Questions with...James Duncan
H Duncan lives in New York and has recently released "Ballast," his
third collection of poetry. A graduate of Southern Vermont College,
he considers himself a student of the road. Plainsongs, Reed
Magazine, The Aurorean, and The Homestead Review,
among others, have welcomed his poetry.
1. What or who gives you inspiration and
The night is my biggest inspiration. Very little quality
poetry happens before dusk for me. There is much less
resistance, less static, fewer rules. Poetry is a very
laissez-faire art. It needs a certain amount of freedom to
unravel onto the page, and anything can happen at night,
anything can be reshaped and used. I can open up, show the
wounds, show the hopes and fears. Perspiration? Watching the
nights click by faster and faster. The fear of running out
of time keeps me typing. A night without writing feels
2. Have you always wanted to write, or did you have a secret
desire for something else, like spelunking?
I recall telling an elementary school teacher of mine that I
wanted to be a hobo—I’d get to ride trains, have a dog,
travel, eat beans out of a can, rarely have to work or do
chores. It ends up that writing is about the same. I always
wrote my own stories and comics as a kid, but I never looked
at it as something I wanted to do as a job when I grew up,
just something I knew I would always do. I still don’t look
at it as a career, but as a life. Editing may pay the bills,
but writing gets me out of bed in the morning.
3. Do awards and accolades make you swoon? Have there been
any that you're particularly swoon-y about that you've
Accolades certainly feed the poetic ego, but it’s dangerous
to take high praise too deep to heart. I think it’s
important to remain humble and not wander too far away from
why you started writing in the first place. I love praise as
much as anyone, but a little sand kicked in the face reminds
you that you shouldn’t be out there writing to make someone
else happy. Take your praise, take your lumps, and keep
moving down your own path.
4. When you're not leaving your poetic footprint, what else
in the world makes you warm and fuzzy?
Wine, preferably red, sweet, and straight from the bottle,
no glass required. And if you’re paying more than $15 for a
bottle, you’re paying too much. There is this wine they make
in west Texas, real cheap stuff you can get for $5 a bottle
that can make a bad week melt away like a heating pad for
the soul. Aside from that, I have a niece and nephew that
have me wrapped around their fingers. I adore them, but I
hope they get used to getting books for Christmas. Richard
Scarry is on deck (I still love reading him).
5. Give me names. Who are the best new poets, in your
While I admit not being involved enough with the current
poetry scene, a few poets I’ve met on the road and/or keep
tabs on who really blow me away are L. L. Jacobson, Lester
Allen, Destini Vaile, Jason Hardung, a few others. Like
music these days, poetry seems to be more and more about the
smaller movements than the big names. It lives closer to the
ground, closer to the people than most would think.
6. Best of the Net or Pushcart? Which matters more and why?
They each have a place representing their respective media,
though I’ve never used either as a compass for excellence.
They always felt a little like the Golden Globes or Academy
Awards. They are usually able to pinpoint some high-caliber
material, but I always find about as many winners and
nominees that I dislike as I like. And seeing either in a
poet’s bio doesn’t do much for me. Show me the poem. That is
what will win me over.
7. Then and now. What poem made you start writing and what
poem do you absolutely love right this very moment?
I started with poetry by wandering through a book store
after a brutal heartbreak, and a name caught my eye. I
recalled a friend from college, this big tugboat worker
named Callaghan who had a wife and kids and lived the
Irish-Catholic blue-collar life in a small town along the
Hudson River, and he always raved about this one poet,
Charles Bukowski. I bought Bukowski’s “Betting on the Muse”
that day and read it in one sitting. It turned everything
around, and I thought, “this is something I can do. This is
my way out.” To this day, Bukowski is one of the very few
poets I can turn to when everything goes wrong. He hasn’t
failed me yet. “So you want to be a writer,” “Nirvana,” and
“Bluebird” are three Bukowski favorites of mine.
8. Are online poetry 'zines a crushing blow to traditional
print 'zines, or are they the meat and potatoes of the
poetry world now? Also, which do you prefer?
I like both, for different reasons. It’s easier to point
people toward online ‘zines and get people involved who
might not be deeply interested in poetry otherwise, but it
feels good to hold something in your hands and see your name
in print, too. Some might thumb their noses at online
‘zines, but whether it’s The New Yorker or an online
quarterly or a 20 print-run stapled ‘zine by a high school
kid in Idaho, it takes a person to get that thing out there,
a human filter with tastes and biases and poetic ideals.
Nobody starts out with an aim to publish garbage, whether
they end up doing so or not. It’s about people, the writer,
the publisher, the reader, and aligning them at the right
time in the right place for the poetic process to go full
circle. It’s work, so if you’re out there working it, I’m
all for you.
9. Where do you see yourself and your poems in five years?
Five years ago I never imaged I’d be writing poetry now, so
who knows. Things were pretty dour starting out, but in the
process of finding my voice, I see the changes. There’s more
hope now, I’m looking around more, but the maw of life is
deeper, too. It’s not just about me now, but it does still
filter through me. I can only hope that maw gets deeper in
five years, and that I’m still around teetering on the edge.
10. What are the ingredients for a tasty poem?
Cats, wine, moonlight, bad memories, a good breeze, a little
hope, a knot of words, and one good line to start. Mix well
and let it sit for at least a few weeks. If it still stands
on its own four legs, let it out the front door to roam.
It’ll come back, one way or the other.
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