Long Journey Home: An Interview with James Green
Award-winning poet James Green has worked as a naval officer, deputy sheriff, high school English teacher, professor of education, and administrator in both public schools and universities. A recipient of two Fulbright grants, he served as a visiting scholar at the University of Limerick in Ireland and at the National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. His academic publications include three books, as well as scores of articles in professional journals -- all on various topics in education. Since retirement he has turned his attention to poetry and has published five poetry chapbooks, with individual poems appearing in literary journals and anthologies in the USA, UK, and Ireland. His most recent publication is Ode to El Camino de Santiago and Other Poems of Journey (Wipf and Stock, 2022) while his collection Long Journey Home won the 2019 Charles Dickson Chapbook Contest sponsored by the Georgia Poetry Society. Readers can learn more about his poetry at www.jamesgreenpoetry.net.
James, tell us how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I suppose how I became inspired to write poetry might be connected to when. My first efforts were in high school, and I continued sporadically while in college. Then came a long hiatus, and it was not until what Jung calls “the noon of life” that I felt the urge to resume writing. After another dry spell, I found myself turning again to poetry when I retired from my academic career. So, I think my inspiration to write poetry might be connected to the seasons of one’s life, the ebb and flow of life’s stages, especially the discoveries found at the turning points of those stages. Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging,” comes to mind. Poetry is a way for me to dig below the surface of experience, to find where I am from and where I might be going.
What subjects are you most passionate about?
I think I might be interested in too many subjects, and as a consequence I just scratch around at all of them. Which ones might be a passion actually is a difficult question. I suppose it comes down to which pursuits are necessary to one’s psychic health. With respect to subjects for the poetry that I write, that would be Nature, broadly understood . . . how our connection to it, or disconnection from it, tends to define who we are. Another is the “hero journey.”
How much time do you spend on a poem before you consider it to be finished?
Well, first of all, I don’t consider any of my poems finished. I often find myself changing a word, perhaps adding or deleting a punctuation mark, in poems long after I thought they were finished, even after I have submitted them for publication. Time for initial composition, from genesis to near completion, can vary widely. I have written first drafts for some poems in as little time as a few hours, others have taken a month or more. Then, I like to set a first draft aside for a while – the longer the better – before revising. Also, I find feedback from other poets valuable. So, the process typically takes a couple months or more.
What aspect of writing poetry do you find the most challenging?
I can answer this question with words borrowed from Emily Dickinson. For me, writing a poem that “scalps your naked soul” is the most challenging aspect. Finding interesting diction and syntax that startles, what Coleridge calls “best words in the best order,” is part of the challenge, along with imagery that rises to the level of metaphor in the mind of the reader. Also, keeping the rhythm and tone of language consistent with the mood of the poem can be a challenge. These are all aspects of craft that require effort. But the real challenge, and frankly what I am still hoping to find, is a way to scalp the naked soul of the reader . . . for a way to make the reader set the book down, pause, and say, “Oooh, that’s the way it is.”
One of your chapbooks, Barely Still, Barely Stirring (Finishing Line Books, 2020) describes encounters with nature. To what extent do you find that you are drawn to writing about the natural world?
Yes, I am drawn to writing about the natural world, as are so many other poets. The tradition of pastoral poetry is as old as the first record of poetry. To try to understand our place in the natural world is to try to understand our place in creation. When I first began to take poetry seriously, in high school and college, I was drawn to the nature poets – from Wordsworth to Frost – and today I return to them and others for solace. What appeals to me most about reading or writing poetry is the demand it makes of me to pay attention to the particulars of the moment, which for me seems to happen more often in nature.
Your chapbook of poems on Rembrandt’s Art, The Color of Prayer: Poems on Rembrandt Painting the Bible (Shanti Arts Books 2019) points to an interest in writing ekphrastic poetry. What challenges presented themselves to you when you were working on this collection?
There are two that come to mind. First, I have no background in art history or art criticism; so, I needed to school myself enough to appreciate Rembrandt’s work. A second challenge was the nature and purpose of ekphrastic poetry. Rembrandt’s paintings, especially these scenes from The Bible, are so complex there was the tendency merely to describe with language what he was showing visually. That approach, of course, makes the poem redundant of the painting. Ekphrastic poetry should do more than that; it should reflect upon the scene, or add new dimensions or additional layers of action to the scene.
The theme of pilgrimage seems to run through some of your poetry. This is particularly evident in your latest collection. Do you sense that poetry, which has come to you at a later stage in life, is to some extent a summation of your own long journey home?
Absolutely. We are all works in progress . . . pilgrims on a path. And, reflecting upon where we have been gives insight into where we are headed; or, it might give counsel to direction. For myself, poetry is an impetus, as well as a method, for that reflection.
Do you have any pieces of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?
First, read widely. Seek advice from mentors on who and what to read, both from the canon as well as from a broad field of contemporary poets. Next, finding a small group of kindred spirits is important, both for having an audience and for feedback. Also, realize that writing poetry is a habit of heart as much as anything else. Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, speaks to this as well as anyone. There are some excellent books on craft, and workshops, classes, even academic majors in creative writing, all have their place. But how one perceives is where poetry begins. In Antoine de Saint-Exupréy’s classic, The Little Prince, the fox says to the little prince, “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is good advice for poets.
What projects are you working on now?
At present I am working on a series of poems that is framed by passages from The Bible. Each poem begins with an epigraph from The Bible. I am using an approach that, in some ways, resembles the Hebrew tradition of Midrash, which interprets the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of the imagination rather than the usual analytics. Reimagining the stories in The Bible, or using them as entry points for a poem, is nothing new to poets. Poets as diverse as Milton, Frost, Bishop, and Plath all have done so. In many ways, it is like ekphrastic poetry.
From Long Journey Home: Poems on Classical Myths:
Daedalus Laments Icarus
Airborne he learned his wings worked their own magic.
Thermal currents, with the gentle rhythmic hunching
of his shoulders (the way I instructed him) did the work of flight,
having perfected the systems’ mechanics in tests myself,
although I warned him of the limitations of the adhesives.
First he circled the labyrinth, taunting our captors,
delighting at the sight of the tiny guards shaking their fists,
their arrows dangling in mid-air before falling back to earth,
that horrible man-bull thing rutting the lawn with its hooves,
the king stomping back and forth, cursing the sky.
Trying to be practical in all matters, I pointed the way
of a straight course toward the coast on the horizon,
but I saw Icarus feel the rush of flight, the flesh of his face
pressed taut by the wind, smiling from the kiss of sunlight
on the nape of his neck. First, he tried a few steep banks,
then loops, then, a high-velocity dive, pulling up in time
to buzz fishing boats, whitecaps lapping at his feet,
before climbing again, higher and higher, warnings forgotten
from a memory that held only the last instant of exhilaration,
higher than the gulls to where the island was hidden in its mist.
No one saw him fall but I; the fishermen didn’t notice.
But what I saw still haunts, the flailing arms and legs
splashing soundlessly into the sea, feathers floating
on the dark surface like petals scattered on a grave,
finally the crest of a plush wave, swallowing him.
They say that grief takes time, that first you make your peace
with the gods and then you make a separate peace with yourself.
Those who say so never saw their sons fall from the sky,
never gave their sons wings to fly to their deaths.
It is more of a cease-fire, not at all the same as peace.
True, the wings I invented were the means of our escape;
but eventually one grows weary of paradox and he wants to feel
what he feels, wants to face the face that still hovers in vapor
over the water and touch lost time again, wants to speak
what only can be spoken in silence long after it is too late.