We're honored to feature new poetry by James Reidel in Issue Three of Orson's Review. Issue Three of Orson's Review was published on September 24th, 2019.
We're also very fortunate for the time James took to chat with us about the poet’s journey. Check out the discussion below.
*The following interview involves Orson's Publishing (OP) and James Reidel (JR).
OP: How did your journey with the written word begin?
JR: At the age of five my mother took me to the Valley Theater to see the The Guns of Navarone. At that tender age, I preferred man-eating dinosaurs like roving, scaly monsters, such as Gorgo. So, on the flyleaves of Counterpane Stories I began a story under the title “The Monster of Navarone.” I gave up after two sentences when I realized that I couldn’t spell any of the words I wanted. The letters looked like scratches on pieces of pottery, grave goods. The lines weren’t straight. They were crooked. I could already see what my block of text would look like: hardly a block at all. So, I gave up. From that point on, if Freud is right about the artist, the etiology of the creative impulse lies in childhood neuroses and if that applies to me, I should not have written another word. But somehow the runes of words I could barely read and those crooked lines that wanted to fall off the page were mastered.
That said, I followed the same course so many other writers have. I wrote stories in high school. I wrote verses to girls. Everything I wrote was in long hand. I even had a peculiar way of indention, which perplexed my composition teachers. Whenever I finished a paragraph, I started a new one just below the period where the paragraph above ended. Most of the time I would lose points and suffered much red ink about this habit. I was even called into the office to explain why I indented like that. I couldn’t think of why. But looking back, I surely built my writings the way some build a ship or house by the eye. Indeed, I wrote that way because it was less work for the eye to shift left. The Greeks understood such form and wrote the way they plowed their fields, back and forth, behind an ox. I wrote the way a rain drop follows a certain course from leaf to leaf or down a window pane. That sounds pretty, doesn’t it?
I never wrote lyric poetry that way, however. Isn’t that strange. Only prose. Eventually, I took a typing course in night school and that ended my rain-drop indention.
OP: Is being a poet your primary occupation?
JR: My late father always called me “Poet,” even when I was a nurseryman, a truck driver, a copywriter, and a hack editor and writer in various textbook disciplines—so that I could be the poet. I also write a lot of prose—Weldon Kees’s biography occupied me for a decade—and I translate prose and poetry from German. I try to touch all these bases in the week. If I do so in a single day, I deserve the one-hand clapping.
My earliest publications were music reviews and short stories in the college newspaper. During that time, I wanted to teach history. But I fell in with a group of young people who had a poetry teacher in high school—amazing then and it would be amazing now—and pretty soon I started to write poems and saw some of them published early enough to encourage me onward. My first formal course in poetry was with John Ashbery. We became friends and even collaborated on a book—of fiction by Alvin Levin.
OP: What about these poems are you most proud?
JR: The group you have selected come from a manuscript of prose poems. I have published quite a few of these pieces over the past five years and I was hoping to have a rather long book of them, with at least twenty-five percent published in journals. That is only one accomplishment. What I wanted to do was create a very tight but “radiant” work that had all the manic intensity of Thomas Bernhard’s prose and verse—but transplanted into my own geography of suburban malaise and American declinism. There is, too, that decline in attention spans as well. So, I think these pieces exploit that. I can and do write long fictions, but they bear no resemblance to these pieces. They could be called “flash fiction.” But I tend to shy away from that nomenclature even though I latch on to it when looking for a venue. I try to achieve something that, for lack of a better word, is “abstract” and a certain freedom in my prose poem/flash fiction hybrids. You could say, that same freedom was found in Robert Walser, who was already doing what I’m doing now over a century ago. In that way, if I am proud, I am proud to be atavistic, a throwback. I have translated—with the Swiss poet Daniele Pantano—Walser’s plays. I’ve also been lending myself to Daniele’s project, the complete poems of Robert Walser, while he provides critiques and suggestions for my drafts of Franz Werfel’s poems (also translated from the German). I have tossed my hat in many rings, obviously.
OP: Tell us about your writing process. Do you approach all pieces of writing in the same way?
JR: Everything looks very strange to me, curious. I tend to write about things that others wouldn’t waste time on, so I am an enormous disappointment to editors looking for the recovery poem, the addiction poem, the abuse poems, the erotic poem in all its flavors, and the always reliable “window” poem, that makes any such vantage a panopticon for significance, along with the neo- poetries of neoformalism, neoconfessionalism, neoimagism, neo-Beatism, and the like—at least not in the pure or obvious sense of editorial expectations. My poem titled “Hölderlin” has something to do with being neglected, noticed, esteemed. That is probably my chief inspiration for everything I do, even my nonfiction prose. Of course, this poem takes off as a diatribe on the imaginary friend, that entity, that liminal being we create for ourselves to prove that we exist. So, yes, all my pieces are approached in the same way content-wise. I find something I consider neglected, unnoticed, uncommented upon, and fill the void. My nature abhors neglect. My desk lamp poem, “INRI,” however, is an offshoot of the Bauhaus centenary and it is a kind of a Vorkurs exercise in very short prose, a word-painting Johannes Itten might have assigned in 1920. At this writing, I have a book in press about Gropius’s daughter, a real victim of notice and neglect. But that’s not present in the poem. But “INRI” is a paean to how I torture my poor desk lamp, pointing it at the ceiling when its glare bothers my eyes and bending it down when I need to see again. I may sound too precious here (maybe too apolitical), but I always open the door and graciously accept my free copy of The Watchtower from the local JW “bishop” who rings my doorbell every few months. I think he sees me as holy too in my disbelief. I like to shape-shift too in my writing, such that I might write pigeon-breasted in one poem, Barbie-breasted in another. That’s where to direct your Emersonian eye.
OP: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? How has that impacted your writing?
JR: I didn’t want to be anything per se. I just knew that I was unsuitable for a normal life of any kind. From my earliest days, I remember wanting to enter a seminary. But I also wanted marry a Jewish girl. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to teach history because I found it interesting, especially psychohistory. But telling people you wanted to be a psychohistorian just leaves the wrong impression. Eventually, I settled on being a sociobiologist. But my grades in biology weren’t high enough. But rather than fix that in summer school, I took courses in existential philosophy and East European history, with a little German, French, and Russian (the latter gone to seed). When I did grow up, and to say so is only a personal opinion, I found that writing poetry, prose, biography, and translation let me be all these things in the real sense, not like I played.
OP: Tell us about the biggest sacrifice you’ve made while pursuing writing.
JR: Because I write in the precincts of neglect, I am in the analogous position of a visionary or a crackpot. It may seem cruel to repeat this aphorism. It sounds like Schopenhauer, Thomas Bernhard, or simply me, but we “are only real to the extent that we have money.” In that respect, I have enjoyed fits of reality and irreality as a writer. Ingeborg Bachmann said something like this: “I have lived at the expense of others and others have lived at the expense of me.” That sounds healthier to me. The other sacrifice is the time commitment and what goes by the wayside. I wrote what I think is a fascinating nonfiction piece about the actress Lia Rosen. She gave these wonderful poetry readings in Vienna in the 1900s and was a close friend of Rilke. He would go to museums and the like with her. She was very petite, a child actress who continued to play such roles because of her size. I was just fascinated by imagining Rilke having such a creature on his arm.
I have similar trial pieces about other neglectées, such as Theodora Keogh.
OP: How many books do you read in a year?
JR: Since I translate, I tend to read in slow-motion most of the time. But I read about one to two serious books a month. Right now, I’m rereading Notes from the Underground. I just read a new biography of Walter Gropius by Fiona McCarthy (she is very nice to me in the acknowledgments) and an advance copy of Cate Haste’s new biography of Gropius’s first wife, Alma Mahler. Poetry? I have James Tate’s first book always nearby, The Lost Pilot (Yale, 1967). I was still playing with my electric trains when this neo-absurdist masterpiece (“neo-“ again, I know!) I’m also reading Sonnets (Yale, 1935) by Jane Du Bois, published just months after she and her sister jumped out of an airplane into an English cabbage field. (The next day, the ban on aircraft flying over the White House was instituted and, a year later, locks were mandated for all airliner passenger doors.) For a nineteen-year-old metaphysical modernist writing in the 1930s, with fewer than twenty poems printed posthumously in an edition of 100 by one of the leading American printers and book designers (he designed Wallace Stevens’ books for Knopf), someone noticed Jane’s promise a long time ago.
OP: Do you attend poetry readings? If so, tell us about the best one you’ve ever attended—what made it so good?
JR: I still have fond memories of driving up to the Oregon District in Dayton—just in the news and not in a good way—back in 1978 and bringing back Bill Knott to read at the University of Cincinnati. I organized poetry readings all over the region then, just before I moved to New York City. Right now, I’ve been something of a recluse, like an Emily Dickinson in a place called Amberley, which is hardly in New England but in the derivative mentalities of Ohio.
OP: What do you want most out of your literary community?
JR: I would like them to get me out of the house. I remember that when I organized my reading series, I went out of my way to find poets twice, even three times my age. I wasn’t just intrigued with myself and my little clique of writers. But we were a kind of loose-knit school that extended all the way to Oberlin, when Franz Wright and Daniel Simko were there. I miss them and miss those times.
OP: Do you believe that an MFA is crucial to success as a poet today?
JR: I think you need the Ph.D. in creative writing to be taken seriously for an academic career. When I was at Columbia, there was only one of these programs in the U.S. I think it was at the University of Utah, where one of my teachers, Mark Strand, also taught. But you don’t really need one. Emily Dickinson didn’t need one, Strand’s favorite guy, Wallace Stevens didn’t have an MFA in Creative Writing, and so on.
OP: What do you cross your fingers for as a poet?
JR: A decent venue, a supportive publisher, patience, and getting the poem to work without my intervention.
OP: Where do you see your journey with the written word going?
JR: This parting question seems easy and invites a glib response, doesn’t it? Seriously, however, just getting from one word, one thought, one line to the next is enough.
JAMES REIDEL has published in many journals, including The New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review. He is the author of two collections of verse, Jim’s Book (2014) and My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg (2006). His most recent work has appeared in Poetry, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Hawai’i Review, Outsider, Fiction Southwest, The Flexible Persona, The Wax Paper, and elsewhere—including The Best Small Fictions 2016. He is also the biographer of the poet Weldon Kees and a translator, whose latest books include Comedies by Robert Walser (2018, with Daniele Pantano), Goethe Dies (2016), a collection of short stories by Thomas Bernhard, The Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard (2017), and A Skeleton Plays Violin (2017), book three of the Our Trakl series. In 2013, he was a James Merrill House fellow. Currently, he is preparing a collection of prose poems for publication, a biography of Manon Gropius (the daughter of Walter Gropius, Alma Mahler, and Franz Werfel), and a translation of the collected poems of Heiner Müller.
Be sure to check out James Reidel’s poetry in Issue Three of Orson’s Review.