Q+A with J. Scott Walker
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
I have a poem that addresses this question: “I Dream of Making Salsa in the Himalayas.” I dreamed that four of my close friends (fellow writers) and myself had a dinner party. Surprisingly, the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali showed up and drank wine and laughed and had a grand time with us. I was in graduate school at the time and had just completed a research project centered around his life and work, in particular, his collection entitled Rooms Are Never Finished. The project’s purpose was to connect Ali’s poetry to the personal and historical context in which it was written. My research revealed a great deal of personal and historical connections. For instance, Ali, being a citizen of Kashmir, experienced a kind of estrangement or alienation from his own personal and national identity. The place called Kashmir is in a territory of the Himalayan Mountains of central Asia. India, Pakistan, and China dispute sovereignty over this area, which results in sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims, military violence between the armies of India and China, and domestic violence between members of families torn apart by religious and cultural divides. Ali’s work speaks to these tensions. Ali wrote some of the work in his native Urdu (translated into English), but also some of it originally in English as he recognized this as the colonial tongue of his formal education in India as well as that of his adopted home in the United States. Ali was on the faculty at Amherst College and at other universities in the US.
Even though I have no personal connection to Ali, his work resonated strongly with me. When I reflect on this, I believe that it had partly to do with the fact that I was experiencing a kind of alienation from my homeland as I had moved from North Carolina to Alaska to attend graduate school. I too left everyone and everything I knew behind to seek a new life thousands of miles away. The importance of place in his poems spoke to me and I began to focus on place and geography as a central theme in my work. I also began writing in a new style. Ali is largely credited with introducing contemporary writers in English to an ancient Urdu form called the Ghazal. The form is made up of a series of couplets. Many of the poems contained in my collection A Concept of Right Now employ this form. It naturally fits my process and way of thinking because it is flexible, but also structurally sound. Each couplet may capture one image and be a poem in its own right, but also work in concert with other couplets to create a larger meaning. Ideas can flow logically, but also leave room for a variety of non-linear associations.
Ali died quite some time ago, but I have always admired the strength and wisdom inherent in his work. If I were to have the honor of preparing a meal for him, I would make just what the poem says...salsa. I’m not sure that there is any real sense in the connection, but in my dream we prepared homemade salsa. This is one of my favorite foods. I would also prepare the only meal I really know how to make from scratch: Vegetarian enchiladas made with a combination of brown rice, quinoa, and black beans. I would make the corn tortillas, fill them with the rice and bean filling, and add the salsa. Over dinner, I would ask Agha Shahid Ali about his experiences of growing up in Kashmir, his love of Urdu and the Ghazal, as well as his experiences teaching and living in the United States. I would invite my four friends as well. How’s that for self-actualization?
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
I generally find that writing assuages my fears rather than exacerbating them. I don’t feel anxiety about entering into or completing the process. I don’t struggle to find inspiration and I usually have enough focus and self-awareness to have a sense of where the piece will end up. I am comfortable leaving work unfinished and returning to it later. Over the twenty-plus years that I have been writing poetry, I have developed a method and craft that I think yields value. I still experience that initial euphoria of being in love with a newly composed piece. However, I know better than to assume that just because I love it, that it will be comprehensible or relatable to readers. I am lucky to have trusted readers that I can rely on to be honest and tell me when ideas and images don’t connect. I am not averse to admitting that something doesn’t work and I embrace the rewriting process (which is really the hard work of being a writer). I often take pieces of unfinished poems and merge them together to form a new, stronger work. I regularly revisit pages in my journal searching for scraps of ideas that still have yet to make it into a finished piece.
If I had to say one thing that scares me, it is the prospect of being derivative, unoriginal. It is so hard to do anything in poetry, or writing in general, that has not already been done. It is impossible to be affected by the stories you read, songs you hear, and images you see and NOT have them unconsciously seep into your process. How does a writer incorporate stories, songs, and images that inspire without misappropriating or merely regurgitating what has come before?
I think I cope with this anxiety by being patient and not allowing an obsession with order and meaning to dominate my process. To me, the mindset of creating is like meditation, like accessing a mind within the mind where images and ideas mingle, associate, and combine in unexpected and seemingly impossible ways. If images, words, or ideas from other sources are included in that, well, then I don’t fight it. I know that I will eventually shape and mold it into something new. Just because I’m unsure that a new idea will work, I don’t immediately discount it. I write it down. If I can’t continue with the first idea, I move on and come back later. I try to leave myself open to infinite possibility. In that way, I try to maximize the likelihood that what comes out of that inner mind is fresh and unique. Only after an image or a phrase comes to mind and solidifies do I consider how to focus or shape it into something that resembles meaning. Archibald Macleish said: “A poem should not mean, but be.” I try not to focus initially on making meaning, but on simply letting images and ideas be, letting them exist on the edge of consciousness, on the edge of reason. They must sit there for a while and be and not mean. I find that most often yields images and connections that speak to and appeal to me.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
I’m going to go in a non-literary direction with this one and interpret the concept of a “crush” as someone who has a kind of spark, an inner fire, or a way of seeing the world that you wish you could steal away and keep for yourself. As an aspiring musician, I find myself smitten with a lot of artists both past and present. Although I strongly admire, and even attempt to emulate, masters of the singer-songwriter form, such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell, I am also drawn to up and coming artists of a more contemporary fashion. Some artists, such as The Avett Brothers, Lumineers, The Head and the Heart, Mumford and Sons and Gregory Alan Isakov take the bardic form and bring it into a modern context. All of these artists inspire me, but my musical crush is the singer-songwriter Taylor Goldsmith. He is the main writer, lead singer, and lead guitarist for the band Dawes. So, what separates Goldsmith from these other brilliant artists?
I appreciate Goldsmith’s song craft, the way he develops the melody and counter-melody, the way he arranges the verses, bridges, and choruses, and the way he develops a sonic theme. However, what I appreciate the most about his work are his lyrics. Goldsmith’s lyrics appeal to me because they speak to my own interests as an artist. His writing often explores loss, heartbreak, uncertainty, alienation, and fear of the unknown. Rather than attempt to avoid or overcome these anxieties, Goldsmith delves right in, unflinchingly facing down his demons. In a song called “When My Time Comes,” he writes: “You can judge the whole world by the sparkle that you think it lacks. You can stare into the abyss, but it’s staring right back.” Goldsmith seems to be getting at the heart of the existential crisis of our time, made more pronounced by the constant agitation of digital media and an obsession with instant gratification. He seems to be saying that, yes, everything is nothingness, but nothingness is also everything. So, don’t despair. Loss and death are scary, but you can’t let fear take control.
I think a literary crush (or a musical crush) is a kind of admiration for someone who accomplishes what you wish you could accomplish. For me, that’s Taylor Goldsmith.
What books are on your nightstand?
Currently, I have a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood on my nightstand because I am currently teaching a unit in my AP Language and Composition class with that as the anchor text. Other books that I have on my nightstand are: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Dark Fields of the Republic by Adrienne Rich, and The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani. I have these books based on about a 50/50 pleasure/work basis.
Where do you get your ideas? What inspires you?
I don’t think I have one source of inspiration, but many. I often say to people who read my poems or hear my songs that no single work is about just one theme or one experience. My work is usually made up of images and feelings taken from disparate and diverse sources. I may take an image from one experience and incorporate that into a piece that may draw from other experiences, or even other works that inspire or inform my thinking. Many of my poems are actually pieced together using sections of other, less successful poems. I’m generally trying to capture the emotional truth of an experience, rather than to relate events in a factual manner. I draw a lot of inspiration from dreams. I am fascinated by the way in which dreams bridge the gap between the conscious and subconscious minds. For instance, my poems “I Dream of Making Salsa in the Himalayas” and “Sleep Visits Me” are based on real dreams that I had. I don’t concern myself with a psychoanalytical interpretation of dreams as much as I am drawn to the visual and emotional symbols that arise in dreams. I am much more interested in embracing the unknown than I am in conquering it. I think that writing poetry is not about abating fear, but about exploring it. Writing is the pursuit of self knowledge that hopefully contains some kind of universal truth that the reader can relate to. My writing is about facing the anxieties most people turn away from in fear: Loneliness, loss of control, alienation, and uncertainty. Life, to me, is much more about accepting contradictions than eliminating them.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
I’m a big fan of the colon. I find it to be the most suspenseful punctuation mark. Whenever I encounter this mark in something I read, it immediately grabs my attention and increases my engagement because I know something significant is about to be said. A colon always precedes a revelation. It is like a gateway between unknowing and knowing or between doubt and certainty.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Many, in fact. Which makes it that much more ironic that I became an English teacher. But here is one example: I was supposed to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy in 12th grade. I declined. Furthermore, I didn’t really pay attention in class when we talked about it. Instead, I looked through my textbook and read everything in there by William Shakespeare including an excerpt from Hamlet, about 25 sonnets, and anything else related to WS including all of the biographical and background notes. I was quite taken by it, having only been exposed to a few scenes from Romeo and Juliet several years earlier, as a high school freshman. I was so fascinated and inspired by what to me felt like the discovery of the atom or a distant planet or the secret identity of a superhero. I walked around with his lines in my head for weeks. At some point that year, I wrote a poem for an assignment (when we finally got around to reading Hamlet), called “Your Giving of Flowers.” It was a persona poem in the voice of Hamlet to Ophelia. The teacher liked it so much that she asked the school newspaper to publish it. That was my first published poem. After that, I never stopped writing. So, in a way, refusing to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles actually led to me becoming a serious poet.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
The inanimate object that means the most to me in my life right now is my guitar. While I can’t give my guitar any credit for helping me compose the works that make up my collection, A Concept of Right Now, I do credit my guitar (insomuch as an inanimate object may be praised with due credit) for helping me evolve as a writer. Most of the works in my collection were started (and many finished) prior to me taking up songwriting three years ago. At that time, I felt like I had exhausted the well of inspiration that I had more or less constantly experienced from age 17 to age 37. In that time, I never experienced what some people refer to as “writer’s block.” I would have argued that writer’s block is a myth. However, I began to find that composing poetry no longer provided the outlet of expression or the clarity of mind it once did. My writing felt flat, shapeless, and uninspired. Five years prior, I had taken up playing guitar as a hobby, after my wife bought me a used acoustic as a birthday present. I took no formal training. I just taught myself through trial and error. Over time, I improved and began playing works by some of my favorite artists. One evening, in mid-November of 2014, I was feeling particularly ill at ease with my life. I picked up the guitar and my first song was born. It was a rather unfortunate ripoff of a Bob Dylan song in which I rearranged a few chords and replaced his verses with my own, but it was something. Now, nearly four years later, I have written over 50 original songs. I have taught myself to play the harmonica, mandolin, and a little piano. I have a small recording studio in my home and I play every day. This experience has opened up so many new avenues of creative energy for me. The challenge of composing a melody, of fitting words together to match it, of balancing rhyme and meter, and of performing my own original work inspires me to the point of sheer joy. I have no plans to abandon traditional poetry writing. I still write poems, too. But songwriting is where my heart is right now and without my guitar, I don’t know where my writing would be.
Why do you write? The first 5 words that come to mind. Go.
Embrace the mystery of unknowing.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
It would be the last line of the final poem in my collection: “You are expected to fight and you are expected to die, but you are not expected to complete the work.” A few years ago, I attended an informal gathering of writers for a New Year’s Day poetry composition symposium and workshop. It was hosted at the home of a local writer and supporter of the arts in my city. At one point, I walked into the kitchen and saw this framed cross-stitch hanging on the wall with the line: You are not expected to complete the work. Something about that line really resonated with me. I asked the host about it and she said that it was a gift and all she knew was that she believed it to be a translation of an old Hebrew proverb. I wrote it down in my journal and then we were supposed to take an hour, find a nice place to sit in the house or on the property (which was several acres), and write. I walked outside and sat down next to a fire pit that was clearly once a roaring fire, but has since dwindled to hot coals and ash. The wind picked up some of the ash and carried it right across my face. I breathed it in. That is when the first line of the poem came to me: “It may no longer be enough to say that all that burns was meant to drift by in front of our eyes in a wind of waste and want.” To me, the line “You are not expected to complete the work” speaks to the anxiety that everyone feels regarding the inevitability of death and the tragedy of loss. To me, the line is both deeply profound and reassuring. I think it means that even though you may not live forever, the work you do lives on after you, inspiring future generations to honor your memory by continuing your good work, just as you honored the memory of those who came before you by continuing their good work.
Comments are closed.
We Support Indie Bookshops