An Interview with Jim Nason

Clarise Foster: The Fist of Remembering, published by Wolsak and Wynn in 2006, is your second collection of poetry. If Lips Were as Red, published in 1991 by Palmerston Press, was your first. What was publishing your first collection of poetry like in comparison to your second? What was the inspiration behind If Lips Were as Red, which is a very intriguing title?

Jim Nason: I attended York University as a mature student; If Lips Were as Red came out of that time in my life. It was a wonderful experience. I’d left home at fifteen, worked in factories, worked as a dishwasher, an office cleaner and a waiter. Studying part-time, eventually, I made it to York University—coming from a working-class family, going to university was a dream made real for me. It was in a fourth-year poetry workshop with Don Coles that I encountered Walt Whitman. I read and reread the lines from his poem, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” … And his arm lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy. I couldn’t believe what I was encountering for the first time: same-sex love in poetry. I finally had the permission that I needed to be ecstatic and to take risks in my own writing. Then, York University’s student newspaper, The Lexicon, published a full-page black and white photograph of two men kissing and overlapped four of my poems above the image. I was in a place of acceptance. I felt an unfolding that was both terrifying and thrilling. During that time I also discovered Frank O’Hara. I loved the camp elements of many of his poems like the Lana Turner poem and the sophisticated melancholy of “The Day Lady Died,” his poem about Billie Holliday.

I was fortunate because Colleen Perrin, the publisher at Palmerston Press, had a strong commitment to new writers and had faith in my work. Marnie Woodrow and I were the first authors whom she published; neither of us was known in the literary world at that time, so this was a big risk.

Also, I was studying Bishop and Blake. Reading Elizabeth Bishop, I was learning about detail and discipline—how emotion can flow out of paying attention and transformation will come through that process. To this day, I trust the process; Bishop’s real frogs in imaginary ponds.

But Blake was the reason I chose McGill for graduate work. Although I wrote a novel (the mandatory never-to-be-published novel in a box in my basement) as part of my MA thesis about a twelve-year-old poet (Raining in the Memory House), it was Blake’s poetry that kept me at McGill—Blake and the fact that Montreal is a gorgeous city. It was a rich time in my life. The title poem, “If Lips Were as Red,” was inspired by my experience as a flight attendant. It is both sexy and sad. Coming from poverty, world travel wasn’t an option. But as a flight attendant I saw much of the world and was able to see and experience life beyond my class roots. Even better, I was beginning to understand that if I was willing to see beyond my limited ego, language could take me much further than any 747.

By the time I arrived at the The Fist of Remembering, I was a much changed man. I had spent my thirties working with people with AIDS and I had watched many friends die. I was struggling with every bone in my body to remain intact and not defeated by loss and anger. At the same time Andrew, my partner, was dying of cancer, I was reading John Ashbery. Ashbery’s brilliant use of language inspired me, like Bishop, to trust where words take you. As Andrew’s illness progressed, he insisted that I start writing. He had read If Lips Were as Red and could see the passion in my writing. He also believed that if God gives you a gift, you should use it. I am not so sure that I have a God-given talent, but writing that book saved my life. It allowed me to celebrate both the passionate and spiritual nature of our relationship.

Andrew had unconditional faith. I was less trusting of religion—my social work background and life experiences had made me leery. However, I somehow knew that I was in a mindset as I was writing that book that I can describe only as a state of grace.

CF: It is interesting that you mention faith. Art is something that often relies on intuition—or belief in what you are doing even in the face of skepticism. Why is it that so frequently, when poets and other writers try to qualify or articulate the creative experience, we often fall back on religious language?

JN: Some things in life are almost impossible to articulate and religious language is very evocative. I have experienced grace. I could have used another word such as beauty or serenity to describe my emotional transformation, but those words just didn’t cut it. Religious language is philosophical and historical—most people appreciate what is implied when you use words like miracle, blessed or salvation.

CF: It was a number of years between your first and second collections. What is most different about you now as a writer and what about you remains the same? How has your writing practice changed? Why so long between books?

JN: I rarely go at anything in a linear fashion. Before making a full commitment to my writing career I had started a degree in social work. I decided to complete that degree part-time while working full-time as a social worker. This was somewhat odd because I had already completed my MA at McGill. But I was very committed to my day job and decided to finish the social work degree. Things happen as they should. I firmly believe that we are always exactly where we need to be. I am at a place now where poetry is merging with fiction, fiction is merging with politics, politics is merging with religion, and I am morphing into a man who no longer feels the need to judge one of these as better or more important than the others. I used to think that I was either a poet or a fiction writer, a front-line social worker or a manager. I’ve come to embrace the whole darn mix. I love to dance. I love to paint. I love to meditate and I love to race on my bicycle. These things are only contradictory if I allow others to tell me that one of those activities is more important than the other. The trick for me is in finding the time to embrace everything that I am passionate about and to trust that my writing has significance to someone else.

There was so much that I needed to learn about poetry between that first and second book. I am more careful about craft than I used to be. In early drafts I allow myself full-throttle creative flow but during the editorial process I let go of anything that interferes with the poem being the best poem possible. American poet Henri Cole asked me a few years back what kind of poet I wanted to be. I had just finished reading his astonishing book, Middle Earth, so the answer was easy—I wanted to be the kind of poet who could write Middle Earth. Then, I wrote the following poem.

—for Henri Cole

He sits facing east, a tear of dusk
in his hazel eyes. Knees together,
hands folded over a pile of books
in his lap, a frog rests near
his sandaled feet, Why
are you here frog?
he asks.
The frog leaps forward, his whole self
breathing like a small green lung.

All morning it rained streams
and puddles; poems float
like sheets of lilies on a pond.
His back straight, fingers spread
out on the green arms of the chair:
Why are you here sombre frog?

Wet and shining, the frog inhales,
swells as if he has swallowed a swamp
of mosquitoes. Humid breeze across
the puddle, a shoelace moves through
the rippled water like a black snake. Frog
exhales, a flutter of bats ink the sky, the sun
sets behind a cloud. I want teacher to love me.

That last line took me by surprise. I had no idea that the poem was taking me to such a difficult truth. I was glad for the insight, but ashamed of my neediness. Thankfully, I also realize that beyond my need for love and approval, I want to write poems that are written with deep thought, respect for craft, and are as expansive and evocative as possible. This is something that has never changed about me. Now, as corny as this sounds, I don’t want to be a poet like Henri Cole, I want to be a poet like me.

While writing the poems in my new manuscript, “Laneway Home,” I realized (once again) that there is always more to learn—but isn’t there always? I am more compassionate with myself now and patient with the poems. At the core of who I am there is someone who wants to reach out and connect with others. I am as determined as I have always been, but more relaxed about the journey.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.