Category: Writing

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Jacqueline Berger, Poet, Educator, interviewed by David Garyan

Jacqueline Berger

September 20th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Jacqueline Berger, Poet, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Jacqueline Berger’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: For years, you’ve been an advocate of free writing. Many writers and theorists have their own idea about what that means. Can you talk about the approach as it specifically relates to you and how you first came to adopt it?

I was studying with Olga Broumas and Jane Miller in a converted silo in Vermont, winter alone was astounding to a girl from LA, and freewriting was central to their teaching. It was a remarkable education, completely minimal—just hand to page—and completely transformative. I had no idea at twenty what was inside me. I still generate material in this manner, and I have always used the method in the classes I teach; sometimes this is met with groans. I get it. That great line from Sappho: if you’re squeamish don’t prod the beach rubble. But how else get to the bottom of ourselves, and get to the particular language that lives there, similar to the language of dreams. At best, free writing is a kind of dreaming, a trance state. I love when I don’t remember, really, what I just wrote.

DG: You see writing as an essential component of teaching craft and vice versa. How do you approach the teaching of creative writing and what’s the most effective way to critique student writing?

It would be hard to teach writing if I weren’t actively involved in my own work. The conversations that happen between writers in a class is inspiring. In fact, my poem “Why I’m Here” came from a student presentation. She instructed us to write on that topic, though for her “here” meant in graduate school. I just extended the idea.

As for critiquing, I don’t think I’m unique in my approach: start global before getting sentence-level, start with positives. Olga used to say “run your hand over the page and stop where it gets hot.” Where is the poem already doing what you need it to? How can you shape the rest of the poem to support and develop that?

DG: In the Changing Lives Through Literature Program, you had the privilege of working in a correctional facility. Can you talk about that experience, and how the dynamics change (if at all) teaching writing in prison as opposed to in school?

I’ve taught writing on a few occasions in women’s correctional facilities, and each time I found the work exhilarating and exhausting. Because the students live together, and in such stressful conditions, the relationships between them are boundaryless. They can be intrusive and brazen with each other and with me in a way that’s so different from college students who have devoted years to editing their personas. So, while I found it necessary at times to set limits in prison classes, I also found myself carried along on this wave of anything goes. The students had a huge need to release what was inside them, and my work was to create paths in and ways to hold what arose.  Incarcerated students carry the tremendous sadness and rage that comes with chronic abuse and poverty. So much of teaching, in any setting but particularly here, is about giving attention. And permission.

DG: Many of your poems deal with difficult subjects such as aging, loss, and disillusionment, and yet there is a great deal of hope in each of them. Most of all, they are written in clear, accessible language. Do you see writing as more of a cathartic process, or do you prefer, first, to come to terms with an emotion before you approach the page?

I suppose it’s some of each. I don’t have any particular requirement for how fully processed my emotions are as I approach the page. Though if I had to choose a preference, I would go for catharsis because it seems so potentially dynamic. The moment of awareness happening in real time. Discovery rather than documentation. In that way, I’m an exhibitionist on the page. I’d like to say I’ll show you anything.

The page is my listening self. The screen, as I move from notebook to laptop, is where, hopefully, I craft the spill. At best, the pursuit of beauty clarifies truth. At worst, it smudges. Isn’t this the dilemma of poetry? Or if not the dilemma, certainly the challenge. But I think dilemma too.

DG: In your 2018 collection, The Day You Miss Your Exit, the overarching theme is direction, the choices we make in life that brings to one place as opposed to another. Regret is a universal theme and yet also so specific because we perceive our own struggles as unique. The “I,” hence is of utmost importance here. Did you ever struggle reconciling the “I” of your life to bring authenticity and the “I” of the narrator that transmits universal reliability, and should that ever be a concern for any writer?

Let me answer by considering my taste as a reader. The more personal the writing, the better I like it. I don’t know the people in books; what do I care whether it’s factual or imagined life? I want to know how others live. Relatability has to do with the depth and quality of the exploration. I recently rewatched My Dinner with Andre, still so great, and Wallace Shawn has that wonderful line: “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! I mean… I mean, isn’t there just as much ‘reality’ to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest?”

DG: Your poem, “Why I’m Here,” featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, serves as the perfect illustration of the personal and impersonal “I.” In starting with a simple question, you build tension from personal history to history in general, returning to the personal and ending with the image of the dusk sky that turns into night. The previous line saying “It’s right to praise the random, / the tiny god of probability that brought us here,” seems to suggest that the search for meaning is futile (a preoccupation with the past) and that living with conviction (rather with a firm awareness of history) is the real goal. Would this be a possible reading of the poem or were you intending something else?

I’m drawn to understanding how trauma and insecurity shape family dynamics. So I wouldn’t say I’m not obsessed with history and meaning, but I’m also obsessed with the sheer flukiness of life. If my parents hadn’t separately gone to this particular dance, on a night when neither maybe really wanted to go out at all, and met; if my father hadn’t given his foxhole to his friend and dug a second for himself, thereby escaping the bombing of the first, etc. So, yes, I do think living with conviction, or fascination, even gratitude is the real work. Search for meaning all you want; see where that gets you. Like most readers, I’m not going to literature for answers but interestingly articulated questions.

DG: Have your writing habits changed as a result of the pandemic?

In the second year of the pandemic, the college where I had taught for twenty-five years laid off nearly all of the faculty. Suddenly I was retired, but for a bit of part-time teaching. Now, instead of getting dressed and heading out the door, I use mornings to write. Mostly this is wonderful, though the luxury of time also includes time spent ruminating! Without the wheel of routine, a great deal of hitherto avoided questioning makes itself known.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

I’m finishing a new manuscript. Which means sometimes I feel that I’ve finally said what’s true and sometimes, in almost the next instant, feel I’m kidding myself, that I have no idea what’s true. I suppose we never outgrow that doubt.

As for reading, I spent the last weeks of August with Anna Karenina, which completely disabused me of the notion that humans have evolved over time. Our situations have, but not our hearts. And the brilliance of Tolstoy means I will happily go wherever he takes me.

Another, very different, summer read: Matthew Dickman’s wonderful new book of poems Husbandry. His language is so perfect and so willing to peel off every layer of defense and obfuscation. A great lesson in beauty.

 

Author Bio:

Jacqueline Berger is the author of four books of poetry, including The Day You Miss Your Exit and The Gift That Arrives Broken, winner of the 2010 Autumn House Poetry Prize. Selected poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac. She is a professor emerita of English at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Jose Hernandez Diaz, Poet, Educator, interviewed by David Garyan


Jose Hernandez Diaz (photo by Victor Jorge Sanchez Jr.)

September 8th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Jose Hernandez Diaz, Poet, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Jose Hernandez Diaz’s poems to appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your newest project, Bad Mexican, Bad American, is set to be released next year. It’s a fascinating exploration of your background as a first-generation Mexican American. The title is both direct and yet full of subtleties. Without giving too much away, can you talk about why you felt this was the best name for the collection?

JHD: It is something I deal with a lot as a Mexican American author and as a Mexican American more generally as well. Feelings of pride in cultural background but also isolation at times. There are mixed feelings of not being from here nor there, but also feelings of feeling completely from here and/or the homeland. I think this title captures the contradictions of dual cultural identity while also celebrating it.

DG: You write in both traditional form and also prose poetry. Does form influence the content you produce, or does the content drive form?

JHD: Most of the time the content drives the form. For example, most of my autobiographical work is written in linear verse while my surreal or absurdist work tends to be prose poetry sometimes in third person. However, I have written a few autobiographical prose poems and surreal linear verse as well.

DG: Surrealism, Mexican motifs/personalities, along with absurdism mix effortlessly with the earthly realities of everyday life in your work. Is this a conscious decision?

JHD: Sometimes the surrealism has a Mexican American edge or aesthetic. For example, I will mix in Mexican imagery into some of my surreal prose poems like a jaguar moon or a poem about a Tecolote.

DG: Teaching and editing are as central to your work as writing. Are there some pieces from your generative workshops, for example, you’re especially proud to have encouraged?

JHD: Yes, certainly! I’m proud of all the work writers produce from my workshops regardless of publication but we have had some luck in that regard as well. A few times I was even published alongside some writers from my workshop in various journals. So, that was a blast!

DG: In your view, who today are the writers that are showing the type of promise which will make their work relevant in the years to come?

JHD: I’m not too focused on who will have longevity or not, but some of my favorite poets are Alberto Ríos, Ada Limón, Terrance Hayes, Harryette Mullen, Diane Seuss, Eduardo C. Corral, James Tate, Ray Gonzalez, Sabrina Orah Mark, Charles Simic, W.S. Merwin, Homero Aridjis.

DG: You’re one of the more active poets on social media. Twitter and Instagram are seen as anathemas by many of the older generation of poets. What are the benefits and drawbacks of using platforms that are considered non-intellectual by many to promote intellectual material?

JHD: For me I grew up with social media, so I don’t necessarily just view it as a platform to promote or a capitalist endeavor, it is just a way of life. A way of documenting my day. I think it is a generational thing if someone has a problem with social media. As far as it is non-intellectual, we can benefit from not always being so intellectual as well and just letting loose. I grew up in a working-class background, so I didn’t grow up around intellectual types anyway. Never cared if I impressed them or not. I don’t think I live the traditional life of an academic or intellectual. I view myself more as an artist. I can take pleasure in reading Camus or Sartre but also in watching a football game and just taking the edge off.

DG: Except for the time you studied at UC Berkeley, Southern California has been the place where you produced much of your work. Do you start with the environment and write with the mood that it gives you, or would you say that your mood, in a sense, shapes the environment?

JHD: Southern California is prominent in my work. My environment has shaped who I am, so I’d say in many ways I begin with the environment and unravel how it has shaped me.

DG: Mexico has an incredible culture going back thousands of years. The US is a new country currently at the forefront of culture. And yet, the US can aspire to this only because marginalized groups like African Americans and Latin Americans have enriched the landscape with their unique traditions. What are some of the things you cherish most about Mexican culture?

JHD: I cherish the family-centered nature of Mexican culture. The music, beautiful women, food, boxing, soccer, comradery, humbleness, pride, all of it, it isn’t perfect, but it is our backbone.

DG: Many of your poems contain Spanish words and phrases. It seems like translation is the next logical step. Have you thought along these lines, both in terms of your own work, and Mexican poets?

JHD: I have a few poems translated into Spanish published in Circulo de Poesia from Mexico City, earlier this year. Down the line, I’ve thought of translations once I get all my books out.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

JHD: I have Bad Mexican, Bad American coming in February 2024. Then, The Parachutist is coming in 2025. Besides that, I have two full complete manuscripts. Other than that, have been busy teaching.

 

About Jose Hernandez Diaz

Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020) Bad Mexican, Bad American (Acre Books, 2024) and The Parachutist (Sundress Publications, 2025). He teaches generative workshops for Hugo House, Lighthouse Writers Workshops, The Writer’s Center, and elsewhere. Additionally, he serves as a Poetry Mentor in The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program.

 

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Jorge Argueta, Poet, Author, Educator, interviewed by David Garyan


Jorge Argueta (photo by Teresa Kennett)

September 6th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Jorge Argueta, Poet, Author, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Jorge Argueta’s poems to appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your recent work has concerned itself with people living on the fringes, specifically those living on the street. You have described this endeavor as “writing portraits of life on the street.” Can you speak about the poems that came about as a result of this enterprise, and what you learned during the writing process?

JA: I wrote these poems because I’m a human being and it hurts me to see people in so much pain, and the sad thing is that I don’t see them getting much help. These poems try to raise consciousness a little, so people could have more compassion. One guy I talked to, he had owned a house but he lost it, and he lost his marriage, too, then he had a van and he lost that, everything was taken away, his kids—like in a flash it’s all gone. People see him and they don’t know if he’s crazy or not. You learn people’s lives, and it comes out as poetry.

DG: You’ve written poems in Spanish that have been translated into English. Does the awareness that your poem will be translated affect how you approach a piece, and has there ever been a time where the translation ended up being closer to your vision for a particular poem?

JA: I’m happy to have a friendship with the person who translates my poems. We meet together and talk about things, and the English sounds good. A few lines maybe stronger, just because of the way English works.

DG: You were born in El Salvador and have a Pipil Nahuat heritage. The immigrant experience features heavily in your writing. A country like the US has not always been receptive to bilingualism, much less to immigrants. Can you touch upon some of the challenges you’ve encountered and how poetry has guided you through these difficulties?

JA: I was sitting in a café, other people were there too, at different tables, and a woman comes in with a dog and tells me to watch her dog while she goes shopping. This really happened. She finally was told to leave with her dog, and she was annoyed, she didn’t understand why. Another time I was on my way to a bus stop, and as I passed a playground, a child looked at me with horror and ran to his older sister, crying, like I was some sort of monster. It went to my soul—what had this boy been told at home, to fear someone who looks different? It hurts, too, because kids should enjoy playing, not be filled with fear. Poetry is like medicine, to help me and help others feel proud and honor who we are and what we represent.

DG: The creative scope with which you work is wide. Apart from tackling very serious topics like social injustice and street despair, you’re also a prolific children’s book writer. Is it difficult to work with such a divergent audience, or do you find the creative transition between age groups easy to make?

JA: There’s no real difference. My words are simple words, the way people who maybe don’t read or write often talk about things and it comes out sounding so original, so beautiful. I write humble words to express beautiful things.

DG: Let’s stay with the topic of children’s books. So many of the works deal with the topic of food—arguably the most universal experience, since food is a ritual we must all partake in. More so than poetry, even, it ensures our survival and brings people together. Do you see yourself ever writing a poetry collection revolving around food, culture, and unity for adults?

JA: A tomato is a poem, an onion, a cabbage are poems. Maybe someday I could have a collection like that. We eat poetry.

DG: Let’s return to your birthplace—El Salvador. Though you live and work in San Francisco, the sense of belonging to the place of your birth is ever-present, both in personal and creative terms. They say writers are both a product of their upbringing and environment, but for you, personally, which one is stronger? When writing, do you “think,” as they say, in English or in Spanish?

JA: I mostly think in Spanish, sometimes in Nahuat, and sometimes even in English. Writing brings me back home—by home I mean my birthplace, the place I sometimes wish I had never left. But what’s sad is to realize that the place where once I knew so much love, sadness, anger, happiness is gone, it’s there, but it’s no longer there. I might not be so sad if I felt the decision to leave was really mine, but circumstances forced me and thousands of other Salvadorans to leave. Now, after almost 50 years, that place is still intact in my heart, even though the people I loved and who loved me are all gone. Sometimes I wish I’d never left. I’m happy I can go back when I’m writing—that’s how I go back to that place that still smells like young corn and where a man pushes his cart to sell paletas every afternoon.

DG: For many years, you’ve been visiting classrooms and holding creative writing workshops not only there, but in a multitude of settings, such as children’s hospitals and homeless shelters. How have these activities informed your work, and is there a difference between how people in each setting perceive poetry, or is the experience universal?

JA: I love to do poetry workshops, wherever and whenever. Poetry is a tool, the softest and most powerful tool, the simplest and most sophisticated one. I find it everywhere, every day, it is the spirit of the creator, it is life itself.

DG: From the Gulf of California, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, there is an incredibly rich literary tradition, both in Spanish and in the respective indigenous languages. Who are some of the voices you grew up reading and who influenced you most?

JA: To find your own voice you imitate the sunset, the trees, the wind, the rivers. You’re helped by the voice of people you read. For me, Rosario Castellanos, Claudia Lars, Roque Dalton, César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Borges, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and I loved Walt Whitman, Byron …

DG: For someone who’s never tried Salvadoran food, which dish would you recommend?

JA: Chuco (corn soup with beans), and pupusas

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

JA: I’m finishing a book called “Mis primeras palabras en Nahaut,” My First Words in Nahuat. It’s in all three languages, Nahuat, Spanish, and English.

 

About Jorge Argueta

Jorge Argueta, a Pipil Nahua Indian from El Salvador and the 2023 Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, is a prize-winning poet and author of more than twenty children’s picture books. They include Una película en mi almohada / A Movie in My Pillow (Children’s Book Press, 2001) and Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds (Groundwood Books, 2016), which won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and was named to USBBY’s Outstanding International Book List, the ALA Notable Children’s Books and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices. His Madre Tierra / Mother Earth series celebrates the natural world and is made up of four installments: Tierra, Tierrita / Earth, Little Earth (Piñata Books, 2023), winner of the Salinas de Alba Award for Latino Children’s Literature; Viento, Vientito / Wind, Little Wind (Piñata Books, 2022), winner of the Premio Campoy-Ada given by the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española; Fuego, Fueguito / Fire, Little Fire (Piñata Books, 2019); and Agua, Agüita / Water, Little Water (Piñata Books, 2017), winner of the inaugural Campoy-Ada Award in Children’s Poetry.  His poetry collection, En carne propia: Memoria poética / Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir (Arte Público Press, 2017), focuses on his experiences with civil war and living in exile. The California Association for Bilingual Education honored him with its Courage to Act Award. In addition, Jorge Argueta is the founder of The International Children’s Poetry Festival Manyula and The Library of Dreams, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy in rural and metropolitan areas of El Salvador. Jorge divides his time between San Francisco, California, and El Salvador. Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, California.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: James Cagney, Poet, interviewed by David Garyan


James Cagney

August 24th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

James Cagney, Poet

interviewed by David Garyan

 

James Cagney’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: The publisher, Nomadic Press, which released your first book, Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory in 2018, ceased its operational activities on February 28th of this year. Two questions: How has this affected your book, along with your writing, and do you foresee more publishers closing their doors in the future, or are we headed for better days?

JC: It was a disappointing surprise hearing about Nomadic’s closure, but the pandemic changed every industry across the board and shut down many good businesses. The publisher, JK Fowler, was incredibly thoughtful to all his authors and worked to get books transitioned over to another publisher. My book is now available through Black Lawrence Press. They’re a superb, hardworking press and I’m grateful they saved a bunch of Nomadic authors from obscurity. Me too. For a minute I thought my book was going to go out of print, but I’m relieved it’s still out there. It’s foolish to attempt to foresee anything, so I offer no predictions. I watched the last COVID infected cruise ship enter San Francisco the day the city mayor shut the city down. I never could have predicted what was going to happen next. But years later things are different. Nothing remains fixed. Everything changes, we just have to remain flexible enough to move with it.

DG: Let’s stay with your first book, which has a special significance for you. In a 2019 SF Chronicle interview you discuss the background behind the collection, which centers around the major life revelation you received at the age of 19. Crafting the book, as you say in the article, was a way of writing “all of that stuff out of my system.” It’s been five years since the publication of the book, and a pandemic on top of it. Has anything changed about the way you perceive not only what you wrote, but the events themselves?

JC: That book was me assembling my personal mythology into a single unit before the stories become lost to time. I grew up an only child, so now that my parents are gone, there’s no one around for me to volley any memories and stories with. I feel as if I can’t prove anything from my life that I remember or experienced. I have photos of my parents, I’ve Googled my old house, but I can’t prove they really existed or that I once lived there. The only thing that remains is memory and memories are less than nothing if they’re not preserved. The book has made me a supportive relative to myself. Its weird going through that book now. They’re my experiences and memories, but there’s no way I could rewrite them today. Reading that book is like conversing with my past self.

DG: In a KALW radio interview with Jeneé Darden you discuss your latest collection, Martian: The Saint of Loneliness. The title encompasses so many themes and yet you reveal that the overall “title and identity happened last after everything was said and done.” Throughout the book you tackle themes of isolation, along with the sense that you’re a “person truly dropped here from another planet.” The books deals with themes of “feeling like an alien inside your body.” Questions like: “What exactly is the man I’m supposed to grow into?” To what extent did writing the book help you address those questions and do you see poetry more as a form of healing or as an art that, above all, brings awareness?

JC: I’ve utilized poetry and writing as a healing art, and always have. Being introduced to spoken word, café society of the 80’s and 90’s, I realized I could use my time on mic to speak the truth and work through some things. As a performer I felt a responsibility to be real with audiences who would attend open mics and themselves never share. They would appear, applaud, and leave. I wanted to respect them enough to be honest and tell the truth. I wanted to learn to speak without fear and poetry allows for that. As writers all of us come to the page with questions we haven’t found answers for. Sometimes, if you get quiet enough, the answers actually show up.

DG: You witnessed the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which destroyed the home you’d grown up in. You’ve talked about not having, in a sense, a real childhood, and if it did exist, it was quite a protracted one, as you’ve stated, given how quickly the environment forced you to mature. Can you speak about how 1989 affected you personally—at that time—and how the impact subsequently went on to affect your work?

JC: I tried to leave home and go to University. I chose a college as far away from home as I could get, because I wanted to find myself and grow up beyond my parents immediate gaze. But college never worked out. That year I went to Washington DC twice to rectify problems with my admissions, once in the spring then again in the winter, to no avail. When I came home after my second try, the quake hit one month later. It was October, and by the opening of the new year, my father would be diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him. That quake severed me from everything I thought I wanted. In a way, it forced me to engage writing. My father died, the house was being repaired, and my mother became ill from a similar cancer that claimed my dad. I gave up my college dream to work for her, and then we had my grandfather, her father, as our roommate for a while. So my life stopped for a number of years. I did In Home Care for the elderly, my remaining family, and hated it. The only thing I could practice was writing. The library and my journal was the only places I had to go. I had no one to vent to; I couldn’t complain to my mom, I didn’t have a huge number of close friends, I wasn’t dating. Plus, I just learned I was adopted so there was a lot of stress in me around that. Somewhere during those years I discovered poetry and that was hugely important in directing my creativity. Those years were hard, more than I’m sharing here, and certainly forced me to mature. That quake changed the course of my life.

DG: Your connection to California is undoubtable, and you capture the environment in a very personal way. At the same time, all the issues within the collection have a deep, insightful sense of universal relatability. This is the ultimate accomplishment for a poet—to make the personal universal. At the same time, do you perceive this with some sense of sadness—some sense of longing or hope for a world where the pain you describe wasn’t as widespread as it is now?

JC: I’m cynical. Its helpful in writing satire, but still, I’m stuck. I was in a workshop this week and they offered a prompt to write about humanity and I couldn’t think of anything positive. I hold hope for the future, but mostly I feel happy to be aging out of it. Social media fuels narcissism and I don’t see humanity getting over worshipping itself. I grew up in the church, but today God feels locked behind gates of human greed and abuse. People have been lured away from God for the robotic mirror in their hands. The only thing besides writing that helped me survive was faith, was relying on God, whom I find to be the source of all hope. But God feels like a hard sell in today’s age, and there’s people who’ll leap over this paragraph because I merely mentioned it. But I do hope people begin to remember love and veer towards that. My mother always told me God Is Love—love is the antidote pain and sadness. If we can only get people to see the word love and not conflate it with sexuality, as Americans often do. After my dad died, I found myself compelled to tell close male friends that I loved them, but they never saw the word as one of respect and openness. It was always shaded and misunderstood. Somehow the word love becomes an arrow pointing only to the crotch, not the heart.

DG: You’ve always been very active in the poetry community. Can you speak about some of the most vivid recollections you’ve had throughout the years and how reading/working with other poets has driven your own poetic development?

JC: I’ve learned a lot from a wide array of writers, many who’ll never be recognized, many who flared locally for a few years and are now long gone. I think a lot about Lee Williams, a brilliant and beautiful storyteller and poet from Oakland who got around better than I did and was in a wheelchair. I miss him and his voice greatly! I learned a lot from this club series, Above Paradise Lounge in San Francisco that maintained a fierce open mic that I considered my poetry university. I featured one night and read this rather homoerotic chain-gang story to a room full of lesbians, there in support of the co-feature. That was a great series and that room was hugely influential for me to push into writing darker, heavier more personal poems. The Afrometropolitan series in Oakland organized by poet Richard Moore (Paradise), was my first primarily African American open mic. That series was fostered by a far more politically engaged community that allowed me to engage historical poems or personal poems about family or race. That was a wonderful place to grow and practice. I started doing poetry in the years before slam, so after slam caught on, The Starry Plough which hosted the Berkeley Slam became a serious contender and was hugely influential. One night, this poet got on stage and performed what he called Wiggle Poetry. He announced his poem, then laid down on his back on stage and vibrated at different levels of intensity based on the stanzas. He spoke no words except gibberish while he shook. I don’t remember anything else about that night except for him. That crazy, distinctive poem will live within me forever. I wish I had the courage to do such a thing.

DG: What’s your favorite place in the Bay Area and have you written a poem about it?

My favorite place is near where I live, Lake Merritt. I haven’t written about it or many specific local places, really. Being local they’re sometimes hard to see and appreciate and trigger writing. Truth told, my favorite places are bookstores and record stores, with many being lost or compromised to time. Haven’t written about them yet.

DG: What’s a place in California you would like to visit and why?

I never get to do anything touristy. I currently work in San Francisco and have never visited Alcatraz. I’d like to go back to the redwood forest, but I never take the time. I could use an extensive visit to Hollywood, to be honest.

DG: Do other mediums, such as music and art, influence your work in any way?

Absolutely. I love visual art and painters are hugely influential. Robert Rauschenberg. Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m currently a fan of Mikael Owunna and Kehinde Wiley. I honor visual artists and wish I practiced it.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

I just finished The Delectable Negro by Vincent Woodard, and Race and the Unconscious: An Africanist Depth Psychology Perspective on Dreaming by Fanny Brewster. Both fascinating books. There’s a great new translation of poems by Joyce Mansour which I adored, called Emerald Wounds. And I just started The Exorcist Legacy by Nat Segaloff which explores the cultural history of that film. Personally, there are some other poetry collections I’m in the midst of editing and hoping to find homes for soon.

 

About James Cagney

James Cagney is the author of Black Steel Magnolias In The Hour Of Chaos Theory, winner of the PEN Oakland 2018 Josephine Miles Award. His newest book, Martian: The Saint of Loneliness is the winner of the 2021 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. It is due from Nomadic Press in 2022.