Finding Comfort in Chaos: An Interview with William James

Interview by Thomas Fucaloro

It's exciting when you get to interview some of the poets you admire the most in the scene and William James is one of them. There is no bullshit in his poetry just the will to battle the bullshit. When I think of William James I think of comedian Bill Hicks and not for the HA-HA comedy angle (and if you read James’ poetry there aren't too many HA-HA moments) but for how concise they are with their viewpoints and how their craft exemplifies that. When interviewing William you'll notice a lot of his answers veer away from craft or structure (as he says he is not formally trained) but what happens is the freedom to be William James a form and structure in and of itself…enjoy this grand interview:

TF: Before we dive into some William James poems, can you talk a little about your new chapbook. What you hope to accomplish with it? What does it mean to you? 

WJ: This summer, I decided I wanted to do a chapbook (since it's been three years now since my last 'proper' release Busted Futures/Gentle Dreams) and I had a really good idea for artwork—so I did everything backwards. I designed the art, then realized I needed a title. I have a poem about my childhood, specifically about waking up and getting ready for church on Sunday morning, that I called Everything That Ever Was & How It Came To Be and I started really fixating on that phrase and so I gave it to the new chapbook as a title too. Everything That Ever Was & How It Came To Be. As you can perhaps guess, it's what I think of as a book of origin stories. Most of what I write is steeped in nostalgia, whether that be a longing to go back to the "more innocent times of my youth" or a kind of over-romanticized and rose-colored remembrance of my days of being an angsty punk rock kid going to shows. The vast majority of these poems are about surviving my life in a small western Pennsylvania town of 500 by discovering punk rock and hardcore. There's a poem in the book that's essentially a cento, composed entirely of album titles from my music library. There's a mix CD that I made with the first pressing that has fifteen hardcore songs from bands that were influential for me, both as a writer and as a mixed up kid trying to figure out who I was. If you listen to the songs and read the poems, I'd like to think you'll understand how they fit together.

I spent about two solid years touring as a performance poet, but playing almost entirely basement punk shows, opening for hardcore bands. Kids would message me weeks after a show, and tell me that because they saw me, they went home and looked up other slam poets (almost always poets I consider to be personal heroes) on YouTube. Because I was reading/performing poetry in a setting that made sense to me, I was inadvertently serving as an ambassador of slam, or even of poetry as a greater art, to all these mixed up punk kids—who may not have ever looked up Patricia Smith on their own, but ended up doing so because they read her name in my chapbook, or who found Anis Mojgani because one of his videos showed up as a suggestion on YouTube after they watched something of mine. Nowadays, I'm hoping to invert that trope: I've done what I could to bring poetry into punk houses, now I want to bring punk rock & hardcore into poetry rooms. I feel like too many people want to brush off aggressive music as being "just noise" and say that it has no inherent artistic or cultural value. I get it. Mosh pits are scary places if you're not used to calling them home. This book is my attempt to present that world in a slightly more controlled manner. As I say in the last poem in the book, "come closer. step into this / waltz with the maelstrom / come closer."

TF: So let's talk about one of the poems from the chapbook that was also published by WORD RIOT called The Only Thing We Have To Fear is the Inevitable Heat of Death. Going from the 2nd to 3rd stanza you have a fascinating break: "the whole fucking planet is / encased in flames & we have / all been consumed like we are." The break I am speaking of is after the line "Encased in flames & we have." Can you speak more on why you chose to break it hear and your opinion of how we can use our line breaks better in our own writing?

WJ: Truthfully, I broke that line the way I did because I thought it looked good on page. I've never taken a single 'formal' class in creative writing or poetry—everything I've learned has been from reading other poets and trying to parse for myself "why the hell did they do it that way." I got REALLY fixated on line breaks for a while about a year ago, because I started getting super self-conscious about my lack of education, so I was trying to fake it as best I could. In the case of The Only Thing We Have To Fear (which I wrote on the back of a napkin at 2:30 in the morning mid-April trying desperately to catch up on 30/30) it's as simple as "hmm…it looks pretty neat if I break the line here, I guess I'll do that!" I wish I could write some manifesto describing what it all means, but I just tried to make that poem look pretty.

I've developed a fascination with almost creating mini-poems within a poem, where the line break will happen in such a way that it tricks the reader (this only works in print) into thinking the next line is going to go in a certain direction, and then going somewhere else entirely. Deceit and subterfuge through clever enjambment is my motto! I really have only one opinion on line breaks, and that is that they should serve to make the poem interesting. My friend Brandon Amico says that the last word of one line should serve as a launching pad for the first word of the line that follows, and I think that's pretty solid advice. Really, I don't always know exactly what I'm doing with a line break, but I strive for two things: make the poem interesting, and make it look pretty. I think if you're doing something purposeful with those two goals in mind, and not just hitting the "enter" key at random intervals, you're doing pretty well.

TF: You have three poems that are up in Drunk In A Midnight ChoirYou told me you were very keen on talking about these three poems and I understand why—they seem fascinating. Why are you eager about these three?

WJ: It's funny to me that these were the poems I wanted to talk about because, when we first started talking, I hadn't yet put out the chapbook—so all the answers I gave you to your first question apply to these. especially the first two. Liturgy For The Underground is my 'prayer for punk rock.' It's an attempt at expressing how sacred these places are to me, and why something as seemingly abrasive and destructive as hardcore pulls me in. To me, there's a beauty and a calm to be found in it, and Liturgy was my first real attempt to share that. I tend to open sets with that poem, and it will be the opening poem in my full-length collection whenever that comes out. Protest Song '13 is born of my belief that you should never go through life without questioning the forefathers of your scene, and that it's a fallacy to make gods out of mortals. So many punk kids look up to Refused, and especially Dennis, as this infallible deity. I was certainly one of them, and seeing a band that once opened an album with the line "I've got a bone to pick with capitalism, and a few to break" play blatant cash-grab reunion shows was disappointing. So I wrote a poem of that disappointment, and realized that what I got from listening to The Shape Of Punk To Come STILL holds true, whether the people who wrote it continue to hold those beliefs or not. Deathdance b/w Ephedrine is a poem written about my first suicide attempt. I suppose that's not very punk rock. The title is a nod to the manner in which 7" singles are often titled, so I guess there's that. It feels strange to be proud of a poem that comes from such a shitty time in my life, but I am. I really like how it turned out.

TF: Well let's dive into these poems more. In Liturgy for the Underground I get a sense that music is religion for you. Why? How important is music for your poetry and vice-versa? "Comfort within chaos" is such a grand line and says so much, not only about music but the state of affairs today. We are all trying to find some sort of comfort amongst this chaos…how do you find it?

WJ: The funny thing about that poem is that it was never originally intended to have any religious theme to it. I wrote it early on in one of my first attempts at a 30/30 and the only 'prompt' I was going off of was trying to write something that explains why I gravitate toward aggressive music. As long as I can remember, I've been the recipient of comments like "I just don't see how you can listen to that noise," or "well, you'll grow out of THAT someday." I set out wanting to write a defense of heavy music, and explain why it has almost a calming effect on me. But I guess being the son/grandson/great-grandson of a series of preachers will end up having its influence on you anyway. I see a lot of common ground between religious ceremony and punk rock shows…both scenes have a congregation, a minister, their own set of sacred texts and liturgies…and coming from the evangelical background that I do, I suppose it's inevitable that I would start to blur the lines between the two. My mother goes to church every Sunday because she finds personal fulfillment in participating in that sacrament, because she is upheld emotionally and spiritually by the community there, and because it gives her a sense of belonging to something greater than herself. I go to hardcore shows for all of those same reasons. Music is VERY important for my poetry. My biggest influences weren't members of some poetry canon, they were singers for my favorite bands. Jeffrey Eaton (Modern Life Is War), Pat Flynn (Have Heart), Jacob Bannon (Converge), on and on…all of those guys played a role in helping me discover my own voice. I will often throw on a pair of headphones and listen to a record, if not during the writing stage then DEFINITELY while editing.

Finding "comfort in the chaos?" Really, I'd say that line speaks to the fact that the places I feel safe, comfortable, and calm happen to usually be mosh pits where kids are jumping and landing on my head, or punching me in the face. I know it's not for everybody, but it's home to me.

TF: In Protest Song '13 you state you would prefer to be forgotten? Can you go more into the meaning of this line? How do you decide on form or does form happen while you are writing or editing? For this poem, why couplets?

WJ: Quite a few of the lines from Protest Song '13 are either directly lifted, or adapted from lyrics to various songs by Refused. There's a line in the song Summer Holidays vs. Punkroutine that goes "rather be forgotten than remembered for giving in." After Refused reunited in 2012 for a series of sold-out shows at Ticketmaster venues, I started to feel a little bummed out that a band who had always been so outspoken against capitalism would ultimately end up cashing in when it was all said and done. The statement that I'd rather be forgotten is simply me reinforcing… for myself, more than anyone…what my values still are.

I don't really decide on form right away, although I do tend to have doe-eyes for couplets. I think they look pretty, and when I'm writing poems about the dingy underbelly of punk rock, it amuses me to dress them up all fancy. I usually write a poem out by hand, which is a hot mess, then edit while typing it into my computer. Sometimes I'll play around with a few different forms until one looks right. If I'm feeling extra lazy, I'll fall back on couplets again. What can I say, I really fancy them.

TF: Deathdance B/W Ephedrine is a departure from the other two poems but yes, in a weird way they all seem to fit together. Are there connections here? What are they? Have you had any experience with ephedrine or know anyone who has? There seems to be a pattern in this poem in terms of structure and form, can you go into that more? 

WJ: Alright, we're gonna get heavy for a second. This poem is written about my first suicide attempt. I was twenty-two, working graveyard shift at a Wal-Mart, and one night decided I wanted to die. So I swallowed an entire bottle of Stacker 2, which was an ephedrine-based "fat burning" supplement that a lot of my coworkers were using to stay awake at night. I didn't die, obviously, but I ended up in the ER with a heart rate that doctors said SHOULD have killed me. The poem—written about nine years later—is an attempt to describe, poetically, what the physical reaction to that was like. I wrote it last April as part of another 30/30; at the time I was really fixated on trying to write beautiful depictions of horrible things (probably due in part to the fact that I was reading Rachel McKibbens at the time—she does that better than anyone.) I don't know that there is a direct connection between this and the other two poems we talked about. If there is, it's that they're all attempts at writing more literary work about subjects that might not seem all that "high art" to some people.

Structure? Form? I'm not formally educated in these things. I read a lot of poetry by a lot of different writers. When I see a style that really hooks me, or if I see a particular form that is visually appealing, I try to analyze it for myself. Why do I like this? Why does THIS line break resonate with me so well? I roll things around in my brain a while until I can start to make some sense of it, then I steal that shit! The most honest answer to the question "why did you do [this thing]?" would really have to boil down to "Because I thought it looked good."

TF: So Timber Mouse Publishing will be releasing your first full-length collection, Rebel Hearts & Restless Ghosts. Congrats. Can you tell us a little more about it? How long have you been working on it? Is there a theme? What was your process?

WJ: Rebel Hearts & Restless Ghosts has been in the works for an embarrassingly long time, really. I started compiling a manuscript's worth of poems back somewhere about 2010, which at the time consisted of printing out sixty-some pages of poems (many of which were six or seven revisions away from really being ready, if I'm totally honest about things) and then sticking them in a manilla envelope which I carried around in my backpack, so I could say I "had a manuscript I was working on." I sent out a few poems from the then-untitled manuscript to a certain publisher (Write Bloody, I'll leave it up to your discretion whether or not you want to name them in the article) and never made it past the initial round of their manuscript competition—rightfully so, because at the time, the poems had no business being taken seriously, because I wasn't taking them seriously. Since those couple rejections, I've made much more of an effort to BE a writer, and not just call myself one. It's been quite a few 30/30 challenges, quite a few days of editing, revising, workshopping, and in some cases outright deleting and starting over, but now I have a manuscript that I'm proud of, and Timber Mouse Publishing has decided to publish it. The longest part of the process has been figuring out the sequencing of the damn thing…I must have spent a full year with poems in alphabetical order according to title, looking like a deer in the headlights trying to put them in any kind of narrative arc. I sent the batch out to some friends and peers to ask for help—your suggestions were SUPER helpful, especially in helping to put an endcap on the entire thing—and kept staring at 8.5" x 11" print-outs on my living room floor. I ended up pulling almost third of the poems out of the manuscript in order to keep them in my submission pile for journals, and replaced them with a bunch of poems that had gotten published between the time I first started working on the book and now, and somehow that was what made everything click.

The book's title is taken from a line in a song off the album Witness, by the band Modern Life Is War, a band who was been the single biggest influence on me, not just as a writer but as a human. Their singer, Jeffrey Eaton, is writing the forward for the book. I've drawn a tremendous amount of inspiration from his lyrics over the years, and it's a real honor to have him adding his voice to my own collection of words. I think a lot of the same themes that are present in Witness are echoed in my book: punk rock as a sense of belonging, the frustrations of growing up in a small town, nostalgia for childhood vs. the dissonance of growing up, and a sort of wearied optimism. I know that's what I get out of that record every time I listen to it, and it's what I hope people will feel when they read my book as well.

TF: So let's talk trains. If you had to compare poetry to trains, how would William James do this? And I know you can speak on both these topics for quite some time so feel free to let the words fly…

WJ:  Oh man…comparing poetry to trains. I should be able to write a novel on this, right? You know what the biggest, or at least most immediate comparison that comes to mind for me is? I think of the times I've done a 30/30 challenge. Every damned time I start off having all kinds of difficulties getting my feet moving but about a week into it, it's almost hard to stop writing. Much like a freight train, it takes a really long time to get the forward momentum happening, but once the wheels are all turning, it's full speed ahead. Here's another comparison: railfans, especially old guys in their 60's who were around for the tail end of the steam era, LOVE to complain about how things were better "back in the good old days." In the steam era, it was common to see a hodge-podge mix of boxcars, tankers, gondolas, and even passenger cars on the same train; now, with diesel-electric locomotives being capable of significantly more horsepower, it's more cost-effective for railroads to build massive, sometimes mile-long trains of the same kind of car in order to haul as much freight in a single load as possible. This is great for the industry itself, but to casual observers (or old cranks) it makes every train look the same, and some people think it's boring. I hear the same complaint about poetry. A lot of critics (professional or otherwise) want to complain that poetry has been homogenized and everything sounds the same. I think the "good old days" are bullshit in both regards. I can still be staggered by seeing a trio of locos, at a combined horsepower of 18,000, rumble past…even if every car is nearly identical to the ones before and after it…and I am still routinely in awe of poems I read every day, even if they didn't come from a decade or more ago. Railfans and poets both can choose if they so desire to stay stuck in the past, or they can sit back and simply appreciate the beauty that today provides. I love poems. I love trains. Old or new. End of story.

TF: What’s next for you?

WJ: What’s next for Bill Jim? Who knows…I'm currently in a quest to receive a hundred rejection letters from different publishers, of which I am currently up to twenty-nine. I'm sitting on another forty-ish pending, but in the meantime, I suppose more submissions are in order. I'm doing another 30/30 for September, which will lead to more editing in October. When the book comes out, I'm definitely hoping to tour the hell out of it. I haven't done a proper tour in almost three years, so I'm really itching to get out there and get on the road for at least a couple months. With a little bit of luck, that can get me out to the west coast…I've never been any further west than Tulsa, and I'd like to see the Pacific Ocean. I'm hoping to find some punk rock bands who are down to have a poet get in the van with them and holler sad shit at their fans every night for 15-20 minutes. Poetry readings are great, and obviously with a book to promote, I'll be trying to get in as many of those venues as I can, but I know what's home for me: a small room or basement crammed full of punk kids smashing into each other for a few hours, trying to find nirvana. If you want to find me, that's where I'll be.

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BIO:

William James writes poems and listens to punk rock - not always in that order. He has featured or competed at poetry slams, readings, music venues, and basements in almost every state east of the Mississippi, touring both as a solo artist and in support of musical acts ranging from hardcore bands to folk singers. A two-time Pushcart nominee and an editor for Drunk In A Midnight Choir, William has represented the Steel City Slam (Pittsburgh, PA) and Port Veritas (Portland, ME) at the National Poetry Slam, and the Individual World Poetry Slam. His work has appeared in Word Riot, RADAR Poetry, Potluck Magazine, DM du Jour, Raduis Lit and more. A full-length collection of poetry, Rebel Hearts & Restless Ghosts, is forthcoming from Timber Mouse Publishing. He currently lives in Manchester, NH, where he pretends to be older & angrier than he really is. Website