The Very Southern Pronunciation Still Rings In My Ears:
A Conversation With Poet Mike James
By Chase Dimock
Keats had his nightingale, Shelley had his skylark, Poe had his raven, Stevens had 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, and Mike James has a jukebox full of crows. While fans of poems about birds will not be disappointed, Crows in the Jukebox is just as much about the jukebox as it is about the crows. James’s book reads like the playlist of an old jukebox in a roadside, greasy spoon diner. There are folk songs that retell old family lore, slow ballads that honestly and sweetly pay tribute to his love, and melancholic memories of a self-destructive father on par with any country tune sung by Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. You can hear the drawl in his words, but James is not constrained by the clichés or expectations of his background in the Carolinas. His poetry is, as the crow flies, direct in its route and positioned with a vision that can muse on the specific while connecting it to a wider, areal view.
Chase Dimock: Crows pop up as the subject of several poems in your book, Crows in the Jukebox. In “The Crows,” you write that you “love those damned birds for what they aren’t” and in “Poem” you declare that “crows are good at waiting, much better than we are with our alphabet of needs.” What is it about crows that makes them such a fertile subject for poems? How does your interest in crows connect with some of the other ideas and themes in your work?
Mike James: I’ve always loved crows. They are, with pigeons, my favorite birds. Part of what I like about them is their intelligence, but I also love the fact that they exist at the margins. No one goes to the zoo to see crows. They are always around, watching and plotting survival. Many people have a real aversion to them. That marginality probably interests me as much as anything since I think the best writing comes from working against dominant culture, of getting by at the margins. So many of “the great dead” I admire worked actively outside of the mainstream. (I’m thinking of poets like Stephen Jonas, Bill Knott, Jack Spicer, Lorine Niedecker, and Mbembe Milton Smith.) I don’t make a conscious decision to work around any specific themes; however, I have a real love for the decayed, the failing, and the decrepit. In so many ways I am in love with ruination. Give me the choice between walking through a mansion and walking through a closed factory and I will choose the factory on every occasion.
Chase Dimock: Let’s talk more about your interest in marginality and resisting the dominant culture. I feel that one way writers cultivate a unique voice and resist the dominant culture in their work is through identifying with the unique region and culture in which they live and write. Steinbeck had Monterrey Bay and Faulkner had rural Mississippi. You were born in the Carolinas, and you currently live in Chapel Hill. A number of your poems make references to places in the South, including a town in the poem “Off Interstate 95” where “people hope for jury duty ’cause it’s a job.” How does living in this region inform your poetry and influence your feeling of marginality?
Mike James: It’s easy for a southerner to relate to marginalized cultures because the south has always been either looked down upon or romanticized in an unhealthy and non-useful way. Coming from a blue collar background, as I do, presents two choices: Either accept the dominant culture imposed by wealth and commercialism and forget your origins or stand slightly outside the mainstream and question basic assumptions. Good writing, for me, is all about questioning assumptions.
I’ve been very determined to never lose my, fairly thick, southern accent. My voice identifies my birth region. So many people have negative views of southerners. Once, at a training seminar for my job, the instructor, who I had not spoken with, mentioned her hatred for southern accents because, she said, southerners do not sound educated. When I questioned her, she asked, “Honestly, don’t you ever think you sound like a hillbilly?” I replied, “No. I think I sound like William Faulkner and Reynolds Price and Tennessee Williams.”
One way the south definitely influenced me was through the orality of the culture I grew up in. During my childhood, my relatives gathered on an almost nightly basis and told stories. Even though I’m not a narrative poet, that spoken tradition still informs my work. And the very southern pronunciation still rings in my ears. It’s only in the south that tired and hard can come off like off-rhymes. (You can hear that rhyme in Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”)
All that being said, I really don’t consider myself a southern writer. James Dickey and Everette Maddox are, probably, the only two southern poets I can definitely say have influenced me and those are two wildly disparate voices. Most of the poets I read and relate to are from places outside of the south.
Chase Dimock: Since you brought up your family’s tradition of storytelling, I want to explore this influence further. In the final poem, “My Father Could,” you refer to your father’s story telling abilities, claiming he could “tell stories so miraculous their veracity could not be trusted but so goddam funny you thought for a clear second the world was that place where happiness came easy.” Many of your poems tell stories about your family, especially your father. Do you feel that your poetry continues this tradition of tall tales and family lore by writing about their lives? Are you attempting to preserve the family stories themselves, like in “Anecdote in a Grassy Field” in which you recount that your “old man saw a stone suddenly decide to be a bird”?
Mike James: Although I have some poems about my family, I’ve never consciously attempted to write about them. All those poems are happy accidents. It’s my hope that my poetry shows a love of language and of the well-turned phrase that’s common in poorer families. In regards to my poetry, that’s the biggest gift my family gave me. If you are brought up with little money, it’s not unusual to live within your imagination. Language is a very cheap toy and it can be used for an almost endless variety of games.
Chase Dimock: The family member that most frequently comes up in Crows in the Jukebox is your father. Not only does the collection end with the aforementioned poem in the previous question, but it also begins with a poem centered around a photograph of him as a young man, in which his “eyes don’t have the distant look we all saw later.” I was particularly moved by the poem “Jailbird” in which you write that your father:
after fifty-two years on earth
three milk crates of possessions
and a rented room
high cherokee cheekbones
a love of white wine and the old testament
and a dance called the “prison shuffle”
The poems seem to present your father as a man of contradictions, with some unresolved aspects of the relationship lingering after his passing. Do you see poems like these as an attempt to mourn the loss of your father? Are you using poetry to better process ad understand your relationship, or perhaps attempt to settle how you remember him?
Mike James: My father was a very troubled man. He and my mother divorced when I was young and his life, which had never been very stable, then moved between mishaps and mistakes to mayhem and tragedy. He was a person who lived, largely, in the outer darkness. In those poems you mentioned, I used some bits from his life in an attempt to create, possibly, a level of grace he never attained while living.
Chase Dimock: I want to explore what you just said about your poems as “an attempt to create, possibly, a level of grace he never attained while living.” I feel as though some of your other poems engage in this for other people as well. In “Blues for Gene, Who was Almost Fiction”, you depict another troubled man who “gave himself a birthday bullet in the mouth.” What is it about poetry that can create grace in lives that lacked it? Does putting these lives into language give them a sense of wholeness and explanation they lacked as lived experiences?
Mike James: I’ve always loved Theodore Dreiser. In many ways he is an awful writer. He goes on endlessly. He has whole chapters which are unnecessary. And he has a fairly shaky grasp of grammar. The reason I love his work is because his books are filled with beat down people who resemble those in the town where I grew up. He writes about people who don’t really have a chance. That’s a small part of what I try do if I write a poem based on a person. Happy, wealthy, well-adjusted people are boring. I’m interested in people who are underrepresented in poetry, the disenfranchised who are forced to the sidelines and don’t really have the capacity to get back into the game.
One of the nice comments I’ve heard about Crows is that the poems have humanity. If that’s true, it’s because of those characters who are fumbling around in the dark looking for a match to provide some temporary light.
Chase Dimock: It’s true that happy wealthy, well-adjusted people don’t often make for great subjects for poetry. That said, you do engage some positive emotions and paint some flattering portraits when you write about love, and in particular, your wife. Personally, I find it hard to write about positive feelings in a way that seems authentic and insightful. Do you feel the same way, or does writing about sincere feelings of love for someone come to you the same as writing about your feelings of disappointment or frustration with people?
Mike James: The process for me is very similar. I never want to be a “one note” poet, so I work very hard at writing poems which vary in style, content, attitude, tone, and imagery. The love poems are based on the same guidelines I give myself for all poems. I want to avoid sentimentality. I want to use strong imagery, with fresh language. And, I want to push for a discovery. I want the reader to experience an “a ha” moment. I’m not talking about something profound or life changing, but I am talking about a temporary adjustment of gravity and the world. A big part of my delight in both reading and writing poetry comes from the way poetry can help re-position our views.
Chase Dimock: The last poem I wanted to hear more about is “Talking with Allen Ginsberg in a Dream.” Ginsberg himself famously wrote a similar poem called “A Supermarket in California” in which he encounters the spirit of Walt Whitman in a supermarket, eying the grocery boys. It seems like you are placing yourself in a certain queer literary influence lineage, though your style is quite different from Ginsberg. Do you see him as an inspiration? Are the other queer writers who helped to shape your sensibilities?
Mike James: One of the things I love about poetry is how contemporaneous all poets are. We can have Sappho as an aunt, Li Po as an uncle, and Bukowski as the cousin no one invites to dinner. Whitman is a great subject for other poets. Think of that wonderful Ginsberg poem or Pound’s “A Pact” or “Ode to Walt Whitman” by Lorca or the other Whitman ode by Neruda. I enjoy the whole genre of “homage” poetry. Two of my favorites are Merwin’s “Berryman” and Lowell’s “Words for Hart Crane.”
Stylistically, Ginsberg and I don’t share a lot. What I admire immensely about him is the way he was not afraid to use sometimes disturbing images and language. He was really fearless in chasing down any idea. He was also a poet of great ambition, which many lack. Also, he wrote like no one else. A Ginsberg poem only sounds like him. Other people have written bad Ginsberg poems (Ginsberg himself wrote many!), but his style was specific to his work. You can hear his voice and his thinking in every line.
I’ve never thought specifically about queer poets as influences. If I were to make a short, random list it would have to include the following: W. H. Auden (for his formal virtuosity, and immense range), Harold Norse (for his fearless, lifelong devotion), Robert Duncan (for his brilliant rhetoric and erudition), Eileen Myles (for her stance), June Jordan (for her autobiography, which is one of my “desert island books”), Stephen Jonas (for his jazzy ear), Ronald Johnson (because he was a genius of erasures, a form I love), Gertrude Stein (for the radical vision that remains Tender Buttons), Jim Brodey (for his prolific surrealism), James Schuyler (for his everyday brilliance), Jordan Rice (for being Jordan Rice), Muriel Rukeyser (for always writing the books she wanted to read), John Weiners (for his sweet, odd fragility), Paul Goodman (for his stylistic simplicity and intellectual range), Audre Lorde (for her willingness to claim so many categories), Jeffrey Beam (for his mastery of the short poem) and Tim Dlugos (for both the toughness of his late subject matter and for his mastery of the prose poem, another form I love.) This is a very incomplete list, composed in two minutes, so I’m sure I’m leaving some people off. It would be interesting to make another list of just female poets and another of just minority poets. I am a big believer in taking a buffet approach to poetry and celebrating all influences. I steal from everyone and always acknowledge my theft.
Chase Dimock: For my final question, I want to know who and what you are reading. We’ve talked about some well-known poets like Whitman and Ginsberg, but who are some contemporary poets you think deserve a wider audience? What are some literary journals that you think we should check out?
Mike James: In regards to specific contemporaries, I know that I’m going to leave off some really fine ones. Out of those listed above, Jeffrey Beam and Jordan Rice are both very much alive and both deserve broad recognition. Adding to that, I would include John Dorsey, Jennifer Bartlett, Joan Colby, Michael Wurster, Rebecca Schumejda, Tim Peeler, Jesse Breite, Shawn Pavey, Daniel Crocker, Dave Newman, Andrea Jurjevic, Richard Peabody, and Jan Beatty. I’m leaving off tons of people, but that’s also a one minute list. Some of those poets (Michael Wurster, Richard Peabody, and Joan Colby) have been doing wonderful work since the 1970’s, but are still not as recognized as they should be.
For magazines, I love Soundings East, Trailer Park Quarterly, Main Street Rag, Jacket 2, Laurel Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Misfit, the new Gasconade Review, and Birmingham Poetry Review. I can also name Good Works Review, where I recently served on as an associate editor. I should probably mention a few presses like Bottom Dog, Sundress, Spartan, Main Street Rag, Sibling Rivalry, FutureCycle, and C&R which so often produce stunning work. These are very short lists and I’m leaving off a lot of good magazines and presses.
Mike James’s latest book is Crows in the Jukebox, published by Bottom Dog Press. For more information, check out MikeJamesPoetry.com.
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.