Sunday, January 28, 2007

Interview: Margaret James

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of interviews with working poets. I chose Metta (Margaret James) for the first interview because I have repeatedly been blown away by the quality of her work.


at last, defined solely by shadow,
I find my wings, beating

a mixture of blackness and light

arms inch into the new movement -
tired, from too many long years
and attempts at being an angel

1. How did you come to poetry, and how or when did you decide that you are a poet?

I wrote teenage angst “poetry” to start and then I wrote lost love angst “poetry” in my twenties. Of course, none of this was real poetry and, yikes, most of it rhymed, badly. I tried to read poetry during these periods of my life but there was something within me that was not yet open to really take it in. Finally, in my early thirties, I had this “opening” and found that I was able to read and experience poetry and I also found that I was able to write something that I could call poetry.

2. Who are some of your favorite poets and why?

My favorite poets always have a sense of the Divine about them, a sense of a deep interconnectedness or even a sense of longing for that connectivity. Rumi is number one. The translations of his work aren't number one because of the writing style but because of the great depth of the poems. Each of his poems have a number of stories to tell to the reader, if the reader will become devoted enough to visit with them frequently. I think it is extremely rare to ever find a poet that has this same depth. You can find some translations of Hafiz's work, like Thomas Rain Crowe's, that have that have a similar depth. Bly's translations of Kabir also have many tales to tell, but altogether, to me, this seems like a very difficult quality to find. This last summer I took a class on reading poetry and in the introduction to our main textbook it stated that I was reading poetry in the wrong way if I was looking for some deep meaning or teaching. That's all right. I'm happy to read it wrong.

I am also extremely fond of the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems are all so extremely human and, in being so, find the Divine in the most ordinary things. She also shows things from a perspective that so many Westerners are unable to because of her ties to Palestine. I met Naomi's work through a dear friend who I had been sharing my own poems with for about year. One day I was visiting with her and she handed me a book of Naomi's and said, “here is a new book poems written by my friend Naomi.” (She is actually her son's godmother) I took the book home and read a few of the poems and found that I was mortified that I had bothered my friend with my little poems when she had Naomi and, for a moment, I almost decided to stop writing altogether. I mean, what was the point of my writing when there is this beauty already in the world? I cured myself quickly by writing a poem about how she had that effect on me.

Neruda is another poet who writes in a way that makes almost everything Divine. There are so many of his poems that stop me, paralyze me for a moment, so I that I can't even breathe, just wanting to make sure that the words get a chance to sink in and make a home within me. His words tell me that he had a very special way of seeing things. I love poets with his kind of vision.

3. What is your process for writing?

I have a couple of processes. I try to write something every morning after meditation. Sometimes that yields something of worth, sometimes it doesn't. I also find that in day to day life there are phrases or moments that touch me and take me to a deeper place. It is those times that something enters me and moves around within me and later reappears and shows itself as a poem. These poems seem to birth themselves with little help at all.

4. How do you define “spiritual poetry,” or what do you look for in a spiritual poet?

Almost anything can be spiritual poem. If a poem goes to the core of anything - be it making bread, sorting the laundry, loss of a loved one, meditating, walking the dog - it can be spiritual. What I look for in a spiritual poet is the depth of someone like Naomi Shihab Nye.

Another characteristic that draws me to a poem is a sense of longing. The poems of Mirabai, St John of the Cross, Bibi Hayati, Rainer Rilke and many others cry out for the Divine and I really think those cries deliver the Presence. One of my favorite lines of Rumi is, “When you look for God, God is in the look of your eyes.”

5. What are you reading these days in the area of poetry? Any books or poets you would like to recommend?

Most recently I have been reading The Zohar, translated by Daniel Matt. I don't know if you would call it poetry, though he has translated it into a poetic style. The Zohar begins with the explanation of how to look at the Torah, which is described like a garment:

“As wine must sit in a jar,

So Torah must sit in this garment.

So look only at what is under the garment!

So all those words and all those stories -

They are garments!”

This is the way of spiritual poetry with me. The poems sit in garments like a gown on a beautiful woman and if you love them enough, devote yourself to them, they might just give you a peek at what lies underneath.

My recommendation is to find some poems like the Torah, and love them until they lift their skirts for you… and then love them some more.

~ Margaret James has appeared in Elegant Thorn several times before. You can see more of her poetry at her Zaadz blog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just wanted you to know there’s a new site out dedicated to presenting the spiritual implications of Mirabai’s life and teachings at