Our poetry co-editor, Erin Post, recently had this exchange with Jim Richards, our Issue #15 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about his evolution as a poet, the inspiration he finds in teaching, and his advice to younger poets.
We’d love to learn a little more about your history as a writer and poet. When did you begin to write poetry? How has your writing evolved as your career has progressed?
Language has always intrigued me, but it wasn’t until I took Lance Larsen’s Contemporary American Poetry class as an undergraduate that I started writing poems. That semester, we read Naomi Nye, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, Charles Simic, Rita Dove, John Ashbery, Li-Young Lee, among others. I realized that you didn’t have to be dead to be a poet. I’ve done a lot of experimenting since then. I imitated the surrealism of Charles Simic, Mark Strand, and Pablo Neruda for a while. Then I began exploring poems of place, inspired by Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney. I benefitted tremendously from my graduate classes at the University of Houston with Ed Hirsch, Adam Zagajewsky, Marie Howe, and Mark Doty. I still do a lot of experimenting, but I think I’ve settled into the class of poets who “wants to be understood” as Frost put it, as opposed many poets today who are pushing language well beyond meaning.
Kissing Boys explores the complexity of the father/son relationship with an admirable economy of language. We as readers feel the strength of this bond—as well as the grief and sadness brought on by its changing nature—in just 15 lines. Can you talk about your writing process in the context of this piece? How do you know when a poem is finished?
I still have the first draft of this poem, and it is very close to the final version, which is unusual for me. It’s highly autobiographical. There is a moment when a father stops kissing his son. I noticed one night when I tucked my boy into bed, and I wondered when the last time was. Then I thought of how awkward it is for me and my father to demonstrate any affection. There is a love there, but it is buried deep. What causes that change? I don’t know for certain, but this poem, I hope, captures the process of change.
The moment a poem is finished is as vague as the moment a father decided not to kiss his son anymore. Who knows when? I certainly don’t. When I listen to poets read their work and I follow along in my copy of their book, I notice that they have often made changes. Is a poem ever finished? No, it just gets published or filed away.
“Issue of Blood at the Amusement Park” focuses on a woman contemplating children, birth control, and the role of mother, framed by the somewhat off-kilter world of amusement park rides. How do you find an authentic voice when writing from a vantage point that’s not your own?
I grew up with six sisters—three older than I am and three younger. I didn’t talk much, but listened to them (and my mother) talk generously. To this day, I feel more comfortable in a room full of women than a room full of men. Maybe that’s why I’m often drawn to subjects that concern women; for example, I recently published “Janie Goodmansen’s Reply,” a poem about a woman explaining why she got breast implants. I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be a woman, but any sense I have of a woman’s voice, or at least the emotion behind the voice, has come from listening to my sisters, my mother, and my wife Debbie. I suppose listening is key when trying out a voice that’s not your own.
Many of your poems featured here in Mud Season Review speak about family, children and relationships in various ways. We admired the way you are willing to risk sentimentality to create a moving poem. How do you explore these subjects in a way that feels fresh?
That’s a good question, one that I’ve struggled with. I’ve been married to Debbie for almost twenty years, and we have five sons. Family matters are always on my mind and they emerge in my poems. How does one create interesting poems out of domestic affairs? I’m still working on that. I have to be careful not to repel readers with too much sincerity, nor mock my family with too much irony. It’s a fine line I’m learning to walk. I think most writers struggle with this question—“How can I make what I know in my life interesting to others?” Fresh language helps. Hopkins invented a new way of talking about the Christian experience. He escaped (mostly) the tyranny of Christian clichés and made a new music. Whether it’s the family register, the Christian register, or some other register one is trying to escape, finding new words for old ideas is crucial to poetry.
You teach at Brigham Young University – Idaho. How do you approach your work with students? How does your teaching inform your writing and vice versa?
I enjoy being in the classroom—the energy and surprises that can occur there are so valuable. I often generate ideas for poems in the classroom and jot them down. I teach literature and creative writing but prefer the former. Reading interesting works and discussing them with interesting people is one of the best fuels for writing. Even my creative writing classes are mostly literature with a creative writing assignment due each week, which I try to complete. It’s amazing how helpful a prompt and a deadline can be. I wrote “Deer Hunter in Victoria’s Secret” in response to a prompt I gave my students: write a poem about a “fish out of water.” Even grading—the drag that it is—can create the valuable writing time that occurs when I’m procrastinating a stack of term papers.
What writers do you look to for inspiration? What about other artists, thinkers or creative types who have been influential for you?
I find inspiration by reading widely in multiple genres, mostly via audiobook. I’m a long-distance runner and I listen to books while I run. Recently, I’ve completed Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Clive James’ translation of The Divine Comedy, three novels by Ron Carlson, The Education of Henry Adams, and Richardson’s biography of Emerson (which is excellent, by the way). I’m interested in classics and pop culture. Shelby Mitchusson’s viral ASL interpretation of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” moves me, for example, but so does Hélène Grimaud’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. I’ve written about Mineko Grimmer’s installation art and Jan Svankmajer’s surreal short films. I like reading scripture and sacred texts. My inspiration comes from all over the place. A poet whose work has struck me lately is Thomas Sayers Ellis. I’m always looking for my favorite book. I haven’t read it yet.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
Why is poetry important? What advice would you give to a young poet?
When I was fourteen and I first read “The Road Not Taken,” I felt like Frost was narrating my own experience of hiking in the woods. That’s one reason poetry is important—it can validate and articulate the complexity of experience through language’s meaning and music. Today, when I read “The Road Not Taken,” Frost is narrating a much deeper, internal, ironic journey. The mystery of poetry is how it speaks differently to different readers, and grows as they grow. But I don’t think poetry is important to everyone, only to those who enjoy the unpredictable weather of language.
My advice to young poets? I’d paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s idea: see if you can do what others have done, but in the language of your own time and place. Also, don’t mistake confusion for complexity, distortion for depth. Milosz wrote, “One clear stanza can take more weight / than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.” Today’s fashion makes too many poets afraid of offering “one clear stanza.” Don’t be afraid of clarity.
What are you working on now?
New poems, always new poems. I’ve got a book-length manuscript I’ll start submitting to contests next month. I’m also polishing up a novel about a seven-year-old boy whose pregnant mother loses a baby in a stillbirth. The boy thinks the baby is literally lost, and he wants to find it so he can return it to his mother, who is having a mental breakdown. I’m also working on a modern English rendition of the Book of Mormon. Slow going, but very interesting to me.