“Outside the Circle: A Conversation with John James & A Portfolio of New Poems” — curated by Henk Rossouw

John James is the author of The Milk Hours (Milkweed, 2019), selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. His poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, PEN Poetry Series, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere, and his work has been supported by the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference, the Academy of American Poets, and the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University. He teaches at the Hudson Valley Writers Center and the Ruth Stone House, as well as at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is completing a PhD in English literature. 

Henk Rossouw: I’m re-reading your remarkable poem, “Circles,” in the portfolio of new work we’ve included with this interview. In particular, the speakers engage in what I’ll call gleaning, not of grain but of useful detritus: “Sifting fragmented matter carried up / from the river’s bed–bicycle parts, / shredded plastic–a doll’s / missing eye– / we drag / sticks through retreating water, / pilfer anything of use.” It strikes me that if one poetic strategy closely associated with The Milk Hours–your incredible debut–was a gleaning from other texts, Melville and Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi among them, here in the striking imagery of “Circles” the speakers turn to material, specifically to gleaning objects disrupted and dispersed by the flooded river. How has climate change, its nowness, perhaps signaled here by the imagery of flooding, impacted your poetic approach to gleaning? Is there a new emphasis on the material, not so much on its representation, an impossible task, but on the subjective response of your speakers to the found objects in their worlds? To be less philosophical, what I’m asking is: How do you make use of waste material?

John James: That’s a fascinating question, and one I hadn’t thought about too much until now—especially the overlap between the textual “gleaning” in The Milk Hours and the more material acts of gleaning depicted in “Circles.” I think the answer to that part of your question is that, actually, they’re not that different at all. I’ve always thought of text itself as a material thing. The term is etymologically related to “textile” and, in fact, to “tissue,” but even without that semiotic relation, there’s something strikingly physical about the way verse travels from the mind to the lungs and, when spoken, into the ears and heart of the listener. In that book, I was sifting the matter of textual debris and reapplying it in ways the speaker of “Circles” is trying to do with visual art—“junk art,” if you will. But I think you’re right to suggest that there’s a difference between these two different types of “waste.” It’s worth noting that natural disasters, such as floods, don’t need to signal climate change to carry cultural or symbolic importance. Minor catastrophes are a big part of Virgil’s Georgics and make up a great deal of the aesthetic thinking going on in Lucretius. What we call the Anthropocene, though, suggests an inextricable penetration of natural and cultural — in other words, “synthetic” or “artificial” — materials, and in that sense, whatever today’s floods dredge up will (whether visibly or not) feature a great deal of industrial waste. That’s certainly true of “Circles.” Most of the waste described in the poem (the “iron hinge,” the “dribbled oil”) is the result of industrial making. In terms of creativity, I’m not sure the act of making is fundamentally different. It’s just that, because our materials themselves are so thoroughly suffused, the things we make bear traces of this fusion, with its inevitable aura of ruin.

HR: Fascinating answer, John. I love how circles are a leitmotif in the poem. This calls back to “Circles,” Emerson’s essay, of course–“The eye is the first circle”–but also makes me think of the biologist von Uexküll, and his concept of the umwelt, which is kind of the subjective circle in or through which each living thing sees its world. In other words, like circles, worlds are plural, varied for each observer, and species-specific. Umwelt–or my layperson’s understanding thereof–has been so influential in posthumanist ecological thinking. To me, your lines “We live within the circle, replete / with its occlusions. Goshawks / loop and dive” gets much closer to what I am trying to say here. That’s a profound thought: That a circle must include occlusions to be a circle. Human beings can’t know what it is like to be a goshawk, what it is like within the subjective circle of that goshawk, because of the occlusions in our own circle, though of course we may imagine another circle than our own. Then again, the other leitmotif in “Circles,” to my mind, is that of fragmentation and ruin, the “inevitable aura of ruin,” as you say. Despite the trauma of flooding, these ruinous fragments can be generative: “The new begins in fragments, babbled / automatically through the mouth / of an open wound. We drove the flood banks…” Not to ask you to interpret your own poem, but I’m curious as to how you see circles and the ruin in relation to each other in your writing process, and the writing of this poem? Or, in the spirit of the speakers in “Circles,” ragpicking on the riverbank, feel free to pick out what’s most interesting to you in this question and just abandon the rest!

JJ: I wish I could say I was thinking about von Uexküll. I wasn’t, or not directly so, though I think the idea of the umwelt — and also his notion of biosemiosis — maps pretty neatly onto Emerson. There is that great line you’ve quoted, but also the epigraph to my poem, from the “Circles” essay: “Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.” Before language, von Uexküll suggests, meaning-making occurs through complex interactions between organisms and their environments. In other words, to create meaning (but also, maybe, to interpret it) one must occupy object and subject positions simultaneously. That dynamic might comprise its own rather dizzying circle. I had also just finished teaching Frederick Douglass, whose Narrative contains an early but strikingly concise articulation of ideology: “I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.” Put otherwise, we cannot think outside of the intellectual limitations forged by our social and material environments — or at least, it’s a very difficult thing to do. So, there is the bound circle of sense-perception and that of thought — or rather, of what thought might make possible within such limitations. But there are also the circles (cycles) of nature and commerce. I’m thinking, here, of economy as a bound system, but also of ecology, which doesn’t strike me as necessarily more open, even if it admits a greater potential for permeability. In terms of your question about ruin, I wonder if the figure of the ruin doesn’t create the potential to break those circles — to reinterpret or refigure them. Ruin in the natural world (fossils, in particular) was one way early geologists came to understand the broader set of relations that comprises an environment. Could the industrial ruin of the Anthropocene, whether real or metaphorical, disrupt the closed thought-systems we have yet to identify or think beyond? What happens when we write within those gaps or fissures?

HR: You’re right! That quote from Frederick Douglass on the circle as ideology is illuminating–and far more concise and clear, to my mind, than what Foucault means by “discourse,” I think, in the sense of discourse as a circle of language outside yourself that determines your thought, or its limits. Your conception of “circle,” too, makes me think of the classic 1974 essay on consciousness and the mind-body problem by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” In essence, Nagel argues that while bats likely have consciousness, humans aren’t able to look outside the circle of humanness and thus cannot know what it is like to be a bat. A version, perhaps, of Wittgenstein’s comment that even if lions could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand them. All that to say, I admire your sense of ruin in the Anthropocene as potentially disrupting the circle, or closed thought-systems “we have yet to identify or think beyond.” It gives me hope that even if we can’t know what it’s like to be a bat, there are still other ways of responding to the subjectivity of a bat. Is poetry, for you, a way to attempt that disruption of the circle? I’m thinking of the incredible rhythms in “Pastoral,” specifically the way “A peach tree in the snow” repeats and varies throughout the poem. Perhaps rhythm circumvents the circle by including the body? Somatic thought as an entry point to the fissures and gaps you spoke of. Or maybe in my question I’m simply re-introducing the body-mind binary, a binary that has led us to the brink of ecological destruction. To summarize what I’m asking: Does poetry offer, whether through rhythm or otherwise, tactics to get us outside the circle, even if for a second?

JJ: I don’t know the Nagel essay, but I’ll have to look into it. I like the thesis, or at least your characterization of it, and wonder if it differs at all for domesticated or urban-dwelling animals. I’m thinking in particular of Donna Haraway’s notion of kinship, the idea that beings of different species can “make kin,” or “kind,” by living in close proximity to one another — by sharing resources or space. This might harken back to von Uexküll, but if beings develop together, might they also develop shared systems of signage or meaning-making? To return to poetry, though, many readers come to the genre precisely because it makes space for the inarticulable — for a kind of meaning that can’t be stated, but can only be intuited or gestured toward. This is not non-meaning, I don’t think, but rather a form of meaning that eludes our rational attempts at direct statement. I wonder if what remains unstated in a poem — whatever is spoken around or below, but never about — might overlap with these differently signified forms of meaning. We are, after all, human animals, to use Nietzsche’s great phrase. Why wouldn’t we make use of animalistic systems of communication? (This does throw us back into that Cartesian binary, doesn’t it?) It’s hard to get around, or to think out of, which I guess loops us back into one of those “circles,” though it also underscores one of the contradictions inherent in those circles — that sometimes you need the circle, or the tools it provides, in order to think beyond it. I think you’re right to suggest that rhythm, repetition, and maybe a whole host of other techniques, offer those tools. In other words, we have to lean into the mind-body binary to think outside of it, and the rhythmic, embodied experience of a poem like “Pastoral” pushes us in that direction. To answer your question, then, I don’t think poetry or other forms of art-making entirely allow us to step outside of those closed ideological forms, but they show us the cracks in the system and, I agree, let us outside of the circle partially or momentarily.

HR: With us as human animals in mind–yes, a great phrase!–I’m wondering about the place and impact of family or social bonds on your poetry. On the plane to South Africa recently, to see my own family, I watched some incredible footage from the 1960s of Jane Goodall’s encounters with chimpanzees who hadn’t been studied in the wild before. At the time, it was groundbreaking to realize–perhaps even more than evidence of tool use–that fellow primates have such fierce parent-child attachments, and how much social dynamics of the group plays into well-being. I don’t know the science well enough to make any kind of comparison between chimpanzees and human animals, but Goodall’s research does throw into relief how much family and group life are at the core of being alive. Fatherhood was central to The Milk Hours, both being a father and the speaker’s relationship with his father. While fatherhood is perhaps more implicit in these new poems, could you speak to how group life, whether family or otherwise, figures in your thinking and writing process? I guess I’m trying to ask: How does the simple fact of loving other people in the era of radical climate change and ecological destruction, with all the futural anxiety that may bring, play into your writing?

JJ: When The Milk Hours came out, I realized — in a way I hadn’t when I was writing — that it was a very personal book, in large part because people kept describing it to me in that way. That’s the weird thing about publishing a book. For a long time, it’s all yours, and you come to see it in a certain way, and then all of a sudden it’s out in the world and people begin to think of it in ways that never occurred to you, not all of which are entirely welcome. What’s more, I began to feel that, in order to “sell” the book (to whatever extent poetry “sells”), I had to pitch it from that angle. I never quite felt like I was exploiting that experience, but it made me oddly self-conscious to have to describe it over and again. This was not at all the case when I was writing the book. In fact, I didn’t want to write about my father’s death at all. For a while, I wrote around the subject without naming it, though eventually — especially in the title poem — the topic forced its way to the surface. Strangely, I still didn’t see the book as so intensely personal until people began to frame it in those terms — and that subject seemed the only thing people could comment upon. Which is definitely not true. There were many smart reviews of the book, some of which explored its unconventional use of form or collage techniques, but that’s where my anxiety took me. As I sat down to draft these new poems, which I couldn’t do until a year or so after The Milk Hours released, I had to escape that self-consciousness. One way of doing that was to turn inward, mostly away from questions of family, in order to carve out a new kind of poem, and also to get away from my own apprehensions about having shared too much. Maybe others won’t think of them this way, but the new poems feel a little more inward-facing, more hermetic. I like them, but I think they present a challenge to the reader, in ways that might not be entirely productive. Of course, many of them are about climate change, but I think they’ve sought to untwine familial experience from the experience of a changing planet, maybe too much so, since family is a big part of my life and the primary lens through which I am most likely, eventually, to experience the warming planet’s most damaging effects.

HR: Both the poems “Everything Must Happen…” and “What Hallows” have a sharp sense of form. As an unrhymed sonnet, “What Hallows” makes an argument about the speaker’s subjective experience of the world, most vivid to my mind in the turn: “This earth is loosely tethered. Liquid, / uncertain…” With “Everything Must Happen…” I feel that the tercets, too, give the poem great force, and lead up to that magnificent turn, “There never was a road.” In such a sensory poem, rich in sight, sound, touch, taste, and especially smell, the “putrid scent of life” is both pleasurable and uncanny–it’s hard not to read “the atmosphere is brimming” without a sense of foreboding. I’m wondering, then, how you arrive at your sense of form, both for these poems and in your writing process? And, given the “turn inward… in order to carve out a new kind of poem” that you speak of, how do you see things unfolding from here? In other words, as your new book takes shape, what have the new poems made clear to you? What are you still figuring out?

JJ: I try to allow the poems to reveal their own forms — that is to say, I try not to impose a form on the poem from the outset. Sometimes a poem will announce its shape from the beginning, but often, a big part of my revision process centers around fitting the language, with its inherent tensions and conflicts, into a container that appropriately heightens or conveys the feeling endemic to the language itself. Sometimes, what I’m reading or teaching at a given moment will influence the forms I try out. This was the case with “What Hallows.” I was gearing up to give a talk on Emerson’s “Woods, a Prose Sonnet” for what turned out to be a really fantastic conference — the Sonnets from the American conference, at Johns Hopkins last year — and I was reading a lot of sonnets, trying to nail down what, if anything, is essential about the form. So naturally, when I sat down to write, and particularly because I was writing a short poem, I shaped it into approximately 10-syllable lines and limited myself to a total of 14 lines. Usually, when I do this, the poem resists containment: it wants to be longer or shorter than the stricture permits. With just a little variation, however, this one fit, so it became a sonnet — or at least an unrhymed sonnet. This wouldn’t have worked with “Everything Must Happen,” which insisted on shorter lines. There, the short lines, combined with the tercet form, allowed me to mete out the slow pace of that poem — to adjust its attentive modality to reflect the competing forms of perception the poem strives, but maybe fails, to consciously identify. Moving forward, I don’t know. And I mean that pretty sincerely. In other words, I have a sense of what the new book is beginning to look like, but if I develop that sense too rigidly, the sense itself — the idea — becomes a limitation, a circle. It determines what kind of poems I can write, or what I think I can write. I’m trying to approach the new poems with a sense of openness — to let them lead me where they want to go. I think there will be a few more long poems, not unlike “Circles,” and maybe some shorter pieces, or even more sonnets, but something might also come along and rupture that dynamic, and I want to remain open to that possibility.