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2004 Writers' Forum
James Reed

James Reed is a poet living in Seattle with a long standing involvement in the arts beginning as a teacher and performer on classic guitar. For the last many years he has worked in the design field doing residential architecture and designing and fabricating contemporary furniture emphasizing the use of mixed materials. In addition to writing poetry, he is currently building a house for himself, his mate and their two cats. His recent work has appeared in BirdDog and Organization and Environment.
photo credit:
dean wong
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 1, 2004, James and Belle discuss composition, art (film, visual & photography), geography and place, and more.
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
26:55 / 10.7MB
BR

James, I know you come to writing rather recently. How did you start writing poetry?
JR




It was a very spontaneous thing… I awoke in the middle of the night, with an idea for a poem, and just sat down and began writing. It came more or less in one piece, and it was just like that. I liked the process of writing, I liked that...
BR That's a wonderful feeling when a poem comes that way.
JR It is, it's kind of amazing, it seems almost miraculous.
BR And so, when was that, how long ago?
JR






It was just before the events in New York on September 11, it was actually in August, so it's… it doesn't bear a relationship specifically to those events, but my impetus, I mean, the emotional charge of those events, I have to say, provided a lot of incentive for me to keep writing. I've actually written a few poems about that event in particular.
BR A very difficult thing to write about, I think.
JR


It is. In retrospect, looking at those pieces, I would probably want more distance before I tried something like that again.
BR


On the other hand, we have the problem of too much distance, in that we are not writing about our firsthand experience. I'm assuming that about you.
JR

That's true, that's true in many respects. It certainly is true about those pieces that I wrote about 9/11.
BR






You describe yourself as being inspired in the middle of the night. I sometimes see you out walking and I know you take long solitary walks for exercise, and I go to the gym for exercise, so James strides past the windows of the gym-while I'm pumping iron he's walking—and you associate walking, as I do, I think we've talked about it before, with the activity of writing also.
JR




I do. For some reason it's very stimulating, I don't know if it's the rhythm and the pace of walking that promotes that sort of activity, thinking in poetic sentences or not, I can't speculate, but… I have come up with many good ideas and some pretty good lines walking.
BR


That's one place you can talk to yourself without attracting too much attention, you go right by and people may notice, but….
JR



That's true. I've been tempted, although I haven't done it yet, but I've been tempted to carry one of those little handheld recorders, like some bigshot lawyer executive, you know, talk into that.
BR


Well that's true. Nowadays everybody walks around talking to themselves as far as anyone knows, you just have to keep your hand to your ear.
JR




That's right. My problem is, a lot of times I'll think of a great line but an hour and a half later, I can't… what was that exactly? And so now I've taken to carrying a very small notebook and a pen, and if something does come to me I'll just stop and write it down.
BR

In almost all your poems that I've read, you avoid the use of the first person pronoun I.
JR

















That's true. I think, well, like any poet or like any poetry, it's very much an expression of the poet. And, the way I was raised, we weren't exactly encouraged to talk about ourselves, and in fact, the more we talked about ourselves the more it was sort of frowned upon. And so it's not something that comes natural, for me to write in a kind of confessional way, and… I guess that it's a conceit in the sense that I'm the one that thinks of the words, I'm the one that experiences what I see in the world. I can't divorce myself, you know I can't write as if I'm fully detached. But it feels more natural for me to write in a sort of detached way. It really has to do with where I'm situated, in relation to the work, and, as it expresses itself in some of the things I've written. I actually am intrigued by the notion of situation, where one stands in relation to what they write, and in relation to the work and how that changes. I'm not someone who would feel comfortable seeking out a singular truth from a personal vision.
BR



Well, yes, in your statement you say that "all [your] recent poems are part of a larger work concerned with ways of perceiving the world and representing the world to ourselves and others." Is that what you're getting at?
JR



Yes, that is true. And I do see the point of view as being very contingent, and the way the world is constructed as a phenomenon is contingent on where we stand when we look at that.
BR


Film plays a role in your recent poetry. At least I remember an allusion to the film Casablanca, I think. A great favorite. How did that film get into your poems?
JR


Well, it's almost an icon but I of course love that film and, as it appeared in one of my poems, it appears as an almost iconic representation of film, per se.
BR

And… film is related to this question of how we perceive ourselves…
JR


I think so, I think film is important for us as modern individuals in how we do see ourselves in the world. It's mythic in that sense, it's sort of a modern mythos.
BR


You can count on the audience recognizing that allusion perhaps more quickly than they would something in the literary classics.
JR



I think so. I was about to say it's sad to say, but I'm not so sure; if you're a filmmaker it's not sad to say but nevertheless it is a medium that really expresses who we are as modern individuals…
BR





I recognize that. I'm sure most of your audience does. What about the form of your poems? They're all free verse, at least the ones I've seen, but they have a wide variety of forms. You go from poems with very short lines to poems that are long prose paragraphs made of a single run-on sentence. And what do these different forms express?
JR

















It has, again, to do with situation, and how I'm looking at the world as either a phenomenon… as in my short bird poems, I'm not someone who's simply documenting. Of course a poem is a work of the imagination as much as anything, but I like to characterize them with a kind of detachment. With myself as a poet I'm not lying all over my representation, and so I try to create the illusion that the reader is observing a phenomenon in the world and in that way the reader can impart the emotional response, if that's what it is, that they want. And, the longer forms appeal to me, and more narrative forms, because if I'm writing about the notion of shifting perspective, it seems easier to work with as a form, to convey that idea. I can move with an apparent linear flow that seems to be moving in one direction and then make a shift and take it somewhere slightly different, a kind of digression, and a longer more narrative sentence construction, and even the run-on paragraph is an expression of that.
BR Do you have one of those poems with you today?
JR I do, it's "Coast of India." Would you like me to read it?
BR Yes, please do.
JR


This is based on a painting by Randy Hayes. Randy is a painter here in Seattle, and I'll say more about him after I read the poem. The poem is called "Coast of India."
[reading follows]
BR

Thank you. That's a painting by a Seattle painter, yes? And it's based on a photograph also?
JR



















Randy has a very interesting process.… It's fairly technical and I'm not sure I fully understand it myself, but… he's an avid photographer and also travels a great deal in the Third World. And when he develops his pictures, and develops the notion for a painting, he'll assemble photographs that have been exposed on a kind of… it's a cloth that's been soaked or saturated in some photographic emulsion, and—don't quote me on this exactly, I'm vaguely remembering what he told me about his process—but then he'll assemble a grid of these photographs that… has some framework, an intellectual framework, or some format he uses to construct his grid. And then, over the top of this grid of actual photographs he will paint a painting in a fairly translucent paint, and so you get that effect of layering, not only the… there's the underlying grid, in a sense like a memory, a gestalt, or fabrication of memory overlaid with a larger representation in it. It forms a complex view of the subject he's trying to portray. I don't want to characterize his whole process too much, it's too...
BR But this is also what your poem does.
JR


That's right. And my poem is sort of inspired by that process but it also… I'm intrigued by that process in general.
BR





Well your interest in his process reminds me that you've been a jazz guitarist, you are a furniture designer of some distinction, whose work is in galleries … so you obviously have an interest in many art forms. How is this related to your poetry? Does your poetry take time from your furniture design? Are they different? Are they alike?
JR




















I actually see a lot of parallels with what I've studied and pursued in other art forms. I actually pursued classical guitar, in music, but found… it wasn't enough of a creative outlet for me, and I didn't have the sort of temperament to sit in a room by myself practicing for hours on end. And [I] eventually moved into the design field. I was actually recapturing something I pursued earlier in my life in architecture, when I was at university, and took it up again as I attended some design courses at Cornish College of the Arts, and studied furniture design, and that sort of appealed to me as a kind of activity that I could carry on solo, without too much need for a lot of assistance, and that it was also an outlet, more of an outlet for my creative impulses than music was. And as far as design is concerned, I actually became interested in the notions of deconstruction in design, it was and is a very powerful métier in design, and it expresses, in some ways, many things that this poem, "Coast of India" expresses, a sort of shifting and… a shifting point of view and a shifting stance, and less of a reliance on the notion of a sort of underlying truth of design.
BR




I think the French philosopher Leotard says that the postmoderns, which would include deconstructionists I guess, that they were skeptical of every metanarrative. And is that the way—you see this poem with the different explanations for the woman's gesture?
JR

I would have to agree with that. I think that's a very apt kind of description.
BR


You're wife, my friend Jeanne Heuving, is a poet and critic of some distinction, and you've been a beginner in a house with a pro, and what's that been like.
JR













She's been really terrific. I have to say, I owe a lot to her… both for the reason that she's approached my work with a fairly light hand and has allowed me a lot of latitude to express myself without a lot of judgment on her part, and that's been great. At the same time she's been able to offer, with a kind of minimal intervention, some very helpful ideas and directions. And a lot of encouragement. In many cases my questions to her might be tempting for her to use as a sort of platform to expand on her own ideas, but she actually avoids that and will instead encourage me to perhaps read a certain poet that might be a more kindred spirit, and… has been really good that way, in not forcing me in any particular direction. She's allowed me to move in a lot of different directions, and allowed me to settle.
BR

I think you two sound like pretty good friends. I think you'd have to be.
JR


We are. You'd have to speak to her about the effect it's had on her of course. But for me I feel immensely lucky to have her in the house, as an influence.
BR

And when she recommends poets to you, who are some of your favorite poets, especially living poets? I'm curious.
JR



Well, right now I'm reading somebody who's not a living poet, but I'm very taken up with his perspective on things and actually the way he goes about writing, and his name is George Oppen.
BR Oh, I know George Oppen's work, "This in Which!"
JR

Yes… yes, and in fact "This in Which" is one of my favorite pieces of his, or favorite books of his.
BR





I was standing in the checkout line of Safeway-this was years ago, at Berkeley-with "This in Which" in my hand, and the checker said, "'This in Which'? What kind of a book is that?" That's usually what one has to take out of poems, those prepositional phrases… Yeah, he's a very original and probably under-appreciated poet.
JR




I think that's true, although, I guess he did win a Pulitzer, but… in general I think that's true. I think his life story is an interesting one, and may be part of the reason for that—I wouldn't say obscurity, but his underappreciation certainly.
BR


Well, I don't know George Oppen's life story, I don't know if you have time to tell it, but specifically, what are you referring to?
JR



Well he was kind of famous for dropping out of the poetry scene for some twenty-five years. He began writing back in the, I believe it was maybe the thirties, and in fact saw himself as very much… a writer of his time in the thirties.
BR He was an objectivist…
JR












He was an objectivist, that's true. And many of the objectivists were characterized as objectivists… against their own will by someone else, but… he wrote in the thirties and then, he became a member of the Communist Party and began I guess being more involved with labor organization and that sort of thing, and then just completely dropped out of the poetry scene. And he was trying to deny his own fairly wealthy upbringing by just living very much a frugal existence and… moved to Mexico for several years, and he and his wife pursued a sort of itinerant lifestyle. But then he began writing again, I believe in the late fifties, and then went on to produce several books after that.
BR

But James, what about your work? What are you working on now?
JR






I am working on some poems that are based around a trip that Jeanne Heuving and I took to Mexico in December, and …they concern themselves a little bit with that sort of displacement and shift that we were talking about earlier. And then there are a couple that are… a little bit more mythic in their content about the Mayans and their history.
BR

Did you explore any of the ruins? Did you climb those steps?
JR


We did. We went to several ruins, and wherever there was a pyramid, we climbed it. The view was spectacular from the top.
BR


That sounds like a likely experience for making a poem. Thank you very much for being here and talking to us today.
JR Oh it was, it was really my pleasure. Thank you Belle.
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