Volume 2 Number 1 • Spring 2010


by Jamie Buehner

Jim Moore is the author of six books of poetry, including The Freedom of History, The Long Experience of Love, and Lightning at Dinner. His new collection of poetry is forthcoming from Graywolf press next year. Jamie Buehner interviewed Jim at Café con Amore in Saint Paul on a cold day in December as the winter's first snow began to fall.

Sleet: Where did you grow up?

Jim: I grew up in Decatur, Illinois, an agricultural town surrounded by soybean and corn fields. I didn't know what a bookstore was until college. I thought people got their books at the department stores.

My parents were very supportive, but the community itself was not something that had a lot going on in terms of poetry or anything like that. Though I did see W.H. Auden when I was a kid. He came to the local university. He was wearing his bedroom slippers, and he gave a reading, and it was pretty impressive, even as a kid.

My grandmother was a writer, a novelist, who published her first and only novel in the fifties. Her name was Madeline Babcock Smith and the novel is called The Lemon Jelly Cake. She went off to Breadloaf (Writers' Conference) as a student in her fifties. My father was a journalist before he went into business. There was definitely an interest in writing in the family, so there was support in kind of a general way, but there weren't writing groups or a literary world of any kind, in the way we are used to now, especially in the Twin Cities. I didn't grow up in that kind of world.

Sleet: Why do you think the Twin Cities is such a supportive community for poets?

Jim: The going theory, which I guess I subscribe to, is that the winters are long and cold that they encourage a sense of interiority which manifests in poetry. But I also think once you get a critical mass going, it then becomes sort of expected that there will be this kind of support. When I started out here in the seventies it wasn't like that. The university had just begun to teach writing courses, which they hadn't done when I was a student. I taught—I think—the first poetry class at the very beginning of the Loft (Literary Center). A lot of people came—twenty people or so—but it is nothing like it is now, where it has come to be something that people expect. Young people look around today and naturally, see all this stuff going on and become a part of it.

The downside of living in this kind of environment that we have been talking about is that it can become too parochial. People can get too comfortable and not be rigorous enough. I think it's good, if you are from here and can do it, to travel to other parts of the country and the world, Ambition for the career is fine too, but I'm talking about the kind of ambition that says I want to match myself against the best poetry being written anywhere in the world, not just in my own community.

I'm exaggerating to make a point, but this country is just so big that it's very easy to disappear inside your own community. I realized when I went to England many years ago, the country's small enough that anyone can get to London at any time if they need to, and so there's a sense that the whole country is in dialogue with each other in terms of poetry. Here I don't feel it as much. Maybe the internet will help with that. But I do feel like there can be a parochialism here; we're fairly isolated from the rest of the country–Chicago is the nearest big city and it's quite far away. So there are some negative factors, but by and large I think it's a really good community for writers.

Sleet: I know you spend about 2-3 months of the year in Italy. Can you talk a little bit about that divided time, like what, for example, do you miss about Minnesota when you are there?

Jim: I miss bookstores, being able to go to movies in English. The daily culture; the little things that can be annoying or rewarding but that go into making the fabric of a life and from which poems get written.

Sleet: Is it helpful to write poems based here having seen it from an outside perspective?

Jim: I think it helps in a way. When I was in my early twenties I was reading Robert Bly and James Wright, two poets who were writing poems based in the Midwest. I began to realize, along with a lot of other people of my generation, that you didn't have to go to Italy, you didn't have to go to New York; that you could be in (Bly's hometown) Madison, MN or certainly Saint Paul, and find just as much life as anywhere else. I think that's really important to realize. I'm not saying I think it's better in any way to be here than somewhere else, it's just I've worked lots of times with students over the years who have felt—who have told me they feel—that not enough has happened in their lives, living in Minnesota is too undramatic, too uninteresting a place to work, and I think that's mistaken. I would say if anything, going to Italy or traveling in general has reinforced that sense of my place here.

I will say coming back to the States, I am really shocked at how depressed people seem. I don't mean my friends; I mean just walking down the street, people seem really unhappy compared to the part of Italy where we go. When I come back here, at first I always feel, and then it wears off, that there must be something wrong if people are so anxious-looking and kind of depressed, that there is this sense of underlying anger or frustration. Then I'm here for awhile and I forget about it. So, I think there are profound differences. They care more about what is happening right now; they're able to do that in a way that's harder for us to do. They're not as worried about money; there is more support for the basic things like medical care, making sure people have housing, things like that. They don't have to have that terror of going into such debt that their lives are ruined by it. I think that makes a difference.

I think it's good for a writer from here to be able to have the chance to be able to glimpse these really profoundly different ways of being. Not that then you want to become Italian or Turkish or something; it really helps educate you to what it means to be a human being to see that there are such different ways of being in the world.

About twelve years ago I had a grant, and I went to India to try to do some poems that would have to do with my niece who is adopted from Calcutta. I had a great time, but I just couldn't write the poems. I didn't know enough about the world; it was like I would be writing tourist poems, and I didn't really want to do that, so nothing came. But I've been going to Italy long enough, and it's closer to my cultural background, that it's easier for me to write there, although the poems still sometimes end up being about the fact that I'm not from there.

So, have we gone completely off track in this interview!

Sleet: In terms of writing about personal experience, (visiting writer) Martin Espada talked about the idea of being in tune with the emotion surrounding an experience versus having actually gone through that experience. If someone has been comforted by a poem, does it matter whether or not the writer had actually gone through it?

Jim: That's a very good question, because if someone has been comforted and helped, it's hard to argue with that. There are several different ways to look at it. I would not feel comfortable with making something up and writing about it —something major—as if it had happened. I heard a guy read a poem once about the death of his mother, and people were sobbing in the audience, and his mother hadn't died. To me, that's a problem. Even though the poem was good and people in the audience may have had a cathartic experience hearing it. The thing that makes the lyric poem unique—as opposed to fiction and maybe even memoir, which everyone understand as a collapsing together of one's own experiences and the changing and reshaping of them—is the authenticity of bearing witness that the lyric poem embodies.

From the beginning, when I was first starting to read poems by contemporary poets it made all the difference to me that poets were writing about things that really mattered to me. I assumed—I believe correctly—that those experiences were coming out of their own lives. I would have been happy to read a novel about those experiences, too, but it's a different kind of feeling for me, reading a novel. It's not nearly as intense as reading a poem. My poem “Given Your Species” (from Lightning at Dinner) is an interesting example, because I heard the guy tell the story about his daughter in the hospital, it didn't happen to me—I made that clear in the poem—so in a sense I was inventing there. So maybe this question is not as cut and dried as I might have indicated.

Given Your Species

It's something else, the man says, when your daughter at thirteen sits up
in bed and howls.
Not a nurse comes running: they're used to the sound pain makes inside
her throat
and not a thing they can give to ease her unless it kills her.

He stands at the head of the bed. She won't have him
hold her hand since the pain only worsens. That's something else, he says,
that's suffering. You can see it one way,

he says, about snow, and call it beautiful, another and call it useful, a
third way
might be just stop it, to beg it to stop falling.

You might, given your species,
want to believe her suffering will end, even now, even while she is alive.
I can't believe it, he says,

how the snow keeps falling: of falling there is more, he says,

then more again. What it is, he says, we are meant to make of such a world,
I don't know, and if I did, I wouldn't say, not even to myself, let alone to
who are my friends, each of you in your own way needing to believe

this is not your life, your daughter, not your species at all.

Certainly in a novel anybody has the right to create anything they can get away with. You know, for example, if somebody pretended that they had been raped and wrote a poem about it not letting the reader know that they were making it all up—it's on my mind because I just heard an interview on NPR with Alice Sebold, who wrote a memoir called Lucky about having been raped, and also the novel The Lovely Bones—and put it in 1st person singular, I would feel really uncomfortable about that, even if it was a really good poem. It may be out of step with what most people feel, but I just wouldn't want that deception as a reader, let alone as a writer. If as a reader I'm going to bond with a writer of poetry, it's because I believe that they are coming to me with their experience. I understand that people reshape it and change incidentals—I'm fine with all of that. I'm not looking for a documentary.

Sleet: We work hard to uncover our own territory; how can someone just come along and fabricate that?

Jim: You know, I wonder how Martin would feel—and this has happened— where people have pretended to be whole other ethnicities in poems. One guy won a contest pretending to be a Vietnamese boat woman, not writing in persona, but really trying to pass himself off. And the poems were good. He won a contest. But I just am not interested. I'd be much more interested in reading a book by someone about why he wishes he could write in this other voice. That would be an interesting book to me. That's the true thing; what I can identify with. If you took a poll of contemporary poets I don't know how many would agree with what I'm saying.

Alice Sebold said in that interview that the she started writing about her rape after she had taken a class from the poet Tess Gallagher, in which she had written this kind of vague thing about rape. Tess asked her to come into her office, and asked her if it was based on actual experience. When she said yes, she asked her why not write about it directly. What if a student were writing poems about that or any important subject and showing them to a teacher and the teacher was believing that they were actual experiences that the person had had and was making suggestions in terms of future writing projects based on that? To me there would be a deep lie going on there. It would be like making friends with someone, and that friend told you a whole story about something that happened which had not happened…to me it's a problem.

Sleet: Do you have certain catalysts for your writing, things you think about that get you writing but then you let go of once you are writing?

Jim: I often start writing in the morning, even up to a half an hour in a journal, not anything literary, but if I'm preoccupied by certain issues or questions or if I wake up in a bad mood, I don't try to solve it but I just try to get it out on the page, and then I can leave that ego stuff behind and get to a deeper self. If I don't do that, it is as though there is a radio playing in the background that keeps distracting me. After I've written in my journal for awhile I'll read some poems by other people. Usually I have a stack of books next to my chair, I'll pick at random and read a few poems by other people. For me, that really primes the pump. I don't think I write poems that are like the poems I read. It's just that they get me in that more courageous, intuitive, language-focused state.

I try to be alert to something surprising or unexpected that makes its way into me from the world in spite of all my defenses and all my anxieties and my list of to do things and whatever…it can be something very small, like watching a bird fly across the sky, or it can be something very large. Usually it's something very small that leads to something larger. That's often how it works for me, and nothing but poetry does that for me. I love other kinds of art to look at and listen to, but in terms of connecting to my own deepest self as an artist, there is just nothing like poetry to do that.

Sleet: What do you think the benefits are to saying things so plainly in poems?

Jim: When I came to poetry, the first poets I connected to were Kenneth Rexroth, Bly, Gary Snyder, some of the Japanese haiku poets, who all wrote in a fairly direct, plainspoken way. So I think that drew me in, in a way that, if I had first tried to read Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery or a host of other poets whom I admire greatly, it wouldn't have worked for me because they would have seemed to be writing in a mode that was too different from my own way of being inhabited by language.

I guess I've always felt that I would like the possibility to be there for any literate person to pick up a book of my poems and understand what's going on. It's not like I'm a big populist or anything like that, but I just have always felt that. And I really like a certain kind of music in poetry that is low-key. I find it more trustworthy. I think it's there, I hope it's there, but it's not flamboyant music.

I believe that the deepest experiences are transpersonal, not ego-based. They come from the part of the self that everybody shares, but that are easily obscured: we're scared, we feel we have to prove ourselves, show what we can do in certain areas. If our experiences are too hidden, other people can't see those parts. My problem with a poetic voice or music that is too flamboyant or eccentric is that it draws attention to the ego behind the voice, rather than to the deeper experience which as readers we are always hoping to connect to.

It's delicate; you don't want to just walk down the street spilling your guts. There's no point in that either. I really admire the discipline in the ancient Greek poets, in the Japanese and Chinese: they are direct and clear, but they are not confessional for the sake of being confessional. I love what (Jack) Gilbert is able to do—simple and yet intense, with a low key but forceful music that I really admire.

When you're starting out, beginning to write poetry, you try this and that, but you find yourself drifting back to a place that you really trust most deeply because it allows you access to your deepest self. And it's because it's what you know how to do. I would write a John Ashbery poem if I could write a John Ashbery poem. I certainly would write a Jack Gilbert poem if I could write a Jack Gilbert poem. But I can just write a Jim Moore poem—a combination of so many voices that I have heard and trusted over the years in poetry and in life.

Formally, you want a container for the poem that can hold, or let emerge, whatever is most important. For me, I don't want the poem to be about the container. I don't want it to be about just the formal elements or the fact that I have come up with a really unusual typographical maneuvering or idea— I've never been interested in that. I don't think the most important things in poetry have anything to do with being original in that way. I think it's about finding the place that people can connect to most deeply, and that usually has to do with vulnerability and openness and life and death and love and those ancient, ancient things that it's so easy to write sentimental bad poems about. But those are the things that really connect people, I think. And they are also the things that move and challenge readers. And they are also the things that have been at the heart of lyric poetry from the very beginning.

Sleet: Is it a goal for you to not be much different in your poems and your life?

Jim: It is for me. But that's just me. A lot of poets would really disagree with that. In a very early review of one of my books, the reviewer quoted a little poem, a short poem, and then said whatever else this is, it's not a poem. Of course I was very offended. As the years have gone on I've thought about it. And now I kind of like it. I wouldn't mind writing a book of poems that reviewers wouldn't quite know what to make of. It's too simple, it's too whatever, it's not poetry…that wouldn't really bother me as long as they didn't say that's not life.

“Given Your Species” from Lightning at Dinner was reprinted with the author's permission.

Read Jim's Nebraska Fragments in this edition of Sleet.

Watch for Jim Moore's newest book of poetry from Graywolf Press, due for release in March 2011.

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