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The Poet’s Corner by Russell Bittner
Interview with Jim Schley

  June is the month when brides come home to roost – and no one could be kinder in verse to brides (young or old) than Jim Schley.

I owe my acquaintance with Jim to Patricia Fargnoli.  I needed permission from Tupelo Press to use three of Pat’s poems, and Jim gave it.  In the taking of it, I also learned that Jim was more than just a publisher of other folks’ work.  He very kindly sent me As When, In Season, which I read cover to cover, and in which I found an apt candidate for June.  I e-mailed him, he responded, and here we are.

As always, and before we begin, here is Jim’s bio (from Marick Press):

RRB:I’ve heard (or read) about you, Jim, described as a “male muse.”  Do you find that invigorating, emasculating, or just amusing?

JPS:“Male muse . . .?” I’m not sure why someone would say that. Among the choices you offer, I’d choose “invigorating.” I’m grateful to believe that I’ve helped other artists to stretch and learn and grow.

For example, I’ve worked as an editor of journals and books for many years, and the entwinement between a writer and his or her editor can be profound, as an editor is a blend of coach, confessor, confidant and tormenter. Like a muse, in some ways. An editor is the representative reader, the advocate for future readers, pressing a writer to anticipate what those who follow will need in order to understand and experience the work fully. I’ve also been very involved in a number of reading series, welcoming writers and reaching out to audiences, which I suppose is a muse-like role.  And for three years, I was the caretaker and host of a poetry center at one of Robert Frost’s former homes in northern New Hampshire, where poets would come for intensive work—alone and with others—and where thousands of regular (civilian) visitors would come like pilgrims to see where Frost wrote some of the world’s most memorable and complex and durable poems.

The middle section of my book As When, In Season comprises nine “muse” poems with a coda—nine portraits of women who have been crucial inspirers and teachers for me, though not without pain:  viz., the pain of learning. I’m really fascinated by relationships between artistic masters and apprentices. I deliberately used the word “muse” for the subjects of these linked poems in an invented form, even though that word can seem anachronistic in a society genuinely transformed by feminism, an upheaval I’ve welcomed. Each of these poems is named for one of the muses from ancient Greek mythology, a body of stories I loved as a child and that I rediscovered through reading to our daughter when she was a tot. I realized that I had inadvertently (or deliberately) misunderstood the clichéd depiction of female muses (erotic, intellectual, aesthetic) as catalysts for work by male artists; instead, I set out to construct of suite of odes that pay homage, a gallery of portraits of female muses who are each in some sense virtuoso and master of a certain domain:  history, epic, sacred song, comedy, tragedy.

These poems seek to be formal in a ceremonious, even adulatory way, but also very particular in their contemporary, “documentary” details. The muse poems are also very full, with long periodic sentences wrapped through my chanoine form, which has thirteen rhymes on the same sound, and with references to specific places and many literary allusions to Beckett, and Bach, and Tadeuz Kantor, and bebop, and Bread and Puppet Theatre—as well as to mythological motifs.

RRB:If I may, for a moment, address the matter of your “references” in these poems before we move along to some of your other verse, are you not sometimes concerned that in calling upon such esoterica, you might lose nine tenths of your audience?  Mind you, I’m not suggesting that a Dorothy Parker or Ogden Nash approach to poetry is the be-all and end-all recipe for success.  However, academic poetry—it seems to me—is destined to remain just that:  academic.  When you’re writing for the academy, you run the risk of leaving the rest of us pulling on our cerebral puds out behind the woodpile.

JPS:I’m not worried about losing readers, no. I write for readers who are like me: adventurous, dedicated, not reluctant to use a dictionary or an encyclopedia to go beyond the primary acoustic experience of the poem. Personally, I enjoy working when I read. Even so, I’m aware that for many readers (including most of my own relatives), those odes are taxing. They are easier to absorb when listening than when reading. I plan to make a recording this year that I can offer alongside or even instead of the printed book.

RRB:Very good.  Let’s then finally move along to your poetry.

The first piece we have to look at is a piece titled “New Year’s Eve.  Tell us please about this one.  Clearly, the title doesn’t even begin to suggest the content of the poem.

JPS:I was present during the final days of a dear, elderly friend—not a relative, but someone with whom I was very close. I was struck by the paradox of her death near dawn, at the beginning of a new year, and close to the dawn of a new epoch, as she had lived through all of the twentieth century. I was aiming for a hallucinatory precision. Another portrait—another homage or praise song.

In the book, the fourth sequence is an almanac, following the cycle of a year, and this is its beginning —commencing with a death.

RRB: Nicely done, Jim.  And “Bird Song,” which follows?

JPS:There are a number of death-bound poems in this sequence. Along with the one we just discussed, there’s another that describes my first encounter with a corpse. “Bird Song” aims to be a counterweight, or counter-flight. Eros squaring off (or rounding off, really) against Thanatos. Formally this is an aubade or morning song, inviting a reader or listener to see (and hear) two people as if they were no more complicated in their wooing than birds. If only . . .! I suppose there’s an echo of Cole Porter in here, somewhere: Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it . . .

RRB: As always, Jim, nice execution.

We’ve got one piece remaining.  As it’s a rather lengthy one, I’ll withhold my comments and let you do the talking.  Please give us the background on this piece so that we can go blissfully and euphonically off into this good night.

JPS:Some students who are learning about poetry and the process of writing poems assume that poets need to be struck by some form of “divine” inspiration, as if by a thunderbolt from the forehead of Zeus. I’m a journalist as well as a poet, and I see poems as part of a continuum with essays and articles. The tools are different—in vocabulary, texture, phrasing, diction, musicality—but the aim should be very similar. And this poem about a man struggling with a progressive memory disorder is the result of an assignment I gave myself to write about a relative in the early stages of dementia, just as I might have been assigned a reflective-essay topic by a newspaper or magazine editor. The process took about a year, because there was so much risk of opportunism . . . I didn’t want to be a parasite feeding on someone else’s suffering; so, creating a sense of genuine companionship between these two men was important to me. In many respects, memory is the essential core of identity, and I needed time, with many drafts and drastic or incremental revisions, to come to an understanding of memory loss that was dramatic, not expository.

RRB:And “dramatic” rather than (merely) “expository” is, Jim, what I think you’ve accomplished—and accomplished admirably.  I hope our readers agree.

It’s been a real pleasure.  I can’t thank you enough.

Jim Schley is a writer, theater artist, and teacher who works as a writing instructor for Community College of Vermont and as managing editor for the book publisher Tupelo Press. His newest book is the collection of poems As When, In Season (Marick Press, 2008).

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Jim Schley moved to New England in the mid-1970s to attend Dartmouth College, where he majored in Creative Writing and Native American Studies. He earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers and for many years worked as a literary editor and toured extensively with experimental and activist theater companies, including the world-renowned Bread and Puppet Theater, the Swiss ensemble Les Montreurs d’Images, and Flock Dance Troupe. He is former co-editor of New England Review and editor of the anthology Writing in a Nuclear Age and of more than a hundred books on a diversity of subjects. After a sudden change of fortune he became an extreme freelancer and had twenty-four part-time jobs in one year, an experience described in an essay written for Newsweek magazine (pdf here). His poems and essays have been featured in Ironwood, Crazyhorse,  Rivendell, and Orion, on Garrison Keillor’s radio show “The Writer’s Almanac,” in Best American Spiritual Writing, and in a chapbook, One Another (Chapiteau, 1999). An associate member of the journalists’ collective Homelands Productions, from 2006 through 2008 he was executive director of The Frost Place, a museum and poetry center based at Robert Frost’s historic farm in Franconia, New Hampshire. He is now Managing Editor of the literary book publisher Tupelo Press and he teaches writing to adult students for Community College of Vermont. Jim lives with his wife and their daughter in a house they built themselves on an off-the-grid cooperative in Vermont.

Jim Schley's newest publication is a full-length book of poems: As When, In Season (Marick Press, 2008).

You can listen to Jim Schley's interview with Bonnie North of Milwaukee Public Radio.

Jim Schley was recently interviewed by Robert Lee Brewer for the online WRITER'S DIGEST "Poetic Asides" column, which features conversations with contemporary poets.

To view a video of Jim Schley reading or hear his Milwaukee Public Radio interview, please visit the website of Marick Press, where you can also order an autographed copy of his book:
Girlish still, in mildness and spark,
surviving in a skeleton
fragile as an armature of reeds.

Rubber-treaded soles
should soften the shock
of my arrival, but she startled up

from the gurney
and the morphine,
eyes wide across acres of hours:

I will never go home. My house
was sold — while droplets condensed
on the murky sacs of an IV rack.

As no family was near,
I sat with her for the night shift,
evening to sunrise.

They said, “Oxygen-starved,
she’s unlikely to eat.” She said
Air is unprized ease —

in the margins of a magazine
I transcribed what I heard.
So fitful in sleep

yet lifting to a rinsing lucidity 
Does it frighten you to go
before you’ve understood?

Note the rise and fall,
every breath released
like a sigh. In advance,

our unspoken goodbye. 
Pretty boat . . . What boat is this?
Now a row of faces. All so small.

Later when I had gone,
they completed her chart.
Empty johnny and wrist tag.

This was New Year’s Day.
Vague sun pressed through mist
thin as watered milk.

First dawn in a century
to find her

nowhere on earth.

As doves do seem to moan,
as the amusing uplift of a warbler
flutters into tune
and a grosbeak slides glissandos
through the ash tree’s come-lately buds

pillow talk chez nous
mating calls, chez eux

Smooth — you,
every part of you I touch
with open hand,
thin fabric between
thee and me.

Alas, interrupted
(not this time by our child, who’s away)
we catapult from bed
and run outside to shout off
a sapsucker
hammering holes
beneath the eave.

Too late to go back to bed,
yet let’s stall briefly
before giving in
to the day’s duress —

Could you call this couch
a love seat? Yes.

So long beyond reach,
by anxiety and exhaustion,
these strained nerves
revive, intertwined:

What a jolly surprise
to coincide
with daybreak, accompanied
in bird song.
Unmemorized Man

Life leaves us habits in place of happiness . . .
Where is the golden certainty of my youth?

                                            ~Tchaikovsky’s Onegin

Old man, not so old
but with beard twigged and thready as a nest
and his chest like a slack-bellied steer’s.
Impressive even now, six foot five,
one who’d give you pause.
Not my own but my wife’s
addle-pated uncle, name of Ron
— as he says: Ron Quixote,
Man of Dementia. Our tattered knight.

He loves recitals and symphonies
as he’s listening, but later . . . ?
Take him to dinner and a show,
when you drop him off he’ll know,
but by dawn or next noon
he can’t recall. What? Where? With you?

As he wanted his own car
(his own — for how long?)
I showed him the way in mine,
from one town to the next, belayed
on lit lines from headlights,
and for every few seconds looking forward
I’d peer back through my mirror to see
his hands, white-knuckled on the steering wheel,
and thrusting face, eyes held fast on my tail-lamps.

He adored the opera, and as we
descended the stairs, each with an arm
over the other one’s shoulders, he said
What do they see, Coupla gay guys, yah?
Out on the town. Or father and son.
A vast laugh tipped his girth,
and rain swept over us, brittle curtain
drawn across trees and old gray fields.

But: Where’s my car parked? Then, Which car?
and What road will take me home?
Which house? What life, with which wife?

And he groaned, I’ve got no rearview mirror.
This is no joke.
Home, we were only driving home,
five miles of fog-smeared blackness,
the mass of moisture not presence or substance
but something scraped from view, 
the vacuum beyond almost seen;
only twenty years between us, and twenty feet,
while the eight tires of our two battered jalopies
whipped circles of spray like dories in swells
through a sunken, saturated place

near the cattail marsh
where a friend passed in thick mist thirty years ago
and was suddenly surrounded
by a herd of horses he had to swerve between,
and one kicked out a taillight.
Not even there, I only heard the story
but I hear a hoof crack and the shattering lens,
one of countless memories: carried how? From where?

Him or me, who is who, I believe
I’m sure I know who’s in the lead,
I’m in front glancing back.
Our eyes in this storm, tiny lenses for a mind
which is not unlike a sleet-smeared, night-struck windshield
in a car with no view to the rear, driven by a man
without memory of what’s behind.

Imagine how he feels: Mouse-nest of riffraff
in the inner ear; sheaves of flies’ wings
under eyelids, which obscures his gaze,
and belly enlarging like a balloon pumped ever more —

But that’s so fanciful. In truth, his vantage is wan.
Waking to coffee and toast. Then coffee, toast, and cold cuts.
Later gin and toast, or canned soup (a burner left on for hours),
or many nights, a carton of some fried thing. With pie.

Fugue-like, these wiper blades’ staggered sweep.
The radio plays an aria from the opera we saw.
Cascades of static tumble across the broadcast like sand
circling the tight ligature of an hour glass . . .  skidding down . . .

From where? Toward where?