PF detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Beach Scene, Guernsey (Children by the Sea in Guernsey) - 1883;

ISSN 
1942-2067


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TX7-018-906

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Interview

          Pirene's Fountain Interviews Jim Moore
                 With Tony Walbran

 
                                               Photo credit: JoAnn Verburg


BACKGROUND

EARLY POETRY
LIGHTNING AT DINNER

INVISIBLE STRINGS


BACKGROUND

1. How would you describe your poetry style?

Straightforward is a word that comes to mind; my style has developed along the lines of the styles of other poets whose voices and approaches to poetry have mattered to me from the beginning and continue to matter. I'm not interested in innovation for its own sake. I like my "style" to almost disappear within the force field of the poem. It tends to be meditative; that is, at once calm and intense the way that meditation itself is (at least for me). It's a style that stays open to the little things in life but can make a larger statement when necessary. It's probably not unrelated to having grown up in the American Midwest.

I want my style to allow for the interruption of the expected: a consciousness open to the present moment, to history, to art, to landscape is what calls me.

2. You grew up in America's Midwest, with admittedly few literary influences, how has this influenced your style?

Interesting question. Vachel Lindsay who grew up in nearby Springfield was an early figure to be reckoned with. Not a major poet, I suppose, but a poet who went his own beautifully eccentric way. When I began writing in the mid-sixties Robert Bly and James Wright were just coming into their own as poets and were writing from and about the Midwestern landscape. This was very exciting to me and helped encourage me to go my own way.

3. You have been writing poetry for around 40 years how do you feel your style has changed over that time and what have been your influences along the way?

A very difficult question to answer. I've been influenced by so many poets! Perhaps more by poets from around the world than American poets. The ancient Chinese and Japanese poets were early influences and their influence has lasted. But also poets from Poland (especially Poland) and Germany, Italy, Chile…The list is long.

As to style; it has moved back and forth, responding to different situations in different ways. I've written poems, for example, that are quite long and which seemed to require a more sustained and narrative approach. Two of those poems have to do with my experience in prison as a draft resister.

But I am also drawn—and have been from the beginning—to the very short poem. Three or four lines has always felt about right for me in terms of the way I take in experience: quickly, randomly, fleetingly.
The music of the poem has always been the biggest challenge for me: it needs to be there but in a very quiet way for it to feel authentic to me. This hasn't changed over the years.

Subject matter, of course, changes depending on what is going on in my life and the life of my times. When parents died, poems got written…as I've become more and more connected to Italy it has turned up more often as a subject matter. And now I find myself often writing—directly or indirectly—about aging.

4. Most people would consider a vibrant literary scene (such as in Minneapolis – Saint Paul) as a positive influence for developing poets, but you also warn that such an environment can be "too parochial" and "comfortable and not … rigorous enough." (from sleetmagazine) How do you balance this with your own students?

These are all such great questions! Well, I always bring into the classroom the work of poets from around the world (see my above comments): I want students to understand that they are, as poets, part of a huge project that extends across time and space. I encourage them to travel extensively and many do take that advice. Even though it is a vibrant literary scene there is also a Midwestern Inferiority complex since we often see ourselves as being "nowhere." I think a little bit of this is probably a good thing. At some point you have to decide whether you want a career in poetry (in which case you should pack your bag and go to New York) or a life in poetry in which case I really think you need to become as porous as possible and open to the whole world of poetry, letting passion guide you all the way.

5. Your poetry is intensely personal, whether written in first, second or third person the reader is in no doubt that these are scenes, emotions and feelings actually experienced by the poet. Do you consider your poetry as purely personal and how important is it for you to generate empathy with your reader?

Yes, it is personal and at the same time if it does not generate empathy with a reader it has failed. I'm interested in reading (and writing) poetry that comes pretty directly out of the poet's life. I'm interested in what happens when the real world and the imaginative world collide. But both worlds must be there for the poem to really interest me.

6. You spend some of each year in Italy, and a genuine love of the country comes through in your poetry. How would you describe how the two countries you live in influence your writing?

I like to think that Italy has made this Scottish/English boy a more open and available person, more ready to allow the present moment to have its sway. Italians in Umbria are a fairly melancholy and soulful lot (to generalize broadly) but so very available for the present moment to lead them astray into joy.

7. In Click! PHOTOGRAPHY CHANGES EVERYTHING (when you are contemplating your role as photographer's model for your wife, JoAnn Verburg) you say:
"… my wish, as a model, is that for the period of the time I am being photographed I might become someone who is somehow different from the man he usually is."
Does this reflect a desire to try understand other people's experiences by personalising them? (This is an aspect I feels comes through strongly in your poetry.)

For me one of the great gifts of art (including poetry) has been how it has helped me enter the experience of others. I find myself most amazed in the world (an amazement which often leads to poems) when I am thrown out of my usual rut/routine by what I see in the lives of others.

I think the comment in Click! also had to do with the great relief in being a model when time seems to stop almost entirely and I grown very calm , much calmer than I usually am.

8. In the same magazine you say:
"As a poet, I believe that the most challenging conversations I have in my work are often with death."
This certainly comes through in your work. Have you felt this throughout your life? How do you feel this relates to yourself as opposed to others?

I do think I've thought this throughout my life. I think when I was young and hadn't been through the deaths (other than my grandmother's) of people I loved I didn't really know how to approach it; but I knew nstinctively (as so many poets do) that death is a lodestar: to see one's life through the eyes of one who knows he is going to die is to see it with so much more gratitude and compassion. And of course it connects one more deeply to others since we are all going to die.

I remember when I read an article about the Dalai Lama that said he meditates two or three hours a day on his own death and I thought, well, of course: what better way to put life into perspective.

 

EARLY POETRY

9. I felt your early poetry while still personal, was more confrontational (almost aggressive) than your later poetry. Did you feel you were challenging yourself (and by default your reader) at this stage?

Yes, good reading. I agree. Well, you know, the testosterone was flowing! And I do think I was carving out my own space, arguing in essays (and in poems to a certain extent) with my elders. I fell so in love with certain poets that I suppose I had to turn away from them at a certain point.

I love the passion in those early poems but they are not poems I would write now. I also think that I thought one should be angry/rebellious: remember this was the Sixties!

10. In your early poems, you often focus on your perception of other people's dramas and tragedies ('YOUR RAPE ONE YEAR LATER', 'TERROR'S ONLY EPITAPH', 'JANUARY 1, THE BEACH ') rather than, as in your later poetry, your own. Was this change from observer to participant a personal journey or is it more about a change in your style?

I hadn't thought about it like that, but I think you are probably right. I think it is more about the personal journey than the style. I suppose I might have felt that other people's experiences carried a kind of authenticity with them (for example, the rape of a friend) that I wasn't sure I had myself. It may be that as I've gotten older I've come to see myself more as an Everyman (as everyone is); that is, that my experiences and emotions are as valid as anyone's. The challenge has always been to use the ego to see through the ego to the larger world beyond. This is perhaps easier to do when including other people in the poems.

11. The death of your father seems to have affected you differently than your mother's. For example, with your father's, as described in TO WISH IT GOOD NIGHT, you seem to separate it and deal with it in its own right, whereas themes from the end of your mother's life reoccur throughout Lightning At Dinner (one of the connecting threads running through the book.) Was this due to a change in yourself, your different relationship with them or another reason? (I am also aware that you have sent a selection from your early work, and so may not have the full picture of your father at the end.)

Very interesting perception. My relationship with my father was easier than with my mother. Also his death was far less protracted than hers. Her dementia went on for years. For those reasons I think it might have been easier to separate his experience. I was always closer to my mother and felt I had more of her in me than my father, so it was a much more complicated relationship and I gradually began to see as I was writing LIGHTNING that her illness and death could be a lens for me, a very rich lens, through which to see the rest of my world: my life with my wife, for example, Italy, and so on.

12. Several poems describe of a time spent in prison (or soon after release.) Without knowing the background, was there a time in your life when you felt you were particularly rebellious (I felt this in some of your early work eg FOR YOU but not the later)? If this is correct, how do you feel it affected your work at the time?

I did come of age in the Sxities and was very much a part of the countercultural movement. I was then, as I am now, basically a solitary and not someone given to movements. But I did connect with the antiwar movement (I was in prison because I refused to be inducted into the army) and with feminism. So, yes, there was that rebelliousness and I am sure it manifested in my work at the time.

As I've aged I've become less definitive, less sure of what I know, more interested in mystery than certainty. This feels a truer way (for me, at least) to live. I love sudden moments of illumination and inspiration; treasure them, try to embody them in poems. But life is much more contradictory and peculiar than I understood it to be when I was thirty…and this, too, comes out in the poems.

 
  Click on image to be linked to Amazon page.

 

LIGHTNING AT DINNER

13. You explore a number of themes in Lightning At Dinner. Several poems and sections from other poems in the book, deal with your mother's final years in a nursing home and death. The time was obviously intensely personal, was it difficult to share this with the wider audience who would buy the book?

You would think it would be but by the time the book actually came out several years had passed since my mother's death. Also, though the poems are indeed personal they are about a universal experience—the death of a beloved figure in one's life—so they did not feel personal in the sense that they were only mine. In fact, quite the opposite: they felt like a bridge to other people. Sometimes still when I read poems from the book I can feel very emotional but it is an emotion that carries me rather than blocks me.

14. Your mother's final years figure prominently in the first section of the book. Your use of first, second and third person gives the reader a number of points of view. To me, this allows the reader to build up a multi-dimensional picture in their mind of your mother in her final years, was this your intention?

It wasn't a conscious intention but I am sure that unconsciously that was exactly what was going on. It's amazing what that shift from first to second to third person can do to give you perspective!

15. Another aspect I found interesting was the exploration of emotion during this time. As well as sadness and grief, you explore some less obvious ones, such as frustration from the fact that dying is a very solitary (almost selfish) process that cannot be shared. By exposing your own emotions so completely do you feel you are challenging others (in a subtle way) to confront their own? (This was particularly relevant for myself as my own parents passed away 2 years back.)

Again, this would not have been a conscious attempt, but I would love it if that would happen. It's such a pleasure as a reader to feel challenged in that particular way, to find someone going against the grain of the expected/usual sort of reaction and then to feel: oh, yes, I get that!

16. Can you discuss the theme of the title poem? I found an extra significance to it being placed at the end of the first section (or am I reading too much into that?)

I do think it carries extra significance because it is a poem that links three crucial elements in the book, elements that hadn't been linked before then and thus it points the way forward: it connects my mother with Italy and with my love for my wife.

17. There are a number of reoccurring symbols in the poems in this collection (and continued in Invisible Strings) – water, swallows, olives to name a few. For me, they provided a binding or linking of themes. How do you view the use of symbols in your work?

I don't see them as symbols so much as reoccurring elements that are like totems. I am glad you found them a kind of binding element. Certain moments in time, certain objects, certain creatures keep calling out to me (I am sure this is true for other poets, too) and so I keep responding. They make me want to write poems! Virginia Woolf had a phrase, "moments of being" which I think applies here. You keep going back to them again and again. Of course, you can go back too often: that's where a good editor is very helpful!

18. There were times in Lightning At Dinner when I came across passages that were almost laugh out loud funny (eg in 'On the Train to Venice', 'Last Night at Dinner', 'Get Used to It, Being'.) But, I felt humour for you is not an end in itself, but a device to highlighted an underlying point you were making. How important a tool is humour to you?

Yes, I hope that humor in my poems operates exactly as you say. I'm not so interested in poets who use humor (or irony) as a default position because I think they are gestures with a fairly restricted range. But sometimes they really do work well.



INVISIBLE STRINGS

19. You have said that you have gone through periods of writing a number of short poems a day (this is certainly reflected in many of your 'sequence' poems, and mentioned 'LOVE IN THE RUINS'.) Can you describe how you find this beneficial?

I really loved doing that! it was a wonderful structure, something I could come back to again and again. And often one little poem would lead to another and different (and more interesting) perspective. It trained my awareness in a certain way, too. It also gave me permission to write a lot of bad poems…If I was writing seven a day and if only one or two turned out to be worth keeping at the end of a month, then that was fine.

20. You have said in an email that some of the themes in Invisible Strings are similar to Lightning at Dinner, though the form is different. Reading the two together, it felt to me that Invisible Strings flowed on and completed what you started in Lightning at Dinner (almost like a work of two halves.) Was this intentional?

I can't say it was intentional but it did feel very natural to me. At the end of Lightning I entered a period when I knew I would be doing a lot of travel and I thought it made sense to try to write in shorter bursts. And then, too, the Japanese and Chinese poets I love were often on the road. It felt like it might be a useful approach.

21. I feel the poems in the volume are more personally reflective compared with your earlier work. There are the obvious ones, for example the reflections on turning sixty, but even more challenging scenarios (eg LAST NIGHT I DREAMED THAT MAN, THE ONE) are looked at in the light of your own reaction. Is this the natural reflection as we get older or are there other factors involved?

Good question. I wonder if maybe it isn't, in fact, a natural kind of progression. That reflective/meditative quality—a state of being rather than doing—has certainly become more important to me and I would even say more trustworthy as a guide for my poetry. As the ego begins to lose its sense of its own omnipotence maybe it wants to try to merge more with the world beyond itself.

22. As I have mentioned before Invisible Strings feels like it naturally carries on from Lightning at Dinner. The final poem (my personal favourite) I felt it successfully drew together so many themes from both volumes. As such, it seemed to complete or 'wrap up' both volumes, was this the intention?

The last poem was a very late addition to the book and came partly because a fellow poet had suggested that I end with something larger that might bring together the themes of the book in a new way. So it was certainly my hope that it would do that…I hadn't thought about it so much in relationship to Lightning but since the themes in both books are so similar maybe that is, in fact, the case.