James Diaz: I am the author of This Someone I Call Stranger (2018, Indolent Books) and editor, with Elisabeth Horan & Amy Alexander, of the anthology What Keeps us Here: Songs from The Other Side of Trauma (Anti-Heroin Chic Press, 2019) In 2016 I founded the online literary arts and music journal Anti-Heroin Chic to provide a platform for often unheard voices, including those struggling with addiction, mental illness and prison/hospitalization/confinement. I occasionally interview musicians, comedians, and artists, exploring the driving force behind their respective fields, partly in an attempt to better understand my own. Those interviews have been as diverse as iconic 90's comedian and actress Brett Butler to Grammy Award Winner Paula Cole and filmmaker/artist Laura Parnes, among others. I have performed MY poetry at Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg Brooklyn, The Lunar Walk Poetry Series, and at the 2018 NYC Poetry Festival on Governors Island. I miss the old school Ron & Fez shock jock show in NYC, the Jerky Boys, MAD TV, in general I just miss the 90's badly. My favorite film is “Beautiful Girls,” which I have literally watched over a hundred times. I have weird crushes on Geneviève Bujold and Gena Rowlands, and I think John Cassavetes is better than Shakespeare. I reside in upstate New York, in between balanced rocks and horse farms. I have never believed in anything as strongly as I do the power of poetry to help heal a shattered life.
DV: How did you arrive at that conclusion?
JD: What brought me to poetry? Mostly, a chaotic, impoverished, abusive home life, massive amounts of trauma, anger, desperation and despair. And I am only 12 at this point. My father just got clean from heroin, the first eleven years of my life were spent living under the disfigured shadow of his poison-cross and my mother's severe religious/psychological/physical abuse. I had nowhere to put all of this. I could put my fist through a wall, but I couldn't make sense of what was happening to me. One day I was flipping through my Dad's Rolling Stone magazine and came across poems that had been written by death row inmates who turned to poetry as a way of coping with their impossible situation. I might have died if I hadn't found these men and their attempt to stick around despite what they were up against through the power of poetry. "Maybe I can do this too", I remember thinking. I picked up a pen, put it to paper and I haven't been able to stop since. My life has literally depended on it. I can only hope that a little bit of what I write gives someone else the same kind of thing I got way back then, in my darkest hour. A bit of hope, a place to put it; all of that pain.
DV: That certainly helps explicate "It's Not Your Fault":
i was a scared kid
banked on disappearance
for what it was worth
it could make you whole
if you squeezed yourself
those bars were like arms
to someone else's broken promise
light slipping away
never in your eyes
somebody did this to you
and I'm sorry you learned it so young
how to never be whole
we sit here listening to traffic
waiting for something to save us
but there's nothing
ever gonna save us
Many of your other selections on duanespoetree seem, well, not optimistic, but at least resigned. Like, "Cara, May I Say":
you've rearranged me quietly
and in the night
where i once ran barefoot and blind
i come to you years removed from all of that damage
i will not lie
there have been some people
in my life who have never been
happy to see me
they shook me out like a rug
till I thought love was only threadbare
most of my life
I have been learning the difference
between my fault
and no one's fault
but - my time with you, time itself, you see -
she is always a shared creature,
time, not enough time, too much time has passed
how we grow or sometimes fail to - one small bone into another
garden gadgets from some fallen world
I think I'd want only you standing in that light
at the end of the hall
better grab hold of what you can
when I say: joy -
I mean; just this splitting of light
through a body
I mean the fracture makes a thing more beautiful
than perfection, I mean that I know you have seen things
you cannot un-see,
are broken inside
like anyone who has ever lived
outside of a womb
long enough to feel what times takes
and what she gives
I mean that in between everything that gets lost
there is so much
we don't we have a name for.
Is all of your poetry so dark and introspective?
JD: I am afraid so. But I do think there is beauty there too, and hope. When I was in my early 20's I felt a deep kinship with the poet Paul Celan, who had survived the Holocaust but could not reconcile the horror he had seen in the camps with daily living, a return to so-called-normal. He hung on for dear life as long as he could. Eventually he lost the war inside his head and threw himself from a bridge. But the work he left behind showed me that hope, if it exists at all, exists precisely in the dark. Why would anything be hopeful if it had not first been hopeless? And the tragedy, I guess, is that hope is a fragile thing. It can fall apart in an instant. Someone reminded me recently that the danger with feeling better, more put together in our lives, is that it can make us feel crazy when we crash again, because the truth is that we never arrive. Not completely. When the river in me runs unimpeded, I often forget what happens when I can't get around or away from something, it has probably been knocking at my door for years and just wants a seat at the table. For me a poem is just a conversation with parts of the self that have been left unattended for too long. And the hope is that this also speaks to the aching parts of others. Celan spoke of being "healed to pieces." Which means that the work we have to do on ourselves in order to survive is really unending.
DV: The closing of one of Celan’s poems began with typical amnesiac despair but morphed immediately into a kind of defiance.
And once (when? that too is forgotten):
Felt the barb
Where my pulse dared the counter-beat.
When you write these poems, is it to avert the pain or to cope with it? Or to give it birth because it defines you?
JD: Definitely to cope with it. There's no avoiding what happens to us. But the more we talk about something the less power it has over us. It's true, our counter beats must be dared, risked. It is a dangerous undertaking to move beyond our wound. Our skin is on the line. A poem bears witness to all that we have suffered, I would almost say it is sacred. As a nonbeliever, it is the closest thing I have to a prayer. I pray my pain into the poem. That Matthew Ryan quote I used in 'It's Not Your Fault', that "we're all shot from a cannon, and we get to decide where we land on some fundamental level," I try to live by that. At a certain point we have to become the authors of what happened to us, and not allow what went wrong in our lives to override our capacity for change. D. W. Winnicott once wrote “if we have these personal problems, we must live with them and see how time brings some kind of personal evolution rather than a solution.” As human beings, I don't think we're a problem that can be solved. We do the work that we can. Day by day, year by year. A little bit of anything goes a long way. “What is good is always being destroyed,” as Winnicott also says. Parents fail us, friends disappoint us, we aren't always what we could be. I am coming to understand that goodness is not impervious to contamination, to unexpected blows. I think the most important work we do is protecting what is good. In this sense, a poem is a good thing, a home at the edge of the world.
DV: Parents, friends, etc. may fail us, from our point of view, and they may be saving us, from their own perspectives. Or we may focus on something that does not even attract their attention. That’s the problem of not living in a hive of uni-consciousness. But a poem is not a sentient entity, it is a product of a poet’s ability and intent. It is the process that is good, even though the poem may be flawed in countless ways. However, the reader is confronted by the poem rather than the poet. Is a poem still “a good thing” if it violates your own sense of “rightness”?
JD: True, we are always positioned within our own perspectives. Negotiating the mess-work of the in-between is perhaps the closest we get to stepping a little bit outside of that circle. I find the relational field of therapy to be very enlightening on this point; that new meaning emerges when two people can find a way to dream together. Often we suspend our imagination and creativity in turmoil with others, and our world shrinks to a single point. The world of the 'Doer and the Done to'. Every single interaction we have, however, is a two person interaction. If I felt 'done to', I act as if I am somehow absent from the relational, interpersonal fall out. I still fall prey to this, as we all do. Wilfred Bion notes how often our troubles begin in a failure to do dream work. In dreams things have fluidity, and they are mental reminders that the real isn't set in stone. There is hope in that. Finding a way beyond "only one can live" to a place where "all can live" inter-personally, is the challenge and the beauty of what is possible. Our minds are not enclosed systems, they are affected by the other, yet not necessarily in thrall to the other. You can't have one without the other, to quote the 'Married with Children' theme song. I think you're right about it being the process (language, meaning) that is good, not necessarily the thing itself. Although I sometimes wonder if perhaps the process isn't also ambivalent to good/bad binaries? I don't know. If the reader is confronted by the work I think we must also acknowledge that there is no uniform way to receive or read the work. To make moral judgments on the work itself is not something that I am interested in. And yet I am sensitive to how it might trouble or traumatize others, and so, in that sense, and as an editor who is trying to create a safe and open space for expression, I stay away from publishing certain triggering work. I know it may seem like I'm contradicting myself here (by saying that I'm not interested in making moral judgments), but I see it more as being receptive to the other's 'feeling' about the work and less a judgment of the work itself. In other words, I am paying close attention to what words do to others, and if my intent is to provide a space that welcomes all, then I need to work along the 'mess-line' in all of that. How much is too much? I wrestle with poems that are dismissive of others, whether that is overly violent or misogynistic work, or, on the other hand, work that over simplifies the other into a single entity, the patriarchy, the man. etc. And vice a versa. Again, the capacity to do dream work seems to break down. How do I stay creatively engaged with the work and its producer? I don't want to conflate the work with the creator, although I am sure I often do. I'm sure that I sometimes read or write a poem from a 'Doer and Done to' mentality. If I say a poem is bad, do I say a person is bad also? Is there a separation? Of course there is. There's no one single meaning to a person either. I am troubled by those in the literary community who would either cast stones and play Caesar to their own inner lives (washing their hands of themselves) and also to those who are abusers, both in life and in their work. How do I hold the tension between these spaces? I am still learning. Again, there is the guiding understanding that I never arrive. I am always in travel. I do become stuck, confused, and often make the wrong decision about a situation or creation, my own and others. Can I dream again? Can I listen to the feeling? If I'm still asking myself this then the answer is probably yes. Here's what I think it comes down to at the end of the day; if someone says that something made them feel bad or icky inside, I should probably pause and listen to their hurt. That is hard for us to do. No matter what side of the equation you're on. We are infants still learning how to use this capacity, to pause and to listen to the words 'I feel.' "Feelings Matter," as Michael Eigen says. We often demote feelings to a second class status in our world. I'm suddenly reminded of Whitman, who once asked if he was contradicting himself, and then answered; "very well then, I'm big enough, I contain multitudes." Although I would prefer to say that 'I am unknown to myself enough', big and small feel like war-words. There's more to the onion. I'm still struggling with it, which means that I'm still open and curious.
DV: On a (perhaps) less serious note, who is Cara? She appears in many of your poems. Is that a real person? An idealization? A nickname?
JD: Cara is a real person, although not that person's real name. I more often refer to her in my work simply as 'A,' the initial for her real name. She is perhaps also an idealization. She is a close friend whom I have feelings for but for whom I am not, shall we say, the one she is looking for, at least not in that way. I have a whole manuscript of poems written to her called; 'Your Muse Is Trash'. Those are literally her words, the title. I think of them less as love poems, or I should say unrequited love poems, and more as letters of affirmation to our mutual inner wounded selves, our 'inner young'. The title poem, which appeared in Bone & Ink press, speaks to this, and may perhaps be one of my most hopeful and reassuring poems:
"one day, who knows when,
you will open your mouth softly
and the words will come
, you'll say,
to the girl on the inside
the one who was born light
nothing about her crooked, playing gently with shadows
on her bedroom wall and in between sweet-sweaty breaths
laughing, falling to pieces
and loving every single one of them
her dark & holy selves."
It's my reminder to this friend, (a friend, yes, whom I love, rather hopelessly) and who has had to live entirely too hard of a life, that no matter how wounded and dark her days and nights, there is another part of her that is so 'good' and untouched by ruin and tragedy, a part that she will one day be capable of holding and loving more fully. These poems then become less love letters and more of a poetic dialogue with our inner children, the best parts of us, like the 'good' in a poem, or the form of speech. Somewhat fitting that the mother of muses is Mnemosyne, memory; or what I consider to be a reminder to ourselves about ourselves. It is the poet David Whyte's essay on unrequited love which has helped me to reconcile what this all really means, a lesson in learning how to love ourselves more deeply at the end of the day. I might wish to project onto someone else a perfectly idealized and impossible story, but I'm finding there is another way. A more truthful way. Whyte writes, and I am always returning to this; "Unrequited love is a poignant state of heartbreak, with no remedy, despite our best hopes to win them over with another revelation regarding the depth of our affections. But it is a heartbreak mirrored in the very intimate and necessary art of being able to see, to appreciate and to come to love our selves. A blessing then, for unrequited love." Or as Shawn Colvin says; "Well, you know, you got a song out of it." Maybe such poems and songs help others in their quagmires of unrequited love. One can only hope.
DV: Yes, indeed. As I’m sure you know, Whyte wrote “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” That seems to capture rather perfectly the sentiment of your poem and your dual dilemmas and their solutions. You two are lucky to have each other, in whatever capacity. Did you two find other through “What Keeps Us Here”? (If so, that would give additional, personal, justification and denouement for such a book, not just a platform for those voices we don’t hear.)
JD: No, we met elsewhere. She's not in the poetry-literary world, although she is a wonderful artist. We met by accident or fate, perhaps these are the same. Lucky accidents. Those we meet along the way and who we can never quite forget. 'What Keeps Us Here' was the idea of one of our contributors, Effie Pasagiannis, who was looking for a way to bring us all together (AHC) for a reading in Brooklyn, and my co-editors Amy Alexander and Elisabeth Horan. I started Anti-Heroin Chic four years ago, and in going back over all that had been published over the years as I was preparing the anthology, I realized that we had really become a space for the processing of all different kinds of trauma and of what happens on the other side of trauma. I really do think we have become a community that is perhaps more akin to a group 'heal-in' than a literary salon. I listen to our contributors when they are going through something or they simply need to talk or vent. I don't like being removed from what I do, I hope that I am present and reassuring as a host of works of great survival and I try to make people feel safe enough to risk perhaps work that they would not normally risk elsewhere. Work about eating disorders, sexual abuse, drug addiction and alcoholism, parental abuse, homelessness, poverty, prison etc. These are far from easy things to talk about let alone to write about. It takes immense courage to stay in this world, and it takes what it takes to go out of it as well. I believe those who are no longer with us fought as long and hard as they could. We benefit from telling these stories because - beyond stigmas being removed, which maybe never will happen, we feel seen, heard and held. I know many are uncomfortable with descriptions of the arts in this way, but I do think art is the vehicle by which we drive towards healing and becoming more whole. The title sort of fell on me one night, it is this which keeps us here; the ability to share what went wrong and to be heard. From our book launch I got the sense that everyone there felt as if something different was taking place, not just a poetry reading but a group-share of hurt and healing. Sometimes the best thing we can do as artists is be kinder and more vulnerable. There is a lot of pain in all of us, what a beautiful thing it can be when someone says to us, in all sincerity and curiosity, "tell me what happened." I think through AHC and the anthology, we have tried, in our small way, to become more healers than editors.
DV: From an editorial – or therapeutic, if that’s the right word – perspective, what would you do differently if you did “What Keeps us Here?” now? Are there any plans for a sequel?
JD: I do hope to publish another anthology perhaps in 2020. We're also going to be publishing two poetry chapbooks with two of the poets whose work appeared in the anthology this year. There is a lot to learn from the print side of things but it is an exciting transition from an online publication to a print one. I am very proud of the book that we managed to put together. I could not have done it without my wonderful co-editor, Elisabeth Horan, who saw the whole project through from start to finish. The greatest gift has been hearing from folks how this book is landing with others. One person told me that they bought a couple of copies for friends of theirs who are struggling with PTSD and that the book really meant a lot to them. That's the greatest thing, to know you've made a difference in someone else's life with the work that you do. Flannery O'Connor once wrote that 'the life you save may be your own', but it's also true it might be the life of a stranger. To keep carrying the message to the still suffering...as they say in 12 step fellowships. I keep that always in mind and close at hand. I feel very fortunate to be able to provide a space for these voices.
DV: From the interviews you’ve conducted, have you reached any conclusions about the driving force behind creativity?
JD: It of course varies from person to person, but I have found that a common thread seems to be a deep need for a place to store and make sense of one’s experience. One question I tend to ask a lot in my interviews with songwriters, comedians, and artists is if they find their artistic process to be at all cathartic or healing. Ninety nine percent of the time their answer is yes, and beyond yes, they often say it has been life saving, whether the act of writing and singing songs, performing a comedy set, painting or making films, it's been as necessary to them as oxygen and water. Comedian Brett Butler put it to me this way; "A lot of us have toys in the attic that are broken when we start." I find that that tends to be true for most of the folks I've interviewed over the past three years. I've always suspected that the same driving force that brought me to poetry brought others to their art as well. As Lydia Lunch once said, "there are those who do it because they can and those do it because they have to." Because it is survival. And from the interviews that I have done I've found that this is the most common thread; no matter the art form, we do what we do to survive, to understand, to move through - and if we're lucky, beyond or just beneath our pain. And to leave something behind that is of use to those who come into this world after us.
DV: I’m familiar, of course, with the trope that art and madness are closely related, but it seems to me that your analysis comes much closer to the mark. In part, I suppose, that explains why so much poetry is of the unrequited love variety. I guess Aristotle was right, after all, when he emphasized the cathartic aspect. But if survival is the seed, why is the skill that is nurtured in the creative process not usually transplanted into other gardens – joy, contentment, quotidian satisfaction?
JD: That is a really great question. I think for most of us enough is never enough. We've been trained as a society to substitute our deep needs for wants, our "what is" with "what could be" and what a thing could be is somehow never quite the thing we are looking for. We dull the taste buds of our hearts. Children have a capacity, still, to be amazed by the world. I don't think it's necessary to lose or sacrifice this capacity. We're sold a bill of goods on what it means to be an adult that just doesn't sit right on the shelf of things that feel really meaningful to us. We're in an odd time and I'm not sure we're ever going to find our age of innocence and awe again. Part of creating is about freezing a moment, a feeling, a situation in time. But life keeps moving, often so much faster than we can make adequate sense of. I think that everyday, quotidian satisfaction is probably sacrificed the minute we pick up our phones or search hungrily for our next 'like' or 'retweet'. We've really deluded ourselves about something we surely knew as children but have forgotten as adults; It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found. We need to be able to check out but we also need people to check on us, we need to be seen, felt, heard, understood. These are not easy things to do in our culture. Growing up I had less to work with than kids do these days. And so I could imagine a stick that I found was a horse and I could ride it. A puddle was a swimming pool, and climbing trees brought me close to happiness, whatever that strangely elusive thing is. We've lost something and I'm not sure if we know how important that something is. Connection is a messy thing. You cannot edit connection. You must show up, warts and all, and risk the good and the bad. My Aunt likes to say that this is the Purell generation. Why do we feel, most of us, so empty inside? Art does bring us pretty close to the answers but I'm not so sure that it solves the problem that we are and always will be for ourselves. Contentment, happiness, these are fragile, and ultimately comprised of moments, of our experiences. We also bring what happened to us everywhere we go. I suffer a lot, but I have moments also, as I'm sure many of us do, where life is so bittersweet and yes, joyous. The next day there is a flood in my fields, and I can't remember dappled sunlight through the trees or how an autumn breeze suddenly reminded me of my childhood, of home. I think it is possible to transplant these seeds into other areas of our life. We have to remember though that sometimes even the most carefully transplanted seed doesn't bear fruit. Environment has its say. What kind of environment are we living in? Is there a better, more hopeful one that we could build? Here again art might have the final word; catharsis itself is the transplant.
DV: These wise, powerful words are as good a way as any to end this conversation. I want to thank your very much for sharing your pain and the insights you have gained from it, as well as my wish that your art, and the interior effort that it relies upon, will indeed provide a clue out of your labyrinth.