To Change the Shape of the Brain in the Heart: A Conversation by John James & Rob Schlegel

The poets on their latest collections, the texture of language, and work that pulls the rug from under us.

Schlegel And James Covers

I first encountered John James’s writing by way of his brilliant review of Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio, which I taught in an MFA course on creative influence. James’s review helped us learn how to read Moten’s rich sequences in relation to the texts they sample. A similar kind of sampling occurs in James’s debut collection, The Milk Hours (Milkweed Editions), which won the 2018 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. His poems draw on sources ranging from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to Ada Limón’s “A New National Anthem” to Paul Klee’s iconic painting Angelus Novus. The tapestries are rich. The stakes are high. The Milk Hours opens with a poem dedicated to James’s father who committed suicide when John was a child. But the poem is also dedicated to James’s young daughter. By the end of the book, the poet doubles down on the inherent pleasures of the material world by embracing his role as father and poet, attentive to “the flaw // in the perceiving tool” while simultaneously acknowledging how “The earth beneath // the blueberry plants is only slightly acidic.”

—Rob Schlegel

I hardly know anyone who writes stranger and more vivid poems than Rob Schlegel. They have a way of subtly tweaking a world that seems at first familiar but that is revealed to be utterly dissociative. His poems are grounded in the real—in a trenchant observation of material, and of mundane reality—but they force his readers to confront the ontological categories that structure experience and to (gently, lovingly—like a mare to her foal) tear those categories apart. A word he uses below is “blur,” and indeed, these poems blur the lines between knowable and known, material and transcendence—between signifier, signified, and what’s lost therein. It turns out, quite a lot. In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps (University of Iowa Press) reduces objects to mere matter, freeing them of conceptual signification, and rendering them raw and new. Such estrangement begets its own clarity. Schlegel makes the world more lucid.

—John James

Our conversation began at Phoenix Roasters on southeast Division Street in Portland, Oregon. From the windows we could see a canopy of blossoming cherry trees. This was after a brief rain. The low storefronts, architecturally reminiscent of the city’s pre-gentrified past, cut against the wet leaves. The coffee was strong, but satisfying. A few days later the conversation spilled over into written correspondence.

Rob SchlegelTell me about your favorite non-AWP part of visiting Portland. 

John JamesFor better or worse, almost everything I’ve done in Portland has been related to AWP. But I had a lovely beer and bratwurst at the Ace Hotel bar, and some crazy donuts at Voodoo. It’s been a really lovely time. Lots of good energy.

James Photo Credit Tk

Photo of John James by Gina Collecchia.

Rob Schlegel

Photo of Rob Schlegel by Augusta Sparks Farnum.

RSAt the bookfair, someone stopped by the Futurepoem/Catenary table with Voodoo donuts. One had Cap’n Crunch cereal on it. I had to pass.

JJ(Laughs) I had a cake donut with Butterfinger bits. I don’t regret it at all. 

RSSugar bombs. Day-killers, like brunch. 

JJSo let’s talk about your book. I’ve got lots of questions, specific ones for specific poems. But, maybe let’s start here: what’s your favorite poem in the book?

RS I’m laughing because that’s a crazy question! But I’ll try.

JJOr a handful of them. Ones that feel the most central to your project.

RSAt one point, “Novella” was a 48 page novella-in-verse. Then it was a play. The poem feels central to the mythology of my life as a poet. It’s also almost a persona poem. 

JJThat makes sense. All of our poems are essentially persona poems. But that one seems self-consciously concerned with its own fictionalization. I mean, it’s titled “Novella,” after all.

RSIt’s very self-conscious; it’s the poem that seems farthest from my lived experience, but somehow closest to my sense of identity as a poet. There’s the line: “Artifice one way. Authenticity the other.” I live somewhere in-between.

JJI’m interested in the changing form of this piece—how it’s evolved over time. It feels so fluid; it could almost be prose. And yet, the line breaks are surprising. I’m thinking of this line from “Novella”: “I clean the cavities of shot birds.” It evokes violence. A few lines down, you break the line as such: “Children bury children / under piles of leaves.” Reeling from the image of eviscerated birds, I read “children burying children” literally—violently. That thought is undercut when I realize the children are merely playing in leaves.

RSI think the best poetry either lulls us into comfort, then pulls the rug out from under us, or, as the case is here, provides a potentially horrific image, then relieves it with an image or idea that is the opposite.

JJI agree. Poetry should pull the rug out from under us. Your book is especially good at that. Another instance of this occurs in “Nature Breeds a Promise-Keeping Animal.” That opening line: “Pointing to the dead rabbit, my daughter says, Rock.” There’s something about youth, perspective, and language that renders these forms of inert matter—the rabbit and the rock—within a plane of similitude. Language hasn’t forced them into categories. Not yet.

RSIf one of the poet’s tasks is to blur the value structures we impose on words, objects, ideas, and other living beings, I can’t really articulate the hierarchy between the “rock” in the first line of my poem, the rocks thrown in the last stanza, and the rock Antonio Zambrano-Montes threw at the police officer who eventually killed him. But the hierarchy is there, and the way it’s there has everything to do with my skin-privilege. JJBlur is a good word here. There’s a lot of blurring in your book.

RSYeah. I can see that. And yet, I want to use language in a way that is clarifying.

JJTell me about “clarifying.”

RSI want my poetry to be made of language that is somehow so immediate in its transmission that it feels like an electrical (im)pulse. But I also want that language to be aware of its own impossibility. I think this is related to the signified/signifier dilemma inherent in every utterance. Don’t most poets write to change the shape of the brain in the heart?

JJI think about that a lot—our inability to describe and to directly experience the world through our senses. It’s always representation, a feedback loop from which estrangement becomes its own clarity.

RSLouise Glück wrote: “there was no point to speech if speech did not precisely articulate perceptions,” which actually makes me think of several poems in The Milk Hours.

JJOf course! But first let’s talk about “52 Trees,” one of my favorites of yours. The poem is written for John Ashbery, and recalls his luminous first collection, Some Trees. Can you explain the conceit, and tell me where you got the idea for this poem?

RSThe title came to me the morning of March 20, 2018. I woke up and knew it was a poem I needed to find because a part of it found me. Its conceit seemed obvious. Where I live trees are ubiquitous; they were background in the way that the people I loved most were becoming background to my anxiety. I wasn’t seeing the most important people in my life just as I wasn’t seeing individual trees. Meanwhile, I tried adopting Ashbery’s tone from “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” but I realized these trees wanted to sing. Ashbery’s rivers occasionally sing, but he expertly restrains himself from enforcing his own music. So, I guess it wasn’t the trees that wanted to sing, but me.

JJIt doesn’t seem so obvious to me. There are fifty-two trees, about one to each line, and of course the poem is brimming with specificity. But your narration of the poem’s writing is, shall we say, “clarifying.” It’s interesting, though, that they had to sing. That’s the romanticism that I think we share. My trees have to sing, too.

RSWe do share that romanticism. Tell me about one tree in your book.

JJThe most important ones to me are the “bare firs” in “The Milk Hours.” It’s one of the most autobiographical poems in the book, and those trees form a sort of barrier.

RSThey form a physical barrier. What other kind of barrier? 

JJAt the time I lived across the street from where my father is buried. He died when I was six, and it’s not something I often thought about or talked about, even when I lived in that house. So, the trees were a visual barrier, and for that reason, a barrier to memory and meaning as well. 

RSDid writing this poem somehow give you access to see past those firs? Or, to even mean beyond those firs?

JJIn a way, yes. But it was more the writing of the poems that led up to this one, especially “Chthonic” and “Years I’ve Slept Right Through,” that allowed me to see past them—that made clear what it was I wanted to say or think about his death.

RSIn line nine, the speaker seems to realize something new in the phrase, “his son.” The italics suggest the phrase is spoken by someone else. Who is it? The line that immediately follows ends with the pronoun “him.” One’s first reading suggests it refers to the father. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, grammatically it might make more sense for it to refer to the son. In this way, “him” executes a perfect collapse.

JJI actually hadn’t thought of “his son” as being spoken, though I get what you’re saying. I mean, the other italicized words in the poem, “cattail” and “heartseed,” are meant to evoke language besides that uttered by the speaker. I’m trying to draw attention to their language-ness, if that makes sense. The words “mean nothing” because the speaker has become dissociated from those sonic representations. Something similar is happening with “his son,” though it’s not exactly the same. I meant it as emphasis, but it’s also a re-association of this linguistic signifier to a meaning from which it had been detached. 

RSYeah, it feels like a re-association. And from that position, which seems crucial, the poet is better able to proceed. But why, do you think? What is it about that particular reconnection? 

JJFor me, it was a resolution, but I guess the weird thing is that this resolution forms the opening of the book, from which everything else proceeds. If it were a novel, it would work the other way around. But a big part of it was simply the ability to speak what needed to be spoken. The early poems were writing around the fact, first, that my father had passed, but more importantly, that his death had been a suicide. Being able to admit that to myself, and then to speak that to the reader, formed a kind of release. 

RSAllusion is clearly an important part of your process. The epigraph to “Klee’s Painting” is by Walter Benjamin. Your notes on this poem refer to Klee’s Angelus Novus, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Whitman’s “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” and Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” Can you describe the process by which you accumulated these sources and then incorporated them?

JJIt’s funny, every reader describes this poem and others like it as “allusive,” and they inevitably are, but I was more interested in juxtaposing linguistic textures—in seeing what happens when voices collide, convene, or speak simultaneously. The process was really rather reckless. I wrote with many books at my fingertips, ones I’d deliberately selected, seeking out associative movements, allowing for non sequiturs. When I got stumped, I opened a page and read until I found a line I liked. If it moved the poem forward, I grabbed it and kept going.

RSHow do you see “Klee’s Painting” functioning within the lineage of ekphrastic pieces on the Angelus Novus by Benjamin, and Carolyn Forché? 

JJI thought of the poem as doubly ekphrastic, responding to the Klee painting, but more significantly, to Benjamin responding to Klee. I was probably drawn to the essay because, of all the theory I’ve read, Benjamin’s work is among the most poetic. This essay is especially popular among poets. As much as I love Forché and her work, I actually wasn’t thinking of her “Angel of History” as I was writing, though it’s an obvious connection. She did a lot to shape this book. I hope my poem can fit into any kind of lineage with hers. 

RSI love how the poem is a kind of sneaky argument. One thesis is that, despite its limitations, disappointments, deceptions, and inevitable failure, “having a body isn’t bad.”

JJI love that you describe it as an argument. I think of poetry as embedding a kind of inarticulable consciousness within linguistic form, such that an argument becomes sedimented into the poem. The specific argument, though, that the “body isn’t bad”: I’m more interested in bodies, in the world, in the textures of material things, than I am in any consciousness or ontology that might transcend it. “Texture” shares an etymology with “tissue,” as in muscle, skin, flesh, and I’m trying to weaponize that texture to rethink the valuation metaphysics places on things like “soul,” “idea,” “God.” RSThe final line ends in a gesture that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen. It’s a rhyming citation that masterfully recalls Benjamin’s line, “Each of its lived moments becomes a citation…,” which is from the essay you quote in your epigraph. This moment is thrilling because it enacts art’s principle function of transforming our understanding of the range of what’s possible. Can you describe the process of realizing that final gesture?

JJOh, gosh. It just came to me. I wasn’t thinking of any particular poem of hers, but all of a sudden, I got to the end of the poem and Lucie Brock-Broido was in my head, whispering, “See ‘Benjamin,’ 19—” So I wrote it, then double-checked the date. It was one of those weird moments in poetry that can only be created through spontaneity, and that I certainly couldn’t recreate. I wish I could claim more credit for your lovely reading of citation in Benjamin’s work, though. Maybe I will in the future. These things do sometimes work subconsciously, after all.  


John James is the author of The Milk Hours, selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize (Milkweed, 2019). His poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Best American Poetry 2017, and elsewhere, and his work has been supported by the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference, the Academy of American Poets, and Georgetown University’s Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley.

Rob Schlegel is the author of The Lesser Fields (Center for Literary Publishing 2009), selected by James Longenbach for the Colorado Prize for Poetry, and January Machine (Four Way Books 2014), selected by Stephanie Burt for the Grub Street National Book Prize. His third collection is In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps (University of Iowa Press 2019), selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for the Iowa Poetry Prize. With the poets Daniel Poppick and Rawaan Alkhatib, he co-edits The Catenary Press. Most recently, he has taught at Whitman College, and in the MFA Program at Portland State University.

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