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Interview with Art+Lit Lab in Madison!

Check out my interview with Art+Lit Lab here; they hosted us for a Healing the Divide reading back in May.

You can purchase copies of Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection here.

ALL: Do you have an origin story? What drew you into becoming a poet?

James Crews: My third-grade teacher required us to memorize and recite a poem each week, and after a few weeks of reciting some Shel Silverstein, I got the bright idea to write my own poems. I often say it was because I knew it would be easier to memorize my own stuff, but the truth is that reading and saying poetry out loud really excited me and touched a place that had never been tapped into before. My teacher, Mrs. Brown, eventually encouraged me to recite the poems during show-and-tell as well, and though this was a huge challenge for someone as shy and introverted as myself, that sealed the deal for me: I knew I wanted to be a writer after that, and have been filling notebooks ever since. I didn’t truly feel like a poet, however, until I was admitted to the MFA program at UW-Madison. Once that happened, and I began teaching as well, there was no going back to any other kind of career. The fact that you could get paid to write and teach writing gave me a way to build the creative life I still lead, when every morning possible is devoted to writing of some kind, and where I do my best to share what I’ve learned as a writer with others.

AR: Tell us a little about your current project.

JC: The idea for Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection came on the heels of the 2016 election. I began to feel that as a country we were denying our own basic goodness and deep connection with one another as human beings. My husband Brad was also running for political office here in Vermont, and he often talked during his campaign about the need for community and belonging, ideas now being echoed by the Presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg. Brad was discharged from the military for being gay under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell years ago, and he says that it was the kindness of his community that literally saved his life. Because I see and understand the world through the lens of poetry, I began to think about how kindness showed up in my own work, and then in the work of others. I suppose you could say I also simply needed to be reminded that intimacy among family, friends, and strangers was still alive and well, and gathering poems like the ones in Healing the Divide gave me quite a bit of solace. And it’s been quite heartening to see how so many people have come together to support this project, from my publisher, Green Writers Press, to the contributors donating their poems at no cost, and others who have donated money so that I could travel and read in places like Arts + Literature laboratory. I’m so grateful to Ted Kooser as well for writing the Preface and supporting me along the way.

ALL Review: Readers often seem interested in the creative process of writers and artists. Do you have a defined writing process, or a set of rituals to get you going? Could you describe this for us?

JC: My rituals have evolved and changed over the years, but I still prefer to write every morning that I can. I wake up as early as possible, usually around 4am, and start with some kind of reading that gets me going — favorite poems, a spiritual text, or essays. I let the reading guide me into a poem or piece of writing, and if that doesn’t work, I turn to the practice of morning pages (which Julia Cameron describes in her books) to clear the way for whatever might come after that. After an hour or two, I meditate, and it’s often time to get ready for work. But if I don’t have to teach or be anywhere that day, I take a really long walk, and something almost always comes on the heels of that. I do my best to just place myself in a pose of receiving. I have no idea where lines or ideas come from, but I know they often arrive when I’m very grounded in the natural world, paying attention to the scarlet tanagers, the ripple of light on a pond, or one of the wildflowers that’s sprung up overnight through leaf litter. By focusing intently on the outer world, and getting out of my mind for a while, I’m able to clear the space for the inner world to take over, or what I think of as “the mind of poetry.” These are, of course, ideal days I’m describing here; life has a way of interrupting our best-laid plans as artists, but I do my best to keep the distractions at a minimum — which means not checking email or even looking at my phone for the first few hours in the morning.

ALL: What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

JC: I don’t actually remember any bad advice that I’ve gotten as a writer, so maybe that’s a good thing! Certainly, other writers and friends have offered me feedback on my work that I didn’t agree with, and in some cases, I have simply rejected someone’s advice on a draft. I’ve gotten better over the years at staying more in touch with my own writerly instincts as they’ve developed over time. As a teacher, I try to model this for my students, encouraging them to get in touch with their own intuition about a piece and to reject any advice that doesn’t feel right to them. I’m not sure we can honestly give too much advice to budding writers. We are all so different as artists, and an individual piece typically comes down to our own intentions for it. I know a lot of other writers might urge me to “complicate” my own poems, but my main intention in my work is to reach as many people as possible, to show readers that poetry can be accessible and relatable, made of the everyday materials of life and language. Not all poems need to be accessible, of course, and my own tastes vary widely. But we do a disservice to students if we don’t present them with a diverse array of voices, helping them to find their own. I would never encourage another writer to write like me and disrupt their own process of discovery. I really trust in the power of continual practice. We all already have what we need to find our creative outlet, and listening too much to the outer world can keep us from creating the things we were meant to make.

ALL: What do you think is the role of a creative writer in society today? Why does writing, or poetry in particular, matter at the moment?

JC: Poetry matters right now because it’s a pure practice. There’s typically not much money involved in the writing or publishing of it, so if you set out to do it, it’s usually because you’ve been strongly drawn to it (as I have over the years), because it’s a form that speaks to you in particular. Poetry also uses the material of everyday language to make images and convey its messages. At a time when both truth and language feel under attack from various angles, it feels terribly important for all of us to keep writing poetry. A poem asks us to pause, slow down and take in the actual world in a way that we might not have thought to do before — another thing that makes this practice essential. Poems also require of us an attention that we aren’t as accustomed to giving as much in our daily lives. I often think of what Mary Oliver said: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Poetry has been a devotional, spiritual practice for me for over a decade now, and my best poems come from moments of deep attention to the world exactly as it is. I’m actually working on a book of shorter spiritual essays right now the title of which is Only Moments Matter. I’ve found that in my poetry and prose I’m most concerned with recreating the experience of a moment as much as possible for my reader.

ALL: What piece(s) of advice would you give your younger self about poetry, creativity, or life?

JC: I would tell my younger self not to be so concerned with outer success. I used to be so worried about publishing in only the “right” places and with the best presses, winning this or that fellowship, when the whole purpose of writing as a spiritual practice for me is to get to know myself on the deepest possible level. I think it was Li-young Lee who said, “Writing is a self-clarifying act,” and I’m always trying to dig as deep as I can, to be as present as possible to the confusions and mysteries of being human. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to pursue several graduate degrees in writing, that I’ve been able to work with so many great poets, including those at UW-Madison. Their kindness and instruction have helped to shape and transform my life. At the same time, I know that those degrees didn’t make me any more of a writer than I was before I earned them — it was the experience of interacting with those other more seasoned writers and spending time with my own work. We often think that if we can publish here or sell this many books that it will make us more confident as a writer, protected from those petty concerns. But the anxiety of the blank page has never really gone away for me, and any outer successes only sustain me for a very short time. It’s all about the daily practice of sitting down and facing the demons of doubt, plowing ahead with the words that come, and trusting that wherever the work finds a home is where it belongs.

James Crews’ work has appeared in Ploughshares, Raleigh Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The New Republic, among other journals, and he is a regular contributor to The London Times Literary Supplement. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Wisconsin-Madison and a PhD in Creative Writing from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he worked for former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry newspaper column. He is the author of two collections of poetry, The Book of What Stays (Prairie Schooner Prize, 2011) and Telling My Father (Cowles Prize, 2016), and the editor of Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection (Green Writers Press, 2019). He lives on part of an organic farm in Vermont with his husband and teaches creative writing at SUNY-Albany.

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