I took a poetry class from you in 1983! I believe you gave us a list of basic suggestions, and one was to use the names of weeds in our work, which I see now is such an interesting idea because they are specific and evocative, yet humble, and they encapsulate, in miniature, a relationship between humanity and nature. Have your tips for beginning poets changed over the years? What advice would you have for a beginning writer?
If I remember, my first assignment for beginning workshops back then was called “Exercise in Detail,” and the idea was to help beginning poets avoid some of the cosmic vagueness and abstraction natural to first poems by encouraging them to focus on specific things, situations, feelings. Weeds had worked for me. In the late 70’s when I had a year off, I had walked through the fields and woods near my house every day from March through September, noting what new flowers had appeared, and I felt like I was back in touch with time. It seemed, too, that a lot of 80’s poems were interested in weeds for their self-sufficiency—they didn’t need us!—and inconspicuous beauty. Maybe weeds were to the 80’s what stones were to the more surreal poetry of the 70’s.
These days my first assignment would be something like a variation poem or a riddle or an ode, something that makes the poet come up with alternate ways of seeing and naming, a kind of calisthenics for the imagination.
Aside from “pay attention to life,” which is advice not specific to writers, I’d say—probably anyone would say—“read, read, read.” It’s the only way to find out what poems can do, to absorb the music you need to absorb, and to figure out what it is that you have to write, either because you see it in other poets, or realize that you don’t.
You are famous for your aphorisms. What is the attraction of that form for you?
The same attraction as Doritos: they’re quick and salty and they make you want more! I’m kind of serious. When I started writing them 20 years ago, I had no idea why. They seemed useless. I wasn’t imagining publishing them; I just couldn’t stop.
They seemed halfway between proverbs and wisecracks, funny in a way my poems at the time weren’t, and they were exciting because they felt . . . investigatory? I’m not the kind of person who has a lot of opinions, and I never know anything until I write it. Aphorisms allow you to experiment with ideas and feelings without proving them, the way you’d need to do in an essay, or even “earning” them, the way you might need to do in a poem. And every once in a while you come upon something that feels new—or relatively new, since everything is out there somewhere. Or a snappier version of an idea you know you’ve heard before, so that it becomes yours, the way a translating a poem makes it in some small sense yours.
You said in an interview that you think of yourself only as American, not cosmopolitan or worldly, yet it seems like aphorisms are not especially popular in this country. Why do you think that is?
Finland has an aphorism institute, aphorism websites, aphorism contests, and even (gasp) a translation of one of my books, Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays, by poet Anni Sumari. And the wonderful translator Steven Stewart keeps bringing us aphorists from Spanish. But I don’t think I know enough to say whether America is below average or above in passion for aphorisms.
When I started doing them, I didn’t know any other aphorists, but there are more around than you’d think, even in America. I’d highly recommend Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, edited by James Lough and Alex Stein, which came out from Schaffner Press in November 2015. All the contributors write in English, and all but a few—notably George Murray (who’s Canadian) and Yahia Labibidi (Egyptian-American)—are Americans.
Who are your favorite aphorists, and how have they influenced your work?
I got started with La Rochefoucauld, who is the classic aphorist, and The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, which is unexpectedly good, and which led me all over the place, but I’d say the greatest—and it’s not at all an original opinion—is the Argentinian aphorist Antonio Porchia. There are about 1200 of his Voces. W. S. Merwin hauntingly translates a big selection in Copper Canyon’s dual language edition Voices.
Before I traveled my road I was my road.
He who holds me by a thread is not strong; the thread is strong.
You will find the distance that separates you from them, by joining them.
Almost always it is fear of being ourselves that brings us to the mirror.
As to influence, I’d be the last to know! That would require knowing how I sound to other people. I hope I’ve been influenced by Porchia!
There are poets who rocket to fame in their twenties, and there are poets who climb a long steady path to recognition. One could say your career has been closer to the latter. Do you think there are advantages to that kind of trajectory, either for you or for your work?
Often, say at a book party or after a reading, I’ll be standing in a circle of writers. Introductions will get made. And someone will say, “And do you write, too, James?” So much for “recognition”!
But yeah, I’m very, very aware that readers and reviewers and prize committees have been very kind in the last 10 years or so.
I’m sure we’ve all felt at times that someone was looking over our shoulders as we wrote. I’m sure we’ve all “raised” our voices (Oh a little preachily!) as if to make a point to someone in the last row, thereby losing subtlety and intimacy. I imagine a well-known writer has to be more vigilant in resisting those feelings: history says success is much more damaging to poets than neglect. “Imagine your audience”? No thanks!
And being a young poet is particularly hard (being young in general is not as easy as old people remember it). The second book is legendarily tough, and I imagine it’s a lot tougher if you’re distracted by those kinds of self-consciousness, and the temptation to repeat what you got praised for rather than find out what you should be doing next.