John James is the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Award. His work appears or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, Best New Poets 2013, and elsewhere. He lives in Washington, DC, where he serves as graduate associate to the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University. His poem “History (n.)” can be found here. It appears in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “History (n.)”?
To be honest, I wrote the piece toward the end of Tupelo Press’s April 30/30, wherein several poets are featured on their website, each of whom writes one poem every day throughout the month (or for thirty days, if it happens to be one of those odd months). Somewhere along the line—largely out of desperation—I started writing poems in large prose stanzas. To be scrupulous, I made myself write sixteen prose lines in Perpetua font. Yes, that’s how meticulous I can be. I’m always looking for numerical patterns in my work. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s a certain fidelity to the numerical order of metrical verse. Poetry has a long history, and I can’t help but feel I’m working within that tradition. Anyway, I wrote the poem in about an hour, while my mom was downstairs watching my daughter, then started toying with it on the page until the form seemed to match the content. And then I was done. The process was unsettlingly fast, but it occurred after a month of near constant writing, or near constant thinking about writing, and after that kind of sustained meditation I broke through into something I hadn’t done before. So that was my impetus.
The ash that falls in this poem is undeniably something which obscures and something which your persona notes as preventing his or her clear vision. Is there anything about this natural disaster which connects across history, perhaps linking this speaker with the lives of others before who also endured eruptions? Did you intend for the ash in the air to be a bridge as well as a curtain?
Because the writing happened so quickly, I’m not sure how much I really thought about all of these things as symbols or metaphors, necessarily. They are. Undeniably. And you are right to point them out. I remember from my study of Plato that seeing can mean a lot more than what is merely visual. The Greek eidos refers to a visual form, but Plato is constantly punning on it to gesture toward the Forms (idea) that transcend material reality. Then again, the verb form of idea, idein, also means “to see.” For Plato, vision and ideation are virtually inseparable. Even in English, “to see” means also to understand, to comprehend, and ultimately, to know. So of course, “seeing” means a lot more than “seeing,” regardless of whether that sight is clear or obscured. Funny enough, the ash was merely a detail I snagged from reading articles about volcano eruptions, especially those about Chile’s Calbuco volcano, which had erupted (and was continuing to erupt) as I was writing the poem. That said, the ash probably worked on some level—you might say subconsciously—against the metaphorical “sight” at work in the poem’s scalar modulations, focal shifts, and the diagnostic process of “history” the poem attempts to probe.
You seem to cast history as an act of sight and will—in what ways do you consider history to be born of human action and effort rather than merely existing regardless of if anyone discovers it?
History is always a process; it’s never set. That’s why “history” morphs from a noun into a verb in the final section. It’s an act of searching, investigating, questioning—as I said a second ago, of diagnosing. I mean that in the etymological sense. To “diagnose” means to know or to gain knowledge (gnosis) by seeing through or across (dia) the evidence at hand, which in medicine, as for historians, is plain old material reality. Historians are always trying to piece together a narrative based on the accounts available to us: oral accounts, archeological artifacts, texts, and the like. What we call “primary sources.” But history is by nature an aporetic endeavor. As much as we attempt to fashion a narrative, or an argument, about what happened, that narrative in its totality will ultimately elude us, for every perspective contains its blind spots. In fact, we can assemble many different narratives about the past, but “looking” at the past—at “history” as noun—is like trying to see all sides of a tree at once. You can walk around and around it, and see all of its sides at different points and from various perspectives, but the object, as a whole, remains obscured. We cannot comprehend its totality because we cannot gather all such perspectives into a single field of vision, and so our understanding of it is a process, it’s ongoing, but that doesn’t mean we should stop searching.
In your poem’s opening, your persona calls his or her lack of sight “a problem of scale.” Is it this same problem of scale which makes this ash so blinding? If the afflicted individuals are so occupied with the personal emergencies that the ash gives them, will they be unable to see past their time and back to Pompeii for instance?
I don’t think anyone preoccupied with a personal emergency can see anything other than what is immediately in front of them. Nor should they. But there’s something to what you’re suggesting, which is to say, the “problem of scale” prevents us from recognizing the conflicts right in front of us, which should be immediately obvious. It’s a problem with scientificity itself. All of our disciplines have become so specialized, it can be difficult to understand any one issue in its systemic complexities—what the sociologist Bruno Latour would call “shared agency”—such that we fail to recognize existential crises such as climate change until it is almost too late. Even then, it can be difficult for “experts” to tackle those problems, because their own specialization blinds them from the ways the various pieces of overarching systems interact, oppose, and depend upon one another. Sometimes adjusting the scale can save us from our own blindness.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I had a kid. Ha! In all seriousness, I used to write very slowly and methodically. I could linger over a single line for hours, a day or two, not just carrying it around in my head but sitting in front of a computer or notebook and thinking over it incessantly. I didn’t write for about a year after my daughter was born, but after that, because my time was so much more limited, I wrote recklessly, in short spurts, adopting whatever influences or subject matter happened to be at hand. From the outside, my poems might not seem that different. I still find myself getting stuck on the same images and turns of phrase that I always have, at least to some extent. A poet-friend recently put me on a “bloom” watch. But to me, the poems seem more fragmentary, shattered. They move all over the page. They hold together only by the thinnest threads of association and leap from one thought or image to the next. I don’t think I was doing that before, and I think it’s a good thing.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I’m interested in activities that connect me to the earth, and those sorts of things tend to come out in my work. A reviewer recently described my chapbook Chthonic as “earthy,” which makes sense to me. Gardening is one of those things. I love the patience it takes to plant seeds in the dirt, to water them, to watch them grow from day to day, almost cell by cell. To watch their buds open up throughout the course of a single day, or to watch their fruit develop and ripen over the course of a week or so. Similarly, I keep several orchids around my home. They won’t bloom for several months, but then, all of a sudden, a stem shoots up and new flowers begin to bloom. And each time they come in more brilliantly than the last. But even before they bloom—and this is my favorite part, which I always make a point of sharing with my daughter—all these little buds appear along the stem, and if you watch them closely, every day, you can tell when, by the hour, they are going to open up. Talk about a problem of scale. It seems cliché even to note, but so many people never bother to pay attention to such things. I can’t tell you how many perfectly good orchids I’ve seen sitting in trash cans in Washington, D.C. People buy them at Whole Foods, keep them until they are done blooming, and then throw them away. It’s so wasteful. Just keep watering them and they’ll bloom again! Sit them in the window! Poetry, for me, exists in the minute details, and I find many such details in these otherwise minor observations.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Before Conan O’Brien signed off on the very last episode of Late Night in 2009, he looked into the camera and offered a piece of advice that, he thought, had made him a successful comedian: “Work hard and be nice to people.” I don’t think there’s a better piece of advice out there, for anyone working in anything. If you don’t come to the page often (in fact, almost every day), the writing just isn’t going to come; but if you can’t treat people with respect, congratulate them when they accomplish great things—even if they’re great things you wish you had accomplished—then not only are you less likely to be successful, you’ll be bitter and angry and unhappy with yourself. That’s not a good way to be. So, yes, work hard. And be nice to people.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m putting the final touches on my first full-length collection of poems, currently (though I think, now, permanently) titled The Milk Hours. “History (n.)” is a part of it. In fact, that series of quickly written, fragmentary poems that I wrote mostly during the April 30/30 make up about the final third of the book. I can’t tell you how thankful I am to the folks at Tupelo for making that space for me. As challenging as it can be, I definitely recommend that kind of intensive writing schedule for anyone who’s sort of stumped about how to proceed with their writing. If you write every day, you get to a point where the poems just fall out of you. This one sure did. Plus, my book is finished now, and I can’t believe it. I’ll be circulating the manuscript this fall and hope to find a publisher soon.