with James Cherry
by Kimberly Mathes
Kimberly Mathes: I want to begin with the very beginning of Loose Change. You precede your own poems with a quote by Octavio Paz: To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see with our ears. Why begin with this quote? With this quote, are you, the author and poet, asking something of your reader?
James Cherry: Poetry demands that we engage it on the most visceral of levels. It is not to be encountered as strictly an intellectual exercise or explored only for its emotional properties. Instead, it requires an involvement of all of the senses, not only on the part of the reader, but also on the part of the person who wrote the poem. This is what I think Paz was getting at and what attracted me to his quote. When this delicate balance is forged, the poet really becomes secondary and the poem lives and breathes on its own. Pazs quote was motivation for me to sharpen the imagery in the poems where they will be read and re-read for years to come.
KM: What other poets have motivated you, and in what ways?
JC: Ah . . . the dreaded influence question. Its not dreaded because its a bad question. On the contrary. But I dread it because my influences are so eclectic and I dread that once I start reeling off names, someone is bound to be left off. But Langston Hughes personifies what a poet should be. He wrote and travelled. He recognized and identified with the beauty and ugly of black culture and expressed it in all he did. Im motivated by the courage of Pablo Neruda to speak truth to power. I greatly admire Emily Dickinson and her sense of experimentation. I love the way Whitman loved anything human. And contemporarily speaking, Im still trying to catch my breath from Patricia Smiths choice of verbs and her ability to create metaphor. The list is lengthy. But thats a pretty good start.
KM: That is an incredibly eclectic mix. It is, perhaps, a dreaded question, I admit, but yours is an unexpected answer, which is very much like the dedications that you have in your book. You have poems dedicated to or inspired by everyone from James Brown (Little Junior) and the contemporary artist Betye Saar (Hell Fighter) to Troy Davis (The World) and Bruce Springsteen (1975). Is this part of your eclecticism? Also, you say in your above answer that Langston Hughes personifies what a poet should be. Does a poet need to be eclectic or have an eclectic view of the world?
JC: Very much so. My aesthetics are informed by the music of John Coltrane, Beethoven and Bessie Smith as much as they are influenced by the plays of Eugene ONeill, August Wilson and Tennessee Williams. Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence and Diego Rivera are equally as important as Picasso, Monet and Degas. Although the genres and mediums of expression may differ from each other, I believe that art is an extension of itself, feeds, nurtures and inspires other forms of itself. As far as a poet having an eclectic view of the world, I think the poet would be doing him or herself a disservice to read or study European or Native American or Chicano poets only. Literature helps us to understand what it means to be human and to willfully neglect the art and literature of other cultures makes us less human in a way. But it also invites stagnation to the creative process. Artists are restless by nature, always seeking new avenues to self-expression. Picassos willingness to explore African art produced Cubism as part of his growth and development.
KM: So many of your poems bring attention to both current and historical events that affect mass numbers of people (like the earthquake in China, slavery in the U.S., and the impact of the current war). Often, poems that depict these types of devastations are called poems of witness, although Carolyn Forché argues for a different term, the social. In her essay, Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Forché states, The social is a place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems read, and protest disseminated. Do you agree with this statement? Do you consider the poets job to be one of witnessing?
JC: I agree with Forchés statement. Poetry is where the news is to be found today, whether it relates to your community, the nation or the world. It should owe no debts to the right wing or liberals or Evangelicals or Atheists. Last I heard, it should bow only at the altar of Truth and Beauty. This is why poets are so important. Not only do we preserve and promulgate, but our words can be very prophetic as well. We have been gifted to provide insight into situations and circumstances that can become a catalyst for future action or our words can simply serve as a balm that helps someone make it through the night. As far as witnessing goes, thats a term that I first encountered from reading James Baldwin. I think the nature of witnessing has changed and thats mainly due to technology. The world is a lot smaller today thanks to all news networks, Twitter, Facebook, internet, etc. So, it was easy for me to write a poem about an earthquake in China because I was so familiar with the minute details of the horrific event and the grief, even though it was a half world away, was very personal to me. It amazes me that even though the world is becoming smaller through technology, we are more alienated each day. Strange how that works.
KM: When you set out to write your poems on the earthquakes in China (Afterlife and On Childrens Day), are you cognizant that youre setting out to write a witness poem? Is it that intentional?
JC: Not at all. The poems that youre referencing first appeared in Our Common Suffering, an anthology published in China about the disaster. As I said, I was so moved by the sense of loss that it resonated with me on a very basic level and moved me to write the poems. There isnt anything political about the poems, but I do think they address and maybe even celebrate how the human spirit survives and overcomes even in the face of such suffering. This is universal and it wasnt difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of a father whose son was buried beneath the rubble of a collapsed school house. Poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller asked the same question about one of the poems in its relationship to witnessing in a recent speech. So, maybe I was operating on a subconscious level, which happens a lot with poetry. Maybe not. That doesnt really concern me. As long as the poem stays with the reader when he or she finishes it, Im good.
KM: I would beg to differ and say that theres a lot at stake politically when a poet writes with compassion about people who live in countries whose political ideals oppose our own countrys. Its like the poem in your book, To Be an American, about the Egyptian man who didnt understand the word ‘communism. This line, with its gorgeous line break in the line above says it beautifully as the line stands alone: upon his lips. No communism, I say again, slowly.
Do you write your poems, or do they write you?
JC: Thats very insightful commentary, Kimberly. Ive never been one for worrying about winning the praise or raising the ire of a government. Ideology and ethnicity are probably the two most shallow parts of a human being. Below the surface, no matter what corner of the globe we find ourselves, we all laugh, cry, hunger, thirst, rejoice and mourn and to recognize that fosters compassion and empathy towards one another and ultimately the way we interact with one another. When I think of any country, I think of its people first and how they must navigate their daily lives. So, depending upon the social conditions of those lives, to show compassion and identify with their struggles, is indeed a political act. And can be construed by some to be subversive. As far as my own poetry goes, Ive had moments where after a first or second draft, the poem was pretty much done. In those cases, I was more medium than poet and the words just flowed through me. Thats the magic of poetry and the writing process. I still dont know how it happens exactly and Ive never heard anyone give an adequate explanation. But I dont want to lead anyone astray. Poetry is hard work. It demands time, study, discipline and dedication. As with most things, the harder you work at it, the better you become. So, my answer would be: yes. Some days its a facile process; other days, I struggle like everyone else.
KM: When you say, When I think of any country, I think of its people first and how they must navigate their daily lives, I thought, Thats it! Thats very much what your poems represent, how people "navigate their daily lives," and that navigation, no matter how differently it plays out each day for each person on this earth, is also what ties us together as humans. What Im wondering now is about the intersection between the political and the social with the personal. Your book has poems about family members: your nephew, your father, your niece. Your book has poems about world events. Is there a space that divides the personal and the global for you as a poet?
JC: Your question touches on the concept of poet as witness again. If a poet is a witness and not a by-stander or spectator, which I believe, then there is no space that divides the personal and the global. Poets dont live or create in a vacuum. In addition to writing about love and death and other matters of personal angst, its just as natural for me to address issues of race, politics, sexism, war, etc. Im in the tradition of Langston, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Margaret Walker to name a few. The introduction of these poets led me to read other black poets such as Etheridge Knight, Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Gil-Scot Heron. Without such exposure as a foundation, I wouldnt be writing today and these writers created a hunger in me to explore other writers from diverse ethnic backgrounds. But I dont want to duplicate what the poets before me have done or write in the style they perfected. Its incumbent upon me to expand the tradition and the way I do that is to study the craft and to lift my own unique voice on how living in these times are affecting me personally, culturally and hopefully in a global sense. Art is a great barometer of what was and is happening during a particular epoch of history. As with most things, its time that will judge how successful Ive been.
KM: Many of your poems in this book take on voices of people other than yourself, other than the poet. Some of these voices are well known, like Louis Armstrongs. Many of these voices are very different than your own. Take, for example, the poem The Hijab, in which the speaker is a Muslim woman. I am most interested in this poem because the poem itself is about voice:
I hear file drawers shutting,
fingernails on keyboards
and the sound of my own voice
after the phone rings.
The metaphor of these final four lines is striking--a person surprised to hear her own voice within a poem that has been written by a man from a different culture who lives half way across the world, who, in your own words, has such a different daily life experience than you do. How do you find access to these disparate voices in your poems, and how did you find access to this one voice in particular?
JC: Ive always identified with anyone or any people struggling for common decency, the right to determine their own destiny and to be respected as a human being. I love freedom and support anyone else who loves it. Thats the most basic of God given rights. For me, theres no such thing as women rights, or gay rights or civil rights. Theyre all human rights. I guess this sensibility has been shaped and nurtured in me throughout the years because my history and culture is one of surviving oppression and overcoming it. Ive never seen Black folk as the victim of anything. It wasnt a stretch for me to write a poem in the voice of an Arab woman. Far from it. Oppression is the same everywhere; just different variations here and there. So, it came quite naturally to write the poem. As an artist, its doubtful that Ill pack my bags and head out for the nearest revolution taking place somewhere around the world. Hell, if Hemingway did it, I guess I could too. But its probable that Ill do what I know to do: raise my voice for those not in a position to speak for themselves, remind them that they are not alone. As Ismael Reed would say: Writin is Fightin.
KM: I love that quote by Ishmael Reed! I heard him read once at the Northern Arizona Book Festival, and his presence and that memory have stayed with me more strongly than many other poets Ive been able to hear since then.
So at the end of many poems that address such disparate topics, you have ten poems on the same subject: Meditations on middle age (which, in my head, I refer to as the MOMA poems). How did this short series of ten poems find their way into this book?
KM: Speaking of the title, for a book entitled Loose Change, where the title itself permits a breadth of topics, how did you decide the order of the poems?
JC: This is something that I always struggle with. I agree that a book of poems should have an arc and thats something that Ill perfect as I grow and develop as a poet. Matter of fact, my next collection will deal with Biblical characters and the structure of the book will have to be a lot tighter. But for this one, the title itself determined the sequence of the poems. I knew I wanted to start with family and wanted to end with myself. Everything else in between was closely related to each other. I was aiming for a book of collected or selected poems without having it being called as such. That being said, several poems in the book do reference one another. So while theres not a formal structure per se, the title plays on two thematic levels: disparate poems and the various changes of our lives.
KM: The poem, When Poetry Is Not Enough, really stays with me. The title asserts itself even beyond the content of the poem, which recounts a compelling narrative in and of itself. Certainly, the poem and title beg the question, When is poetry not enough, and when is it not enough even for the poet?
JC: Well, the poem youre alluding to deals with my time as Artist in Residence at a high school for troubled teens. I think the program was successful in getting the kids to express themselves through poetry. But there was one kid with a lot of potential that I just couldnt seem to reach. Poetry, without doubt, is a great medium to gather perspective, definition and understanding into lifes circumstances and situation, whether personally or collectively. But sometimes life can be so beautiful or painful that it becomes ineffable and in those instances, words actually do an injustice to the situation. I wanted those kids to walk away from that poetry program understanding that reading and writing poetry can not only change a life, it can save a life. Some of the kids got the message and have gone on to become productive in their various walks of life. But in the case of Paul, the subject of the poem, the call of the streets, was a lot stronger than what I could offer.
KM: Tell me about Through These Doors and A Brief History of Field Trips. Both poems seem to contain layers of significance created by the subject matter and the unpredictable line breaks. For example, the last two stanzas from Through These Doors allow the reader to both scrutinize (the poems word) the alternative education system at work (and thus our education system as whole) while also feel compassion for those who dwell within it:
who they can become, is bigger
than the walls erected around them.
At 3 p.m., they run
out of our lives
pass the scrutinizing eye of the security guard
with a semi-automatic strapped to his hip
and I wonder
as I move into the distance, headed home,
will sundown bring enough food and mercy
to deliver them upon the dawn.
JC: Both poems are part of a trilogy which includes, When Poetry is Not Enough. In Through These Doors, I tried to capture the whole Alternative School experience and provide a sense of how others view teenagers who have often been labeled bad when in essence they are no diffierent from any other American kid. I found out that they simply want someone to take the time to listen. Let me add that there were other high schools that I could have taught poetry in, but I made a conscious decision to be involved with this particular school. So they wrote and I listened. And then we talked about elements that go into a poem, read a variety of poets and they wrote some more. In fact, they wrote enough for me to comprise their work into a book. There arent too many feelings better than seeing your work in print and that did wonders to elevate self-esteem. Another aspect of the program was a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. This was the genesis for A Brief History of Field Trips. A lot of the kids, which were predominantly Black, had never been out of the citys limits and walking through those museum doors was an eye opener historically, socially and culturally. I believe it was a life changing experience for some. It changed me. And so did the entire program. The program, sponsored by a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, ended in 2010 and was called the Young Elderz (the kids possess wisdom beyond their years). Perry Burrows was the Language Arts instructor during that time and remains a good friend today.
KM: How did
you decide on a trilogy of poems for writing about these experiences?
KM: In this collection, Loose Change, were there poems that were more difficult to write than others?
JC: This collection represents the most personal poems Ive written thus far. So, naturally the poems dealing with the death of family members were the most difficult to write. In the book there are poems that deal with the loss of a nephew, a mother and father. Writing about the death of loved ones or those close to you is an interesting proposition. In some cases, a poem can be penned in days or weeks; in other instances it takes months or even years to even get a couple of lines down. Anyway, I felt that the writing of the poems were necessary and anytime something is necessary its generally not an easy process.
JC: Well, my process of writing both prose and poetry has evolved as I have evolved as a writer. Years ago, Id scribble poems on the back of napkins, carry out menus, post-its etc. And occasionally today, I still do that. But mostly, when it comes to poetry, if something catches my eye or ear as I move through the world, Ill jot down a few ideas about it in a notepad and flesh it out a few days later. For example, I have several notes on the recent George Zimmerman acquittal and those poems are smoldering in my bones right now and if I dont write them soon, Ill explode from anger, fear and sadness. As far as my fiction goes, Im a licensed health care professional by day and the prose works better in the evening hours and the later the better. Its either that or early morning weekend hours, which makes for productive writing as well. My fiction starts with an image and I develop a loose outline from there. This, I think, is what allows me to be comfortable in both genres because imagery is very important to me in the writing poetry. As far as how I decide which genre to work in, I dont know if Id credit either discipline or muse. I think its a very intuitive thing. As an artist, you just know what you know. And I also know that its a never-ending process. I have more ideas for poems, short stories, novels, screenplays and non-fiction projects than Ill ever have the time to write.
KM: Poetry and jazz. So often this relationship is framed looking backward with Langston Hughes as the primary example. What is poetry and jazz today?
JC: Not only jazz, but Hughes was also greatly influenced by the blues as well. At the time Hughes was finding his voice during the period of the Harlem Renaissance, Louis Armstrong was revolutionizing jazz by introducing the solo during a jazz ensemble performance. And I think improvisation is the common denominator for both poetry and jazz. There is freedom in jazz and poetry, but that also means responsibility. Jazz musicians are free to express themselves anyway they want as long as they stay within the context of the song and are willing to listen to their band mates and afford them the same courtesy; its a great exercise in democracy. With poets, every poem is a solo, but we must be cognizant of tradition while reaching for something new. And the only way to do that is to know the tools of the trade: enjambment, caesura, anaphora, sonnet, sestina, white space, etc., even if we dont use them. I believe content is important, but form equally so. A lot of jazz musicians, Mingus and Miles come readily to mind, were Julliard trained musicians. Not only did they know how to play, they knew how to compose as well. So for me, whenever I writing prose or poetry, Trane, Bird, Billie Holliday, Max Roach, Diz, Ella are always in the room.
KM: Thats a beautiful response, and I think to end our interview there -- on what is open and possible because of those whove come before and also because of what lies ahead.
JC: It was a pleasure. Thanks, Kimberly.