“Poetry is a way of mind; the exploration of a tunnel, where blind albino fish seem to float in nostalgic pools of unremembered memory.”
“All creative writing is storytelling. The two basic approaches are fiction and poetry. Fiction describes what it means, and poetry becomes what it means in images. Fiction is a linear art made of time, poetry is childishly timeless and circular.”
“If one cannot accept failure and scorn, how is he to make his art? It’s like wanting to go to heaven without dying.”
“One might describe the prose poem (a term I just lately come to accept) as an enviroment of poetry; the prose poem as silly fiction; the prose poem as a way of re-thinking the shape of the earth; the prose poem as a way of entering the mystery of a yet undiscovered prose; the prose poem as a homemade art; the prose poem as a current fad; the prose poem even, for the want of a better name, as something that I write; or, more to the point, the prose poem as something I don’t want to talk about!”
“Remember, words are the enemy of poetry.”
“A lot of poets would do themselves a lot of good if they had another art they messed with – be it painting or whatever. A lot of our poets, they write, they teach, they write blurbs, they write some criticism, but they never get out of language. To be able to do something else is a nice thing.”
“The problem with poetry is that it spends so much time scene setting, locating. Most of my pieces are not really located. They just happen.”
“No one is a poet for all of his or her life. One is a poet when one is engaging that way of mind; that is to say, when one is writing. I would say to a son or daughter, ‘go ahead, it’s as good as anything else; your days are numbered anyway no matter what you do – have fun’.”
“The only difficult thing [about writing] is reaching the end, the idea of the finished piece, the party ending, life runs out, the fire dark, the season that passes through the meadow into winter…. This is why one must work fast, each piece an end in itself, as life, which is only lived in the most present of moments.”
“Writing for me is the fun of discovery. Which means I want to discover something I didn’t know forming on the page. Experience made into an artifact formed with the logic of a dream. The poem is the experience no matter the background of experience it is drawn from.”
People who read this blog regularly may be familiar with the Virtual Poetorium, a unique monthly online poetry journal in transcript form that is actually the pandemic version of the Poetorium at Starlite, a live pre-Covid poetry reading series in Southbridge, Massachusetts that was founded and co-hosted by myself and Ron Whittle. One of my favorite aspects of both the Virtual Poetorium and the Poetorium at Starlite are the interviews Ron and I conducted with our featured poets. Today I thought it would be fun and informative to repost in its entirety one of these interviews taken from the Virtual Poetorium for July 28th, 2020 when we questioned—via email—the poet James R. (Jim) Scrimgeour…
James R. Scrimgeour received his BA from Clark University, his MA and PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is Professor Emeritus at Western Connecticut State University. He has served as Editor of Connecticut Review, published ten books of poetry, been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and given over 250 public readings of his work, including one at an International Conference on Poetry and History, Stirling, Scotland. He has, in addition, participated in NEH Seminars on Modern Poetry at NYU and Princeton and has recently served on panels at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. He currently conducts poetry programs in libraries, both in New Milford CT and in Rockport MA, where he and his wife spend much of their time. His most recent book, Voices of Dogtown: Poems Arising Out of a Ghost Town Landscape (Loom Press, 2019), was listed as a “must read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book and can be purchased at the Loom Press online bookstore by clicking here.
A Virtual Poetorium Interview With Poet James R. Scrimgeour
RON: Paul and I really appreciate you agreeing to do this. You know, Jim, I too, spend as much time on the beaches and shoreline as I can. Our attachment to the ocean is probably much the same. I have a great deal of respect and fear of its capabilities, but I also love it. My question is “Was there any single reason that made you fall in love with the ocean?”
JIM: No single reason — don’t think there is a single reason you fall in love with anything (or anyone). Love is more complex than that. But I’ve always been attracted to the ocean (since I first saw it as a kid — love at first sight?) My wife and I have been living at the ocean in Rockport MA for five months of the year for the past nine years, and so it is not surprising that the ocean has seeped into so many of my poems or that my son, who, as you know, also writes poems, said one day: “Dad, haven’t you used up your quota of ocean poems?” And, of course, I had to write another ocean poem to answer his question.
RON: After reading some of your poetry, I couldn’t help but notice how you seamlessly blend history into much of your poetry. What do you call your style of poetry?
JIM: History is a part of life, and I believe that it is an important task of the poet to keep the past (including the child within us) alive, to provide some continuity between past and present (and our past and current selves). This is a task that I have always taken seriously. As far as style goes, I am who I am. My poetry is what it is. It is, I believe, my job to write my poems; it’s the critic’s job to try to define my style. I wish him/her all the best.
RON: You also write as though you were from a different era in time, such as in the Sunset 1904. That must require a considerable amount of research to depict the scene you write about accurately. Is that a fair question to ask?
JIM: I think that any author (poet or prose) has to do the research necessary to create a world that is distinctive, original, and his/her own, a world that the reader may wander around in for a while and maybe even learn something before returning to life in early 21st century America. I hope that I have created such a distinctive original world in all of my books, but especially in the Dogtown one.
RON: Who are your favorite poet or poets and why?
JIM: In alphabetical order: Emily Dickinson (explosive imagery and word choice) John Keats (musical language — sound and content seamlessly merged) Robert Frost (for being his cantankerous self) Mary Oliver, William Wordsworth and so many others (for experiencing and sharing the divinity in the natural world) William Carlos Williams (for showing that poetry can be found everywhere and in everything) William Butler Yeats (for his musical language, vision and willingness to tackle political issues). There are, of course, many others but I have to stop somewhere.
RON: Being a professor you must have seen a great deal of talent from authors and poets in your classes. Did you ever teach anyone who went on to be famous? If so who?
JIM: No — I have taught many who went on to prestigious MFA programs (including Iowa, Emerson, and UMass) and who published books of poetry and poems in well known journals, and are currently teaching at universities, but no one I would call “famous.”
RON: If you had to chose a book of poetry to tell someone to read, who would be the author and what would be the title of the book?
JIM: It depends on who the someone is. I would recommend different books for different people. A person should, I believe, begin with poetry that connects with his/her life in some significant way. If I didn’t know a person well enough to make this kind of connection for him/her, I would say “See my answer to the question about my favorite poets and throw a dart!”
RON: Who was the biggest influence in your becoming a poet?
JIM: My wife has always been my muse, and all of the above mentioned “favorite” poets have been significant influences, but there also have been others, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, e.g., come immediately to mind. I don’t think there was a “biggest” — they were/are all big; they were all there when I needed them.
RON: What could you tell us about your own poetry, I guess what I’m asking you to do is define your work?
JIM: I’m not comfortable with defining my poetry, but I’ll be glad to tell you a little bit about my writing process and my work. Like Monet, I like to work “in plain air.” I like to take my camera, my notebook, my five senses and go out into the natural world “fishing” for poems. Whenever I come across something odd, unusual or beautiful (or all of the above) I snap a photo or two and then sit down in front of it and write a first draft of a poem in my notebook. Then later, as I revise, tighten, and type it into my computer, I will, if I am lucky, come to a realization as to WHY this experience was significant and then I will have the focus necessary to finish the poem.
RON: Okay…Paul, do you have any questions you’d like to ask Jim?
PAUL: Yes, I do. Thanks, Ron! Congratulations, Jim, on having your book Voices of Dogtown: Poems Arising out of a Ghost Town Landscape selected as a “must read” by Massachusetts Center for the Book! Could you talk a bit about the history of Dogtown itself and what about it that inspired you to write this book?
JIM: Dogtown is a ghost town located in the highland of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. I became bitten by the Dogtown bug shortly after I first began visiting Cape Ann over 20 years ago; I was especially interested in the lives of the last inhabitants who lived there from the end of the Revolutionary War until 1830 when the last inhabitant was taken, shivering and cold, to the poorhouse. The more I read about them, the more interested I became, and I started to take contemporary walks over this semi-mythical terrain with my notebook and camera in hand. I’m not sure exactly when it was that I began to hear the voices of some of these old settlers speaking to me.
PAUL: What was your process for writing this particular book like, and did it differ in any way from writing your previous volumes of poetry?
JIM: Many of my previous projects (like my long poem “The Route” in which I retrace the route in modern day Salem that the authorities took my great great great great great great grandmother on when they hanged her as a witch in 1692) involved significant historical research, but, as I see it, the main difference between this book and my previous ones is one of degree, is the amount of historical research involved. I still took my camera, notebook and five senses with me as I strolled the boulder strewn Dogtown terrain, but this book contains a couple of new dimensions — one of ordinary historical research, of course, but another dimension was made possible by my feeling of kinship with all the other poets and writers who had become fascinated with Dogtown over the years. Also, this is the first time that I “channelled” people who had died many years ago and made them an important part of my work. And, one final difference, another important dimension of the Dogtown book is that it contains a perceptive, well-written introduction by Carl Carlsen.
PAUL: How would you personally define “Poetry” and what do you feel are its most important aspects (imagery, rhythm, word choice, etc.)?
JIM: As noted previously, I usually resist attempting to define my poetry, but here is a working definition: “Poetry is the sharing of significant, valuable, intense human experience.” I believe the most important thing is for a poet to have the courage to share his deepest and most intense feelings openly and honestly with others. Imagery, rhythm (the sound of the language) and precise word choice are all important tools (but only tools) that help the poet say what he/she has to say, that help the poet write his/her stanza in the great poem of the world.
PAUL: In your many years of writing, have you developed a regular writing routine, and if so, can you describe it to us?
JIM: See my answer to Ron’s question about defining my work for a routine that I have found useful, but some of my strongest poems have arisen suddenly and unexpectedly from many different situations. For example: being assigned to do a lecture on Kafka, talking with my father-in-law over his kitchen table, picking up an old photo of my grandfather, sitting in the waiting room of an urologist’s office, or trying to find a can of chicken soup in a cupboard are a few of the situations that triggered some of my best poems.
PAUL: My final question for you is what advice would you give to someone who is just beginning to write poetry?
JIM: I would advise a beginning poet: 1) to be very careful with your diction, your selection of words. Keep in mind the words of Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” 2) to ground your poems in actual lived human experience and avoid philosophical abstractions — remember “nesses are messes,” i.e., don’t write about “lonliness,” write about human beings who are lonely, 3) to pay some dues, to spend some time thinking seriously about the ultimate questions of human existence. As Socrates said long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living; as I say today, the unexamined life is not worth writing about, and 4) to keep your senses and your notebook open — wherever you are, wherever you go.
Wow! It’s hard for me to believe but it’s been over two month since my last post on an invented poetry form, so I guess it’s time for me to do another one. Today I will discuss the Singsangsong, a form I invented which is an eighteen line poem consisting of six stanzas. The lines can be metered or not and have no fixed lengths (the length of each line can vary within the poem). The stanzas alternate between couplets (two lines) in which the first line repeats as the second, and quatrains (four lines) in which all four lines rhyme with each other (a monorhyme). The first line of the quatrain also repeats as the fourth line (and in case of the final quatrain, the third line as well). In other words, the singsangsong’s rhyme scheme can be expressed (with capital letters representing repeated lines) as AA BbbB CC DddD EE FfFF.
Like many of the forms I have created, it”s probably more suited for light verse than serious poetry. Also because of its heavy reliance on repetition, the singsangsong is meant to be read out rather than read on the page, and should be recited in a singsong manner (hence its name) or even sung using a spontaneous, improvised melody. Here are three examples that I wrote which you can use as inspiration if you would like to try writing some of your own:
Prelude to a Panic Attack
I can’t shake this strange sensation.
I can’t shake this strange sensation
Something’s off-kilter, out of whack
Like a hidden widening crack
Or something lost I can’t get back.
Something’s off-kilter, out of whack.
What it is I cannot phathom,
What it is I cannot phathom.
I got this terrible feeling
Like a wound that isn’t healing
that sends my unsettled mind reeling.
I got this terrible feeling,
Can’t explain it but everything seems so wrong.
Can’t explain it but everything seems so wrong.
Some inexplicable event is happening here
Which floods my heart with paralyzing fear.
Some inexplicable event is happening here…
Some inexplicable event is happening here!!!
A Reluctant Departure
So long, my love, goodbye…
So long, my love, goodbye!
Now it’s time for me to leave you.
No, I’m not trying to deceive you,
Wish my absence won’t greatly grieve you
Now it’s time for me to leave you.
Our time together’s something we can only borrow.
Being away from you will cause me sorrow,
Yet I know I’ll be with you again tomorrow.
Our time together’s something we can only borrow….
Au revoir, auf Wiedersehen,
Au revoir, auf Wiedersehen…
I must go and we must part.
Although it is fracturing my heart,
I must go and we must part…
I must go and we must part.
Nostalgia For Summers Past
Oh, Summertime doesn’t seems the same,
Oh, Summertime doesn’t seems the same.
I remember what it was like when I was a kid
and all the groovy fun things that we did,
all the bike rides and Slip N Slides we slid.
I remember what it was like when I was a kid.
Oh, all those perfect August evenings,
Oh, all those perfect August evenings
Under cloudless moonlit skies,
Feasting upon ice cream and french fries,
Picking blackberries and chasing fireflies
Under cloudless moonlit skies.
Summer was always my most treasured season,
Summer was always my most treasured season.
I miss my wonderful childhood summers a lot.
Back then, they didn’t seem so miserable and hot.
I miss my wonderful childhood summers a lot,
I miss my wonderful childhood summers a lot!
Please let me know what you think of the singsangsong, and if you should write some of your own, don’t hesitate to share. Thanks so much for reading!
“Poetry is rather an approach to things, to life, than it is typographical production.”
“In the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties. Which is but another name for craft.”
“Poetry is not only the most concise way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation.”
“Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.”
“Poetry is what is gained in translation.”
“By failing to read or listen to poets, society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation, those of the politician, the salesman, or the charlatan. In other words, it forfeits its own evolutionary potential. For what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is precisely the gift of speech. Poetry is not a form of entertainment and in a certain sense not even a form of art, but it is our anthropological, genetic goal. Our evolutionary, linguistic beacon.”
“A poet is a combination of an instrument and a human being in one person, with the former gradually taking over the latter. The sensation of this takeover is responsible for timbre; the realization of it, for destiny.”
“If a poet has any obligation toward society, it is to write well. Being in the minority, he has no other choice. Failing this duty, he sinks into oblivion. Society, on the other hand, has no obligation toward the poet.”
“In America, a metrical poem is likely to conjure up the idea of the sort of poet who wears ties and lunches at the faculty club. In Russia it suggests the moral force of an art practiced against the greatest personal odds, as a discipline, solitary and intense.”
“Every writing career starts as a personal quest for sainthood, for self-betterment. Sooner or later, and as a rule quite soon, a man discovers that his pen accomplishes a lot more than his soul.”
Although I decided not to post an invitation to participate in the Virtual Poetorium last month on this blog (like I usually do), I thought readers still might be interested in reading the latest edition: https://poetorium.home.blog/virtual-poetorium-june-29-2021/. Warning, it’s a bit weirder and different than our others since instead of having a featured poet who is currently alive, our feature is a long dead one courtesy of an imaginary time machine. I also want to thank my fellow blogger Brad Osborne for once again contributing. I hope you enjoy it!
I am so pleased to report that our Virtual Poetorium Father’s Day Poetry Project, that I announced earlier on this blog, turned out perhaps even better than I thought it would. In spite of a few glitches with the Zoom invitations and links, our Father’s Day Poetry Zoom Event, with fourteen poets presenting their original poems (or in one case, a song) about their fathers, was held on June 20th, and quite a success. Although it may be a bit rough and unedited, here is the link to the video recording of that very special evening: https://youtu.be/BJgYhmocm00. Unfortunately the part near the end where I read our special group ode to Fathers, “Remembering Our Fathers: A Group Ode in Two Parts” (compiled from contributions from eleven poets) turned out a bit garbled, so I’m also including another separate video of myself reading the ode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INgQj9JQ64M. I hope you will enjoy them both, and please feel free to share them with your friends.
I am still working on the Poetorium Father’s Day Poetry Anthology to be posted on the Poetorium website that will include all fourteen poems read at our Zoom event as well as our group ode, but here is a sneak preview for my readers of this blog. This is the finished version of “Remembering Our Fathers: A Group Ode in Two Parts” (you may notice this version is a bit different from the one you hear me read in the videos—I revised the poem after receiving feedback from some of the contributors):
Remembering Our Fathers: A Group Ode in Two Parts
1. In Hushed Rememberance
I remember my father as a silent presence,
a volcano smoking in the dark,
erupting not often, but memorably—
a presence to keep your eyes on.
I remember my father now mainly in dreams
(though more and more less frequently),
ones in which he’s behind the wheel
of our second-hand Ford Granada,
his own eyes on the road ahead,
while demanding irrevocable quiet
from all the other occupants,
as we drive into deepening darkness
down lonesome one-lane byways.
I remember my father on his 80th birthday
(to grow old is to be drowned out by the cacaphony
of change, as your entire world is dismantled
all around you). The next day my mother called,
she was crying. He passed away in the hospital
without saying a word. Now cremated, he rests
in sulking stillness on my mother’s bureau in her room…
2. The Braid
I remember my father when I was a child
of eight or nine, trailing him through the cornfield
with my instamatic camera, clicking and clicking the shutter,
the visor of his soiled gray cap turned up,
as I captured what I beieved was the eternal twinkle
in his eyes and a joyous grin animating his face,
but now with hindsight, more likely just
his natural reaction to the harsh rays
of the glaring afternoon sun.
I remember my father’s blue-eyed smile,
his laughing approval, his circling arms
how he walked me up hills holding my hand,
took my picture in the wind. He still has
the moustache, the jawline, the straight shoulders
of a movie star, and the kindest, gentlest heart.
Wine should be sipped he taught us,
a knife respected, the truth told.
And the first kiss after shaving was a gift
only our daddy could bestow.
I remember how our father didn’t have time to stop
to close the driver’s side truck door as he dashed around
loading mowers, filling tanks, changing blades
before hustling out for the next job
but did have time to stop to steal our basketball, show off
footwork in work boots: fake one way, spin, drop
to the other, a beautiful hook shot arcing, falling, kissing
the net, my brother and I cheering in the sun.
I remember my father taking me to Pathmark,
reading all the labels, and teaching me how to shop.
I remember my father teaching me jazz—
asking me to tape five variations of Monk’s Misterioso.
Listening to that tape over and over with Dad,
we were both smiling.
I remember my father—there could be no other—
black-and-white-suited on the train that he commuted.
I remember him on bended knees at his bedside at night,
his familiar plea to the divine above “Please help
us raise the seven children in our family”.
I remember my father for his worthless words,
but also watchful eyes and softest touch,
that he always remembered all my favorites…
Everything. Every time. My father’s love
seldom spoken, always certain.
I remember my father telling me
I didn’t owe him anything. I didn’t believe him
until I had a child of my own, long after he had passed.
All these combined memories, the stories of our families
(our interactions intertwined) becomes the braid
we make down through time (father to son or daughter),
the rope we lower or climb that keeps us together.
—Compiled by Paul Szlosek with contributions from Tom Ewart, Mishelle Goodwin, Howard J Kogan, Jonathan Andersen, Carla Schwartz, Rob Jaret, Patricia O’Connor, Dee O’Connor, Susan O. Nedd, and Natasha S. Garnett
I hope you enjoyed reading the Poetorium Group Ode to Fathers, and thank you so much for your continued support of this blog!
I am so excited to announce that this month, in addition to our regular edition of the Virtual Poetorium, I am working on a very special poetry project. Although we may be too late for Mother’s Day, there’s still time to celebrate our fathers this year, and so the Poetorium, with the help of my good friend Dee O’Connor, is organizing two ways to do that (and would like to invite you to participate):
1. A Group Ode: To contribute, please send 2-8 lines inspired by the prompt “I Remember My Father” (the phrase may or not be included in the lines). The lines will then be compiled and edited by myself who has prepared many similar group poems for the Poetorium in the past (bear in mind your lines may be split up and recombined with others to form new stanzas). This ode will be modeled after a similar poem by national poet Kwame Alexander who released “The Ceremony of Giving” on Mother’s Day (you can find his poem and read the full story behind it here @ https://www.bonappetit.com/story/kwame-alexander-mothers-day-community-poem).
2. Father’s Day Virtual Reading: Join us for a poetry reading honoring fathers on June 20th. Up to 20 poems will be selected and posted in a Father Day’s Poetry Anthology on the Poetorium’s website AND will be read by their authors on Zoom starting at 7:00 p.m. (ET) on Father’s Day.
We’re hoping to have a diverse representation of poets and poetry forms, so please pass this invitation on to anyone anywhere (but especially those living in the Worcester County area of Massachusetts) who may be interested. The group ode, along with up to 20 poems about fathers will be read on the 20th. Please submit one or both of the following either in a Word document file or pasted in the body of your email by June 13th at the latest:
· A poetry stanza inspired by the prompt “I remember my father …”
· One original poem about a father/father figure (be sure to include where your poem has appeared if it was previously published)
You don’t need to submit an entry to participate in the virtual event, but registration in advance is required. To register, please send your name and email address along with any submissions by June 13th to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are submitting a contribution to the group ode and/or a poem, please be sure to include a short bio.
If you have any questions about this special Father’s Day Poetry Project including the group ode, the Zoom reading, the Father’s Day Poetry Anthology to be published on the Poetorium website, or anything else, please leave them in the comments of this post, and I will try to answer them right away.
Thank you so very much for reading, my friends! I appreciate everyone’s continued support of this blog, and hope that you will join me and your fellow poets in participating in this special Poetorium Father’s Day Poetry Project!
Here is the link to the May 25th, 2021 edition of the Virtual Poetorium celebrating the the second year anniversary of the Poetorium posted last night on the Poetorium website for you to hopefully peruse and enjoy at your leisure: https://poetorium.home.blog/virtual-poetorium-may-25-2021/. As a special bonus, I am also including a link to a video of myself performing this month’s Poetorium group poem “A Multitude of Blessings”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kE-HI_wHrLs
However, I have come to a decision not to repost the entire Virtual Poetorium here on this blog like I have done with previous editions in the past, because I feel that in its entirety, it would probably be too long a read and thus far too overwhelming for most readers. As a result, some really excellent poetry would probably be skipped, and that would be a real shame. So instead, I will just post the opening poem, which originally appeared in Street Signs: A Worcester Anthology complied by David Nader and published by BatCity Press over twenty years ago. I sincerely hope you like it….