Jim Whiteside is the author of a chapbook, Writing Your Name on the Glass (Bull City Press, 2019) and is a 2019-2021 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. He is the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a residency from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Jim’s recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Pleiades, Crazyhorse, and Washington Square Review. Originally from Cookeville, Tennessee, he holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is preparing to relocate to Berkeley, California.
In collaboration with Tone Madison, Adroit is bringing you this conversation between Issue Eighteen contributor Jim Whiteside and guest correspondent John McCracken. You can read the interview or listen to it below.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
John McCracken: Can you talk about how you came to the title of your chapbook?
Jim Whiteside: The title comes from the central, longer poem in the chapbook and the phrase appears within that poem. It’s kind of similar to when they say the name of the movie in the middle of the movie. My partner was reading the manuscript and pointed to that poem and said it was an evocative title that would make him want to pick it up—he’s not a writer, so I wanted that outside perspective and found it really helpful when coming up for a title for this manuscript.
JM: Both the titular poem and the book cover evoke the sense of something fleeting. How does this relate to your writing, either to its subjects or to your practice?
JW: This sort of fleeting nature, alongside the match on the cover of the book that coincides with the opening poem—it’s a real sense of spectral poetics. There’s a sense in all of these poems that everyone who’s in the poem, including the speaker, may or may not be a ghost. The people feel a little less grounded, which is partially due to the fact that I’m a poet of mourning—whether it’s mourning a relationship, a person, or a thing. When first drafting these poems, I was really interested in the Portuguese concept of saudade, which is a longing for something that is absent or in the past. That could be a longing for a person, a place, or a time. It’s a deep longing for something you know will never come back, and these poems have that within them. There is a sense of things being very fleeting and trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces and move on.
JM: This is your debut chapbook and it was the 2018 Frost Place Prize Editor’s choice from Bull City Press. What has this experience been like?
JW: It’s nice to have a chapbook come out when I’m also working on a larger collection of poems that is an expansion of this project and these ideas. It’s a nice bit of validation that things are going well when something like this gets picked up. It was a really wonderful phone call to receive, and the Bull City Press people have really been fantastic. I think chapbooks are really beautiful little things, and Bull City Press works extra hard to make sure that the ones they put out into the world are well-designed, and they look good. It’s kind of rare when publishing a chapbook, but for this project I was given a full editorial process. I was assigned an editor, the editor had line edits for the whole manuscript and had ideas about making it into the best possible thing it could be. I got to really collaborate with the assigned editor on the poems, as well as on the layout and the cover. They wanted to make sure it looked good, and that I was happy with it, and I wanted to make sure it would sell well for them after all the effort they put in.
JM: Your work was described as having the “ache of desire and the tension of passion and restrain in a manner both classic and contemporary” (Stuart Dischell). Do you see yourself existing in a realm of both classic and contemporary writing?
JW: One of the things that’s really beautiful about poetry is that poetry is a conversation happening across time and space. Love poems and out-of-love poems have been written forever, and writing those kinds of poems engages you in that dialogue, and that is the classic part. The contemporary part is that I’m adding some nuance by writing from a queer perspective. I’m writing poems that hold very contemporary things, such as references to an electronic band or the fact that the titular poem exists because we live in a world where Grindr exists. It’s a poem that asks what it means to love when you have immediate access to the bodies of other people in a way that is very physical and corporeal. I think that these poems occasionally feel both classic and contemporary as a result.
One of my grad school professors led us through an exercise where we brainstormed what makes a poem happen. In general the answers were things like “I love you,” or “I used to love you but I don’t love you anymore,” or “this dead thing reminded me of my dead person,” and the reality is that a lot of these ideas have already happened, but it’s our job to provide nuance to them and find new ways to address those things. There’s always been an old guard, but it’s the job of the new guard to push back and push forward.
JM: The image of “the body” is mentioned throughout the book. Can you talk more about the shifting usage of “the body” (from physical human bodies, bodies as cages and containers that appear throughout the text)?
JW: It’s really hard to write about love without writing about the body. The body is completely central to the act of love. Because I’m writing from a particularly queer perspective, representing the queer body as a queer body is super important. If I were to evade that in some way by not writing about the body in a direct way, it’s not doing anyone the service I can do by representing these things in a positive way.
JM: Then again, bodies are often shown subverted and brimming with the natural world (such as “Vessel,” the title poem, and “Tame”). Can you talk about the importance of nature in your work? Do you see nature as another way to contrast and compare the human form?
JW: In that same classic/contemporary way, poets have been writing about birds and flowers for a long time. What natural imagery does for me is to provide a place to bounce things off of. I grew up in this very Southern place with a harsh landscape that is marked by violence. It’s hot, the ground is hard, and you can see heat. That same harsh landscape plays into the harsher poems where everything is characterized by loss. Natural imagery is something that I default to as a place to see my ideas come together—I use the natural world to look at foils and similarities to people and emotions.
JM: The majority of these poems revolve around moments of love, sex, and/or intimacy. What emotional space do you inhabit to write poems of intimacy? Was it a challenge to put your relationships on display in these poems? How do you cope exposing that vulnerability?
JW: Sharing these poems has been at times a very weird and vulnerable process. I was on an airplane a few weeks ago, and I was sitting next to a younger kid—I think he was 20 or so—who asked me what I do. I explained that I was a writer heading to a reading and had this chapbook I’m going to read from. He asked to read it and I handed him my reading copy from my backpack. So I just sat there while he read it. This is being confronted with your completely cold reader. It was so strange, because, of course, it had the potential to get really weird really fast, and there are poems that without context might make some people uncomfortable, or at the very least would be sort of unexpected. I was relieved that he had some really nice things to say, but that did feel extra vulnerable. You don’t expect that exact situation ever of that cold reader on an airplane, but it felt really positive and nice.
I’ve read in rooms where I wasn’t sure if everyone in the room knew what they were getting with me as a queer writer, as someone who uses male specific pronouns and writes about having sex with other men, but writing about these things is an act of healing. It’s an act of reckoning within yourself about things that have happened or people that have happened. It feels natural to be writing about these things and people. To have this full project put together and on display does feel vulnerable, but the reception has been wonderful.
JM: I found some of the most compelling moments in the book to be wrestling with the larger notion of masculinity. “Fugue” evokes images of guns and juxtaposes them with peaceful imagery, such as doves and olive pits; “Morning Song” and “Flame” also respond to brute ideas of war and violence with contrasting images. How does masculinity inform your writing?
JW: Masculinity is a really messed up thing. One thing that I was really thinking about in these poems is how men are socialized to express or talk about their feelings. As a person who dates men, you have a lot of opportunities to see the emotional stuntedness of America’s men. When men are asked to confront their emotions, to be upfront with how they feel, the response that comes with that socialization can be aggressive, resistant. So what then happens when two people who have been socialized like this are put together? There’s got to be some tension there. My poems confront that classic problem—the desire to forge a connection with the beloved—and it’s the social construct of masculinity that complicates the speaker’s journey toward that connection.
JM: In reading, I didn’t immediately notice the references to bands like Crystal Castles and Fear Before that you mention in the notes in the book’s end matter. What role does music play in your writing process?
JW: I like the way that different forms of art speak to each other. This chapbook also has an ekphrastic poem, and my longer in-progress manuscript contains several more. I like moments when little bits of music can make their way in. There’s also a moment in the opening poem that has the image of a classical musician making his own reed to fit a specific piece of music—which is both something that professional woodwind musicians very often do and, I think, a really beautiful image. In a world where everything is always talking at us, I think it’s okay to let a little of that in, and to do some talking back.
JM: Why did you quote/cite those artists specifically? (They have such a different style from one another.)
JW: Crystal Castles is a band I’ve revisited here and there for a long time. I like that their music is chaotic and unpredictable, and I think that listening to it makes me more willing to take risks and make little leaps.
Fear Before are less foundational for me as a person, but I was listening to them one day, and they have this album called The Always Open Mouth, and I found that interesting, but it came in through the drafting and working with poems. They made their way in. I think metal bands have shockingly good imagery. I’ve jokingly said that since I have a solid idea of what my first two books will be about, maybe my third book will be poems that take their titles from my favorite metal songs. My favorite metal band throughout high school and into adulthood is Converge. Their vocalist, Jacob Bannon, is just an artist in the purest sense—he designs their cover art, he’s a performer, and an interesting lyricist. Their lyrics are really beautiful and they come from a place of pain that is so set on finding peace.
JM: What are you reading now, and how is it informing your current writing practice(s)?
JW: I’m going back and looking at books I was reading when I started working on my full-length project. Dana Levin’s Sky Burial is gorgeous and wonderful. It pushed me in all these different ways and introduced me to new things that poems could do—how they could come together to form a project. It really helped me see what a book-length meditation looks like, and Levin’s work really helps us see ideas and images in all new ways.
Bruce Snider’s Paradise Indiana blew me away as this queer, rural project. That book helped open a lot of doors for me. As I am looking to complete that manuscript, I’m looking at the books that helped me as I was first drafting those poems and hoping that they can help me finish them.