I find it difficult to write about fatherhood because I find it impossible to be objective about my own kid. Poems about children can be so maudlin! On the other hand, I don’t feel that I can avoid the subject of fatherhood. Poems do reflect their authors’ understanding of reality, so to the extent that being a parent changes how you see the world, it would have to change your poetry, also.

Watching my son’s development during these first few years of his life, I’ve seen him gradually acquire language, intelligence, personality; to me, these things seem like layers of paint applied to the outside of a barn. What is a person? ―At first, maybe something like a squirrel, or a mouse. The child does become a more complicated creature, and yet I feel at times that under all those layers of personality, people are very similar to other mammals. Does consciousness even exist, objectively speaking? Or is it just a mirage . . . something that masks our instinctive wants, making them seem reasonable? Someone in my family suffered from dementia before she died, and it was horrifying to see all the layers of her personhood get stripped away.

But even if we accept that pessimistic view of reality, we ask that our lives mean something. We love. We try to live inside our ideals. I find that beautiful, and sad, and strange. So I try to write about it.

Mark Jay Brewin, Jr.*: It breaks my heart that Philip Levine died yesterday. Such a loss. I could speak of how his writing, his voice, his pig iron has given instruction, command, and a foundation to my own work, but I just want to sit down with his books for a while in quiet. Instead of loss and legacy, let’s speak to work. Let’s let the question embody Phil for a moment. How about this: If the words in your poems were building materials, and you a builder/assembler rather than a writer, what would the work be like? What material would your words be? What would the edifice resemble or be like once put together?

JA: Philip Levine’s writing has been important to me, too. When I was a grad student at the University of Washington, Levine was the poet for me, and I learned a lot from poems like “Starlight,” “An Ordinary Morning,” and “Let Me Begin Again.”

Maybe because I can’t even put together an IKEA desk, I’ve never been tempted to think of my own poems as built objects―but I do sometimes imagine them as mathematical constructs. My dad, a mathematician, raised me to believe that mathematics is beautiful, so math is a part of my imaginative terrain. In my late 20s I wrote several 11-line poems because I wanted to create poems that couldn’t be uniformly divided into couplets, tercets, or quatrains, 11 being a prime number. One of those 11-liners, “On Day and Night,” did make it into my first book. From my perspective, “On Day and Night” is about indivisibility, and about the idea that few things in this world are actually as classifiable as they seem.

Most of the poems that I’ve written toward my second book, Entanglement, are not quite metered, but almost metered. I try to intimate order without ever achieving it―or, to put it another way, I often use the tools of formal control to signify the asymmetrical, the uncontainable, and the irrational. Which brings us back to Don McKay! As a species, we create tools to control our environment. What excites my imagination is wilderness: our materials’ ability to escape our control.

EP: Now, James, please provide a question for our next interviewee.

JA: What are you working on right now, and why that in particular?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016) from the University of Akron Press. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com.