Interview with James Goertel about his new book, Self Portrait.
A photo captures a moment in time – but only a moment. Transfiguration is always there – hanging in the shadows of the frame, waiting to change the face, the mind, the heart, and the soul. We are not who we were. As a writer, I am aware this transfiguration of spirit and thought is reflected in the poems and stories I write. What was written in the past is a snapshot of the moment as much as the old photo found in a dusty drawer. Poems begun at dawn often only vaguely resemble themselves at dusk, are unrecognizable in the hours after midnight – when many of my own new poems for Self Portrait were completed. Each new poem changes me – something has left, another thing has entered; an effigy of emotion, expression, intention has been freed from the psyche and in return a sort of understanding, closure, continuum takes its mutable, impermanent place in the frame. Self Portrait, with its eighty or so poems, captures a year’s worth of writing – but is also only a snapshot, a particular point of view, an imperfect lens. The picture of this past year’s writing is not near so tidy, organized, or tangible as this book of new poems. It is a mosaic of hundreds of self portraits; poems begun and discarded, lines jotted then lost, sentiments too personal to share, observations too honest to be included. Writing is not writing – writing is editing and so it is this collection has been culled from a cache which offers a completely different picture. The camera is pointed here rather than there; the canvas is left half unpainted; the song has only words, no music. The self portrait cannot capture all that has changed, all that will change. It is only a document that says, I was here – and that I and here are not possibly the same now. ~ James Goertel, September 2013
Today, we are here to speak with author/poet James Goertel about his new collection of poetry entitled Self Portrait.
Martin Cid: Thanks again, James, and congratulations on your new book. The first question is a little obvious, why Self Portrait? I suppose that this is a very personal book for you. What’s the difference between Self Portrait and your other books?
James Goertel: Not an obvious question at all. It’s a good question. Half of the thrill of putting together a book is deciding what it will be called. I knew I wanted something simple and as I was editing this collection I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan – especially his often derided album from 1970 entitled Self Portrait. I liked the connotations of that title – of a snapshot or portrait of a particular moment in time. These poems capture a picture, a painting of the poetry I have been writing over the past year. The poems I have been writing since the publication of Self Portrait paint a different picture. The cover photo is a photo of me when I was 18 – an age at which I first began writing poetry. But I am not that same person. I have changed as anyone would over the course of thirty years. And my poetry has changed and continues to do so with each passing year. My first two collections, Each Year an Anthem and With No Need for a Name were thematic works, Self Portrait is a sprawling, eclectic collection with no definitive theme. The next book of poetry will be different from the first three – I can already see that. So, who I am as a writer, a poet is always in transition. Each collection is a self portrait of my writing particular to the time period it was written.
MC: I would like to know about your relationship with poetry. Do you prefer to write prose or poetry?
JG: My writing comfort zones are the genres of poetry and screenwriting. These are my most natural states as a writer. My story collection, Carry Each His Burden, was an attempt to challenge myself as a writer – and a successful one. I was pleased with the results and folks seem to like the collection and its five diverse stories. I have been working on my debut new novel, Let the Power Fall, over the past year and that genre is one that feels less spiritual and more workman-like. Poetry for me is like a pilgrimage to Mecca, the novel feels more like building a church. Both are fulfilling, beautiful experiences with their own distinct set of rewards, but writing a novel requires, demands blueprints – the poetry works best without them.
MC: A personal question now. The book was published on August 20. Any reaction from your family and friends?
JG: For them something like Self Portrait is natural, obvious, inevitable. In their eyes, this book, the ones before, those that will follow are part of a continuum. They, unlike my other readers, have known me as a writer for decades, so the four books I have written are welcomed by them with an air that says, Finally, we have something formalized we can put on our bookshelves. These are the folks that have encouraged me for years and are happiest to see me taking my craft so seriously and with such exciting and fulfilling results. My wife, Rachel, is my editor and my muse, so I view all of my books as collaborations with her. She is infinitely patient and brutally honest which is more than any writer could ask for from any family member.
MC: Tell us, what do you want with this book? Any previous intention? What do you want to tell us with this book?
JG: I want my poetry to always act both universally and personally. I see very clearly that poetry has the power to speak to and for the reader. My intention with this book of poems especially is to continue that conversation with the reader. But, above all else, this book, my other books are for my son, Henry, who is only 4. These books will continue my conversation with him long after I am no longer here to do so myself.
MC: I will take a risk. For me, your poetry is very visual. I mean, you can imagine complex scenes and you can be involved in your poem. Am I right? As you well know – and I’m sure you know it -Yareah is a magazine about arts and writing. I would like to know if you imagine a scene previously when you write a poem or if you let the poemgo where it will by itself?
JG: The first creative writing I did with any professional commitment was screenplay writing. I am a very visual person. I have a degree in film. I love movies. I love the mix of media – music, writing, photography – that movies manipulate to tell a story, to pull emotion from the human spirit. So, that’s what I am going for when I write; feeling, visual interest, rhythm in the pursuit of telling a story. I write from the heart and the gut – the intellect is just a means of providing structure and of dressing emotion and intention in a vocabulary which best represents, informs both of those.
MC: Sometimes, when I write something, music is involved in the creation. Do you use music when you write? Tell us how you write a poem. I mean, have you got any routine when you write?
JG: For me it is all feeling – and music is for me the most emotive of all the arts. So, music is always a part of my process. It may only be a tune that has been stuck in my head – may not even be something I am listening to at the moment. I would argue that it is harder to write a wonderful three minute pop song, than it is to write a hundred poems or a thousand page novel. I am in awe of songwriters and musicians. To me the craft of songwriting is connected to the divine.
MC: As we know, Self Portrait is a poetry collection. Tell us, when you began to write these poems?
JG: The poems in this collection date as far back as a year ago and are as recent a month ago. That said, there is one in the collection, entitled The Last Poem, which was originally started in the mid-1990’s. I wrote it when I was seriously considering giving up my pursuit to be a writer.
MC: Tell potential readers the reasons why they should read Self Portrait.
JG: Many people find poetry inaccessible. As with paintings in a museum, they believe it takes something they don’t have to understand what they are looking at – and that is the wall I want to break down for them. I don’t really know what Jackson Pollock’s intention was with his drip paintings – but it doesn’t keep me from enjoying them and bringing my own meaning to those works. I want my poetry to act in the same way for readers.
MC: I would like to know about your inspirational world? Who or are your inspirations? Who are your influences?
JG: Today, I would have to say Bob Dylan, William Singer Sargent, Jim Harrison, John McPhee and – my son, Henry. But ask me again tomorrow and it will most likely be a different set of names.