Lifelong Michigander and poet David James will publish his third book of poetry, My Torn Dance Card, on Tuesday, March 24, 2015. We had a chance to catch up with David and asked him about his latest collection. Enjoy! -MP
Michiganders Post: Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? How old were you? What was it about? And, do you still have it?
David James: I was an athlete in high school. As a star basketball player, I had a cheerleader girlfriend. When I injured my leg and couldn’t play, the girlfriend dumped me. This was when I began my poetic journey. I wrote God-awful love poems to my ex-girlfriend. Since I couldn’t do sports anymore, I had no release for my emotions. Hence, the horrible poems came out by the dozens (I’ve burned them all since). But the more I wrote, the better I felt, and soon I was writing about things other than the lousy girlfriend and my broken heart. Poetry began for me as pure therapy, and it still serves that purpose today. But I often wonder, if I had never been injured, would I have become a poet? I’m not sure.
MP: Is there a poet or a type of poetry that impacted your aesthetic that you would recommend to emerging poets?
DJ: My work is strongly influenced by other writers. As a college student, I was introduced to the works of Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Pablo Neruda, Richard Hugo, Anne Sexton, and Phillip Levine. Their work is rooted in concrete imagery and a clear sense of meaning. Most of their poems work on an emotional level, and that’s still what I believe is an important ingredient in a poem. Unfortunately, many young poets today have never heard of these great writers.
When I read contemporary poetry, even award-winning poetry, I can appreciate the linguistic prowess of the verse, but often the poems leave me empty and devoid of any feeling. I want a poem to grab my heart and shake it up, not simply impress me with random or creative images.
MP: Thinking about when you first determined to write poetry, is there any advice you would offer to yourself looking back? Would you tell yourself to do something differently? Take a different approach? Get different training?
DJ: My advice to my younger self would be to look in your heart of hearts for answers. Too often, we compare ourselves to others. We begin to do things because others are doing them; it’s the “follow the crowd” mentality that haunts us in everyday life. The true challenge in life, and in writing, is to find your own way.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with imitating and learning from other writers, but the overall quest is to hone your own voice, to shape a voice that is unique and speaks for you. To do that, writers must listen to the echoes of their own hearts, intuitions, and those pulses of the imagination. You must trust yourself, as Richard Hugo once said.
MP: If one theme is clear from the collection, there’s a consistent reflection on the mortality of the human experience and on how one deals with and expresses emotions surrounding mortality. Did you set out to put together a collection of poems about this theme, or did the theme emerge as you wrote?
DJ: Yes, My Torn Dance Card often focuses on loss and mortality. As we grow older (I’m a grandfather of three, so far), and add up the joys and sorrows, our perspective of life changes. Hopefully, we’ve gained little pieces of wisdom and understanding along the way and that tempers our reality. This book is about the realization that all of life is a process of letting go. You let go of your childhood, your teenage years, your 20s, your parents, your children, your jobs, your dreams, your muscles, your hair, etc. The world plods along no matter what you do to try to slow it down or stop it. These are poems I could not have written as a young man. Of course, the poems I wrote in my 20s and 30s are gone to me today.
MP: When you think about this collection, which poem do you think of first? And, why?
DJ: For me, “A Little Night Music” sums up My Torn Dance Card. I’ve put it as the last poem in the book for that reason. It’s about the inevitable, death, and what happens to the people I love afterward. This poem started with an epigraph about a company that turns a person’s cremated remains into vinyl records for a fee. That idea haunted me in a good way until I had to write about it about two years ago. This is the kind of poem I would never even consider writing when I was younger; the concept of death was so far away.
I like the image of my wife in a room dancing to the music from a record made using the dust from my body. There’s a sense of joy coming from that particular end that appeals to me. I like to think I could play a small part in her healing process even after I die.
MP: Would you say there’s something quintessentially Michigan or Midwestern about My Torn Dance Card? If so, how would a reader recognize that in the poetry?
DJ: I was born in Detroit and have lived my entire life in Michigan. Though anything is possible, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. For me, the pronounced seasons—spring, summer, fall, winter—fuel a new imaginative engine each new year. And each year I’m older and different, so every season brings about a fresh perspective and vision.
All of the poems in My Torn Dance Card are Michigan poems. They’re informed by the Michigan landscape and water, by its sunsets and sunrises, by its foliage and flowers. The issues, concepts, and themes in these poems, however, relate to all people lucky enough to find themselves growing older and wiser.