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  • Nate Wilkerson

INTERVIEW | The Third Degree: James Meetze

On September 9th, James Meetze came to read from his most recent book Phantom Hour at NMSU. The book is divided (sort of) into two sections: Dark Art and Phantom Hour. In an effort to present myself as an incredibly astute and intelligent reader, I asked him what the connection between the two sections is and proceeded to rattle off a few of my own ideas about it. When I was done, he very calmly told me that there is no real connection, that they are essentially two separate books. In an effort to maintain the illusion of my smart, poetry-readerness, I’ve stricken that question from the interview. Which is for the best, because Meetze had an incredible wealth of knowledge to share about more honest and demanding subjects. Phantom Hour is a whirlwind of metaphysics, genealogy, mythology, science, the nature time, outer space, religion, the role of memory, the relationship of poetry and language, and well, you just might have to read the book to discover the rest. Trust me, it’s worth your time. In “Dark Art 7” Meetze writes: “Language is just a tool./Warped, it becomes a poem.”

James Meetze is the editor of Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems by James Schuyler, published by FSG. James Meetze is a smart and generous guy. James Meetze is the author Dayglo, selected by Terrence Hayes for Ahsahta Press’ Sawtooth Poetry Prize. James Meetze lives in San Diego and Los Angeles where he teaches creative writing and film studies at Ashford University. James Meetze discovered a distant ancestor while writing Phantom Hour, which was published this year by Ahsahta Press. Meetze is pronounced “Mets” not “Meats” (a correction I fortunately made before he came to town). Hopefully he won’t hold it against me when he reads this.

Buy Phantom Hour here.

Nate Wilkerson: As someone with experience in both writing poetry and designing books, what change do you see happen when a collection of poetry is published? Is it simply that the poems are now in a single place or do you see the book itself as a piece of art?

James Meetze: My answer to this question is, perhaps, a bit complicated, which also says something about my relationship to the book as book. In one sense, the book designer’s job is to translate the energies of the text into a visual evocation—this is often also a representation—of that text. In another sense, the book designer is like the poet’s aesthetic consultant, who says, “Here is the single outfit you will wear for eternity.” I’ve been extremely lucky, as have a great many poets, to have Jeff Clark / Quemadura design my books for Ahsahta Press. Jeff really picks up on the evocations of the text and makes surprising imagistic connections that always seem to strike. In this way, the object of the book is a collaboration. When someone says, “that’s a beautiful book,” it isn’t the text they’re speaking to. This leads me to my other answer. I’m often caught saying that once a book is published, it no longer belongs to its author. Once a text becomes a book in the world, it now belongs to the world—or those participants of the world who choose to read it. It becomes other. It takes on a life of its own.

NW: Since you came to read for us at NMSU, I feel like I should ask about how a poem exists in its oral form? How do you see a poem existing as its read out loud versus on a page? Is it something you take into consideration when editing a poem? Are readings a supplement to a book or something completely separate?

JM: Poetry as we know it today grew out of an oral tradition, so I think a poem should always be able to exist in the voice, in the air, even when it exists in a book. For me, poetry is never devoid of music, of song, and therefore it wants to be sung (spoken). There’s music and rhythm in the words that only the voice and the breath can articulate. I think that there’s a disconnect between what we’d think of as “academic” poetry that relies primarily on the book and performance poetry such as slam and spoken word, which is more often reliant on the oral performance; both modes should function in both mediums. I like to think that my work is written as much for the performance as it is for the book. But the problem with writing long poems, which is what I most often do, is that an audience won’t sit for a reading straight through. So, I’ve got to make a set list that functions as movements in a musical performance. It’s like a DJ set and each poem/song needs to be matched and mixed with the next so that the energy and rhythm and conversation is compelling.

NW: You mentioned that the manuscript for Phantom Hour sat for a number of years between its completion and its publication. What’s it like to return to something after so long? Do you see things differently? Were you perhaps, able to detach from it a little bit?

JM: I must confess that it’s only partly accurate to say that it sat. The initial draft/iteration of the text was completed around the time that my previous book, Dayglo, was published in 2011. But in the intervening five years, the manuscript evolved quite a bit. A few friends, who are the initial readers of my new work, gave me really fantastic notes on the text, which helped me see those things to which I was blind on account of my closeness to it. In this process, yes, I was able to detach somewhat. Because, however, the book is so personal, I can never truly detach from its subject matter. It may sound morbid, but I also didn’t think my father would still be around when the book was published. Despite the fact that he is, he does not have the capacity to recognize that the book exists. This also means that the text, too, is still alive and evolving.

NW: Phantom Hour deals with some personal content. What’s it like knowing that something so intimate is out in the world, without your control over it? Does the act of publishing change what you want to say?

JM: As I said above, once the book is out in the world, it no longer belongs to me. It doesn’t need my control over it, because I wrote it in the way I was going to write it and that part is done. It is the most personal piece of writing I’ve ever published, but without being necessarily confessional. I think so much of contemporary avant-garde/experimental poetry is resistant to the personal, so I’m writing against that tendency. Since the book’s release, I’ve had so many people come and tell me their stories about parents and grandparents who suffered from dementia/Alzheimer’s. Something about the way in which the title poem uses memory, genealogy, and history, and the lacunae that intervene, sparks in these readers a desire to reconstruct their own stories. It makes space for the creative energy that is born of loss. I think that’s the best thing a book can possibly engender.

NW: What does the writing process look like for such a personal subject? Is it a way to engage more deeply with a difficult situation or is it a way to take a step back? Do you write as things are happening or do you let them happen and write later?

JM: My process is an ongoing practice. When I’m writing poems, and I don’t write poems every day, I’m most often writing long- or serial poems, so there’s always something to continue. It’s more a question of what happens while the poem is taking place—and my poems often take place over months or years—than it is what’s happening when I want to write a poem. The poem is always there, always ongoing; but, the events of the human world come and go with the news cycles. I read and listen to a lot of news. So my poems can reference myriad events over an extended period of time. I do, however, still sit and write the discreet poem. More so lately. It’s difficult to publish excerpts from long-poems and serials in magazines, so I’ve got to, or I think I’ve got to, write those one-to-two page poems that will fit in a magazine.

NW: Phantom Hour plays with liminality on a number of levels, including time, space and language, but the heart of the book seems to primarily wrestle with memory. What role do you see memory playing in poetry? How does the inconsistency of memory influence your writing?

JM: I might argue that memory, by its very nature, is a liminal space. Memory is neither the event itself nor the verbatim recollection of the event. But memory, time, space, and language all live in the body on a cellular level. I think poetry has the capacity—one might even say that it is the job of poetry—to instantiate the narrative of the body’s memory and the mind’s process of making sense of that memory. I’m always most interested in poetry that is writing toward something, whatever that something might be, and a poetry that is in the process of discovery. I think memory can serve as the kernel of that process, and memory is a process itself, so the poem is an event just like the event that took root in the body to become memory. It’s also worth restating here that I suggest memory is by its nature liminal.

NW: What are you reading right now? What advice might you have for any MFA students preparing to leave their programs and rejoin the real world?

JM: I’ve been asked to write blurbs for a number of books this year, so, mostly, I’m reading those manuscripts by Kelli Anne Noftle, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, and Jasmine Dreame Wagner. I’m also always reading film scripts, because I write those in addition to poetry. My advice to MFA students is to seek out the writing communities in whatever places they land, and to always be reading and writing and participating in the “real world.”

NW: And how about one book or author you always return to?

JM: If I’m only choosing one, it’s Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest. If I can have the liberty of choosing a few others, of late, I am often permitted to return to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, H.D.’s Trilogy, Leland Hickman’s Tiresias, Nathaniel Mackey’s Blue Fasa, and Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip.

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