First-Hand Accounts From Made-Up Places:
An Interview With Poet Mike James
By Chase Dimock
When you read Mike James’ new book of poetry, you realize that the contradiction in the title is the intersection where his creativity dwells. For James, the most interesting subjects are those we either overlook and need to re-examine, or we deem impossible and thus need to invent. These are first-hand accounts, but Mike James has many hands. He is a cartographer of the margins, whether that means the almost-icons sitting just left of the spotlight, or the eccentricities in mainstream society you can only see if you look awry.
Take his series of poems on Grant Wood’s paintings for instance. In them, he teases out the subversive, frustrated eroticism embedded in the denim overalls of Americana. He writes about flamboyance and excess, but with an exactitude of language. At first, you think his ghazals and prose poems wander through their subjects, until you get to the destination, and then you realize he took you on a precisely planned path you had never seen on the maps. These are the made-up places we all live in, and Mike James knows the routes where the dirt roads glitter.
Chase Dimock: Anyone who has been following your work will notice that you have been extremely prolific lately with diverse interests in themes and forms. Last year, you published two books: My Favorite House Guest, a collection of prose poems about pop culture icons, and Crows in the Jukebox, which draws a lot on your family history with an almost minimalist use of language. Where does First-Hand Accounts From Made-Up Places fit into your evolution as a poet? How do its themes and forms reflect where you are as a writer and a man today?
Mike James: I have very broad tastes. I love jazz and disco, classical and country. I love action movies and documentaries. I mention this because it’s applicable in how I approach my writing. I’m always interested in what I haven’t done and I tend to really run with my passions. The musicians I truly love (Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Arthur Russell, David Bowie) all work/worked with a wide variety of styles. That’s how I approach my writing. So many of the poets who really interest me are ones who don’t have a settled “house style”, but instead work with an expansive scope.
The new collection is divided into three different sections. The first section is a sequence of ghazals. That’s a form I’ve tinkered with for years. The ghazals were the catalyst for this collection. I wrote the sequence in order, excluding the poems I discarded, with the idea that chronology would impose a structure.
The second section is mainly free verse, mostly centered on the work of Grant Wood. The final section is prose poems which are not, mainly, pop culture centered in the way that the poems in My Favorite Houseguest are. Prose poems are wonderful because they are so liberating in regards to subject matter and expectations. I feel like I’m a different poet when I’m writing prose poems. My prose poems tend to be a more absurdist and chattily surreal.
The new collection provides an overview of my current interests in both subject matter and technique. These poems, I hope, show a comfort level with a wide variety of themes and with a wide range of technique. On a very personal level, the biggest difference between the work I’m doing now and the work I did ten years ago is that I’m much more willing to embrace failure and to follow any squirrel up any tree. My subjects are more open and more varied now. I’ve let go of the old concepts of the kind of poet I want to be. These days, I enjoy writing more than ever before. I’m certainly much more relaxed about the wrong turns I take. I hope that joy transfers to the reader. Continue reading