The Plague Doctor: A Conversation with James Morehead— curated by Kristina Marie Darling

James Morehead is Poet Laureate of Dublin, California. James has published two collections of poetry “canvas” and “portraits of red and gray”, and he hosts the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. James’ poems “tethered” and “Twilight in the Sculpture Forest” were transformed into award-winning short films, and his poems have appeared in NPR, SF Chronicle’s Total SF, Ignatian Literary Magazine, Cathexis Northwest Press, Beyond Words Magazine, Citron Review, Prometheus Dreaming, and others.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell us about your new book, The Plague Doctor.

James Morehead: “I’m thrilled with how The Plague Doctor has been received by readers and critics. The Plague Doctor explores the ephemeral nature of love in friendship through a series of eerie, image-rich poems inspired by the world of art and artists. The twenty-seven poems in this collection are organized into three acts, the theatrical reference intentional with hints of Shakespeare and a narrative arc providing a foundation for the poems. As was the case with my first book, canvas, the photographs and artwork in The Plague Doctor complement many of the poems. The cover and interior design is also a critical element of the book. Poetry is about words, about how those words sound, and the displacement of empty space on the page. I cared deeply how The Plague Doctor looked on the page.”

KMD:  What advice do you have for writers who are interested in ekphrastic poetry, but struggle to create poems that stand apart from the works of visual art that inspired them?

JCM: “When crafting poetry inspired by works of art, I seek to go beyond simply writing a poetic description of the art. I look for connections – connections to my experience or unexpected connections to ideas inspired by the work of art. I also need some element of the artwork to impact me emotionally. The inspiring artwork is just one source of raw material, a starting point, a visual prompt. The backstory of the art can be equally important. An ekphrastic poem needs to stand on its own while sparking curiosity in the reader to seek out the inspiring artwork. When writing Twilight in the Sculpture Forest, inspired by the installation in the Haliburton Sculpture Forest in Canada, I was moved by the unique setting of the sculpture: outside along a forest trail. For the pieces I profiled in the poem I researched the materials used in the sculpture, the inspirations behind the sculpture and the artists, and found a way to connect the collection of images with a narrative. The poem ended up inspiring a short film which recently won Best Documentary at the International Poetry Film Festival in Los Angeles.”

KMD:  In addition to publishing this impressive collection, you currently serve as Poet Laureate of Dublin, California.  Can you speak to the relationship between poetry and community? 

JCM: “In my role as Poet Laureate of Dublin, California, now in my second term, I’ve been reminded multiple times how broadly poetry is appreciated in our communities. I’ve held monthly open mics where participants at the mic have ranged from eight to eighty years old, many reciting their poetry publicly for the first time. I’ve met with high school students at our local high school and helped them discover that they do appreciate poetry, when they find a poem that ignites their imagination. And when working with the City of Dublin to incorporate poetry into civic events I’ve seen how a community can be brought together through the shared experience of a recited poem. Poetry is such a concise art form, distilling image / emotion / sound / senses into a few well chosen words and phrases. As a result there is always time to incorporate a poem into an event or moment which is why so many cities support poet laureate programs.”

KMD:  Relatedly, what has interviewing other arts professionals opened up within your creative practice? 

JCM: “Hosting the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast has enriched my writing in so many ways. The interviews start with a close read of the interview subject’s body of work. I invest hours reading and crafting questions for the artist I’m interviewing, and then seek to get out of the way and provide a platform for the artist to tell their story. While the podcast primarily focuses on poets, I’ve also interviewed songwriters, musicians, artists, and publishing industry professionals. I learn something new from each interview and do so by investing time to write thoughtful questions that have a narrative arc. With the podcast now in its third year I’m seeing high school and university programs incorporating the interviews into their curriculum which is rewarding. A few examples of how the interviews have inspired me, I’ve learned about performing poetry from Olivia Gatwood, experimenting with received forms from A. E. Stallings, narrative poetry from Sandy Longhorn and Safia Elhillo, and the role of poetry in society from Dana Gioia. The extraordinary diversity of the poetic art form means I’ll never run out of questions to explore.

“I’ve also had several opportunities to collaborate with artists, with filmmakers on short films based on my poetry, with composers who have set my poems to music, and with artists who have interpreted my poetry (and when their art or photography has inspired poetry). The Plague Doctor includes poems benefiting from collaborations with multiple artists, and original art commissioned for the book to accompany the poems. I’ve even created an online addendum to accompany the book and connect readers with the collaborations.”

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with us? 

JCM: “Poets are always seeking out writing prompts so I appreciate the question! Find your next prompt by exploring a place in your community you’ve never visited before, a park, a museum, an historic landmark, an alley infused with street art. Capture photos and emotional connections as raw material. If you find a poetic hook write that down too, but it’s ok if you leave without a specific idea of the poem, and just the raw material. A couple of years ago I took a day trip to a ghost town in Bodie, California in the hope of finding a poem. It was an extraordinary location, high in the Sierras, and I spent a few hours capturing photos and reflecting on the experience. Driving home I let the experience rattle in my brain and had the starting point for a poem when I returned, which I enriched with research about the ghost town’s history. The resulting poem, “Ghosts of Bodie, California”, is featured in my latest book The Plague Doctor.”

KMD: What are you currently working on?  What can readers look forward to?

JCM: “I’m currently more than halfway done creating the manuscript for an ekphrastic tour of San Francisco Bay Area museums. I’m creating a series of poems that will serve as a travel guide of sorts for the rich collage of museums that surround me in the San Francisco area. I’m visiting museums small and large, from the Beat Museum and San Francisco Cable Car Museum, to the Oakland Museum of California and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). As I explore each museum I’m looking for connections, as I mentioned earlier, that can create a compelling poem or two to represent a work of art from each museum. The working title is Beautiful Dead Things and it’s my first project book. Longer term I have the earliest inkling of an idea for a novel in verse. Safia Elhillo and Sandy Longhorn’s contributions to this art form have me inspired to find a story best told through poetry.”