For some years I have been running the series called ’20 Questions…’ when I ask a variety of creative human beings – from burlesque performers to theatre directors and novelists – the same twenty questions. Individuals are encouraged to respond to as many or as few as they like, in whatever form they choose. The answers are invariably fascinating and illuminating, even more so when compared to how other artists have responded. This time I’m delighted to introduce renowned poet Jim Ferris and his lyrical, honest, inspiring answers…..
What first drew you to your particular practice?
Words have always held power for me. I started speaking surprisingly young, I am told (and told further that I haven’t stopped yet – so much for my dream of being the strong silent type). I still recall the magical power of the ancient language of the Catholic Mass, the mystery and majesty as well as something to resist. Poets speak the world into being: in the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god. No wonder Plato hated the poets – that’s power. I’m not particularly Christian anymore – yes, you are, my mother would say – but I recognize that language is not just how we communicate but how we perceive, how we come to what we think we know. This is why so many deaf people have been such a worry to so many hearies: they feared the deaf ones were beyond the creative and organizing discipline of the word. It takes nerve to mess with the language, man, and how can we help ourselves?
What was your big breakthrough?
There have been so many breakthroughs. One of the most important was discovering poetry as an alive and lively art form, discovering that poetry wasn’t just something in books. I had just moved to southern Illinois for graduate school, and some friends of friends had me over for dinner. Out on the coffee table was a poem that one of them had been working on. Neither of them claimed an identity as a poet, as far as I knew. The poem was about acting, it was smart and used language well, I liked it quite a bit, and suddenly it occurred to me that real live more-or-less regular people could write interesting and moving poems – and just maybe I could do that too. It really was a revelation.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
I think the most challenging aspect of my process is not so much finding the shape as it is finding the starting point. I’m reminded of the old line attributed to Archimedes: Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world. It’s not the most accessible of metaphors, but I think finding the lever and the place to stand are the most challenging aspects. And discerning not enough from just right from too much. And not telegraphing the punch line. And not explaining the joke, a very teacherly flaw. I should probably stop here.
Is there a piece of art, or a book or a play, which changed you?
There are many. Reading Hemingway and then Fitzgerald as a sophomore in college was transformative for me. Those two writers helped me know what I wanted to do with my life: live in Paris in the 1920s and make beautiful and moving things with words. I’ve let go of the Lost Generation Paris thing, but not the other.
I can’t claim to be great at this, but I do try to stay open to possibility in my encounters with poems and other works of art: maybe the next poem will be the one that changes everything, or at least cracks open this moment. Who knows where that might lead?
What’s more important: form or content?
How do you know when a project is finished?
Paul Valery provides my answer: a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Or: when the surface glazes over, when it doesn’t belong to me anymore, when it’s not hot for me anymore. When I can’t find any way to make it better, when I am at the end of what I can do, or think, or feel. When my bag of tricks feels empty. Maybe this is when I know it’s time to put the thing down for a week or a month. I’d love to have Yeats’s “click like a closing box,” but I’m not often that lucky. Even though I’m a lucky man.
Do you read your reviews?
I think writers should approach reviews of their work employing the wisdom of those signs at hotel swimming pools: No Lifeguard on Duty; Read at Your Own Risk. I don’t read them; I fear I might not be able to let them go. I may read them eventually, hoping there will be some kernel of insight that I can use in the future. That unreasonable hope is, unsurprisingly, not often fulfilled. Sometimes my work is seriously misrepresented, and that is something I cannot afford to let in my head: if I write defensively, I’m almost certainly overwriting and probably not diving into the deepest pools. It’s an interesting challenge: staying open to influence, open to what comes up, while managing the kinds of influence and limiting those constricting and inhibiting influences.
What advice would you give a young writer/pracitioner?
Giving advice feels dangerous, but what the hell. Write the things you need to read; write what you love, do the work that fills you up; write for fun, enjoy the work even if it never sells, finds a big audience, even if it never gets you laid. If the joy of making isn’t the biggest and most important reward, find something else to do.
Always be a beginner; fresh, beginner mind is the place to be. At the same time, learn your craft, master your tools and keep them sharp. Write, and read, and keep doing both. Let the world influence you. Try to write like God. Especially if you don’t believe in God.
Love people and the world around you. And write through that.
What work of art would you most like to own?
There’s a reason I work with words rather than visual images, but I’d love to own Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. What it does with light is just stunning. If I did own it, I hope I’d do with it what collector Chester Dale did and give it immediately to the National Gallery so lots of people could see it.
What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?
Inspiration. Writing is much more about preparation, application of butt to chair, and perspiration than the lightning bolt from the sky. I love a good lightning bolt, and it’s important to court the muses. But waiting for the God of Poetry to speak to you in a booming voice is to miss all the quiet ways the gods are speaking to us all the time. Pay attention, and keep your pen moving. The rest, including God, can take care of themselves.
Work I wish I’d created
This could be a long list: Peeling, The Great Gatsby, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, As I Lay Dying, anything and everything by Shakespeare, Holy Sonnet 14 by John Donne – what a set of verbs! John Belluso’s Pyretown. Just about any painting by Riva Lehrer or Vermeer. Lots of great contemporary poems.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
I’m not sure I have much of an answer to this question. Everything. Nothing. I don’t think I was ready to know until I knew. That the principal joy is in the making. The importance of just writing, of putting pen to paper. And then doing it again.
What’s your greatest ambition?
To make things that are useful, that may help people feel and make sense of the world differently, better, that suggest language and categories to think with, ways of being and noticing and feeling and responding. I’d like to push the envelope, to expand the horizon a little bit. I want to change the world, that’s all. And have a damned good time in the process.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, insecurity?
W.S. Merwin has a wonderful poem about some of the things he learned from one of his teachers, the legendary John Berryman. The last two stanzas seem to particularly fit this question:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
In twenty or thirty or forty years, people will look back at us, shake their heads, and marvel at how misguided we were. Ten or twenty years after that, they’ll decide we did some good stuff after all. But whose work will make that future cut? [Big shrug.] If you have to be sure, don’t write.
I hope I have learned to be hip to my own shit. I hope I can take my work seriously without taking myself too seriously. If making stuff is fun, let’s just get out there and play, keep playing, anything written can be rewritten, anything you still hate a year later can be thrown away. Or burnt to make room for the new. Make it a goal to fill pages, not to write the World’s Greatest
Whatever. Just write. Posterity can take care of itself.
Single most important thing learned about creative life
Let the making of the work be your reward, take your joy there. That way you won’t be thrown by attention or its lack. If you’re in it for the fun of doing it, then the rest isn’t so important. One other thing: either be independently wealthy or be able to make a living. It’s good to be able to eat and pay the rent. And maybe put shoes on the kids from time to time.
Answer to the unasked question
Love – I think that’s the answer to the question not yet asked. Love doesn’t mean ignoring problems, making or accepting excuses. It means caring: caring enough to pay attention, enough to expend scarce cognitive and emotional resources, enough to observe and think and speak up. Caring enough to remember that everybody dies, that no one gets out of here alive. Caring enough to do something, no matter how small it might seem.
Further links to Jim Ferris:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Ferris http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/jim-ferris https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoWtNBf1wJI http://www.valpo.edu/vpr/kuppersreviewferris.html