Jami Macarty is the author of The Minuses, a Mountain West Poetry Series title, published by the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University (February, 2020). She is also the author of three chapbooks of poetry: Instinctive Acts (Nomados Literary Publishers, 2018), Mind of Spring (No. 22, Vallum Chapbook Series, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award, and Landscape of The Wait (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Her poems appear or are forthcoming in American, Australian, British, and Canadian journals, including Arc Poetry Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Capilano Review, Interim, EVENT, The Journal, The Rumpus, Otoliths, Orbis, and Volt. Former Executive Director of Tucson Poetry Festival (1996-2005), she teaches poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University. As co-founder and editor of the online poetry journal The Maynard, she promotes poets of innovation and artists of oranges. She is also poetry editor for Journal of the Plague Year, where short, in-depth analysis of the pandemic reveals the Failed State of America. On Medium, she writes Peerings & Hearings–Occasional Musings on Arts in the City of Glass, a blog series supporting arts and community (begun in 2016 as a featured column for Anomaly/Anomalous Press). Her own work has been supported by Arizona Commission on the Arts and British Columbia Arts Council; by residencies at Mabel Dodge Luhan House and Banff Centre; by Pushcart Prize nominations (2016 – 2020); by the tireless editors of literary journals and presses—and, of course, by beloved readers.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook, Landscape of The Wait, changed my life by the simple fact that suddenly and miraculously I had an artifact of my artistic attention and efforts—and the book had readers. I had been carrying around the question: Would anyone be interested? It turns out, yes, there are people who appreciate my work. The book and its readers bundled into an offering of encouragement—a yes nod to my particular quirk—and bolstered my confidence to continue on my artistic headings toward the poems that want to be written. The sky expands to include a publisher—one who stands with—backs the words. This rather grand gesture makes a difference not so much to obscurity—no one’s in charge of that—but to the sense of being received, read. “Having” readers. I had not and could not fully feel into and think about what having readers would mean—to me. Two more chapbooks and a full-length collection later, I’m still in the state of that realizing. As readers write to me, sharing their responses to my books, conversation unfolds, community arises, inspiration ensues. This is the site of love and joy and every thing. After the first chapbook, there was a freeing up of angsty energy over whether or not publication would ever happen. That freed up energy was accompanied by a felt sense of space for what may be next. Then, the full force of desire to attend to future work filled the vacuum.
“First”: Timing and order of poems and books are a bit jumbled. The poems in The Minuses, my full-length collection, came first, though the book was published last and most recently. Many of the poems in The Minuses were published in journals before the poems in my three chapbooks were written. The poems in the chapbooks, Landscape of The Wait, Mind of Spring, and Instinctive Acts came while my full-length collection sought a publisher. What does a poet do while she waits? If she writes poems, she writes poems. Continuing to write offsets attachment to the outcome of publication. Even though each of the chapbooks is a standalone exploration and none of the poems in the chaps appear in The Minuses, they share a concern with consciousness, ecology, women, and violence against consciousness, ecology, and women. My first chapbook, Landscape of The Wait focuses on familial relationships and my nephew’s year-long coma. Mind of Spring, the second chapbook, is a walking meditation, giving attention over to Sonoran Desert ecology. Instinctive Acts, the third chapbook, addresses Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood, where I live, and where there’s a devastating history of violence against women. And, The Minuses, beckons attention to forms of endangerment, especially to the environment and to women, seeking escape from the confines of relationship, belief, and self. So, more than the play of duality among firsts and differences, there’s continuation and expansion.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I don’t know, but I think that there were formidable instances where language hit my ears and sparks flew… It started with the ears! Children’s songs, the onomatopoeia, assonance, and alliteration of their jaunt jingles: “With a knick-knack paddywhack, / Give a dog a bone, / This old man came rolling home.” The syntax, invention, repetitions, and accumulations in Dr. Seuss: “I do not like them, Sam-I-am. / I do not like green eggs and ham.” Dick and Jane and Spot meant a lot to me. Those declaratives! As an early reader, I loved songs, stories, and poems with animals, especially birds. Still do. When Mrs. (Betty) Towle, my third grade teacher, required students to memorize and then recite a poem in class, I chose Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Time to Rise” from A Child’s Garden of Verses: “A birdie with a yellow bill / Hopped upon the window sill.” As I grew up, writing I liked had to be both a pleasure to the ears and a conveyance of information and relationship. In high school, the poem I memorized and recited for Mr. (John) Herrick’s class was Robert Frost’s “The Rose Family”: “the apple’s a rose, / And the pear is, and so’s / The plum, I suppose.” Plus, writing that brings forth color, looking with the eyes, and seeing that resolves to consciousness draws me. For example, Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”: “I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds.” These encounters with language, and now what I know as their rhetorical and poetic devices, are still alive in my imagination and my poems. When I think about these instances, and others, their common denominator is not story, but sound. Meaning is made not through narrative, but through sound and feeling. Maybe that’s why it’s not non/fiction, but is poetry…
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?
There’s always listening… and so, for me, there’s always writing. Writing, which is a listening on paper, happens first. There are no plans or projects. It’s part of my writing practice to keep attachment to outcome in abeyance. There’s only writing within a continuum. The focus is on process, and that goes something like this: Raw material accumulates, then there’s a sort of re-listening for and feeling through what is there. Sometimes a poem emerges from the raw material; other times the raw material blazes a trail for a poem. Inevitably, there’s a poem. Poems accumulate. Then, of course, there’s a third sort of listening for and connecting into how the poems might interdigitate and sequence. Attentions are discovered after the fact and in the light of the words. My writing comes neither quickly nor slowly. It’s a constant process of discovery of what’s present—emotional, physical, cognitive, sensorial sensation—to be acknowledged, described, welcomed, and assembled on the page. Every once in a while a fully formed poem bursts wholly onto the page. That’s welcome, too!
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?
With pleasure to the ears! Poems almost always begin in my ears. I hear something—inside or outside myself—that captures my attention. I am an author of short poems. I adore short poems for their demand of attention, their fleet. Sometimes short poems assemble into a series or a long poem. I’ve yet to have a sense of working on a book from the beginning. That’s on the side of the cart before horse for me. Rather than the book coming first, the poems come first and lead the book. The process is one of increments: sound leads to word assembles into language takes the form of a poem seeks companions and shepherds poems into book. But, there’s no conscious deliberation about this in the process. I’m only thinking about this in order to respond to this question.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy readings, and they take a lot out of me. After a recent reading combined with an interview, I realized more fully what it is I find challenging: the going back and forth between being in the poems and then outside of them, trying to introduce or talk about them. The movement’s something like trance; break trance; trance… I read my poems from within them. In order to connect their interiority with the reader, I have the sense of performing the splits, straddling the gap between the internal world of the poem and the external world of the listeners. Listeners may not always want to be that internalized and intimate, and I don’t always want to be that “externalized and homeless”—to borrow a line from my poem, “Nor’easter” (The Minuses, 39). So, there’s a rub. Even so, during readings and interviews I always learn something new about the poems. The fruits of engagement! That’s why I say yes to readings. Plus, I believe in being in service to poems. If I’m unwilling to step out for the poems, then who will be?
Readings are something I do in service of my poems, to be their best ambassador, to give them the audible voice. That closes the loop and points back to the work’s sonic origins.
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?
I’m concerned with duality and the reflections of duality in language. Equally so, language’s resolution to oneness. I’m concerned with silence and the implications of silence, with endangerment and the implications of endangerment. I’m concerned with the felt sense of words, their enacting qualities, and materiality. I’m concerned with poem as place, location, landscape (field). I’m concerned with poem as conveyor of the specific, precise, and scientific. I’m concerned with poem as experience, rather than story. Feeling is probably more important to me than meaning. Or, feeling is another way to arrive at meaning—via the felt sense.
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?
I can only say what I think of as my role as citizen of my life: To follow the marching orders from my soul. I suppose most writers have a role when they are asked. I think the role of the writer is to write. Roles come after, later, with help from readers and communities.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
So far, my experience of working with an editor has been predominantly on individual poems before there is a book for them to come into. The best editor for me is the one who adapts to the poem and serves as doula for its full becoming. What makes the process difficult is when it results in power struggles. I walk away when the editor tries to make one of my poems adapt to their values or visions. My poems go clean into the editorial review process, so there’s been few requests for changes from the editor/publisher. On my end, the typesetting and galley proofing have proved critical to the realization of my conception of the book. In all cases, the transitions from my 8.5 x 11 pages to the book dimensions required me to newly see and hear the poems. In some cases, that’s lead to adjustments to line breaks, spacing, and other aspects of form within the poems. Now that I’ve been through the process four times, I know that reconceiving the poems within new, smaller dimensions is integral for me. For my publishers, not so much. My apologies Christen Kinkaid at Finishing Line Press, Leigh Kotsilidis at Vallum Chapbook Series, Meredith Quartermain at Nomados Literary Publishers, and Stephanie G’Schwind at the Center for Literary Publishing! I couldn’t help it; I needed the time to transition to the new field, a different canvas. Next time (a poet can hope!), I’ll intend to shout it out early on as part of my process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Some years back, friend and fiction writer, Stacey Richter, and I had a long conversation in which we talked about the importance of continuing to write even if nothing’s getting published, and especially if something’s getting published—keep writing. Stacey was speaking out of her own experience of starting to write again after the publication of My Date with Satan, her first collection of short stories. She was coaching herself and also trying to save me from the anxiety and pressure that can come from starting the fire again. We came to an understanding in that conversation: That there’s no beginning or ending to writing; the writer writes and keeps writing. I write and keep writing from a notion of continuous practice, which parallels my practice of meditation. Then there’s this: If you don’t make time to write, no other advice will help you. I don’t know where it came from… Was it a response from a candid, practical side of myself to the side that kept asking: If I want to write, then why don’t I? The response is stark, confrontational. For me, these words startled the whining, the complaining, the excuses, and even the need to understand why, right out of me—for good—making for a permanent change in which I kindle the flame, stoke the fire, bank the coals.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I used to be afraid of writing long form. It’s possible that a fear of writing prose, a fear that created a process of elimination, is responsible for why I came to poetry. For me, writing prose can involve thinking about product in such a way that it precludes getting involved in process. All writing is process out of which comes product. In the last couple of years, I’ve been enjoying writing essays and reviews. I find the writing, if not “easy,” then easier under certain conditions: If I forget about rules and distinctions between genres. For example, what if I approach composing my responses to these questions just as I approach assembling a poem? That is, what if I allow whatever writing I do to come from a creative attitude? I think about attitude a lot. For a long time tacked to my desk were the words of Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right.” Ford’s words emphasize how attitude rules the roost. Attitude, and a dedication to process. My first step when writing a review, answering questions, or composing an essay is to type or dictate everything that arises in response, letting the thoughts and ideas come without worry about grammar or structure, etc. Then, like lentils soaking, I give the words time to absorb and open up. When I come back to the writing I’m clear about the next steps: decisions about ingredients to be added or left out. Provided I allow for slow-cooking in the process, the writing tends to work itself out. Of course, there are circumstances which call on me to turn things around more quickly. In those cases, I use time as a constraint to hone attention, choice, and priority. Attention on process offsets my tendency to fret over the potential of my writing, which never quite measures to what I imagine. Then again, that failure to bring the it of it, whether in a poem, a review, or an essay, all the way to fore is what keeps me writing.
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?
Exercise and meditation are intrinsic to my writing routine. After morning ablutions, I take a walk followed by a yoga practice and meditation. Then, breakfast!—of delicious, vegetarian fare. Many mornings that’s porridge cooked with cinnamon and apple, then topped with organic, non-fat yoghurt. Once the body’s taken care of, the mind. Reading’s a big and important part of my routine. With a book of poetry, my notebook, and tea, I spend the next two hours or so reading in a comfy chair. During that time, my notebook’s open and pen’s poised to take notes on a poem’s formal concerns, to write out a memory the reading jarred loose, to jot the beginnings of a poem. Sometimes these reading sessions transform to writing sessions entirely. Whatever happens, I trust and go with it. Once I finish reading, then I go to my desk to attend to poems. The way my process works allows for poems to be in various stages of wholeness. I might work on bringing to the page a new poem or on a revision of a poem already on the page. I may work on a poem or a few poems for the next several hours. This is also time I may choose to work on reviews or essays. After I’ve paid my creative self, lunch! Or, if I’m hot on the trail of something, I’ll skip lunch. Usually between three and four O’clock in the afternoon, attention wants to go elsewhere. In those moments, I often turn to reading and editing the writing of students I teach privately or at Simon Fraser University. There are also pulses of attention directed to poems sent for consideration to The Maynard and Journal of the Plague Year. Since the global pandemic, my routine around reading in particular has shifted. Some mornings I go to my desk directly after breakfast to read the newspaper and essays I’ve bookmarked online. I’m craving prose! Often that reading sparks some writing in my notebook, where the focus remains on process and processing. These days, there’s a tendency to read and write for most of the day. As a result, revision of my work, sending my poems out, meeting deadlines, reviewing published works, and editing student/contributor work is going more slowly. It seems there’s a new balance trying to be struck within my routine. My practice dictates that I stay open and follow the energy. I trust it’ll lead somewhere…
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
For me, it’s not so much that writing stalls. Writing continues, is continuous. Instead, it’s the ego that intervenes and enforces its will on the words. Or, it’s attitude (for me, especially, frustration at how long it’s taking) that gets in the way of the flow and stalls it. I’ve learned (mostly!) to recognize when persistence will be a case of diminishing returns. So, rather than put up my dukes, I take a break. More often than not I go for a walk. Solvitur ambulando! During these times, I don’t have a sense of needing to be inspired, but rather needing to clear a clog or shift attention. Sometimes there’s this sense that what’s unfolding in the writing needs some privacy. So, stepping away, looking away can give it some necessary space. The break has to take place at the energetic, kinesthetic level. Taking a shower, preparing food might also provide space. That’s day to day. Thinking longer term, to meet a sense of staleness, I make visual collages. Often the collages provide an image and color palette for a poem. To bring energy and myself back to words, I invent wild, impossible, contortionist writing constraints that are part goose chase and part scavenger hunt. To meet loneliness, I collaborate with another writer, sending weekly responsive transmissions back and forth. Since September 2019, I and poet, Sean Singer, have been writing a poem together; it’s 36 pages long so far. Or, I may elect to write in community a poem a day with some other poets.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
First home: Sun and seashore, mixed with the heady, velvety scent of rosehips, autumn’s darlings that grow along the shore. Second home: Creosote, especially after an August monsoon.
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 poems come from the body, from the scientific doings of birds, and spiritual callings of sky. The kinetic sculptures of Alexander Calder and the "earth-body" artwork of Ana Mendieta reveal paths.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Most important: Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Leslie Scalapino, Pablo Neruda, Robert Hass, W. S. Merwin, Theodore Roethke, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, Marguerite Duras, Italo Calvino, Russell Edson, Jean Valentine, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith, Mei Mei Burssenbrugge, Rosmarie Waldrop, Mekeel McBride, Charles Simic, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Hafiz, Sappho, Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, John Berger, Olga Broumas, Odysseus Elytis, Guillaume Apollinaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and the spiritual texts of Advaita Vedanta—I bow to each.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’ve always wanted to skydive… I intend to venture to every ice and sand desert of the world.
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?
For a while in school, I was on course to be a dancer and a biologist. So, perhaps, I would have been a modern dancer with a field guide to birds in her duffle bag or a wildlife biologist with season tickets to Alvin Ailey and Pilobolus. Then again, isn’t being a poet these things?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t know. People responsible for raising me used language imprecisely, manipulatively to trick and hurt. People responsible for teaching me used language playfully, creatively to make clear meanings, to reach understandings, and to heal. So, I had those choices when I was growing up. When I was eight, I remember making a decision to use language as responsibly, truthfully, responsively, and caringly as I could. Communicating honestly and compassionately, candidly and spontaneously is the hardest, highest calling I know.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The books I’ve read so far this year of 2020 that have affected me or have taken up residence in my imagination: Snake Poems by Francisco X.Alarcon; Rare Earth by Kelsi Vanada; Sun Cycle by Anne Lesley Selcer; The Paper Camera by Youmna Chlala; Antigona Gonzalez by Sara Uribe; The Seven Ages by Louise Gluck; The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell, and A Literary Biography of Robin Blaser by Miriam Nichols. Right now, my partner and I are reading aloud Afro-American Folktales, edited by Roger Abrahams. It’s wonderful! When will we be able to go to the movie theater again? I’m used to seeing a lot of films. Films of all types teach me about visual vocabulary and the associative. I miss being taken in by the big screen. I can’t remember the last film I saw… but a real-life environmental allegory that remains with me is Honeyland, featuring the enlightened, Macedonian beekeeper, Muratova, who cares for her ailing mother and honey bees with an expansive tenderness that reveals the golden rule by which she lives: leave half the honey for the bees.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Poems. Poems are working on me.
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