James Hawes lives and writes in Montreal with a beautiful, understanding wife and two wonderful sons. His work has appeared in various publications. His first chapbook Bus Metro Walk (Monk Press) was published in 2018. His first full-length book of poetry Breakfast With A Heron will be published by Toronto’s Mansfield Press in the spring of 2019. He studied literature and creative writing at Concordia University.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well as I write this my first book is in the process of being published, but I will say that it has made me more confident as a writer. Throughout my writing life I have always been in awe of so many of the writers I admire that I felt I could never measure up. That feeling hasn’t gone away (nor should it), but I write despite this because people I respect have said good things about some of the things I’ve written, so that’s enough. Having a publisher say “I want to publish your book” just ups the ante.
When I look at some of my earlier poems I get twinges of nostalgia for who I was back then, but I also want to grab that person by the shoulders and shout “Stop it! This is terrible!” But it’s from then, so it’s important as it led me to where I am now. But yeah most of it is pretty godawful, at least to me.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wrote a poem when I was 8 (I think) on the last page of a grade 3 science project on penguins, a feeble attempt at bonus marks. My mom thought it was the greatest thing I ever did, she just loved it so much. For about 48 hours I was an adorable genius, she bought me a Captain Whizzo t-shirt as a reward. I think that writing poetry has always been a search for that kind of approval. For better, or worse.
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?
Some projects come quickly, as do some poems. Here and there you get these sparks of inspiration and a poem manifests itself almost fully formed. I love those, but as I write more— and get a bit older— the space between those moments gets longer and longer. Once you realize that then anything worthwhile has to come from hard work and vigilance to dig for poetry, rather than letting it wash over you. While this is harder, it also tends to lead to better writing. As my friend Peter Van Toorn likes to quote Dr Johnson: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
Sometimes longer poems are scrapped, but a small fragment is mined out of it and gains a life of its own. Sometimes fragments are cobbled together to make something bigger. There are no rules, no patterns, which makes it surprising, which keeps me interested.
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?
A poem usually begins with a single line, or an idea, usually derived from something I’ve seen, or heard. I always try have a notebook handy, so I will either jot it down, or if the timing is right I’ll try to expand on it then and there. From there I just try and squeeze out what I can from it, trying not to edit myself as I go. Then I’ll leave it alone for a while and go back to it and either expand on it, or boil it down. From there it either becomes its own thing, or if I think I can build on it I do. When I was being a bit more careful about what I eat, I started writing a bunch of poems about food— so I guess life dictates the scope— but I do find that in most of the things I write there are threads that can be linked together to make a larger piece, or a series. I wouldn’t want to force those commonalities, I think it’s more fun to let them happen and discover them.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings, but to be honest I have not had to opportunity to do that many. Hopefully with the book that will change. The first time I read in public was for Mansfield’s Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament. I was scared shitless because here I was reading in a bar with guys like Stuart Ross and Jim Smith who read so beautifully and are such interesting poets. They were both so generous in their support and created an atmosphere that was free and accepting that it let me off the hook and I ended up having a blast and doing what turned out to be good readings. Alcohol helps as well, and there always seems to be wine & beer at those things.
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?
As I’m writing I try not to be conscious of any theoretical concerns. I think the only questions I’m trying to answer are really the only questions that I believe are worth answering. Who are we? What do we want? Where are we going? The good thing about these is that they are eternal questions— pretty much unresolvable. The context changes with the times, so the work has to change with it, art has to constantly reinvent itself. It’s always the same questions, but technology seems to be moving us farther away from them, I think the role of any artist is to attempt to bring us back to those questions any way they can.
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?
This is no great revelation, but I feel we are suffering from a profound lack of empathy these days. At the end of the day I believe that most of our problems stem from this. I can’t think of a more important role for the writer than to chip away at the chronic indifference that has saturated modern culture. When we read something, or watch a good film, we are asked to put ourselves in the shoes of the writer, or characters. If the writer can do this and engage the reader/viewer then I see that as a small victory in the battle for humanity’s soul. Not to be overly dramatic.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Absolutely essential. I have been fortunate to have my work evaluated by editors of tremendous insight and generosity. My writing would not be anywhere near where it is without them. If you can leave your ego at the door, working with an editor can be very rewarding and can help you examine your work with a fresh perspective. I just want my writing to be better, if someone else can help me do that, then let’s do it. It also makes writing, which is usually very isolating for me, a more collaborative experience, which is healthy I think.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Henry Miller once said that it is imperative that one should accept failure, doubt, frustration & misery completely and see it through. That is the only real path to enlightenment, like Blake’s notion of achieving heaven through hell. When we get to the very end of ourselves— whatever the context— that’s when we find out who we really are, that’s where the good stuff resides.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have no routine, but not for lack of trying. I have tried several; getting up early to write for an hour before getting ready for work, writing after dinner, just before bed etc. Pointless. My life is full, which gives me more material, but I have to claw & scrape for time to write. I am lucky that I have a supportive wife who is always willing to help me make time. I have 2 sons and my family comes before anything else. As long as the desire to write is there, which it always seems to be, I manage to find a way to get it out.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I find certain authors can really get my juices flowing— Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Robert Creeley, Andrea Cohen, Nelson Ball, Ron Padgett, Mark Strand, Stuart Ross, Peter van Toorn and a bunch of others I’m forgetting. I used to paint watercolours & charcoal pastels as well as a way to jump-start my brain, I found that to be very helpful. In the end, to me, there is no better source of inspiration than nature, you can’t go wrong getting out of your head and tapping into the world around you.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of something roasting in the oven. Again, food. It’s a problem.
13 - 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?
I am a huge movie buff. I have a collection of about 1100 films, so outside of nature I would say movies would have to be my biggest influence. Great filmmakers like Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Robert Bresson, David Lynch, Wong-Kar Wai, Krystoph Keilsowski— their ability to communicate the most intimate and complex human emotions/interactions through image is endlessly fascinating to me. Certain albums, like Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Don’t Tell a Soul by The Replacements, and others that seem to share some of my sensibilities, I can listen to them obsessively for a period of time and find them very influential.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have certain books that I return to every so often. Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Burrough’s Naked Lunch, Leonard Cohen’s The Spice-Box of Earth— those are foundational books that changed what I thought a writer could do. Other more recent work like Andrea Cohen’s Furs Not Mine, How to be Perfect by Ron Padgett, Stuart Ross’s Buying Cigarette’s for the Dog, all marvelous books I find myself drawn to at various times, for various reasons. There are many others I won’t list here… the fact that I can draw on all these wonderful books, and there are still so many to be discovered makes me feel very rich.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would love to write and shoot a film. Just a live-action short, documentary or whatever. Something I wrote, shot and edited myself. I taught myself how to edit video on my computer and I find the whole process immensely rewarding. I’m kind of glad I don’t do that for a living, because it would become and obsession and I wouldn’t want to do anything else, there would be no balance, and balance is important.
16 - 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 have a corporate job right now, so I’m not entirely comfortable thinking of myself as a “writer”. I would love to be able to support myself and my family as a writer, that’s the dream I guess, but I’m nowhere near that. If money was no object then I would be a painter, a filmmaker. David Lynch, I’d like to be David Lynch.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve always admired writers. My uncle Chris is a writer in the UK, he was always broke, my family always worried about him and I thought he was the coolest guy around. I have done a lot of other things, and still make my living at the railroad (after 24 years). HR Percy once wrote that people decide to be writers at a young age, but they can be significantly older when they emerge as such, life has a habit of getting in the way. Well here I am at 48 getting my first book published, though I don’t feel life ever got in the way. I made choices, I have absolutely no regrets, I have been insanely fortunate. But I always tried to keep the mindset of a writer, even when I was busy doing other things.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book was Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, I’m a great admirer of his, if I could write novels like him I would do so with a full heart. Last great film was The Burmese Harp by Kon Ichikawa, wonderful. It is purely coincidence that they both happen to be Japanese. Or maybe not, a lot of great stuff comes from Japan.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I have the germ of an idea that I think could make an interesting novel, or possibly a collection of short stories, so I’m seeing where that goes. I have enough poems on the burner to start putting together a second book, but I’m leaving them for a little while so I can return to them with fresh eyes some time in the future.