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James Arthur: Against Songlessness

March 5, 2013

An interview with the poet on his debut collection Charms Against Lightning.

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Image from Flickr via horrigans

The first and title poem of James Arthur’s first collection Charms Against Lightning comprises a list of horrible things that might befall someone—“falling in love with a child”; “lupus and lawsuits, lying stranded between nations”; “songlessness, your mother’s depression.” Against all these travesties, the poem concludes, “the shutters swing, and clack their yellow teeth; / the deep sky welters and the windows quiver.” Not exactly a comforting start, and one might expect the confessionalism of a stay-at-home recluse to follow. Instead we get a book of worldly poems, a product in part of poet’s having lived the itinerant life of a fellowship-seeker. Diverse in form and unobtrusively musical, they take us to Honorat, Sinai, Hiroshima, and the Tyrrhenian Sea. But, as Arthur told me in an interview, they also chart a journey from selfishness, nihilism, and alcoholism toward a humbler, kinder life. Via email, I asked him how he shaped such a narrative out of poems written individually across a number years. We also discussed his “Canadianness,” negative capability, and “The Land of Nod”—a poem that ends, “Far more / than in God, I believe in Cain, who destroyed / his own brother, and therefore in any city / could have his wish, and be alone.”

Arthur has been a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and an Amy Lowell Scholar. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, and The New Republic. Charms Against Lightning came out in November from Copper Canyon Press.

Reed Cooley for Guernica

Guernica: A sense of place seems central to Charms Against Lightning. You were born in the U.S. and grew up in Canada, but I didn’t notice many explicit mentions of the latter. Do you consider yourself a Canadian?

James Arthur: I do consider myself Canadian, but I feel American, too. My father is from Toronto, my mother is from Louisville, KY, and I’ve spent more than fifteen years in each of the two countries, so really I just think of myself as a dual citizen, which is what I am. Thankfully, I’ve never been forced to choose!

It’s true, there aren’t many explicit references to Canada in my book. And not many explicit references to the U.S., either. I try to fill my poems with enough real, observed detail that the poems create a believable world—but I don’t write poems for the sake of telling my own story. My life is not important or interesting enough to warrant that kind of documentary. Instead I try to use my experience as a way of understanding situations that are common to many people. I want readers to project their own lives onto my poems. For that reason, I leave out some details that are specific to me.

I think a lot of American poetry has an assertiveness—an upbeat quality—that’s less typical of Canadian poetry.

I can’t read my poem “Distracted by an Ergonomic Bicycle” without thinking of Seattle, where the events of the poem took place, and I can’t read “In Defense of the Semicolon” without thinking of Toronto—but why should that matter to anyone else? If another reader imagines “In Defense of the Semicolon” taking place in New Orleans, great.

Guernica: This may include both a stretch and a huge generalization, but some of these poems have a restless, melancholic tone that I associate with certain of the more writerly Canadian songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s. Do you count anyone fitting that description among your influences?

James Arthur: Canadian songwriters like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell? I do own CDs by those three, but I don’t think of them as being major influences on my writing. Maybe what you’re noticing is my Canadianness?

It is hard to compare cultures without overgeneralizing, but I think a lot of American poetry has an assertiveness—an upbeat quality—that’s less typical of Canadian poetry. Of course there are poets in both countries to whom that generalization does not apply. Speaking broadly, I’d describe Canadians as being a bit more reserved than Americans. Not less opinionated—just less direct. Whenever I visit my family in Canada, I remind myself that what many Americans would consider forthright, many Canadians would consider overbearing. But again, I’m a mix; I’m sure some of my Canadian friends find me very American, both in person and on the page.

Guernica: Poetry’s often figured as a world apart, so I like the thought that the essential qualities of both cultures permeate their respective poetries. Would you say that what Canadianness I might be noticing in your poems comes more from the culture at large than the direct influence of Canadian poets?

James Arthur: I do like Canadian poetry. Christian Bök, Anne Carson, Carmine Starnino, and Don McKay are a few of the Canadian poets whose work has been important to me.

But I’m not sure that I do see poetry as a world apart. Some of my metaphors are based in the fantastic, but I try to be true to life as I understand it. That understanding is affected by my Canadianness, my Americanness, my whiteness, my gender, my age, my education, my experience…everything about me affects my view of reality. But I try to wrestle against those partialities, not embrace them. I think that being mindful of your own biases tends to lead you into ambiguity, not clarity, and that following those ambiguities is the only way to approach the universal.

I believe strongly in what Keats called negative capability: the trait or practice that allows a poet to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. For Keats, Shakespeare exemplified negative capability, and I do think it’s extraordinary that for all the thousands of pages Shakespeare left behind, we really don’t know much about Shakespeare’s own personality or opinions. Shakespeare tried hard to see every facet of every question, probably because he was more interested in questions than in answers. That’s a big part of what makes him great, in my opinion.

The narrator begins by wanting to be a ghost or wandering shadow, detached from other people and other things—and in the end, he becomes a person. I see the poem “Sprezzatura” as being the volta in the book: the moment when the narrator turns away from despair, toward something better.

Guernica: You asked me to read this book in order. How does a group of individual poems, written (presumably) over the course of several years develop a structure that demands linear reading?

James Arthur: For a while, I felt that it didn’t matter how the manuscript was organized, or in what order someone read the poems. I wrote the poems in Charms Against Lightning one by one, over almost a decade, and I did not write them toward any theme or narrative.

But once I really got serious about putting together a book, I began to see that in fact there were themes across the poems, if only because my own obsessions had brought me back time and again to the same ground. I realized that any ordering of the poems would determine how those themes developed over the manuscript, and how the collection’s dramatic conflicts were resolved.

For me, there are a few different arcs in Charms Against Lightning. One is a journey from alcoholism and numbness toward life. There’s also a journey from selfishness toward kindness, and from nihilism toward a stronger belief in human goodness. The narrator begins by wanting to be a ghost or wandering shadow, detached from other people and other things—and in the end, he becomes a person. I see the poem “Sprezzatura” as being the volta in the book: the moment when the narrator turns away from despair, toward something better.

If the poems were read out of order, that journey wouldn’t be apparent. Some of the poems in Charms Against Lightning are exceptionally bleak, but reading the book in order, a thoughtful reader would be less likely, I think, to take those poems at face value, because they’re offset by others. The speaker changes.

Guernica: Was there a point as you were compiling this book where you were writing to fill narrative gaps, or does the entire narrative structure lie in the arrangement of already written poems?

James Arthur: I don’t think I did write any poems to fill narrative gaps. Not consciously, anyway. As much as possible, I try to discover my poems’ subject matter through the act of writing, instead of deciding ahead of time what my poems will be about.

My understanding of the poem is not the poem’s core, true meaning. Once a poem goes out into the world, the poet is just one more reader.

But there certainly are poems that I left out of Charms Against Lightning because I couldn’t associate them with the narrative and themes of the manuscript as a whole.

Guernica: I would quibble that some pretty bleak poems come in the final section. I’m thinking to some extent of “Distracted by an Ergonomic Bicycle” and “Epithalamium” but more so “The Land of Nod,” which is resolutely misanthropic. Is turning away from people somehow a way of battling despair? Or is this just a low point after the turn toward something better?

James Arthur: Very interesting! I hope each of those poems can be read in a few different ways; that’s what I’m after. I want each poem to be ambiguous enough that its meaning can shift, depending on the reader’s own frame of reference, and depending on the reader’s mood. That’s why negative capability matters; if the poet stops short of fully controlling each poem’s meaning, the reader can make the poem his or her own.

But for me, “The Land of Nod” isn’t a bleak poem. Cain’s situation is grim, yes—but I see the poem as being about guilt, conscience, and moral responsibility. Having murdered Abel, Cain carries loneliness wherever he goes. I feel that over the course of Charms Against Lightning, the book’s narrator gradually begins to understand that no matter where he wanders, he cannot travel away from himself, and I interpret “The Land of Nod” as an expression of that idea. I feel it’s important that the narrator, who once said “I know how sympathy / rots the heart,” expresses his own sympathy for Cain.

I was a very hit-and-miss college student—I have an F or two on my transcript—but one assigned reading I loved is Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and especially the dialogue after Faustus summons Mephistophilis for the first time. Faustus believes that by conjuring Mephistophilis, he’s overturned the devil’s damnation, and therefore the power of God, but when he brags about it to Mephistophilis, the devil replies, Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. I had that in mind as I wrote “The Land of Nod.”

However, I want to reiterate that my understanding of the poem is not the poem’s core, true meaning. Once a poem goes out into the world, the poet is just one more reader.

Guernica: Three pretty different poems called “Vertigo” appear in your book. Why was this an important theme or phenomenon to revisit and attack from different angles?

James Arthur: The poems are called “Vertigo” because all three describe people who believe themselves to be at the center of circles, with existence whirling around them. At the center of spinning rooms, if you like.

I’d say that the first two “Vertigo” poems are poems of rapture; they describe the enormity of the physical world, and the smallness of the individual observer. I find the third “Vertigo” sadder. When the narrator of that poem sees copper geese turning around on a weathervane, he wonders whether he and the person he loves are like the geese: always moving, but never getting anywhere, because they’re travelling around and around in circles, looking for some place that doesn’t exist.

I gave all three poems the same title because I wanted to suggest that circularity: that idea of being stuck. From my perspective, the narrator does eventually get unstuck.

Reed Cooley is an Editorial Assistant for Guernica Daily.

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