Interview with American poet and writer James Goertel
Q.- In your poems you have mentioned some poets, writers… like Sylvia Plat, Bukowski, Kerouac and many others. What’s your favourite?
A.- I would have to say Charles Bukowski. His writing is what inspired me to give it a go. What I admire most about his work is its simplicity – which is an illusion because you have to work damn hard to achieve his kind of simplicity in any kind of writing.
Q.- Simplicity? I would like to know more. I like James Joyce, for example, who is not an example of simplicity. Do you think that poetry or writing might be simple? There are a lot of theories about that but we would like to know your point of view… about writing. What kind of writer are you? what kind of writer you want to be? And… do you like James Joyce?
A.- I wish I could write as simply and straight forward as Bukowski! And I am not that kind of a writer at all – but, I do admire his style – he was an original and I think that is a very hard thing to achieve. Just like Joyce – an original – who did it in a totally different way. What you’re striving for in writing, ultimately, is that your work is yours and that your influences are never so apparent that your poetry or fiction ends up as a watered down version of another writer’s. I want folks to read a James Goertel poem and know it is mine.
Q.- And what is… James Goertel’s point?
A.- I look for the connections – between internal emotion and the external world, between thought and feeling, between language and life. My writing is a way of connecting the dots for me – of making sense of the world, of exploring my own mutable identity, and ultimately, hopefully, of ascending Maslow’s pyramid. Writing is a form of self-actualization for me, a way to reflect on moments but also on the journey.
Q.- Good answer, James. Sometimes, when I write a book, it is a very personal part of my life and I cannot live without it. It turns my life different. Reading your poems I found them very personal. Do you think that your poems have helped you to live? Can you live without writing?
A.- Writing is a way of allowing ourselves to stand still in time – but to also move backward and forward in time. We carry the personal along with us and make decisions about sharing our thoughts and feelings along the timeline – what I love about poetry is not only its breath of life, sketch of life qualities, but more so how it waits on life – in the wings – for the right moment when our thoughts, hopes, reflections, loves, and losses congeal and we must somehow express them – poetry allows us a way to see the angel in the marble before it is sculpted. For me writing is a way to live more fully – out in the world, inside the mind, between the heart and soul.
Q.- Is there a perfect poem?
A.- Yes. For the reader certainly. We know it when we read one and it speaks completely to us. Again, though, this is personal for every reader – I have found perfection in many poems as a reader – some by Jim Harrison, by James Dickey, by Plath, and certainly by Bukowski – but – others read the same poems and get nothing from them. Also, poetry changes for us as readers as we change. Some poems are not meaningful initially, but become so as we accumulate experience, emotional currency, and perspective. As a writer of poems, the perfect poem is the mirage that keeps me walking into the distance, keeps me writing. Will I know when I get “there” – ? I can’t answer that as yet – I’m still walking.
Q.- Yes, maybe we are all still walking, as readers and as writers but… do you feel you are closer? I mean, to the reader, to your public, maybe to yourself. How have you grown up as a writer?
A.- Again it comes down to connection. It is all about connection for me. If there has been a change in my writing, I can only say that it has come about from years of doing it and through allowing my ever-accumulating experiences and insights to inform the writing. I feel that I am connecting with my readers. My writing has been influenced enough by the years’ sediment of experience to seem familiar and comfortable beneath the feet of my readers. When the personal can function as the universal, a bridge has been built between the writer and the reader. I can see that the landscapes I am constructing for myself, through my writing are a geography the reader either knows or is willing to explore – carrying along their own maps of experience, emotion as a way of navigating the terrain.
Q.- Sometimes, I am a very different person when I write, like a theatre actor. It’s not me, there are a lot of people talking through my mouth with different voices. Do you feel the same when you write a poem? Is it James Goertel who writes the poem? How many voices do you have?
A.- Somebody asked me recently what animal I am when I write. That was an easy question for me. I am a chameleon. I think the “different voices” are especially important when writing dialogue for fiction. There is nothing worse than a story, a novel in which all the characters sound the same. Language is unique for everyone and should be unique for our characters and for our poems. Writing is a way for the frustrated actor to try on all the costumes he or she likes. What makes us interesting as people is our differences and I think it is part of the writer’s job to develop a sensitivity to those differences, especially in the way we talk. My voice in poetry writing is a mutable thing – influenced by what I have heard, seen out in the world. If you internalize all that is external in your walk through life, it seems only natural that it should, will come out in tongues.
Q.- About your poems… Do you have a favourite one? Can you choose one of them? Is there any special for you? Tell us, please. (We can finish the interview with the poem if you want)
A.- That’s like asking a father or mother who their favorite child is… so, in a sense I have no answer. But I will offer one that I wrote for my four-year-old son, Henry. It’s from my first collection, Each Year an Anthem. Favorite? Perhaps not. But if only one of my poems could survive into his adult life, then this is the one I would choose. It has no title – needs no title, I believe.
I am writing to you with the smoke from a chimney,
so it is only natural your eyes are tearing as you read this.
I will not always be here,
dispersed by the wind as well in time.
But I will still be there.
You need only look, listen, and feel.
Your mirrors will hold messages and reminders.
The birds outside your door will hold songs and stories.
Your heart will hold longing and emotion.
So burn brightly, strong through all the nights
you will set ablaze without me after I am gone.
I will find your smoke among the stars
and it will be my blanket against the cold of death.