Interview with D. R. James

Photo: © D. R. James 2020

Please, introduce yourself and your writing.

I’m nearing the end of my professional career, having taught writing, literature and peace studies at a small Michigan (USA) college for 35 years, in addition to earlier scattered high-school gigs. But I came to writing poetry relatively late, beginning at nearly 50. It was a turning point and breathed new life into a stagnating existence. I’d found my thing. Since then I’ve published nine collections — two full-length and seven chapbooks — and many poems in magazines and anthologies.

Your latest writing project(s)?

I’m currently having a lot of fun writing what I call 10 x 10’s, free-verse poems of ten lines of very strictly 10 syllables each (which perhaps isn’t so ‘free’?), with otherwise no set pattern or theme. I should soon have enough for a full-length book, title TBA.

How would you describe your poetry?

First of all, it’s pretty much whatever comes my way. Starting out I often had an ‘idea’ that I would chase down relentlessly, which would just as often result in rather wooden poems. Many poets know exactly what I mean. A mentor, a now deceased former Poet Laureate of Oregon, labelled them as too ‘discursive.’ Gradually, I left that tendency behind and now have no idea what I’m writing ‘about,’ neither when I begin nor most of the way through. I’ve always surprised myself when writing, which sometimes somewhat saved an otherwise too-discursive poem, but now surprise from start to finish leads the way.

Second, I’d say striking images and sonic gymnastics — results of all those surprises — best characterize my work. And notice I’m not listing common topics. Another mentor, who, now nearing the end of his life, should have been U.S. Poet Laureate at some point, taught me that no matter what a poet writes, their “obsessions” dominate, even though it’s not really for the poet to say or even recognize what those are. A poet tends to see the distinctions among their various poems, whereas a reader tends to see the similarities, the “obsessions.”

Why do you write?

Early on, having always thought of myself as a nonfiction writer, I switched to writing poems in particular to process a very discouraging time in my life — not a rare impetus as it turns out. But then in the midst of the gloom I found I was having a lot of fun! Ever since, I’ve been writing because I guess I’m pretty good at it but also because it’s so satisfying and enjoyable, that one activity during which I lose all track of time. It’s in writing poems that I find ‘flow.’

I also enjoy publishing my work — thank you, Tistelblomma! — but there was a time following early publishing success that fretting about that nearly paralyzed my writing. The pursuit I loved so much for having lifted discouragement had now become its own discouragement. Luckily, that cloud has mostly lifted (and I won’t lie: it helps that my work continues to get published!), and I’m once again lost in the joy.

Who are your favourite authors?

My poetry tastes are eclectic, though mainly American, from the more ‘accessible’ Jack Ridl and Mary Oliver, to the at times more ‘inaccessible’ Marvin Bell and Lisa Russ Spaar, and many in between: Billy Collins, Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, Audre Lorde, Kwame Dawes, Adrienne Rich, Major Jackson, Claudia Rankine, etc., etc., etc.

Do you have a homepage?

Thank you very much for the interview!