James Davis May's Unquiet Things
appeared from LSU Press
in the spring of 2016. This book of poems lets the reader into a space that looks at the world in all its noise through a lens that is patient and contemplative, one that shows the reader the experience of being in the places and among the people as the poet first embraces the tricks the world can play on a person and until he realizes the tricks he can play on the world. Unquiet Things is the synesthetic noise of all of our experiences when we are paying attention, and so we speak here about how May came to interpret the world this way.
Emily Schulten: This collection of poems takes the reader through a sort of coming of age, maintaining throughout a thread of imagery and tone. Why did you choose Unquiet Things as the title for this collection? Where does this title come from, and how do you hope it resonates throughout?
James Davis May:
For much of its pre-published life (incubation period?), the manuscript was called American Irony
. My editor, Claudia Emerson
, didn't like the title — I think she said it put too much emphasis on irony, when the book, ultimately, tries to resist irony. She suggested Unquiet Things
, which was actually the title I used years and years ago. The title itself comes from Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight,"
the line about the fire being "the sole unquiet thing." So many of these poems are pensive meditations. The book is a little band of unquiet things.
ES: The poem you choose to open with, "The Reddened Flower, the Erotic Bird," asks the reader why "we report stories like these," those stories of moments of personal rapture; tell us why this poems introduces Unquiet Things.
The book opens with a question and closes with a question. "The Reddened Flower" asks why "we report stories like these" — our encounters with animals, moments like that — and acknowledges that "some cynicism keeps me from saying / that we do so because we love, and are surprised by, the world." "A Lasting sickness,"
the final poem in the book, ends by asking:
if you began to believe
… that the world
not only acknowledges your suffering
but turns to soothe it — what choice
would you have but to love that world
you so appallingly don't understand?
In a way, the questions speak to each other (or at least that was my hope!). The first question starts a sort of interrogation, a questioning of my own cynicism, that the book will undertake. The question in the last poem diagnoses me with Romanticism, a disease that affects one's perceptions, makes one feel as though the world cares for him or herself.
ES: There are two poems, "It Only Brings Me Sorrow" and "The Sap Gone Out," that are prose poems in the book. Tell us a bit about this form for these poems, why you are drawn to it in these instances, and how it works within the context of the collection.
When I started writing poetry seriously in college, Robert Lowell
was a huge influence, and I've had to at times push against the almost Olympian rhetoric I inherited from him. For a time, my ideal line was Lowell's "A brackish reach of shoal of Madaket."
A lot of the poems I was writing then privileged sound over sense (notice I didn't say music). Then I read Seamus Heaney's
essay on Dylan Thomas
, and its argument that Thomas's poetry became unable to communicate, if I remember that essay correctly, really scared me. Shortly thereafter, sentences like Forche's "What you have heard is true. I was in his house"
"Well, David had said — it was snowing outside and his voice contained many registers of anger, disgust, and wounded justice, I think it's crazy" became very attractive. The prose line allowed me to be more discursive than declarative. Ultimately, I think that that discursiveness was a good thing if for no other reason than that it took away the pressure to sound like I know things, the pressure to sound smart. I suppose what I'm getting at is that longer lines, or lines of prose, if you will, sound like they're thinking rather than pronouncing. Elizabeth Bishop
wanted her poetry to end "not with a thought, but a mind thinking." I like that idea — that a poem is a mind thinking, not a thought.
ES: In your poem "Saint Lucia," there are lines that tell us the speaker "inherited a materialism / that borders on religion." What materials stand out to you in Unquiet Things: what images or subjects recur, and what effect do these have and/or did you intend for these to have?
Well, that poem's a bit of a self-parody, if not a self-damnation. I'm a very materialistic person — that's true — but that materialism manifests itself in my appetite, mainly, as I love to eat and eat well. Again and again, the poems praise the world; it's a book of things, things I'm attached to.
ES: What impression do you hope your reader walks away with, and how is this expressed in "A Lasting Sickness?" How have both the speaker and the reader changed?
First, about the poem: when I wrote "A Lasting Sickness," I had hit rock bottom. I had lost out on a job, and this ultimately led to our having to move away from Decatur, Georgia, a town we very much loved and still do. Minor problems, really, but it was a painful time in which I felt like a complete failure. To cap things off, I developed an infection that came with a nasty fever. In the middle of that sickness, I remembered my parents taking care of me when I had pneumonia as a child. That memory is my first memory of being conscious of being loved, and it brought with it an ecstatic feeling. It didn't make everything better, but it changed me, I think. Eventually, anyway.
I said earlier that "A Lasing Sickness" answers the question raised in "The Reddened Flower," and I think it answers that question by overcoming cynicism with doubt. In other words, I hope that the poem doubts the cynicism that's brought up in the book's first poem. What is hope or faith or belief if it's not tested with doubt? Not to sound too Romantic (or cheesy), but my hope for that poem was to write something of an agnostic hymn, one that's self-aware, sure, but one that still praises. I feel like that's the contemporary poet's conundrum: how to praise knowing what he or she knows. I'm not sure I pull it off, but I hope that the book figures that out how to praise, if only momentarily.
ES: Your wife is the poet Chelsea Rathburn, and you've said before that your poems are in conversation with her poems. Can you explain what you mean by this, and what poem or poems comes to mind? What does it mean to you for a poem to be in conversation with another poem?
Well, some are in direct conversation with her poems. "The Sap Gone Out," for example, which is a poem about finding a dead possum in our yard, was written after she wrote a poem, "Small Deaths," on the same subject.
I would have been more correct if I said my poems are in conversation with her. She's my first reader, the person whom I have in mind when I write. Robert Hass says somewhere that "the task of art is to over and over again make images of livable common life,"
and that's one of the projects of this book — to "make images of livable common life." Every poem but one was written after meeting Chelsea, and so the book is a bit of a chronicle of those images.
ES: Reading Unquiet Things, I can see what I think are some influences. Can you tell us what some influences are for you, and how these appear in your poems?
is the patron saint of this book, but Czesław Miłosz
holds that title for my poetry in general. About Coleridge's influence on the manuscript: a series of poems, including the title poem, are written in the style of his great Conversation Poems, poems like "Dejection: An Ode,"
"Frost at Midnight," which I've already mentioned, and "This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison,"
"The Nightingale" (a terribly underrated poem!), etc. I love how warm those poems are. These were the first poems that got me excited about poetry, and for better or worse, I've always thought of a poem as a particular person speaking to another particular person. From Miłosz, I've inherited the notion that poetry is "the passionate pursuit of the real." Maybe this goes back to your question about materialism?
ES: Where does your process start, and how does it play out?
Almost always a line will get in my head. After that line comes, it's a matter of finding my way to the next. That doesn't sound very sexy, does it? I should say, too, that I don't write very often — a poem a month at most. During those down periods I am, hopefully, reading, and reading chaotically at that. I admire poems that bring disparate things together, that find harmony in incongruity.
ES: Many years ago, I heard you describe poets as being either cat poets or dog poets. Are you a cat poet, or a dog poet? Explain.
My theory is that you're either a dog poet or a cat poet. T.S. Eliot is our quintessential cat poet
. Poetry, for a cat poet, is an escape from emotion, a chance to scratch one's claws against the world maybe, but not necessarily an invitation for connection. Cat poets are brooding, calculating, and often cold — you see them from the window sometimes looking out at you, but they do not wave. Dog poets greet the reader at the door, sometimes too eagerly. They can be dopey, dog poets. Their warmth, though, has its reasons: you can't leave a dog home alone for very long, so it follows that a dog poet needs his or her reader — that interaction is key. A cat, meanwhile, can entertain itself by chasing a mouse or crouching in the grass to wait for something to enter its domain. If the cat poet is intellectual, the dog poet is inherently warm. I'm a dog poet, for sure.