James Arthur was born in Connecticut and grew up in Canada. He is the author of the poetry collection The Suicide’s Son (Véhicule Press 2019) and Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press 2012). Arthur’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Hodder Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, a Discovery/The Nation Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship to Northern Ireland, and a visiting fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
Joseph Harrison: Hello, James. You are from Toronto, originally, but have lived in the States for many years, and seem to be both Canadian and American. In your wonderful poem “Ode to an Encyclopedia,” from your spendid new book, The Suicide’s Son, you write “The man makes a choice / between two countries, believing all the while / that he will never have to choose.” How is the reader to take that “believing”? As affirmation? As irony? Is nationality, for you, a question of belief? A question of choice?
James Arthur: Thank you, Joe. I grew up in Canada as a dual citizen (my dad is from Ontario, my mom is from Kentucky) and I moved to the United States about 20 years ago. At first I thought of myself as a Canadian living temporarily in the U.S., and after a while I thought of myself as what I am, legally — a citizen of both countries.
But now that I’ve lived almost half my life in the United States, I’m not sure. I often think about Canada, yet most of the memories that I’ve formed during the last two decades have been formed in the U.S., so my own Canada is a remembered place, not an actual one.
For me, “Ode to an Encyclopedia” is about Canada and also about childhood. We might imagine that we can hold onto the things we cherish, keep them with us — for the boy in the poem, the encyclopedia represents limitless possibility — but time moves on and things change; some of the people we care about die, or they themselves move away. Even if the law says that you can be a citizen of two countries, in practice you have only the one life and have to decide where to live. What you choose to leave behind eventually will change or disappear.
JH: That duality, however tenuous, does seem part of the richness of the book. You have some memorable poems, like “Drone” and “The Death of Captain America,” that speak with an audible authority to current American politics. Yet, as you say, a remembered Canada keeps making its presence felt. Several poems here, moreover, like “Interpretation of a Painted Landscape,” for instance, or “At Hearst Castle,” call to mind Elizabeth Bishop. Would you say she was a guiding influence on this book, and, if so, what was she guiding you toward?
JA: “Toward” is difficult! If I’m writing well, I don’t know where my poems are going until they get there.
But you’re right, Bishop’s work is important to me. What I especially love about her poems is that they’re so open and inquiring, rather than self-involved. Bishop doesn’t pretend to any false objectivity, so reading her poetry you know that you’re encountering one particular person’s sensibility — but the poem is rarely if ever about that person. More often the poem is about life, and the speaker’s role is simply to offer us her vantage point.
I aspire to that in my own writing. I try always to be clear about the distinction between my own beliefs and what is objectively true. When writing autobiographically, I try to situate my experience within a wider context. When using the language and rhetoric of authority, as I do in “The Death of Captain America,” I look for ways to acknowledge the subjectivity of my position; the rhetoric of that poem is intended not to persuade, but to bring authority itself into the field of view.
JH: I take your point, about speaking so as to bring authority into view; I think that’s an important clarification.
The poets that interest me most are the ones who change noticeably from book to book, and for whom something significant seems at stake in such changes. I greatly admired your first book, Charms Against Lightning. Those poems had a startling imaginative freedom to them, a way of opening up surprising perspectives with their own lighting-quick turns of phrase and thought. The poems in your new book, The Suicide’s Son, I admire even more, but they are very different, as if a sea change of sorts has occured. How would you describe that difference, and what do you feel is at issue in it, for you as a poet and/or a person, if such a distinction makes sense?
JA: Thank you, Joe. I do feel that the poems in my first book, Charms Against Lightning, are characterized by surreal juxtapositions and sharp tonal shifts. Writing them, I wanted to convey a kind of emotional unsettledness that I felt as a younger man. Also I wanted the poems to have an associative logic; you could argue, and I would’ve, at the time, that a linear narrative or a stable point of view presents readers with a false vision of reality, since our actual experience of life is more impressionistic.
But that’s not the whole truth, is it? We do tell stories. Storytelling seems to be natural to us as a species across all times and cultures. We do impose order on the world every time we build an argument. As far as I can tell, that’s fundamental to being a person.
So even if fragmentation brings one kind of human truth into a poem, story-telling and argument-making also can reveal something about being human ... and after finishing my first book, I began to feel restless with my inability to operate in that mode. Some of the poems in The Suicide’s Son, like “To Geoffrey Chaucer,” explicitly invoke storytelling as a theme. Others are about fatherhood, and I felt that I couldn’t accurately present my experience of fatherhood without arriving at a poetic that would allow me to stay on the subject, at least sometimes.
JH: Yes, all that makes sense. Charms are spells and incantations, songs, while the very phrase The Suicide’s Son implies a story. What can you tell us about the poem that provides the title, “School for Boys”? It’s a poem that seems central to what the book is trying to do, unless I’m misreading.
JA: I also think of “School for Boys” as being central to The Suicide’s Son. The book’s title is a paraphrase of these lines, from the poem’s first stanza: “... The son / of the suicide / becomes a suicide. His own son / becomes a drunk.” When my poems seem to be nonfiction, they are; for me personally, those lines refer to specific people.
But as they’re presented in the poem and the book, I’d say that they’re about the fear of passing on harm to your child. For many years I felt that I was too angry, too damaged, to ever be a parent, but many people think that about themselves; if you decide to have children despite those fears, then you’re committing yourself to the belief that you can pass on what is good in you without passing on what is evil. You’re also taking it on faith that your past won’t prevent your children from having futures of their own.
That same stanza of “School for Boys” ends “there must be a reason why you are / the way you are,” and I think of those lines too as being important. Becoming a parent can push you back into thoughts of your own childhood, and I’d say that the speaker of “School for Boys” is revisiting his early life, wondering if there was a moment when the die was cast. Except on some level he knows that the question can’t be answered, because maybe the die isn’t cast, and anyway everything — the good, the evil — is all bound up together.
JH: To turn to another remarkable aspect of this book: a number of very fine poems here seem to be ars poetica pieces (though they are never simply that, of course), “Ode to the Heart,” “Ode to an Encyclopedia” “Drone,” and “Eloquence” among them. All those poems have moments of elevated address, to the heart, the encyclopedia, the country, the reader. How would you describe what is happening at those moments, when an ars poetica thematic coincides with a heightened rhetorical urgency?
JA: That’s an interesting question! I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that.
Earlier I talked about wanting to acknowledge the subjectivity of my position, and that’s what I hope to achieve when the speaker of “Eloquence” says, “I want things from poetry / that it could never give,” or when the drone-speaker of “Drone” says “I am a poetry that celebrates power.” I don’t understand those lines as being primarily about poetry, or even about the speaker. For me they are moments when the speaker deliberately interrupts the fictional dream in order to remind readers that the book has an author, and that the author has a take.
There’s always a danger of overdoing it. I don’t want to redirect the poem’s focus onto myself, and I don’t want the poems to become mired in self-consciousness. I just want to place myself into the field of view, so that even when the poem takes on the rhythm and rhetoric of authority, we are invited to understand the speaker in psychological terms.
JH: One more question: is there a particular question about your book you’d like to be asked?
JA: I don’t know! This is a tough question. I’m not sure there are specific things that I hope to be asked, because anything I truly want to say, I put it into the writing itself. Once I feel that I’ve found the right words, I’m content. For me the pleasure is in the unexpected — in hearing how other people relate to the poems, or how they interpret them.
But if I could communicate one thing to people, it’s that I mean for the poems to be read out loud. The meaning isn’t just in what the words say; it’s also in how they sound.
JH: Thank you, James Arthur.
JA: Thanks, Joe. A pleasure speaking with you!
Find James Arthur’s The Suicide’s Son here.