James Owens
Interview with
James Owens
TAR: When did you first try your hand at writing?

JO: I wrote faux Romantic junk about moonlight and leaves and animals all through high school. I suspect lots of other poets did the same. Some of those I've talked with describe their early attempts at writing as being tied up with loneliness and the sense of somehow failing to fit in as young people, and that seems right to me. Some people who are pushed over to the social margin, those who don't find relief in crime or drugs or music, take up poetry, which has also been pushed to the margin. I guess art is supposed to be a way of making a new existence to compensate for the other, botched one. In a fair world, it would work. 

TAR: When did you know you were a poet, and did that shock you, worry you, seem like an adventure? What did it do to your psyche?

JO: I wonder if I know it yet? "Poet" is a word that carries a lot of cultural weight. It doesn't just mean "somebody who makes poems," so I'm nervous about applying it to myself, as if I were claiming some kind of vatic special status for myself. I'm not sure I would trust someone who says "I'm a poet" (though it sure is a quick way of getting rid of annoying strangers at parties). "Poet" is really a sort of curse. It scares me. But that's a good thing.

TAR: Who were your biggest influences as a poet? How did they affect your writing style or your desire to write?

JO: The usual suspects. Brand name Modernists like Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Frost. Elizabeth Bishop. Sylvia Plath. John Berryman. I don't write much like any of those, I don't think I do, but I still care most about Stevens and Bishop.

One of the first poets I read a lot of was, bizarrely, Robinson Jeffers, whom I just happened to run across in the public library. I liked his seriousness about big, cosmic issues, and his long, dense lines, and the contempt he had for 20th century American life. I was about 15, and contempt really resonates at that age. But even now, despite Jeffers' philosophical polemic that seems mostly silly, I think there is something pure and true about his work that you can't find anywhere else.

TAR: What would you say is your favorite poem? What is it about that poem that makes it stand out to you?

JO: Tonight it is Wallace Stevens's "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts." This is Stevens's funniest poem, for me, and I consider him often a funny guy, but it is sad, heartbreaking, too, in its absurdity. Stevens thinks himself inside the solipsism of a rabbit that is ignoring a cat creeping up on him, and he gets it right, impossible as that seems. We are all that rabbit. In the morning my favorite poem will be something else. And something else again, tomorrow night.
Lately I've been reading the poems of Ivor Gurney, an English poet who fought in World War One, then spent the rest of his life in an asylum, reliving it over and over and writing poems and music. An amazing artist, a master of image and tone. He alternates these limpid, crystalline lyrics about the Cotswolds with anguished, God-indicting, Hopkins-like pieces that seem torn from him still bloody. Gurney is a different sort of Modernist than the Eliot-Pound kind, and he deserves more attention.  

TAR: When do you write? Do you set aside time to write or write when the time comes?

JO: I would love to set time aside, but life intrudes, often in the form of one or all of my three children. I wedge writing in wherever there's a crack.

TAR: What rituals (routines) do you follow when you write?

JO: Nothing much. I must have strong coffee in front of me and a classical music station playing in the background. But I must have those things when I'm not writing, too.

TAR: Do you prefer writing on computer, paper, tape, etc.? 

JO: I write on paper, with a pencil. That makes it easier to keep track of revisions and trial phrases and jottings in the margin. And I like the material, hands-on part of it, the texture of pages in a newly opened notebook, the smell of pencil shavings, the sense, however illusory, that, in writing, I'm getting a grip on something real and grappling it into shape. 

TAR: How often do you submit your work to magazines?

JO: All the time. Whenever a poem comes home with a rejection letter, I try to get it back in the mail, or email, within a day or so. If you want to publish, that is the way it happens. I have never known an editor to accept a poem that was hiding in a drawer.

TAR: How do you decide which publications you want to send work to?

JO: I send work to publications I like to read. Presumably, that means they are publishing the sort of poems I write, or want to write.

TAR: You should have an interesting take on e-zines, being the editor of a print publication (The Sow's Ear Poetry Review). What do you think they offer that print magazines cannot?

JO: The strength of e-zines is also their weakness: you can publish a lot of stuff without having to worry about printing, postage, and so on. For a long time, and maybe still, this was viewed as a disqualification by the establishment (assuming for the moment that there is an "establishment"): the cost of putting out a print magazine suggests that you are publishing work worth investing in, while an e-zine can post a nearly infinite amount of extra material at little or no extra expense, after you've bought a domain and designed the thing. Maybe that criticism makes sense in some cases. There are e-zines that publish a river of pointless verbiage, or publish one little clique of writers almost exclusively, the editor's friends, one supposes. On the other hand, you could say the same about a lot of print journals.

This is changing, though, and quickly. Online editors are learning to limit and define. Now, I don't see much difference in quality between e-zines and print journals. Of  course, I've never really been an American Poetry Review kind of fellow, anyway.

It may be that print will disappear, altogether, but I hope it takes a while. I still enjoy holding a book in my hands and turning pages. This is an old fashioned prejudice.

TAR: As for the The Sow's Ear, what drives you in your role as editor?

JO: It is always a pleasure to open a freshly printed issue and realize that I'm looking at a poem that I love and that is going to stick with me, one I would love no matter where I found it. That has to be the payoff for editors of poetry. And it is especially satisfying when the poem I love happens to be one that I've taken a chance on, that somebody else might not have selected.

TAR: How did you fall into that role?

JO: Larry Richman, who founded Sow's Ear and edited it for ten years before I came on board, asked me if I would be interested. I was, and I'd like to keep on editing for a long time. It is an interesting shift in perspective, if you've been sending your work to editors, when you find yourself on the other side of the desk. It has given me sympathy for some of them, those who have a thousand manuscripts piled on their desk and an issue due out in a week. On the other hand, I now have even less sympathy for editors who hold on to a manuscript for a year or two and then are offended when you ask for your work back. They are lazy and rude.

TAR: As an editor, and also as a writer, what advice do you have for young writers looking to get started in the business?

JO: Read, read everything, read the kind of poems you want to write and the kind you would be horrified to have written, read everything else, history, philosophy, science, opera libretti, painters' letters, politicians' autobiographies, read from all eras of the past, read in other languages. You get the idea. A lot of what I reject at The Sow's Ear comes from people who seem not to have read anything. The idea that anyone can write without first being a reader is nonsense. 

After you've been reading for a while, write. How do you learn to write poems? Nobody knows. I've found only one thing worth saying about it, and all the books on writing and all the workshops come down to this: find out what kind of poems you like and do what those poets are doing. Sounds simple, and it is, but it's also really hard. Writing, in general, is hard work, and you really shouldn't do it, unless you simply aren't fit for anything else. Seriously.

TAR: Let's talk about modern poetry. What do you consider the state of poetry? Is it relevant? What is its relevance, its utility?

JO: Relevant to what? If this is a question of audience, then poetry does matter. There is probably a larger audience for poetry than ever before, and it is relevant for those readers and listeners; that is, poetry is an intermediary between them and the world (whatever "the world" may be). We have this fantasy about some golden time in the past when poetry was firmly at the center of cultural life, and we lament the way it has been shoved to the side by TV, movies, popular fiction, etc., but I don't think that age ever existed, really. First century Romans preferred the circus to Horace and Vergil. A poet like Byron seems to have been enviably popular if we read contemporary accounts of crowds waiting breathlessly for the newest installment of Childe Harold or Don Juan, but then we remember that Byron's audience during his life was really only one segment of the wealthy class on one small island - a couple of thousand readers, maybe. I've just ordered Charles Wright's new book, A Short History of the Shadow, over the Internet, and I'd hazard a guess that more people will read Wright's book during its first year of publication than read Don Juan during its first year. I don't mean A Short History is better than Byron, but the readership is that much larger in terms of pure numbers. Of course, this has a lot to do with university writing programs, and a lot of people complain about that. But students and writers are people, too. It is good to have an audience that cares about what one is doing.

TAR: What is your ultimate goal as a writer, and do you believe at this point that you'll reach it?

JO: My ultimate goal, like all writers, is to remake the world in my own image. I will not achieve this, thank God.
by Ace Boggess
"My ultimate goal, like all writers, is to remake the world in my own image. I will not achieve this, thank God."