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Interview with John Spaulding

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From the spring issue of West Magazine, my interview with poet John Spaulding. Your can read Spaulding’s poems in the issue here.

John Spaulding holds degrees in English and psychology and earned a PhD in psychology from the University of Arizona, Tucson. He has worked as a psychologist for the Phoenix Indian Medical Center and the Puget Sound Service Unit of Indian Health Services. He teaches writing at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Roses of Starvation (1987); Walking in Stone (1989); The White Train (2004), chosen by Henry Taylor for the National Poetry Series; and Hospital (2011). He also coedited the cookbook Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book (1999) with this mother, Lily May Spaulding, a former nurse and restaurant owner. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Hunger Mountain, Rattle, Nimrod and many other periodicals.

Questions for John Spaulding

A. Jay Adler: How early did you write your first poems? When did you first know that you would be a poet or begin to think of yourself as a poet?

John Spaulding: I wrote a few poems in high school but really began writing seriously in college. It wasn’t until of my books were published that I began calling myself a poet. It
Seemed presumptuous of me.

AJA: How long was it before you first began to think you might have produced good poetry?

JS: I still wonder if my poetry is “good poetry,” but I have my own internal standards
now (which may not be high enough). So I write for myself—that, I think, is what
happens to every writer eventually. You learn that “good” is so subjective that you
really have only your own taste to satisfy.

AJA: What is it that you think makes a poet in contrast to a writer of prose? Of course, some people write both and there may be the matter of where one thinks one’s greater skills lie, but is there something more essential to the writer or the calling or the relation to language?

JS: I think of many of my poems as highly condensed and miniaturized stories.
Writers of prose have lots of room to move around, but poets do not. Prose writers
need to make every paragraph, every sentence count, but poets need to make every word
and sometimes every letter count. Making a poem is akin to putting a mosaic together—
The dictionary is like a tray full of compartments of different colors. One must be careful to pick out just the right color to fit into the overall picture.

AJA: You have had a variety of careers besides writing, particularly in the fields of psychology and health. What has been the relationship between those other careers and your life as a poet? The subject matter of your different collections suggests a strong connection.

JS: Although I have had several careers, my poetry has remained a constant throughout.
Two of my books were directly generated by two of my careers.

AJA: Your work in the health field has been in Indian country, and your second collection,Walking In Stone, is concerned with the early European-Native contact. How did this all connect for you?

JS: Growing up in New England and a family legend of an Indian ancestor, I became interested in the Indians of New England. That, together with my Congregational background and a great
passion for history, led me to explore the initial interactions of the puritans and Pilgrims with the native people.

AJA: The White Train, which was chosen for the National Poetry Series, consists of poems about or in response to old photographs. What was that project about for you? Do you have ideas tending toward the universal about how writing should work with images or was your approach very particular to this project?

JS: History is a recurrent theme for me. And old photographs resonate with their time and place and people. Because we can’t go there, and the pictures are all we have, they are like poems, ultimately evocative and mysterious.

AJA: Your collections vary widely in subject matter, which produces significant variations in voice in your poetry. Speak a bit about the role of voice for you.

JS: My poems are very often persona poems. They tend not to be about me in any direct sense.
I am more interested in other people, other times, other cultures than I am in myself. Besides,
there are plenty of poets writing about themselves.

AJA: You currently teach writing at Pima Community College. That is a subject of interest in these parts. What is that experience like for you?

JS: Having taught at various levels of education, I can honestly say that I love teaching and my students; however, my community college students in particular, often come from very difficult backgrounds. Many of them are working fulltime and carry a full load of classes. Some are parents in addition. How they survive is amazing. But their desire for a career and a better life for themselves and their families carries them forward. I admire them for that.

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Culture Clash

Speaking in Voices

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In the new, spring issue of West, my Poetic License column offers a discussion of voice in poetry, in introduction to the poetry of John Spaulding, whose The White Train was chosen by Henry Taylor for the National Poetry Series in 2004.

The first thing I look for in a poem is its voice. It is likely not the first thing I find. That may be an image, a sound, a surprising collision of words. These will help create the voice, but they are not yet it, and it is only once I hear the voice that I know if it is a poem for which I will feel passion, to which I will commit myself. How much more joy in the story if one loves to hear the storyteller’s voice.

With all its other virtues, there is the melancholic musical voice of Eliot’s “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the grandiloquent heroism of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the sprung-rhythm energy, as much in despair as in joy of the Lord, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is no different for me in poetry than it is in fiction, with narrative voice. Do I want to travel with this persona? Will I be ever engaged, even thrilled, and wish to return to it? Began Auden in “September 1, 1939,”

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

A direct, blunt voice, ready to deliver plainspoken truths. Tell it to me, brother.

Concluded Larry Levis, in “The Poem You Asked For,”

And the poem demanded the food,
it drank up all the water,

beat me and took my money,
tore the faded clothes
off my back,

said Shit,
and walked slowly away,
slicking its hair down.

Said it was going
over to your place.

Any poem that’s going to say sheeeit to me is welcome to come on over.

Paul Zimmer opens “The Eisenhower Years” with similar vernacular, if not so streetwise, voicings.

Flunked out and laid-off
Zimmer works for his father
At Zimmer’s Shoes for Women.
The feet of old women awaken
From dreams they groan and rub
Their hacked-up corns together

The more eccentric the voice, which is to say a distinctive, of-an-only-kind, there-can-hardly-be-its-like voice, the more I like it. Here is Atsuro Riley, in “Hutch,” conjuring a rural Southern world as much in the voice as in any detail.

From back when it was Nam time I tell you what.
Them days men boys gone dark groves rose like Vietnam bamboo.
Aftergrowth something awful.
Green have mercy souls here seen camouflage everlasting.
Nary a one of the brung-homes brung home whole.

So it was that the first time I read this issue’s featured poet, John Spaulding, it was the voice right away that clove me to him. From his 1986 collection Walking in Stone, about the Native American-European contact:

We are the knife people, iron men, coat people
and he-lands-sailing.
Souse eaters, house makers, husbands
of kine and goat and swine, farm builders
and keepers of kettle and scummer, word
scratchers, corn stealers and bad sleepers.

As if towns could build themselves.
As if stumps jumped from the ground or
flesh of beasts fell into trenchers.
As if paradise prevailed on earth.

The magisterial earth tone stood me up straight. This was not just one more pome. This was poetry.

Read the whole thing, the poetry of John Spaulding, and more here.

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