Interview

Interview: James Crews

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When we first heard the title of the new book of poetry edited by James Crews, Healing the Divide: Poems for Compassion and Connection, we thought: How wonderful! It seems to us that James is the perfect editor for this book. You see we know James. He read his beautiful, compassionate poems at our inaugural Poetry & Pie. And we're still hoping to make it to one of his Mindfulness and Writing workshops. In this day and age, when we're all reeling a little from divisive politics, we like the idea of seeking wise counsel from poets like Ross Gay, Donald Hall, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Marie Howe. A morning meditation perhaps? Flip open this anthology and read some words of hope before moving about your day. Thank you, James, for the work you do!

James will join several other local poets to celebrate the launch of Healing the Divide with a reading at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, on Tuesday April 16, starting at 7:00 pm. It should be a really wonderful evening.

In honor of the today’s release of Healing the Divide, we interviewed James about this book, how it came together, and the work that poetry can do to help bring us together. We hope you enjoy James’ replies to our questions as much as we do.


Literary North: Where did the idea for this book come from? Did someone approach you, or did you approach someone?

James Crews: The idea for Healing the Divide actually came to me one day while I was in the shower. My husband, Brad, ran for political office in Vermont last year, and he had been working on his speech all winter, much of which was about how the power of kindness and community literally saved his life when he returned home from the military, discharged for being gay. He talked about how the smallest gestures—the flick of the wrist waves, the folks stopping to chat with him while on a walk—made him feel that he belonged to a place again, and really began the healing process. It dawned on me that poetry can do the same kind of work, and I have always preferred poems that highlight connection in some way, whether between lovers, family members, friends or strangers. Once I had the idea, the pieces quickly fell into place. I asked Dede Cummings with Green Writers Press if she would publish the anthology, and she instantly said yes. Ted Kooser also immediately agreed to write the Preface, so all I had to do was gather the poems and get permissions from the writers and their publishers, which was no small task. But I was struck over and over with the support and generosity that people showed toward this project.

LN: How did you go about selecting the poems to include?

JC: I have a whole trove of poems that I really treasure and go back to over and over. "Shoulders" by Naomi Shihab Nye is one of those, as is "Small Kindnesses" by Danusha Laméris. So I had quite a few already on hand, but once you start looking for something, you will always find more and more of it. People started sending me poems about kindness, and Naomi Nye connected me with numerous poets I'd never even heard of, who had wonderful work to share. I combed through Ted Kooser's “American Life in Poetry” newspaper column quite a bit, since I knew I wanted as many of the poems as possible to be accessible to a wide readership. I worked with Ted on his column for several years at the University of Nebraska, and I really credit that experience with teaching me how to locate poems that might appeal to a mass audience.

LN: How do you try to include compassion in your own writing practice, towards yourself and your words and your readers?

JC: I often lead workshops on mindfulness and writing as a way to teach (and re-teach) myself the practice of compassion and attention for the world as it is. And if we're really paying attention, we'll see that we are not as divided as we think. Yes, there are disagreements, there are life-and-death issues that must be addressed, but there are also people coming together and being kind to each other on a deeper level every day. I feel it's my job as a writer (as a human being, really) to highlight those moments first for myself —to keep myself out of despair—and then for others too. Writing is an integral part of my spiritual practice, so I feel my poetry is always showing me ways to pay closer attention, how to be more kind and gentle to myself and others. I'm working on a new book right now, a collection of poems, reflections and exercises, which essentially argues that writing itself is a spiritual practice that can connect us to ourselves and each other. Quite honestly, I try to follow Anne Lamott's advice quite a bit in my work: "Write the book you would most want to come upon in the world."

LN: In what ways can poetry work to help us heal and come together in the face of so much anger, division, and mistrust in the world?

JC: Mark Nepo, one of our great spiritual writers, has said that "Poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul." It's hard to put into words, but I also believe that poetry comes from some deeper place inside us—whether we call that the soul, the spirit, or the intuition—and as a result, it's what we really want to say, it's the truth as we know it. All art works this way, but poetry has a distinct advantage in that it's made from the material of language that we use every day. Poets turn that democratic, raw material into something strange, harrowing, transcendent, beautiful, and often universal. I admit that I have a personal bias for poems that seek to uplift, and do so in accessible language, but creativity of all kinds has never been more important than it is right now at this political moment, and we need as many diverse voices as we can get to heal us all and remind us of the one human story.

LN: Is there a poem—or a poet—that you rely on to help you remember kindness and connection on really hard days?

JC: Most of the poets I return to over and over are in the anthology: Ted Kooser, of course, but also Barbara Crooker, Anya Silver, Ross Gay, Li-Young Lee, and the late W. S. Merwin, among many others. But I keep coming back to "The Way It Is" by William Stafford, which we were lucky enough to be able to include in the book. In the poem, he talks about a thread "you never let go of," and I've always wondered what that thread was for him, what he meant by that. The older I get, the more I think that the thread is whatever intention we carry with us out into the world, whether through our work, our creativity, and our relationships (to others and to ourselves). And for me, that thread is to be as present and kind as I can be. I will make mistakes, take wrong turns, get distracted, but as long as I can keep holding onto that thread and letting it guide me, as he says in the poem, I know I can't get lost. I hope Healing the Divide can do the same for a few readers as well.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

JC: I know that I'm a latecomer to this book, but I finally got around to reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I relished every word and so appreciated how she blended memoir and storytelling with science and indigenous knowledge. This book comes at the right time too, since I'm now (slowly) putting together a new anthology called Down to Earth: Poems of Mindfulness and Devotion. This will be a collection of nature poems that honors elements of the living world as having a consciousness and agency of their own. I hadn't thought of it before, but I suppose this anthology is also very much about compassion and kindness, just this time between humans and the Earth. I can't help but think we all need to be reminded of that essential connection right now.

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Interview: Bethany C. Morrow

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the last in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Bethany C. Morrow is the author of the debut novel, MEM, published by the wonderful small publisher, Unnamed Press. Publisher’s Weekly describes MEM as “ambitious and insightful, raising questions about memory, trauma, and humanity.” Morrow was an Indies Introduce Debut Author selected by the American Booksellers Association. Originally from California, she currently lives in upstate New York.

Thank you, Bethany!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Bethany Morrow: I think my writing process adapts to each individual project, but there are some places where I start. The transition from thinking about writing something (which is a step in the writing process) to literally writing about it requires, for me, a first line; an inciting incident, or reason the story is starting now; a character I know (or think I know for now); a sound (as in a song that matches the emotional tenor of the character or incident or); a climax.

Once I have those things I write a first chapter, which tends to be establishing, so it's not very long. Like introducing yourself before you start blabbering on to someone who doesn't want to know you, lol. And then I see what I've learned from that introduction, and go back to thinking. Once I know the next few steps, I start writing toward the end of the first act, at which point I stop again and go back to thinking because things organically develop and I want to write the story not the story that first appeared in my head if it isn't true anymore. The process goes a bit like that through the climax, until I know how it ends.

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

BM: A reader might be a better person to answer that. I can only say what meant a lot to me as a young reader/writer: Christopher Pike, Lois Duncan, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and everything by Toni Morrison (especially up through Love, since that's when I was rabidly reading and rereading her, including essays and interviews).

LN: What was the kernel of the idea for your novel, MEM? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked toward its completion?

BM: The kernel of the idea was making cloning more interesting than I find it in real life, lol. And then determining that the most interesting person in that world would be such a clone, but one that doesn't match her intended purpose, and because there's an expectation on her to prove her humanness, she has such a shallow pool of "respectable" identity expression while others who are never questioned are free to be inhuman. 

LN: What brings you joy?

BM: My son, of course, before everything. The right words. A sound too perfect to be translated into words. A shared happiness.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

BM: I started reading What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, and from the first page, the gasp I made at the end of the first story, it's just intoxicating.

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Interview: Micah Perks

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Micah Perks is a Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she co-directs the Creative Writing program. She’s written four books, her most recent being a collection of linked short stories entitled, True Love and Other Miraculous Dreams of Escape. Her work has been published in Tin House, Zyzzyva, The Massachusetts Review, and many other places. We were delighted to have the opportunity to interview Micah as her new book was about to be released. Thank you, Micah!

You can see Micah at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire, on Saturday, October 13 at 7:00 pm. Micah will also be in conversation with Peter Orner at The Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday, October 17, at 7:00 pm.


Literary North: Tell us a bit about putting together your new collection of linked short stories, True Love and Other Miraculous Dreams of Escape. What threads were you following throughout this collection?

Micah Perks: These are stories I originally wrote over a period of fifteen years. When I went to put them together, I realized there were characters who were similar to each other—like a bald Latin American guy with great teeth who was sometimes an Argentinian scientist and sometimes a Chilean professor and sometimes a human rights activist. (My husband is a bald Chilean guy with great teeth.) I realized they were basically the same guy, so I started there, making them the same guy, and everything lead from there—if he's the same guy, then his children are the same people, his storyline needs an arc, and after six months, I had a linked collection. All the stories are about the longing to forge close connections and the longing to escape. This is something I've been writing about all my life. I think it's a very American dilemma—from the very beginning we have wanted to create a shining city on a hill and as soon as we created communities there were people who wanted to light out for the territory ahead of the rest. We've imagined utopia in an ideal community and also utopia in an escape from those communities.

LN: What influences have shaped you into the writer you are today?

MP: Growing up on a commune in the Adirondack wilderness. My escape artist father and my ever loving mom. And I've always loved reading. I read a lot. The books that made me a writer were C. S. Lewis' Narnia series and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. One about finding the perfect world, the other about escaping stifling domesticity.

LN: You've written essays, memoir, and fiction. How does the genre you're working in affect your writing process?

MP: If I'm writing memoir, it's because I want to focus on issues of truth and memory. I always contact the people I'm writing about and ask for their point of view. Often I write their point of view into the memoir. My fiction is usually a blending of historical research, experience, and imagination. 

LN: What brings you joy?

MP: Great question! Kayaking. Biking. Nature. Reading and writing. My students. My children. Eating delicious things. Lying at night talking face to face with my husband, laughing over cocktails with my friends. Any combination of these things. I biked from Berlin to Copenhagen in June with my daughter after she graduated from college. That trip included the biking, the laughing, my daughter, the nature, even sometimes a cocktail. It was very joyful.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you've read in the past month?

MP: Another great question. I'm reading Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd right now. I LOVE the way she moves between past, present, and a fictional time/place. Brilliant. And the dialogue of the young boy is really funny. I love funny kids. I love books that make me laugh, feel sad, think. This book does all three.

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Interview: Mary Jo Bang

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the third in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Mary Jo Bang is the author of several books of poems, including A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017), The Last Two Seconds (Graywolf Press, 2015), The Bride of E: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2009), and Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and was a 2008 New York Times Notable Book. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Of A Doll for Throwing, Publisher’s Weekly says, “Bang’s impeccable collection reads as a ‘circular mirror of the social order,’ reflecting the historicity of our current moment with wit, subtlety, and grace.” And The Washington Post writes, “Mary Jo Bang bends and tosses ideas as easily as one would a Wurfpuppe, a flexible doll created by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that always landed with grace when thrown.”

Thank you, Mary Jo, for your wonderful answers to our questions!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Mary Jo Bang: My writing practice changed when computers replaced typewriters. When I began, I kept notebooks or wrote on loose sheets of paper—when the poem felt resolved, I would type it. Now, I usually compose a poem on the computer and print it out when it feels somewhat settled. I then mark changes on that piece of paper and eventually go back to the computer and make more changes. I repeat that cycle for anywhere from minutes to weeks or months. Because it’s far easier to make changes on the computer, compared to retyping a poem from start to finish, I think the process of composing remains fluid for longer.

There is also the fact that when I began writing, I had the luxury of sitting in front of a blank piece of paper for hours or days, never knowing whether it might become something worth saving. I’m busier now and also clearer about what I want to say. I can’t imagine sitting in front of a piece of paper for days. I may not write as often but when I sit down to write, I write (meaning, I type what I write on a keyboard).

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

MJB: I remain influenced by Samuel Beckett, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigmund Freud, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Jean Toomer, Gertrude Stein, early Eliot, my friends, my teachers, my students, The New York Times, New York City, the Surrealists, Baudelaire, Dante, Shuzo Takiguchi, every painting I’ve ever seen, my erratic brain, etc.

LN: Your most recent book of poems, A Doll for Throwing, was inspired by the Bauhaus school, and photographer Lucia Moholy. Why did you decide to write about this subject? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked towards its completion?

MJB: As always with inspiration, one sees or hears something, or one entertains a thought, and then there’s a next seeing or hearing or thinking. It’s all very messy and unpredictable at the beginning, but, at some point, you begin to shape whatever you’ve taken in by combining it with your pre-existing obsessions and preoccupations. In this case, I saw a rather non-descript photograph by Lucia Moholy in a museum and became curious about her name. I knew of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy—the famous Bauhaus Master-teacher and visual artist—and wondered whether she was related. I learned that she was his first wife and that she had taken most of the iconic photographs of the early Bauhaus buildings and workshop products but that those photographs came to be associated not with her but with Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school and design movement. Her name had been all but erased from history. I felt, as a woman who has worked to establish herself as an artist against some odds (working class background, years of single parenthood), an odd kind of kinship. I eventually immersed myself in the history of the Bauhaus and used that place and era as an imagined stage from which I then wrote about my own experience of being a woman and an artist in the present—as well as my own experience of being a photographer, before I became a poet.

LN: What brings you joy?

MJB: So many things! Right now, translating Dante’s Purgatorio into colloquial English. For me, translation is similar to working an endless crossword puzzle. I never tire of it. If I could, I’d give up sleeping for it, however, whenever my disembodied mind attempts to do that, the body that houses my brain puts its foot down and insists I go to bed.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

MJB: Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, a delightfully subversive book of prose poems. She uses a fever-pitch stream-of-consciousness approach to construct brief narratives about growing up in Los Angeles. The poems play with received notions of celebrity, masculinity, femininity, fashion, film, and family (to name a few). The book becomes a ‘joiner’ collage of snapshots, each featuring another glimpse what it’s like to be alive in America in the present! It’s smart and funny and like nothing else you’ll read.

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Interview: Dan Chiasson

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the second in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Poet and critic Dan Chiasson is author of four books of poetry: The Afterlife of Objects (2002), Natural History (2005), Where's the Moon, There's the Moon (2010) and, most recently, Bicentennial (2014). A book of criticism, One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America, was published in 2006. He has received the Whiting Writers' Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation.

Dan is the poetry critic for The New Yorker, as well as a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, where he writes about poetry, pop music, and film. He was poetry editor, and later advisory editor, of The Paris Review. A Vermont native, Dan teaches at Wellesley College and lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.

His 2014 book, Bicentennial is both a book about Chiasson’s childhood in Vermont and an elegy for his father. In her review in The New York Times, Daisy Fried writes, “Dan Chiasson is after beauty of a kind, so his poems are often beautiful, odd and quite moving. He seldom resorts to lilting cadences or glow-in-the-dark imagery to achieve this, and complicates any move toward traditional lyric warmth; his poetry is genially brainy, jokey, casually formal, sometimes essayistic and humorously oracular.”

Thank you, Dan, for your thoughtful answers to our questions!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Dan Chiasson: I write in the mornings, once my kids are off to school, and before teaching or other obligations. I sit at a small, painted farm table, at a purple Eames chair I got 25 years ago. It's in the hallway of our upstairs. I look out at the main street we live on. People scurry by to the T station at the bottom of the hill. If I'm writing poetry, it comes very fast. But I am hardly ever writing poetry. Usually I'm working on a book review, which is like pulling teeth. I get a few sentences down, then a few more. The openings take me forever. Once I have an opening and I can see where the argument is headed, I take a break. Usually I go for a run and think about the sentences I just wrote, and often I think of new ones when I'm out exercising.

LN: What influences have helped shaped you into the writer you are today>?

DC: I would name two especially. Jamaica Kincaid, whom I met at Harvard, was my greatest influence. She has a phosphorescent mind, and we became instant friends—partly because of our connection to Vermont. I was trying to write fiction when I met her; she convinced me that my stories were really poems. We drank gin and tonics at the old Upstairs at the Pudding in Harvard Square and gossiped about people at Harvard. Just talking to her was a training in what words to use, how to be interesting, funny, alert, lyrical and truthful. Around that same time, 1997 or so, I called up Frank Bidart, a poet I admired. He invited me to his classes at Wellesley, where, needless to say I stood out. Frank, too, was such an easy presence, kind, passionate, and (most importantly) incapable of pretending to like things he didn't like. He kept odd hours then as he does still, so often I'd drop a poem off during the day at his apartment in Cambridge, and hear from him late at night, when he woke up.

LN: As the poetry critic for The New Yorker, you share poetry criticism with very literate readers, not all of whom know much about poetry. What goes into deciding which poets and books to share with readers each week?

DC: I think I'm a teacher by nature. A person happiest explaining things to people who are curious to learn. New Yorker readers are the perfect audience because they love critical prose. How many readers of, say, Alex Ross go to the concerts he reviews? Some, but not many. They read him because of his prose, his arguments, his distinctions. The popular music critic Amanda Petrusich may convince more people to go to a show or buy a record, but still, it's her prose, it's the quality of her mind and the cadences of her sentences. So I try to pick books that interest me, that stir up my desire to put good sentences together, that allow me to convey what's beautiful and necessary about poetry. I would suspect that only a small percentage of my readers go out and buy the books. Maybe I'm wrong, I hope so; but I would contend that criticism is its own end, its own fulfillment, and I'm probably at one extreme in that I do not see my essays as serving the books I'm reviewing, but rather the art of poetry, with the books I'm reviewing as especially rich examples of what it can do.

LN: What brings you joy?

DC: Our sons, ages 12 and 14, both bring a huge amount of cultural information into our house. What brings me joy is hearing them argue about the merits of a movie or a band or a performance, which they do constantly. I would say, animated conversation brings me joy. The discovery of a new work of art or body of work. Being in the places that mean the most to me: many of them in Vermont. I would say, swimming in Bristol Falls or at that little rocky public beach in Charlotte. Also, Al's French Frys. The old places in downtown Burlington that are still there from when I was 12 or 13 and discovering the city on my own: Pure Pop Records, Old Gold. Leunig's. Sneakers in Winooski, where I worked from 6th grade until the summer before my last year of college.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

DC: I'm deep in teaching Emily Dickinson now. There's a poem that is not that well known, "I watched the moon around the house—" about tracking the moon as it passes across the windows of her bedroom. These stanzas blow my mind, comparing the moon to a severed head and then a stemless flower:

But like a Head — a Guillotine
Slid carelessly away —
Did independent, Amber —
Sustain her in the sky —

Or like a Stemless Flower —
Upheld in rolling Air
By finer Gravitations —
Than bind Philosopher —

Photo by BrianSmithBoston.com

Photo by BrianSmithBoston.com