Mark Jarman’s [photo credit: Amy Jarman] most recent collection of poetry is The Heronry (Sarabande Books, 2017). He has also published two books of essays about poetry, The Secret of Poetry and Body and Soul: Essays on Poetry. His honors include the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Poets’ Prize, the Balcones Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship in poetry. He is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University where he has taught since 1983. From 2009 until 2014 he served as an Elector of the American Poets’ Corner at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NewYork City, helping to induct playwright Tennessee Williams, novelists James Baldwin and Katherine Anne Porter, and poets Sylvia Plath and John Berryman. He makes his home in Nashville with his wife Amy Jarman, head of the Voice Department at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. They have two daughters, Claire and Zoe.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, North Sea, which I published 40 years ago when I was 26, included poems that had an effect on my life, if by life you mean career. The poems in my first book helped to garner me a National Endowment for the Arts grant for poetry, which in turn helped me to quit my onerous teaching job, and with my wife go to live in Europe for a year. There, in Italy, I wrote my second book, The Rote Walker, and Amy studied singing. I would say then that my first book changed my life. But the writing of my first book was life changing, too, since I wrote most of it once I had graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and discovered two distinct sources of poetry for me, my religious background and my childhood in Scotland and California. I’m still writing about those subjects, though I hope I am writing as James Wright would have said, “the poetry of a grown man.” I think the difference now is that I can look back at a body of work by someone who increasingly knows what he is doing, yet still wonder if anyone will read it in the future.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I always must have been in the presence of poetry – the poetry of the Bible – since I am a son and grandson of ministers and they loved reading scripture aloud and one of my early memories is of memorizing Psalms. But the first poem I wrote was in seventh grade, for an English class assignment. The experience of writing the poem, which unfolded over several days, was--to quote an artist friend of mine--like living in a dream. I have been writing poetry ever since.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
When I met a teacher in high school who convinced me that simply responding to the spirit was not enough, that you had to commit to practicing daily, I was able to make writing a daily habit. So though I have been writing since I was 11 or 12, I have been writing daily since I was 16 or 17. There have certainly been times when a project has gripped me, but my own relationship to the page is a daily one, in which poems slowly take shape. I keep working until a poem gradually overtakes me and will not leave me and when that happens I enter a period that, though slow, is engrossing. First drafts can come quickly, but the progress to a final draft is always slow.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I write daily in a notebook that is a combination of diary, journal, commonplace book, and drafting floor. I also collect phrases that I either put in a small Moleskin notebook I carry with me or in my iPhone Notebook program. I don’t think I’m much different from other writers in this way. Short pieces will begin to combine into a larger project, for sure, but when I finally put a book together that process includes a lot of winnowing, often with the help of friends and editors.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have learned to enjoy readings and I think I have gotten better at them. They are not part of my creative process. To me they are a form of publication. I do enjoy them, but it depends on how I am connecting with the audience. There have been times when I couldn’t wait to stop listening to myself and other times when I was sorry to have to end.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
For a long time I thought that a poem could find its form if it followed a narrative and that a poem was the story of a feeling. I still think a poem is the story of a feeling, but I don’t put as much faith as I used to in narrative to convey the story. I think a poem should be clear, whether or not it is in a traditional form like a sonnet or in blank verse. It should be clear to the reader I imagine, who is someone who wants to read a poem. For me the questions for quite awhile have been what is the nature of faith and what does my own faith look like as it takes shape in words on the page. These days the question for me is a harder one, have I loved enough?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The current role of the poet in larger culture is to keep poetry alive. That has always been the role and it has not changed. That is what I think the role of the poet should be. I think the role of any artist is to keep his or her or their art alive.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have been very lucky in editors, particularly my current editors at Sarabande Books, my publisher. However, fewer and fewer editors of magazines seem capable of conveying clearly what they might want, if they think what you have given them has fallen short in some way. Most of them simply don’t have time. There are a couple who are excellent line-by-line critics and I feel lucky to have them. I do have a circle of friends I show new work to, especially as I collect it into book form, but there are only a couple of editors of my acquaintance who will take the time to help me make a poem better.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
You have to believe in your work, no matter what anyone else says. That was Donald Justice to me in Iowa City in, I think, 1975. He was reassuring me that he believed in my work, by the way, but he knew at the time I was going through a profound loss of self-confidence and in that exchange he restored it. I have never forgotten it. In case I sound sentimental here, I knew he meant that you’re on your own.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
The critical prose I write I think of mainly as practical criticism, the sort of evaluative thing a reviewer does. Otherwise I will occasionally write an essay about a larger issue in poetry – repetition, devotional poems, the nature of metaphor – or the work of another poet I admire, like Charles Wright or Mona Van Duyn. All of that sort of work I see as a service to the art. It really has nothing to do with the poems I am writing, or so I think. So it has been easy. I have been writing reviews and essays at least since high school, when I had an arts column in my high school’s paper.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
In the morning I take out a file of drafts and see if anything there can be nudged into further life. In the evening, before bed, I’ll try to put something on paper while inhibitions are down. Often the evening genius is obliterated in the sober morning light. But that’s my routine. My habits for writing critical prose are a steady, daily application of getting the pages written. I write poetry by hand, prose on my computer keyboard, as I am doing now.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My notebook. The Bible. An anthology of French poetry I keep nearby (I can read a little French). Poetry by others, friends and associates, whose books I have on my desk. Music. Nooks and crannies of memory. Then back to my notebook.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of eucalyptus. Sea air. But also coal smoke, which takes me back to my childhood on the Firth of Forth in Scotland. I smelled coal smoke this morning as I was running along a greenway here in Nashville. Very odd, yet bracing, especially since I was listening to an NPR piece on the coal industry.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My latest book, The Heronry, includes records of a time I was living near a nature preserve and trying to preserve my sanity by keeping a daily naturalist’s journal. Some of the poems about that time are also included in my previous book, Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems. I am an amateur, a very amateur, birder, and have many feeders around my backyard. My wife is a classical singer and her music, both art songs and opera, has always influenced me, though mainly it is her voice that has done so. I have more than a few ekphrastic poems in my books, many of them about obscure but to me important pieces of art. And the language of science has made its way into many of my poems, though there are real poets of science out there and I am not one.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love the masters of the short story, from Maupassant to Hemingway, Chekov to Peter Taylor, Jean Stafford and Alice Walker. I am a very slow reader, excruciatingly slow, but I try to make my way. Nabokov’s novels have meant a lot to me, especially Pnin, and I love Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Actually I think Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace are the trinity of social commentary in the 19th century. I do love the writing of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald and Sue Grafton and their renderings of the Southern California landscape where I grew up. Reading Charlotte’s Web to my girls when they were little was an experience that transcended much of what I have read. I was lucky to study with Raymond Carver when I was in college and love his stories. The writing that has been important to me, whether in prose or poetry, tends to be writing I can quote. I travel with an anthology or commonplace book in my head, from books, movies, operas, plays, Bible verses, poems, all sorts of things.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
And probably won’t do? Write a great children’s book.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would have ended up as a professor of systematic theology in a divinity school. That’s sort of what my father wanted me to be. I wouldn’t want to pick any other occupation, though I would say to people who are thinking of teaching that if you are going to teach successfully and happily you have to be called to it. I was called to writing poetry, but never to teaching. It has taken me years to learn that this was the occupation for me.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was good at it. It gave me pleasure. Some important mentors encouraged me. Eventually when I saw I was on my own, I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was E. O Wilson’s Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight For Life. I reviewed it for The Hudson Review and I believe that my review can be found online. It is not a substitute, however, for Wilson’s masterpiece! The last great film I watched was The Godfather. I watch parts of it regularly, and all of it at least once a year. I own four DVD copies of it. I try to have one of them with me when I travel. I have many favorite lines from the film, but right now it’s Michael Corleone telling a nurse that they have to move his father from his hospital room. “Do you know my father? Men are coming here to kill him. Now, help me, please.” Otherwise, I think the last great film I saw may have been Argo.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Poems about being with my father when he died.