James Arthur "How About Selected Poems"

James Arthur "How About Selected Poems"

  an interview


  1. Have you recently found yourself in conversation with another writer or artist?

All the time! I’m always under the influence of whichever poets I’m reading. Right now I’m in love with Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III. Bishop was such a patient and imaginative observer of the world around her; that’s a quality that I’d love to cultivate in myself, and in my writing.

I learn from my friends, too. Peter Campion, Natalie Diaz, Caitlin Doyle, and Melissa Range are a few contemporaries whose work I follow closely.


  1. How does geography or landscape influence your work? Do you need to be in a certain environment to write?

I don’t have a passionate connection to one particular landscape, in the way that some writers do. I lived in many different places while writing the poems in my first book, Charms Against Lightning, so it’s only recently that I’ve started to think of myself as having a home. But I am inspired by my physical environment; wherever I go, I look for things to write about. I do a lot of my best writing while walking around.


  1. What is the poem you have always wanted to write, but have not been able to?

Between 2006 and 2007 I spent a year traveling in Japan, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. While on the move I kept hundreds of pages of hand-written notes, with the idea of later developing those observations into poems. Some of my travel notes did find their way into Charms Against Lightning, but I’m definitely not done with them yet.


  1. Describe the value of being a published poet in an increasingly digital literary landscape. What is the future of the published poem?

I think it’s good that so many literary journals have migrated onto the internet. Ten years ago I worried that publishing my poems online would be somehow illegitimate, but in hindsight those misgivings seem awfully quaint. What matters to me is that my poems reach as many readers as possible.

I’m a little doubtful that book publishing will ever become completely digital for poets. Many poetry collections are sold directly by their authors, at readings, one copy at a time … and you’d assume that someone buying poetry at a reading would usually want a signed hard copy -- a book -- to take home as a memento, right? But I do know that Copper Canyon Press, the publisher of my first collection, is very interested in the potential of e-books to bring poetry to new readers.


  1. What is your biggest pet peeve about your own writing? Other writers’ writing?

My biggest weakness as a writer is that I’m too quick to judge: too quick to theorize, to contextualize, to analyze and explain. Analytical thought can help shape and deepen a poem, of course. But unchecked, the impulse toward judgment is reductive.

In answer to the second part of your question, I try to avoid developing peeves about other people’s writing. That’s not because I’m an especially easy-going person, but because resentments of that kind are usually egotism in disguise, and I think that egotism is destructive to your artistic imagination. I don’t love all poetry, but for my own sake I try never to resent poems (other than my own!) or to align myself with any literary ideology. Why should I feel peevish about a poem just because the poem leaves me unmoved?

What I most admire in any poet is the desire to capture and communicate genuine mystery. If a poet is trying to do that, then I’m philosophically sympathetic to his or her work, whatever its style.


  1. How do you know when a poem is done?

For me, a poem is done when I can put it away, not look at it or think about it for a month, and then reread it with actual pleasure. If some word, phrase, or line sticks out as being not quite right, the poem isn’t done.


  1. If you had to give your life a title, what would it be?

Oh God! I have no idea. I have enough trouble titling individual manuscripts. How about “Selected Poems”?