The line I’m searching for — an Interview with John James
Winner of the Max Ritvo Prize, John James’s The Milk Hours (Milkweed Editions) pursues the texture of its poet’s world: daughter-full and bursting with natural life. We’re honored to have the chance to ask James about his dad, his animals, his favorite line and the impetus for including his own collage art in the book.
Much of the book’s imagistic experience is ecological—but not in a usual way of seeking truth in nature. Rather, as I was reading, nature felt like it was seeking truth in the speaker, in me, an interrogation with a mute accuser. How have you come to see nature, animals, landscapes functioning in Milk Hours? What have you learned about your relationship to the world through writing this collection?
John James: That’s a great observation. I don’t think of “nature” as a mysterious entity somehow separate from ourselves, and certainly not as a mysterious entity containing truth. There’s definitely a Romantic element to my poems, but that’s where I diverge from, say, a Coleridge or a Wordsworth—and one of the difficulties I experience in reading their work. The human body is no less a part of nature than the grasses it steps through. Nor is the mind. It’s all part of the same material system, which includes the perceiver and the things perceived, as well as the many things that go unperceived but which nevertheless constitute the environments we inhabit. This is true of animals, insects, landscapes, and bacteria. I learned as much about this from gardening as I did from writing The Milk Hours, but what both of these activities taught me is that the world is full of ecological systems big and small. Sometimes we have to adjust the scale—of our thinking and our seeing—in order to perceive it.
Fatherhood threads through so many of the poems in The Milk Hour—what has poetry taught you about fatherhood?
You know, it’s funny. I hadn’t thought of the book as being so much about parenthood, or about fatherhood specifically, until people started reading and responding to it. It’s definitely true, but not in ways I had anticipated. As the title poems makes clear, I lost my father when I was quite young, and that absence reverberated throughout my life. It was an absent presence. A phantom, of sorts. When my daughter was born, my biggest fear was that I would somehow be absent to her in the way that my father had been in my life. But I also came to understand suicide and depression on different terms, and came less to blame him for his absence as to sympathize with the ways he so tangibly suffered, and that I’ll never quite understand. Writing the book definitely allowed me to deal with that grief, which I had repressed for a long time. But I’m not sure what it taught me about fathering itself. That’s something I’m still trying to figure out all of the time, step by clumsy, loving step. I’d say my daughter teaches me more about fathering than writing a book ever could.
In the poem “Scarecrow,” this refrain of a poet’s writing life: “That’s not the line I’m searching for.” If you had to choose—a difficult task, I know!—which line from the book do you think might have been the one you had been searching for in writing all these poems? Why?
There’s a line in “Klee’s Painting” that reads: “The world thickens with its texture.” Specifically, it refers to the “keyboard of a piano divided into many notes,” as well as to the various observations that precede it—the human body, chickens “plucking shells,” seals eating fish at the zoo. This term “texture” is important to how I understand the world and to the philosophical outlook presented in these poems. While it most readily refers to weaving, “texture” shares an etymology with “tissue,” as in skin, muscles, organs. For me, it refers to material things in the world, the things we perceive so vividly through our senses and that my poetry attempts not only to depict but to grapple with. Of course, language has a texture of its own, something I tried to explore but juxtaposing bits of language from divergent and competing registers. Somewhere along the line, I realized the poems comprise a kind of anti-philosophy that values material experience over abstractions such as spirit, mind, or God, which Western metaphysics has historically championed. The term is key to my worldview, and to understanding the book, on formal and conceptual levels.
You’ve said in a previous conversation, you describe how a few of these poems helped you discover a desire to think seriously about your father’s death. So much of writing requires emotional courage and wounding—where and how did you find support while writing these poems? Who did you turn to when the going got tough?
I started writing poems because I was lonely. Even before I approached this more difficult subject matter, writing became a kind of self-communion that transformed loneliness into solitude by working through questions in a sustained but often haphazard manner. In a sense, writing itself was the support I found—support, that is, for the difficult work of mourning rather support for the act of writing. The writing itself was cathartic. But it was also never deliberate. I never sat down thinking to myself that I would write about suicide, loss, or even parenthood. These things just emerged. They were latent obsessions and I didn’t have another way to excise them. In the process, I confronted many things that needed to be confronted, and grew simultaneously as a writer and as a person—and there were people who helped along the way. But the poems are more memorials to that process than products created through mining grief as a poetry subject.
The final section of the book contains several images. As the bio on your book jacket suggests, you are also a collagist. Can you tell us about the process of making these collages? What made you decide to include them in the book?
I’m glad you asked about that. I started making the collages in early 2018. I was a little stumped on poetry, trying to make some final revisions to the book, and needed to find a different mode of expression. I remembered seeing some interesting images in Rebecca Gayle Howell’s incredible collection American Purgatory and had been wanting to try my hand at it. I downloaded some simple editing software and began cutting up images from the British Library’s Flicker Commons page—an incredible resource, for anyone interested in this kind of work. I began grafting them onto one another, juxtaposing them, layering one upon another, and found that the visual medium—especially the triptych form these collages take—was a useful one for exploring the nature-culture hybridity so central both to my poetic and critical writing. I was surprised, though, that the kinds of images I found myself attracted to were also the ones that emerge in my poetry. I suppose all of my art springs from the same place, but I didn’t anticipate such an easy confluence. Months later, it finally dawned on me to include them in the book—just in time, since it was accepted not long after that.
John James is the author of The Milk Hours (available for pre-order now), selected by Henri Cole as winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. He is also the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Award. His poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Best American Poetry 2017, and elsewhere. Also a digital collagist, his visual art is forthcoming in the Adroit Journal, Quarterly West, and LIT. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley.