Certainty is the cage that keeps us safe from curiosity. I've been released from the cage. I am the songbird and I am flying for the window. I know it's closed but I plan on breaking through. – Charlie Coté, Jr. (1987-2005)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

In Confidence: An Interview with Poet Jim Tilley

Jim Tilley and I first met five years ago at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival where he studied with Stephen Dunn, one of my favorite contemporary poets, and then again the following summer at the Sarah Lawrence College Summer Writers Seminar in Stephen Dobyns workshop, a poet who has this to say about Jim’s first book of poems, In Confidence (Red Hen Press, 2011):

...the poems are about trying to maintain “this fragile equilibrium” like a tightrope walker tip-toeing about a lion’s den. One sees the quiet elegance is all that keeps one from shouting, “Watch out!”

Here’s his bio from his website:

Jim Tilley's poems have been published in various literary journals and magazines, among which are Southwest Review, Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Sycamore Review, Tar River Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, Florida Review and New Delta Review. He has won the Sycamore Review's Wabash Prize for Poetry, the New England Poetry Club's Firman Houghton Award, and the Editors' Choice Award from Rhino. Four of his poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work also appears in the college textbook anthology "Literature to Go" (Bedford/St. Martin's), edited by Michael Meyer.

Jim has studied poetry in workshops with several nationally acclaimed poets, including Brigit Kelly and David Rivard at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference; Alan Shapiro and Mark Strand at the Sewanee Writers' Conference; David Wojahn, Gerald Stern, Claudia Emerson, and Stephen Dunn at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival; Tony Hoagland at a Poets House workshop; and Stephen Dobyns at the Sarah Lawrence College Summer Writers' Program. 
Jim earned a first-class honors degree in Physics from McGill University and a doctorate in Physics from Harvard University. He retired in 2001 after a 25-year career in insurance and investment banking. He has won numerous prizes for his papers in actuarial science, finance, and investments, and in 2008 received a Founder's Award from the International Insurance Society for his pioneering work in asset-liability management.

Tilley’s poems explore the unanswerable with precision and elegance, and by this exploration he writes the reader’s life. He takes us in his confidence, here in this e-mail exchange, to share a bit about his poetry, among other very interesting things.

CC: I love how Billy Collins in describing your book sees domestic relations as complex and dark matter as a more solvable problem. Your poems definitely explore this paradox. I guess physics was too easy for you so you decided to take up poetry, and dabble a bit in my field. Seriously, how did you go from physics, to Wall Street, to poetry, and now to being a closeted shrink, and a pretty good one at that?

JT:  No, physics was too hard, so I kept trying other things!  Well, that’s sort of true and not at the same time.  In 1975 when I earned my doctorate in Physics, jobs as a physicist were hard to come by, especially in academia, where one would spend six years or more as a post-doc before securing a junior faculty position.  I wasn’t excited by that prospect.  Because Sun Life of Canada had provided a scholarship for my freshman year as an undergraduate, I thought I’d approach them about becoming an actuary, a way to leverage my mathematical skills to gain entry into the world of business.  They gave me a job, and after hopping to John Hancock and then Equitable, I discovered, mostly through the urging of my ex-wife, that Wall Street would be more stimulating.  She called it a “high-octane atmosphere” and she was right, not surprisingly, having worked there herself.  I stayed at Morgan Stanley for more than 17 years before retiring, and even then stayed on as an advisory director for another seven years.  I’ve always enjoyed writing, but while earning a living, it was research papers in actuarial science, finance, and investments.  After retiring, poetry seemed like the best creative writing endeavor for me, because I like to have the satisfaction of  “finishing” something fairly quickly.  The thought of laboring over a memoir or novel for years was frightening.  About being a closeted shrink, I think everybody who cares about people is to some extent a shrink.

CC: I love the epigraph by Whitman: “This hour I tell things in confidence,/I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” Not everyone likes poetry, sad to say, but for those who do, Whitman, and now you too, can speak in confidence. To do so, you have to be a good listener. Tell me what the title of your book means to you and how it defines the arc of the collection, and maybe even your aesthetic as a writer.

JT:  It wouldn’t be fair to let readers think that the book’s epigraph was my idea.  Our good friend and poet, Jim Scruton, suggested it to me, and I bought it immediately.  The title of the book, together with its cover, conceived and painted by another good friend, suggests one person taking another into his or her confidence.  That’s the primary meaning I intended for the title.  But the title is also “aspirational”—that after working at the craft of poetry for ten years, I may have gained a measure of confidence that I can write good poems from time to time.  As to arc, I’d simply say that I think poems should be written with a reader in mind and that the process of writing then becomes taking the reader into the writer’s confidence—it’s a productive model.

CC: I’d describe you as a narrative poet. What inspires you as a story-teller? Who would you point to as major influences?

JT:  Yes, I think you’re right.  I hope to achieve lyric moments in my poetry and the award from the New England Poetry Club was for best lyric poem, but the most identifiable feature of my work is its narrative thread.  Don’t we all love stories, right from the moment that our parents first read to us?  Among contemporary poets, I started off on a diet of Billy Collins and Stephen Dunn.  I would say that Carl Dennis, Philip Levine, Bob Hicok, Galway Kinnell, and Albert Goldbarth have also been strong influences.

CC: With that in mind, who and what are you currently reading?

JT:  A mix of newly discovered poets and old favorites.  I’m particularly enjoying Jim Harrison’s book, In Search of Small Gods, and James Richardson’s By the Numbers.

CC: Your poems luxuriate in their language and I think diction is a definite strength for you, and by my reading of "Vocabulary Test," something you’ve passed on to your sons. How do your poems compassionate the lexicon and what might that portend?  Give us some of the paraphernalia in your bag of writerly tricks. But not too much. We don’t want you to give away your secrets even though you are taking us into your confidence.

JT:  I’m unaware of any tricks or secrets.  I think that what comes out on the page reflects how one feels about language.  I’ve always enjoyed words and word play.  How words and phrases sound matters to me.  The rhymes that worm their way into some of my poems are more accidental than planned, subconscious more than conscious.  When I think a poem is getting somewhere, I’ll walk around our library reading it aloud to the walls.  That’s often when I find that other words want to come out, better words than the ones I’ve first used.

CC: The father-son theme in the collection is strong, as is the husband-wife motif. Turns out that domestic life ain’t that tame, eh? And while you’re at it, talk about what being Canadian means to your stance as a writer living in the US.

JT:  The last part first.  I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1971 when I came down to Cambridge for grad school.  I didn’t become a U.S. citizen until 2001, but I’ve pretty much considered myself American for a long time.  Now to the father-son and husband-wife themes that several of my poems wrestle with.  Relationships are work, aren’t they?  For everyone, but especially for those of us who have a tendency to be self-centered.  And hard work when it comes to relationships between two strong personalities.  There are clash points.  I think it’s important to play shrink with oneself, to understand why we do certain things and feel certain ways.  Without doing that, there’s little ability to work productively at relationships, especially the ones we most want to succeed.  For me, this struggle to make sense of what happens between people finds its way into poems.

CC: One of the things I envy most about you is your hammock. One of my favorite poems in your book, “Half-Finished Bridge,” seems to have been imagined there. Talk about the hammock and its importance to your work. To me, it makes me think of Whitman’s "Song of Myself": I loaf and invite my soul,/I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Oh, and talk about that half-finished bridge, which seems to be about your own father, not to mention something more existential.

JT:  Why do your questions always seem to have multiple parts?  Okay, the hammock.  I was actually thinking of calling the book, “The Hammock Poems.”  And I had to decide whether to juxtapose various hammock poems or separate them.  There are two key “literal” hammocks in my life—one on the terrace at the back of our principal residence that looks out over miles of hills, and one strung between two oaks in the backyard of my wife’s place in Cape Cod.  I often go to a hammock to read.  Reading often spurs a new poem; digesting another writer’s words seems to open the flow of mine.  “Half-Finished Bridge” was written in the hammock at home on a cool fall day that was getting colder quickly.  My journal was handy, as it always is when I’m lying in a hammock.  I was writing with a Poets House pencil that had Bashō’s haiku, first snow falling on the half-finished bridge, inscribed on it and I was thinking about my aging father and all the things he feels are unfinished in his life, particularly his academic oeuvre.  And I was thinking about the futility of roads to nowhere, roads that could end at a half-finished bridge—wars we shouldn’t start and marriages we can’t finish.  But I wanted to end the poem on a more hopeful note and get back inside the house before I froze in the hammock as the season’s first snow was beginning to fall.  So I wrote about erecting the rest of the trestle and walking together with my father to the other side.

CC: Another prominent theme is death, which makes me think of Dobyns’ poem in Pallbearer’s Envying the One Who Rides, “Oh, Immobility, Death’s Vast Associate.” This is an implied, vast, open-ended question, so answer it at will, or not at all.

JT:  A vast, open-ended question calls for a rather shorter answer, don’t you think?  I suppose you could say that death is one of those “big questions” to which I refer in several poems in the collection.  As my wife keeps pointing out to me—correctly—I’m not comfortable with death, not so much that I’m afraid of dying, but uncomfortable with separations, transitions, and the discontinuity that comes with endings.  I seem uncomfortable even exploring this subject.  Regarding the matter of death, I’ve been lucky—my parents are still living, my children are healthy, and few close friends have died.  The next ten years won’t be the same.  You can be sure that I’ll be writing much more about death.

CC: The other thing I learn from a close reading of your poems, is the power of denotative and connotative language. Take “Empty Casings” for example. There’s so much that comes out of your meditation on empty shell casings, worthless to a police officer, but under your steady gaze, explode on the page. What did you learn about humanity in that archaeological dig?

JT:  You’re spot on about the power of language for me.  “Empty Casings” is a good example.  The poem was spawned by a dinner that my wife and I had with a close friend of mine, now ours, from my work days.  He was in the process of getting divorced and talked not only about the usual squabbles and battles in a divorce but how difficult he was finding it to extract his family heirlooms, such as the brass and copper menorah his father had caused German POWs to make from empty shell casings during World War II.  To me that was a poem.  When I got home, I googled “menorah shell casings” or something like that and up popped the story about the children of the Bais Chabad synagogue in Santa Monica making menorahs from their police department’s empty shell casings.  The poem went through many iterations as I played with the metaphors of “squeezing oil from olives,” “so much light from so little oil,” “the heritage wrought by turning weapons into ploughshares,” and “empty casings.”  A metaphor is all about the denotative and connotative, isn’t it?

CC: I remember your elegant explanation of fractals, drawn out on a napkin I might add. I still have that in my journal but can’t figure out what the hell it means. I’ll need another tutorial. Anyway, if my math teachers had been poets too, I’d have learned a great deal more in my impressionable years. Since you’re such a math geek, and I mean that affectionately, with a modest amount of envy, talk about the ways math shows up in your poems. Talk specifically about “In Spring, Mathematics Are Yellow.”

JT:  It’s impossible for me to keep mathematics out of my poems because it’s always running through my brain.  It’s one of the ways I gaze at the world.  I do number puzzles more than I do crosswords these days.  “In Spring, Mathematics Are Yellow” is a poem about a speaker in a funk about his life.  He’s standing outside his house on an early spring day when everything is yellow.  He looks at all those yellow objects in a different way, and from that experience begins to accept his malaise.  The speaker derives a certain comfort from seeing daffodils as hexagons, from admiring the fractal nature of  forsythia bushes, from considering the number of petals on each pansy he’s potted for his wife, and from understanding that he will never be able to defeat the dandelions in the lawn of his life because all their fluff will tunnel into next year’s plans whether he likes it or not.

CC: I’d say you’ve found a good balance between the left and right hemispheres of your brain. I personally despise the false dichotomy between art and science. I love the alleged quote by Churchill, more for the sentiment than its accuracy:  During the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill’s response: “Then what are we fighting for?”  Talk about the resonances you see between art and science, and how it informs your fascination with elegance.

JT:  This question is hard.  I’d have to say that I’m more left-brained than right-brained.  That’s why my poems are more narrative than lyric, I think.  But I love art, especially modern art.  And I love architecture and photography and gardens and walks in the woods.  I tend to see the mathematics and science in things.  Certainly I wonder about why things are the way they are and why certain things happen and others don’t.  That’s pretty much left-brained.  But such wondering puts me into a state of awe and unlocks the right brain.  I have enjoyed the happy accidents that come when those two views mesh, sort of like a stereoscopic image, don’t you think?

CC: We both share a passion for golf, and like poetry, it’s a game impossible to master. It always wins. Yet writing about golf has always been hard for me. Who do you think does it well without sounding overly pretentious or sentimental. I think you do a pretty good job in “The Ivy and the Brick,” but I know that poem was hard for you to write. Why do you think it’s hard to write that type of poem?

JT:  I share a passion with you for wanting to play golf better.  I am completely smitten by my good shots, holes, rounds that keep bringing me back despite my considerable inabilities at the game.  I think it’s a personality trait that drives me to try to do better at what I enjoy doing.  Golf and poetry both fit that.  It’s hard to find poetry in the way I play golf.  That should be less difficult for you—your swing is closer to a thing of beauty.  Why is it so hard to write a golf poem?  Because the subject is boring to most people unless it becomes a way to unlock something else that isn’t.  That’s what I tried to have happen in “The Ivy and the Brick,” another poem that went through many incarnations before it finally split into the poem of that title and its companion, “The Clay and the Fire.”

CC: Killing-time and killing time in “Something to Celebrate” is a haunting pun, another hard thing to pull off well in a poem. Talk about how this notion haunts you, not the pun per se, but the idea behind this particular pun.

JT:  Again, the pun happened by accident.  It wasn’t there in the first several versions of the poem, but occurred while I was reading a draft aloud in our library.  I realized it would be a hard thing to pull off without sounding corny.  I’m not sure I succeeded, but decided to go with it anyway.  The early versions of “Something to Celebrate” were much longer, more prosaic.  I finally decided that less is better, that I’d overworked the metaphor of “things hanging by a thread.”  What haunted me was the violence wrought by the dictator and then the violence in his death by what amounted to a lynch mob.  In the end, I felt I could do the event more “justice” by chopping a 30-line poem down to its essence in a syllabic sonnet.

CC: Continuing on with this theme, and given all the chaos in the Middle East right now, your poem “One Would Hope” is as relevant as ever. Talk about the making of this heart-wrenching poem. If only we’d hear each other’s song. I mean really hear. It makes me think of a poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, where he speaks about the foolishness of names, meaning we’re all singing the same song, so why all this war? It makes me think too of Gregory Orr’s notion of how we’re all adding to the song that is poetry, his notion of quest. Do you remember that?

JT:  Yes, I remember the craft talk by Gregory Orr in which he discussed his notion of “quest.”  There is so much war in the world around us.  With technology the world is much smaller now than it used to be and other people’s problems come closer to being ours than they used to.  Still, I feel one can’t write about the details of war credibly without having lived them oneself.  I haven’t and wouldn’t presume to try to write a “war poem” from that perspective.  So, when I venture into that highly charged territory (“After Wine,” “Folding,” “Dislocation,” “Boys,” and “One Would Hope”), I try to use some closer-to-home device to enter the topic and then maintain an appropriate distance.  In “One Would Hope,” the device is music, something we all share, and “hearing each other’s song” was the point I surprised myself in the writing of the poem.  It stuck.

CC: Finally, I want to congratulate you on “The Art of Patience,” and its selection as the Wabash Prize in Sycamore Review. How the hell did you write that tour de force? Yes, I’m jealous.

JT:  “On the Art of Patience” arose from seven failed poems, much shorter poems that never lived up to the promise I had hoped for, indeed expected of them at the time of their writing.  Those constituent poems had been written over the course of a year and each one had been shelved digitally (I never throw away any of my scribblings).  I had been reading a lot of Al Goldbarth.  His pieces tend to be long, and most offer up several seemingly disparate situations, scenes, images that he successfully weaves together.  I thought I might try that with the collection of failed poems, all under the umbrella of being stuck interminably on hold while trying to place an order.  I reread each, then set them aside and sat down with my journal—at my desk, not my hammock!  The trick, of course, was to make smooth transitions between the unrelated topics.  An hour and a half later, “On the Art of Patience” was born, more or less as it appears in my book.  It was one of those lucky, inspired moments that occurs too infrequently.

CC: And lucky for us too. Thanks for the interview.

JT: You're welcome. Thank you.

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