A Virtual Poetorium Interview With Poet James R. Scrimgeour

Poet James R. Scrimgeour

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.

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