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The Poet’s Challenge – Interview with James Zerndt
by Russell Bittner

Meeting February’s “Poet’s Challenge” is James Zerndt.  I first met James several years ago at an online workshop called Zoetrope (  Truth is, we’ve never met face to face.  And yet, I feel after these several years that we have a fairly good understanding of each other.

I like his poetry – always have.  It was thanks to the example of his poetry that I leanred something early on:  namely, that poetry can be funny and still be good.  The only other poet who can make that same claim on my “poetic consciousness” is Ogden Nash.

I’ve always maintained – and this is something I’d like to share with you – that poetry should entertain.  As you already know, it’s a difficult form to write.  But don’t ever forget that it’s also a difficult form to read, and that your poetry is competing with countless other diversions and distractions in your reader’s eye and mind.  If it doesn’t grab your reader immediately and make him or her take note, you’re not going to get very far with your craft.  Your mother may like it; your wife or husband even.  And friends won’t tell you directly to your face that you’re wasting your (and their) time.  But if you’re willing to be honest with yourself, you’ll find a way to submit your poetry to someone who knows nothing about you – and then accept that person’s verdict.

‘Nough said.  Now back to February’s “Poet’s Challenge.”

James’s poetry has recently appeared in The Oregonian Newspaper and is forthcoming in the Sow's Ear Poetry Review. He was also runner-up in Playboy's 2008 College Fiction contest. He lives in Portland, Oregon where – his own confession – “he rarely speaks about himself in the third person.”

She’s a Real Pistil
I’ve never been good with names—
like this flower
with its orange house and yellow trim
or the fly inside it
wearing a phosphorescent purple zoot suit
and yellow tap shoes
dancing around six slender sisters
as they stand in a circle
all with identical hats
before he picks one out,
starts humping her
right there in the living room
while the neighbors
turn up television sets
to drown out their cries of pleasure.

Q:James, give me some background to this piece.  What inspired you?  What were the circumstances under which you wrote it?  How long did you work at it?  Did the pun in the title come to you immediately, or only after you’d worked at the piece for a while?

A:  I wrote this one a while ago, back in the summer of 2005 when I was still painting houses for a living. I usually don’t remember dates, but it was shortly after my dad died and I was out on this client’s back patio, eating a deli sandwich for lunch and staring at a flower with this really bizarre-looking fly inside. I wrote a lot back then – a lot of really sad poems, as well as goofy ones; anything, really, to keep my mind off what had happened.
     This poem pretty much came out whole. I wake up with a lot of my poems, or bits of them anyway, that later turn into something else. This was different. The title came later, while I was revising it. ‘She’s a real pistol’ was just something I was fond of saying at the time, but it really makes the poem I think. Without sounding too artsy or esoteric, I think the title can act as an umbilical chord that sustains the poem. I say ‘can,’ because there are plenty of poems out there (Emily Dickenson’s come to mind) that work just fine without titles. It depends on the poem.

Q:I couldn’t agree more.  Poetry has served me – and I suspect it has served a lot of our readers as well – at moments when nothing else would quite do.

I also have to confess that I first read your title as “She’s a real pistol” – and that it was only upon a third or fourth reading that I was able to adjust my eye and my mind to “pistil.”  I think that’s part of the genius of this piece.  The real beauty of a good poem is in its invention of something totally new and unexpected, as well as in its layers of meaning.  Novices all too frequently succumb to the temptation to use clichés.  I tell them clichés have no place in narrative – whether in prose or in poetry.  At the same time, if a writer can stand a cliché on its head, that’s new bacon – and well worth bringing home.

Do you, too, think this is one of your better pieces, or have I simply not seen enough of your opera to be able to rate this particular opus?
A:  Man, I love bacon. Don’t tease me.  ‘Mind if I share a quick one with you?

You cure of hangover,
friend of the simple hash brown
that I am.
Cover your tender pink ears
when the miserable healthy
speak to you of carcinogens
and cholesterol.
They can no longer smell
your muggy perfume,
nor taste
your sometimes brittle beauty.
I alone will be faithful to you
my sizzling little mistress,
my porcine goddess.
I alone
am willing to die for you.

But yeah, the layer thing, it’s all about that and honestly I don’t think this one has quite reached its potential. Good metaphors, when they’re working, will extend beyond the story or poem and speak to something universal, something we can all understand. The piece will start with something specific – like, say, a pistil – and then speak to something beyond that, something about what it’s like for all of us to be human.

That, I think, is really the one big goal of any writing, to tap something inside of the reader, no matter who he might be, that says yeah, no shit, I understand that. There’s that song by Morrissey called ‘Hang the DJ’ that goes something like, ‘Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ, because the songs he plays say nothing to me about my life.’ That, for me, summarizes a lot of the poetry I read. 

In the case of the first poem I posted here (above), the most interesting thing to me is the narrator. I read poems the same way I read fiction, and assume the author isn’t always the narrator. What this poem makes me think about is the narrator – why he’s looking at this flower and making these strange associations. The poem itself is cute, but the thing I hope intrigues the reader beyond mere cuteness is wondering who the ‘I’ in the poem is.

To answer your question, I think the metaphor is working in this poem, but it isn’t working overtime. The great poems keep working long after everybody else goes home.

Q:  And goes to bed – where the real poetry begins.  Which brings to mind one of my favorite quotes – this one by Charles Simic from “The Art of Poetry” in the spring, ‘05 issue of The Paris Review:  “"Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be first tested in the kitchen – and then in bed, of course."  Any thoughts on poetry of, by and for the bedroom?

A:  The short answer: no.

     The long answer: if that’s at all true, then I feel sorry for Mr. Simic’s lovers. But, if we were to apply the above analogy to the bedroom, I think it’s safe to say that a great lover isn’t afraid of putting in a few extra hours in the bedroom.

Q: No, and any poet worth her salt would realize that she would have to put as many hours into her craft.  Do we fundamentally agree?  Poetry is about craft, not about “gift.”  Poetry is about work – hours and hours of it.

A: I’d have to say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I started writing poetry while taking baths when I was about fourteen. The poems were, of course, really bad, but I kept it up over the years because it was something I enjoyed doing. In that sense, poetry for me has always been the mistress; fiction, the wife.

I’m not saying I don’t have to work at my poems. I do. I just don’t have to work as hard at them as I do at my fiction. Let me try putting it this way: I have a horrible singing voice, and no matter how many singing lessons I take or how badly I may want to be a rock star, it’s just not gonna happen. I think there has to be something there to begin with – whether you call it “gift,” “talent,” “chops,” or natural ability.

Q:Then you’re a natural.  In The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that masters of a particular craft don’t really become masters until they’ve put in 10,000 hours honing that craft.  If you, James, started writing poetry at the age of fourteen, how many hours short of 10,000 would you say you are at this point?  Clearly, there’s no magic “tipping point” at exactly 10,000 hours – even for a natural.  However, I think the implication here is that in order to master a particular craft (assuming one has the “gift,” or “talent,” or “chops” to begin with), one has to invest a lot of time and effort.

We can’t all be Shakespeare or Donne or even Frost.  But there are still hundreds if not thousands of master craftsmen whose poetry we read and enjoy.  Many of them get their work printed on greeting cards* or on posters – and even manage to derive an income from their efforts.  However, their writing is done on a kind of consignment basis – i. e., they write with a specific objective in mind and working within tight constraints.  I don’t see your verse in that same way.  It’s disciplined and clearly has a purpose, but I see you as writing exactly what you want to write and how you want to write it.  Is this an accurate assessment of your work?

* By the way, in case you’re not familiar with the Irish film “Waking Ned Devine,” I highly recommend it if for no other reason than for the one absolutely delightful scene in which a young lady is reading some of her greeting-card verse to a would-be suitor.  It is one of my favorite scenes in all of cinematography.

A:  Do I write what I want to write and how I want to write it? Well, yeah, it’s poetry. Is there any other way? So far, I’ve made exactly six dollars from my poetry. I think that says it all.

And yes, one has to invest a lot of time and effort if he or she wants to get better at anything. No doubt. And here’s an inspirational thought: even after you do it for 15,000 hours, you’re still going to turn out some really bad poems. There’s no guarantee with this stuff. That’s the beauty of the game!

     * I don’t remember that scene, by the way, but I’ve lived it before. It usually occurs at around 1:30 in a bar.


Mind if we take a peek at something else of yours as long as we’re on the subject of what occurs to you at around 1:30 in a bar?  (By the way, I’m assuming you mean 1:30 a.m. and not 1:30 in the afternoon…).  Have you got another piece for us to look at?

A: Well, since we’re on the subject of drinking…

Rental Agreement

I fell in love with my hangover
and we’ve decided to move in together.

It was time:
either this was something we were serious about,
or we needed to go our separate ways.

She says her room must be padded with fog,
that the walls will sweat whenever she moves.

There are two cats coming as well-
Resolution and Thirst.
Who, she says, will never get along,
but need one another just the same.

Then there’s the smell
of empty suitcases
threatening to fill up,

but I’m not worried-
she promises never to be around at night.

Q:I can see you’ve had some experience with, uh, hangovers.  Tell me, James, do you find that alcohol inflames, douses, or merely befuddles your poetic fires – if you’ll excuse that bit of gallimaufry parading as metaphor?

A: What did the befuddled fire say to the wood? To burn or not to burn, that is… Sorry, couldn’t resist. I write in the mornings. If I write while drinking, it’s usually self-indulgent garbage that gets tossed the next day. I’m not all that bright, so I need all my pistons firing to produce anything decent.

Q:And on that slippery slo—, note, I think I’ll just say Cheers!  And thanks.  It’s been a real pleasure, James!

A: Cheers! To bacon and poetry. May both clog your arteries!