1) How would you describe your poetry?
For me, rhythm is important. I use a lot of rhyme and assonance, and many of my poems contain meter -- but my poems usually are not metered throughout; within one poem I might switch back and forth between iambs, anapests, and very irregular free verse. I love the power, beauty, and precision of metered poetry, but I think of many of the traditional forms (the Spenserian sonnet, for example) as being expressions of order, and most of the time I'm more interested in expressing what I think of as disorder and the uncontainable. I create rhythmical patterns mainly for the sake of disrupting them.
When performing, I recite my poems from memory. The rhythmical drive behind my poems makes them easy to memorize -- and also, I hope, makes my poems accessible to audiences. My dream reader would be somebody who reads my poems aloud, so that he or she is hearing the words, not just seeing them.
2) How does poetry fit into your everyday life?
I try to write every day. Some days I fall short of that goal. For me, poetry is a way of processing and understanding experience -- so when an idea or event somehow disturbs my equilibrium, I write about it. The more settled and calm my life becomes, the more I need to look outside myself to find sources of disturbance.
3) What poets and/or authors inspire you?
I seem to fixate on particular poets for years at a time, trying to learn as much from them as I can -- and the poet who I've fixated on longer than any other is Auden.
Auden's writing has all the dynamism that I love in poetry -- his poems can swerve from thought to thought, impression to impression, taking in a huge amount of territory, going places that I'd never expect -- but at the same time, Auden's poems are intellectually coherent. I never feel that he's exploring tangents just for the sake of bombarding the reader with more and more stimulus; in the Auden poems I love best, every line has purpose. Look at these lines, for example, from The Sea and the Mirror:
But now all these heavy books are no more use to me any more, for
Where I go, words carry no weight; it is best,
Then, I surrender their fascinating counsel
To the silent dissolution of the sea
Which misuses nothing because it values nothing;
Whereas man overvalues everything
Yet, when he learns the price is pegged to his valuation,
Complains bitterly he is being ruined which, of course, he is,
So kings find it odd that they should have a million subjects
Yet share in the thoughts of none, and seducers
Are sincerely puzzled at being unable to love
What they are able to possess ...
Amazing! I wish I'd written that passage. Each line seems to develop and enlarge the implications of the previous lines. Other poets whose work has been important to me are W.S. Merwin, Philip Levine, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W.B. Yeats, E.E. Cummings, and James Wright. I'm not sure who my next fixation will be. Maybe Amy Clampitt, Elizabeth Bishop, or Frank O'Hara.
4) How does your current neighborhood or community play a part in your poetry?
I do a lot of walking. Walking gets me away from my theories and fixed ways of thinking, because as my feet wander, my thoughts wander, too. Most of my poems begin as words or phrases that come to me when I'm walking, so my physical environment always seeps into my poetry: a firetruck here, a weathervane there. I don't feel that I'm documenting my environment -- many of my poems contain details that are completely imagined -- but my poems definitely reflect my environment, or at least they reflect my feelings about wherever I am.
5) What is the last book you have read that you enjoyed? Tell our Big Blue Marble community a little about it.
I have a toddler, so some of the books I've read mostly recently are The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Susan Marie Swanson's The House in the Night -- a truly beautiful book -- and Diggers. I grew up on Beatrix Potter and I can't wait until my son is old enough to enjoy The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher.
A couple of days ago, a friend lent me Bucolics by Maurice Manning, and that's what I'm reading right now. The poems in Bucolics are short, unpunctuated lyrics addressed to God, or to a God-like entity named "Boss." They're philosophically ambitious, but they're also funny and disarming. Here's a passage:
you toss the stars like clover seed
you sling them through the sky you must
be glad to be a sower Boss
you sow so many things besides
the sky you sow the seed of dew
the seed of night you let it grow
until the morning overgrows
the night ...
I love it when poems direct my thoughts toward real questions, and at the same time, are so free of pomp and self-regard that they seem effortless. They're not effortless, of course! It's extremely difficult to write about serious topics in a serious way without taking yourself too seriously. But Manning succeeds at it, I think.
James Arthur was born in Connecticut and grew up in Canada. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, Ploughshares, and The American Poetry Review. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry, a residency at the Amy Clampitt House, a Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. His fiery debut collection Charms Against Lightning is available from Copper Canyon Press. He’ll be reading with Rahul Mehta at Big Blue Marble Bookstore on Saturday, November 17th at 5:00pm. This event is co-sponsored by Apiary Magazine.