November 11, 2008

Shea pens poetry from Chicago to Japan

As part of the ongoing Poem Present series, Chicago poet James Shea will read from his first book of poetry, Star in the Eye, in Rosenwald Hall this afternoon. Shea teaches at Columbia College and DePaul University and also translates Japanese poems. His own poetry combines powerful images with an overarching sense of narrative. In an e-mail interview Shea discussed everything that is important to poets: cookies, pizza stones, and poetry too.

Ben Sigrist: In what ways was writing your first book of poetry different from the poetry writing you had done before? Do you think that writing or compiling poems for a book has changed your creative process in any significant way?

James Shea: I tried to write without the premise of a book for as long as possible. For me, this was the most liberating way to write. I also knew that I’ll never be able to escape my voice, so I felt there was a good chance that the poems would cohere naturally for the reader.

BS: Some of your poems seem to be expressly autobiographical. Do you often approach writing poems with past personal experiences in mind?

JS: All poems are autobiographical in the sense of revealing things about the writer. In fact, poems that avoid mentioning personal experiences can be the most revealing. Like many writers, I think my poems grow out of past experiences, but generally, I try to stay away from writing about the details of my life.

BS: Can you name some of your favorite poets and which poets have influenced your poetry the most?

JS: If I was living alone on an island, I’d probably want to have the collected poems of John Ashbery. Actually, I was living alone on an island (Japan) and after spending the day using Japanese, I would return to my narrow dorm room and read his poems, particularly Flow Chart, which felt like listening to the conversation of a strange and brilliant friend.

BS: When you read your poetry for a public performance is there any preparation involved? Have you noticed changes over time in the way you deliver your poems aloud, or has it remained fairly consistent?

JS: I’ve given very few readings over the years, so I don’t have any rituals yet. For a long time, I thought it was a kind of narcissism to want to read my poems aloud to strangers. Then I realized it was a kind of narcissism to refuse to read my poems to strangers.

BS: I think a random question would fit nicely here. What is your favorite food?

JS: I have a yearning right now for butter cookies from Archie’s Bakery in Cleveland. They’re a busy bakery, so you have to call and ask them to make a batch for you, and sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t.

BS: Can you remember a certain point in your past when you first had the desire to write poems, or do you think that you have always wanted to be a poet?

JS: I wrote a lot when I was a kid—little stories, jokes, spoofs. I dabbled with poetry in high school, but I didn’t think about writing poems until college. I remember reading James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” and being devastated by the last line. I thought he was saying that he felt bad about not doing anything with his life except hang out in his friend’s hammock. I met with my teacher, and he said that maybe the opposite was true—maybe he should have been spending more time in a hammock, looking around. I was floored again. I wanted to start writing poems immediately.

BS: Do you write creatively in any other media?

JS: No, but I’ve been using a pizza stone lately and making signature pizzas from scratch.