James Davies is a poet whose works includes stack, Plants, Forty-Four Poems and a Volta, A Dog, Snow, Rocks, and Acronyms. He is also the author of two novels: The Wood Pigeons & When Two Are in Love or As I Came To Behind Frank's Transporter (written in collaboration with Philip Terry), as well as the short stories The Ten Superstrata of Stockport J. Middleton & Changing Piece. In addition to being the editor of if p then q, between 2008-2018, he was the co-organiser of The Other Room reading series & resources website in Manchester, and in 2017-18 he was Poet in Residence at The University of Surrey.
1 - How did your first book or pamphlet change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Three of my earliest published works: The Manual Handling Process, Acronyms and Plants deal with trying not to say. The Manual Handling Process is a piece of found poetry. The poems in Acronyms are original acronyms that I’ve coined which don’t originate from any source words. Half of the poems in Plants are a sequence called ‘unmades’ that record the deletion of poems. Most of the rest of Plants is filled with my own flarf, which is to say that I wrote the junk rather than harvesting it from the internet, preferring the process of writing my own garbage rather than trawling through the web. Poems like ‘Kate Bush’, ‘wasps’ and ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’ – a translation of Wordsworth’s poem – are done through my own flarf voice. My current work tries to say more I guess. My book ‘stack’ is predominantly about walking. And my latest published book Forty-Four Poems and a Volta, and the as-yet-unpublished All is but Toys, have poems which discuss our ecological crisis through a minimalist poetics.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I got the spark from reading Keats when doing my A-levels. I also got into Surrealism at the same time, Magritte and Dali primarily. I read The Surrealist Manifesto, and in those pages read Dali’s poem Dandled Brochure which was a big influence. Seeing that a painter could write poems, and that art was fluid and highly malleable was important. Then I wrote like crazy – maybe 2000 poems – all shapes and sizes, from the age of 16 until say 22.
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?
I generally write quickly. Most of my poems nowadays are short. Once they’re written I give them breathing space and then tinker with them in small ways. About two years ago I did a complex translation of William Carlos Williams’s ‘so much depends’. That poem went through a lot of working on the page but heavy editing is an anomaly nowadays. In the past I used to write longer poems more regularly and edit and edit until the last version looked nothing like the first. So I've been through that process and enjoyed it and perhaps miss it. Two sonnets that were worked for hours and hours eventually became two deleted poems in ‘unmades’, just leaving the title of the poem and the date of the deletion.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?
Each of my last three or four books of poetry use a particular form that I've stuck to throughout. I often target writing a certain number of poems and then the impetus to write in that way is usually exhausted.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy giving readings very much. Reading in front of an audience allows me to explore different ways of presenting the poems. At readings I often present versions or remixes of the work in the books. PowerPoint for example has been something I’ve used often. More recently I’ve been making single poems from All is but Toys into one-off books or sculptures. I’ve made about seventy or so and read from them to the audience. I use various detritus for the covers and the pages, and bind the books crudely. For some books I use materials like jars, cans and lightbulbs as the book covers. They’re beautiful 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?
‘stack’ was written for a PhD and I suppose behind the poem is some theory. I would probably prefer to call it influence and politics. Amongst other things ‘stack’ explores minimalist poetry and various ways of walking. However, there are many other theoretical concerns which interest me and I do not believe that poetry needs a one-size-fits-all model, or universal manifesto.
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?
Again I would say there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. For me, at the moment my principal concern is to write for my own growth. One thing that makes a piece of writing great is if it is original. Any readers of my work would have to be the judge of whether I'm successful in that pursuit. As a reader, for me to be really excited, I like to read poems that do something new. However, I can see the importance of poems that have valuable messages to deliver, yet which aren't especially interesting from a formal perspective.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It's not essential but it can be useful to have another person's perspective. Generally, nowadays, when I submit a manuscript I am confident that it's working. The best editors are probably those that I show the work to before I submit. And the best of those editors is my partner.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In a BBC Imagine documentary the artist Sean Scully says that if you are confident in your work and abilities, ignore what any detractors say and basically take no shit. Another piece of wisdom comes from John Berryman, who in conversation with Al Alvarez says that the validity of a poet’s work is in the close correspondence with a handful of people who genuinely believe in your work.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
The two novels that I've written both tell stories: The Wood Pigeons and When Two Are In Love or As I Came To Behind Frank's Transporter (co-written with Philip Terry), as well as my recent short story The Ten Superstrata of Stockport J. Middleton (a rewrite of the first page of Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch). My poetry on the other hand has no narrative elements to it. The appeal of writing in different genres is therefore simply to write for a different purpose.
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?
No writing routine. It wouldn't be useful. Most of the poems I write are very short and I write them when they come to me. When the writing is longer I try to write the poem there and then if possible, or at least a sketch of it, then look for some free time later.
However, in contradiction to saying that I have conducted a number of daily writing projects, all of which have involved writing in a short space of time using a system. My novel The Wood Pigeons started off as a 365 word story. I then proceeded to remove a word at a rate of roughly one per day for a year, which for the grammar to work amounted to 261 days = 261 pages. Some projects have more directly investigated time. doing (published in Rampike and ctrl+alt+dlt) involved me writing a line after looking at some plastic cubes and some plastic detritus (if and only if I felt a strong energy). The line is always ‘i looked at the bits of plastic’ with a date added. I wrote around thirty lines over five years, so not very many but the project was with me that whole time. In contrast in if I roll a five then i stamp the date each day, for five years, I rolled a six-sided die that had the number five on every side. After I rolled a five (as of course is inevitable) I stamped an index card with the date and filed that away. Both of those projects are indebted to the great artists On Kawara and Tehching Hsieh. I haven’t committed to any more daily writing projects recently like that. Both of these gave me tremendous pleasure in writing poetry daily or regularly. Yet, at the same time, being aware of the passing of time was very painful. Maybe some people might pass into a state of enlightenment that way; it felt something close for me.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
These three usually do the trick: walking, visiting art galleries, reading.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
I can think of too many things over the years that have influenced my work. You often find lists of thanks in pop CDs from the late 80s onwards. The band Loop Guru sometimes publish an inspiration list in the sleeve notes of their albums. So here’s mine as an epigraph to the poems I’m currently writing, in no particular order: Underworld, The Prodigy (the first two albums), Suzanne Ciani’s Seven Waves, Mike Oldfield (the first four albums), Yes (Fragile and Close to the Edge), Stephen Ratcliffe, William Basinski, John Clare, Kate Bush’s Aerial, Philip K. Dick, Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack, outer space, Wittgenstein, Yoko Ono, Ben Patterson, Fluxus scores as a whole, Robert Grenier, P. Inman, Carl Andre, Robert Lax, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Aram Saroyan, the ecological crisis, The Future Sound of London’s Lifeforms and ISDN, Lawrence Weiner, Donald Judd, Heimat, Steve Reich, Mike Nelson, Rebecca Horn, talkingwalking.net, Ulrike Ottinger, Robert Fitterman’s Rob’s Word Shop, Dieter Roth, MMU Special Collections Library, The Poetry Library London, The Orb’s Orbus Terrarum, Joe Simpson, Peter Jaeger’s Midamble, Thomas A. Clark, Alex Haley, my own walking experience, Dan Flavin, David Lynch, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, On Kawara, Teching Hsieh, Harold Budd, Hermann Hesse, Issa, Kurt Schwitters, Vito Acconci, Ursula le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Mondrian, Carlos Casteneda’s The Teaching of Don Juan, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robert Calendar, Ellie Harrison, Mette-Sophie D. Ambeck’s 367, Wayne Thiebaud, Buddha, Clark Coolidge, Marina Abramović , Cindy Sherman, Dorothy Wordsworth, family and friends, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Lee Kang-hyo.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I have just started a walking project which (if completed at all) will take many, many years. The intension is to walk ten miles or more on each of the 403 UK ordnance survey maps. The only other rule is that on each of these individual walks I won't cross over onto another map. The project will definitely inspire some writing but at the moment I don’t plan any writing directly related to it.
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?
A badminton player. It’s all based on instinct, you are completely in the moment, a moment with incredibly purity and beautiful patterns.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
For me writing often puts me in an extreme state of bliss. There are other activities in life where I feel a similar level of bliss; I've mentioned some of them in this interview. If writing stopped giving me extreme bliss any longer then I'd abandon it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
For a book I’ll go for Will Montgomery's Short Form American Poetry which I’ve just finished. It’s exhilarating throughout. The chapters on Lorine Niedecker and Larry Eigner are particularly astute. I’ll modify the second part of this question by choosing the ten-part TV series Too Old To Die Young directed by Nicholas Winding Refn which has some stunning lighting and photography.
20 - What are you currently working on?
In the last two books that I’ve written – Forty-Four Poems and a Volta and All is but Toys – I use a two-liner form; a form that probably originates in the work of Aram Saroyan and Robert Grenier or in Fluxus scores as Will Montgomery has recently suggested. I'm continuing to use this form for new poems. These poems are often written using disjunctive syntax. The effect of the collapsed language slows down the reading process and opens up multiple meanings. At the back of my mind the naïve voice that I’m currently alludes to the collapse of language and the planet. It seems the right way to go about writing at the moment.