“A Review of Mike James’ Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor” By Chase Dimock

 

 

In “My Wife’s Shoes,” the first poem of Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse Press), Mike James writes “some nights we turn the radio to ballroom music and I pretend to be Fred Astaire, led by Ginger Rogers for a change, and dance in high heels in reverse.” “High heels in reverse” is the essence of his book. Astaire and Rogers had to know the geometry of each other’s bodies and steps inside and out to perform their moves. A careful eye can spot the scenes where Rogers is actually leading. This is exactly what Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor achieves.

We’ve all heard the old adage about reserving judgement until we’ve walked a mile in a man’s shoes, but that always assumes a lack of empathy and the need for a radical thought experiment just to imagine outside the self. In reality, as Mike James reminds us, we are always wearing each others shoes, although sometimes we lack the insight to see them, or we keep our steps hidden. Just as the surrealists were not about random weird imagery, but about making the real experience of our psyches visible, so too does Mike James make the multiplicity of self and the malleability of the body legible in his prose poems.

Like in his previous collections, My Favorite Houseguest and First-Hand Accounts from Made Up Places, James populates some of his book with portraits of celebrities. Yet, these portraits are never about the celebrity him or herself so much as they are about the process of painting them and seeing the pigment of self in each brushstroke. In “The Films of Burt Reynolds” he begins with “not the films, but the books about the films…Someone loved Burt enough to watch each, then write descriptively.” While James writes about someone writing about Burt, he’s also writing about himself, and how his “mother said she’d marry him if he’d just stop by.” For men, Burt’s mustachioed masculinity is something we’re supposed to identify through as he “walked down the carpet with Dinah, Lauren, Sally and Loni.” Yet, when he is written about, he becomes an object of grammar. Straight, gay, or in between, all men must ask, do we want to be Burt, do we want Burt, do we want to be wanted by Burt, or is it all of the above? Continue reading

Two Prose Poems By Mike James

 

Moving Again

Not everything fits on the back of my motorcycle. For instance, neither my pet cactus nor my roommate cat travel well. Both claw me considerably in different ways. And my bike is not large. It’s the small engine type I never grew out of.

Thomas De Quincey knew it was time to move when no more books would fit on shelves and when bill collectors came more often than meals. I know it’s time when someone tells me. My jokes worn thinner than the cheapest tissue paper, which won’t absorb more than a shot glass of tears.

 

Gutter Angels

Identify not by wings, which mostly stay jacket-hidden, but by sadness which serves as eyeliner. Also, by any buffalo penny worn as a pendant. If wings are seen, feathers are frequently oily. Often a few lost on alley bets and during sidewalk waltzes. Be warned: when they crack their knuckles dreams escape. Mice can hear it. And dogs who so often come and happily lick their hands.

 

About the Author: Mike James is the author of eleven poetry collections. His most recent books include: First-Hand Accounts From Made-Up Places (Stubborn Mule Press) Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle), and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He has previously served as associate editor for both The Kentucky Review and Autumn House Press. After years spent in South Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, he now makes his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his large family and a large assortment of cats.

 

More By Mike James

“Grace”

“Two Ghazals”

“Two Prose Poems”

 

Image Credit: “Barrel Cactus” C.R. Savage. (1870s) Digital Image Courtesy of the Getty Digital Collection

First-Hand Accounts From Made-Up Places: An Interview With Poet Mike James

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

“Grace” By Mike James

 

Grace

Before she chose her one new name, she trembled through a dozen baby books. Walked through library stacks and touched every Anna and Sylvia, all the Marianne’s, Eileen’s, and Audre’s. Said each in a slow whisper, elongating vowels into a wish. Now and then, imagined saying the name with a confident rasp. What she wanted was not a mark of winter, but spring’s first color and the alchemy of change.

Finally, the choice stood out as much as her dark over-tall frame, as much as her cliff-sharp cheek bones. Jacob, her former self, became a passenger on a bus headed to an endless west.

The directions were in the small compass of her hands.

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About the Author:  Mike James is the author of eleven poetry collections. His most recent books include: Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle)and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He has previously served as associate editor for both The Kentucky Review and Autumn House Press. After years spent in South Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, he now makes his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his large family and a large assortment of cats.

 

Image Credit: “Blue and Green Music” By Georgia O’Keeffe (1921)

Two Ghazals

Two Ghazals

By Mike James

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Cowboys & Cinderellas

I’m waiting for the apocalypse or the rapture. In the meantime, I’m reading Stein.
Also, growing cabbages, Watching John Wayne movies, while I paint my nails.

Some people pretend to live without shadows. Are always perfectly shaved.
Ignore salsa stains, flatulence. Expect worry to be, at least, three houses away.

The best we hope for are angels grown tired of heaven’s many perfections.
Who miss beer, sex, mascara. Who miss a world happy to wake from dreams.

On slow days, I work in the garden. The squirrels seem to like what I produce.
In good years I harvest peppers, cucumbers. Bad years, profanity and (yep) dust.

Art News tells us, second chances are no harder than the first. We just write
Songs about the second. We romanticize failure since we all have practice.

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Ghazal

A garden doesn’t make you a farmer any more than boots make you a
Cowboy. Go on and play your make-believe. Go to your fashion show.

Appropriation is the least appreciated art. Going forward, we should
Only speak in quotes from Collete, Betty Boop, and her doe-eyed ilk.

If thievery was legal, where would the fun be? Cat burglars no more
Romantic than postman. Duchamp another man with an extra urinal.

Listen, the whole world practices make-believe. Have you ever seen
A President give an oath with fingers not crossed? That’s was a dream.

Matthew Broderick, once parroted the line, There’s a kind of freedom in
Being completely screwed. Let me an offer an agreement. Give an amen.

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About the Author:  Mike James is the author of eleven poetry collections. His most recent books include: Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle)and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He has previously served as associate editor for both The Kentucky Review and Autumn House Press. After years spent in South Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, he now makes his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his large family and a large assortment of cats.

Paul Lynde

Paul Lynde

By Mike James

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Paul Lynde

Died on an early January Sunday in Beverly Hills. If he’d been born in early January, he’d be a Capricorn. He was a Gemini. During the 1970’s it was popular to tell people “your sign.” Like shag carpet, that’s less popular now. Paul trusted astrology. Call him a man of the times. Call him Liberace without a piano, add a scarf. Geminis love illusions and music. Prefer light blue and yellow. The great talents of Geminis “are in the social realm.” Does that include cooking? Paul Lynde liked to drink white wine while cooking. He loved to cook.

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About the Author:  Mike James is the author of eleven poetry collections. His most recent books include: Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle)and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He has previously served as associate editor for both The Kentucky Review and Autumn House Press. After years spent in South Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, he now makes his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his large family and a large assortment of cats.

The Very Southern Pronunciation Still Rings In My Ears: A Conversation With Poet Mike James

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The Very Southern Pronunciation Still Rings In My Ears:

A Conversation With Poet Mike James

By Chase Dimock

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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.

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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.

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