Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sleepwalker's Songs: An Interview with Jim Cervantes

(photo by Anny Ballardini)

KIRPAL GORDON: Thanks to Facebook, Jim, I see that you have a new book coming out this Fall, Sleepwalker’s Songs New & Selected Poems, that you now divide your time between Mesa, Arizona, and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico and that you continued to produce a literary magazine---the printed Porch, and the online zine, Salt River Review since the Seventies when I first met you---and are now editing poetry for Sol. 
I remember Porch as one of those rare lit mags that searched out and celebrated the quirky and uniquely personal voice over the many band wagons (schools?) of the day fighting out the alleged “poetry wars” of the Seventies. In addition, through your Inland Boat series you published the first chapbooks of so many young writers of a highly individual style, poets who are still in the game thirty-plus years later.
Take us back, if you would, to how it all started. Greg Simon wrote in the Afterword of the last issue of the Salt River Review, “In the Pike Street tenement Jim and his family occupied in Seattle in 1977 (each apartment had a back porch with a view of Puget Sound), management paid him to restore the floors of newly vacated rooms. That patrimony, our first and most beneficent, floated our fledgling ark. Issue No. 1 of Porch sold for $2.00, $2.25 if ordered by post.” 
Unlike so many magazines without a university funding source, you managed to keep producing great issues while also writing great poems. What’s the ride been like and how has the literary landscape changed from then to now? How long have you been living in San Miguel?

JIM CERVANTES: Your summary and questions make me feel like a time traveler who left home and came back to find everything changed, for I have been checked out of the academic and literary worlds—and that hybrid literary-academic that has burgeoned in the meantime—for a number of decades.  Small presses and literary magazines were numerous in the 70s and Porch was just another, though their audience was, I’d hazard, more varied than that of their remaining print counterparts whose number keeps shrinking while the number of degreed writers seems to keep increasing. At any rate, in the 70’s our small print magazine felt “big” to us because all 500 copies of each issue (excepting contributor’s copies) were scooped up by subscribers, bookstores, and libraries.
          When I founded Porch, I was jobless, and shortly after the last issue of the magazine, I was jobless again. When I was again teaching for a living (composition, mostly), electronic publications were burgeoning and I had the idea for an online version of Porch, this time called The Salt River Review, and the motivation was the same: to present poets I would be interested in reading. For the first issue, I drew on previous contributors to the print magazine Porch, and was lucky for the entire thirteen-year run of SRR to have all of them as regular contributors and readers. These enterprises also gave me the chance to be a regular publisher of talents like Laura Jensen, for example.
          San Miguel! We “discovered” San Miguel eight years ago when our friends, Halvard Johnson (poet and regular contributor to Salt River Review) and Lynda Schor (fiction writer and fiction editor for SRR) invited us to visit them—they’d been dividing their time between NYC and San Miguel for a number of years. We ended up buying a house in San Miguel after our second visit and live here six months out of every year.
One reason I was so attracted to the place: I was raised in a bi-lingual environment until I was six and hadn’t spoken Spanish since then. When her grandchildren reached school age, my grandmother issued an edict that her children should stop speaking Spanish to the grandchildren because she wanted them to do well in school and in the predominantly English speaking culture. Fifty-something years later, in San Miguel, Spanish began to well up in me as I spoke with shop keepers, cab drivers, and the local population in general. I was using words I’d forgotten I knew. Of course I’m still limited by a six-year old’s vocabulary, something that keeps revealing itself. I do, however, feel so much at home in this culture that I’ve thought seriously about changing my name—and justifiably so—to what it is on my Baptismal certificate: Santiago Valentín Cervantes, though updating it to Diego Valentín Cervantes.
          Sol: English Writing in Mexico is now in its third year and in July of 2011 I was asked if I’d like to take over the duties of poetry editor. I agreed because I’d been thinking of some way to contribute to San Miguel’s cultural life and it seemed a natural transition after retiring The Salt River Review at the end of 2010. I hope to bring in a wider variety of poets and expand Sol’s readership by doing so.

KIRPAL GORDON: Take us back, if you would, to how Sleepwalker’s Songs came to be.  It includes new work and material from your six previous collections published from 1980 to 2010?

JIM CERVANTES:  Given my pace of writing and publishing, it surprises me that the book exists now, and it would likely have been even longer in coming if I’d waited until I had another book comprised entirely of new poems. I had no intention of publishing another book now until I wrote “A Case for My Life,” the newest poem in the book, completed in February of this year. The idea of making a totally unnecessary and pseudo-legal case for one’s life merged with a notion I’d had of assembling poems with dream-like qualities into an equally unnecessary dream/memoir. I have my fingers crossed that Sleepwalker’s Songs is more necessary than unnecessary!

KIRPAL GORDON: Sheila Murphy observed, “His poems integrate highly specific ingredients of experience, shuffling sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch, to reveal the poet’s signature, brave empathy.” Sam Pereira wrote, “These are the poems of someone who knows the dangers in such music and has chosen to dance to it anyway.” Pamela Stewart remarked, “The poetry of James Cervantes gives us shelves, staircases, journeys, quests and turns; it urges continual assessment of the heart’s meanderings, or the most difficult cosmological questions always with sharp playful language, tenderness, and often humor.”  Jim Heavily commented, Like a good gambler, Cervantes knows when to take risks, and with this collection he’s all in.”  T.R. Hummer mused, “If Ted Kooser and Pablo Neruda had a love child, it would be this book.” Would you talk about poetry as brave empathy, the dangers of music, approaching cosmology with humor, taking risks and being a love child of Neruda and Kooser?

JIM CERVANTES:  I’m not sure empathy is “brave,” but it is something we should have, or cultivate, for all living things—I’m still working on it—and I’m happy if it comes through in some way in the poetry.
“The dangers of music” has more meaning for me than Sam Pereira probably intended, as music was my first life from about the age of nine until I was thirty. A life-changing event resulted in my abandoning music in ways that were primary and in adopting writing as my new life, though I knew nothing about it beyond what short stories, novels, and the scant poetry I’d read at that time. Ironically, or perhaps naturally, it was music that provided me with the forms and tonalities I used in my early writing. Music and writing are both dangerous because they seduce you, comfort you, nourish you, and demand your time and attention almost 24/7! If you neglect them, they won’t turn on you, but something will be lost.
          I’m not sure about the Neruda/Kooser conjugal effect! You’d have to ask Terry Hummer about that. I am, of course, the love child of my mother and father.

KIRPAL GORDON: Regarding your earlier life in music, the book is full of references to musical composition, technique, composers, players, instruments, tunes, harmony, melody, tempo.  In addition, there’s a pleasantly subversive musical quality in the writing. Although the poems are often ordered into quatrains of “conversational” free verse or sit on the page like prose poems, there are lyrical and metrical elements at play everywhere. It’s subtle, neither trumpet, nor saxophone; more like a cello, which I understand you played professionally.  I quote in full your opening poem to illustrate:

This Junction

There’s not a cloud in the jar,
not a drop of rain in the drawer.
The beach falls out of my shoe
and my little finger picks a gull
out of my ear. I wipe trees
from my glasses
and slowly fly to work,
fuel the wheels, climb
a tunnel that’s gone to seed
and left bullet holes in the sky.
Phone calls seem to know each other.
I let them talk while I listen
to the town on my wall,
where E. Santa Fe wraps
its arms around N. Leroux,
flicks a cigarette into the gutter.

What a way to open the collection!  I noticed that in both the Table of Contents and your Alternate T of C that this is the first poem.  Would you comment on its placement and your blending the surreal image with conversational speech?

JIM CERVANTES:  The junction is not only physical but also a junction of the senses, of the here and now, and of intentions and outcomes.  So, “This Junction” speaks for all the poems.
      The allusions and references to music, from composition to instrument, to performance, come from what I refer to as my previous life. I started playing the cello when I was nine, attended music school when I was seventeen, majoring in cello and composition, was doing freelance gigs when I was in my early twenties, then was drafted in 1962 but was informed by an Air Force recruiter about the existence of the Air Force Orchestra. I auditioned, was accepted, and spent four years with that organization. Many small stories since that time and 1970, when I was in Seattle beginning at the University of Washington, and when I had an accident that had many ramifications, including being in a coma for three days and emerging more a poet than a musician.

KIRPAL GORDON: Perhaps a poet with an uncommonly musical ear. To borrow that old Audenism about the power of real poetry, I cut my face while shaving and thinking back to these lines:

Roosters and Train Whistles

Somehow, they’ve always been there
in the dark when I wake up
anywhere, despite absence of track,
though most naturally in the island city
in Iowa’s ocean of farmland; Flagstaff,
where tracks parallel the main drag
and thin air dampens flutter and cluck;
in childhood, where they were like right
and left hands clapping me awake,
uncle’s chickens and the Southern Pacific
crowing together; Brattleboro,
where roosters woke as the whistle neared
and I knew I’d make the station on time.
And now, two blocks from the Hudson River,
the hoot of a freight cuts like a French horn
through traffic’s tremolo and a rooster
struts from the dark into its missing voice.

There is indeed an interplay of sight and sound in these lines that feels so right.

JIM CERVANTES:  Based on fact. Even here in San Miguel, we are a quarter of a mile or less from the tracks and hear the trains clearly and regularly, and if there’s not rooster accompaniment, there are burros braying or peacocks calling.

KIRPAL GORDON: It’s economical as well, but let me ask you a craft question: without meter, rhyme scheme or other formal considerations, how do you know when the poem is finished?

JIM CERVANTES:  It’s different for every poem. In “Roosters and Train Whistles,” the image simply unfolded from the rooster of memory to the rooster of the present moment. But now I’m suspecting that the train whistle in NYC might have triggered an auditory hallucination that provided a kind of symmetry!

KIRPAL GORDON: Even a voice as individual as yours comes from a blend of influences, styles and approaches.  What poets and writers, composers and musicians have influenced you in terms of craft, subject and expression?
JIM CERVANTES: Everyone and everything has influenced me, including the varied casts of dreams.

KIRPAL GORDON: In thinking about your work in terms of “craft, subject and expression” as being three parts of one whole, would you comment on this poem from the book’s third section, “Words & Music”:
In Lieu of an Ars Poetica

I've cut the string. The kite levitates. It hangs right in there at two o'clock, its red vibrant against the blue sky.
The birch bends beneath it. We are all in the wind and my link with the kite is strong. I can't bear to look down. My body feels the gusts and I become very aware of my ribs. The kite is motionless but I sense its minute pulse, its love with the wind.

Sal, my neighbor, comes out in the late afternoon and feels the air around me. No strings, Sal. No fish line, no radio-control. The damned kite just hangs there.

Almost evening, the sky a cobalt blue and the red kite with a halo. Sal has binoculars and is examining the kite for ailerons.
Let Sal demonstrate wonder: I am as buoyant as the kite. There's the bodiless voice of my neighbor, and myself, an ethereal witness, totally satisfied, thankful I have no hands to caress the kite.
Sal says I have a martini in my hand. Thanks, Sal. I lift it without looking at it, feel a tingle at my lips, then with one hearty gulp toast the kite. The feeling is impossible, like an ice cube floating in air.
It is evening and only I can see the kite, that diamond shape where there are no stars. In the morning there are no stars, and no kite. But there is space for another.

JIM CERVANTES:  The poem pretty much sums it up: We make something—kite, poem, music—and then when it is abandoned, lost, vanished from the air, there is space and time for the next thing to be made.

KIRPAL GORDON: Stop me if I seem hung up on distinctive voice in American poetry and music, but let me illustrate this with another poem:
Two of a Kind

Time of life

Here today, born tomorrow,
noon of my mother's morning, noon, and night.
I rummage in the mornings,
rid of yesterday, peering at night's skirt,
born while the family slept.

The latest advisory & breaking news

The present is gone in an instant.
Anal seepage is worse than whistle in the lungs.
Sudden wind through an open house slams shut
an interior door. At the end of the story,
the appearance of stars does not explain cut hay.
Here's some thread, you are the needle. Go ahead.

Would you call that an alternative version of an Ars Poetica?

JIM CERVANTES:  I suppose so, since the poem has supplied the thread and the reader is offered the sewing needle.

KIRPAL GORDON: The final poem, delivered in second person, makes me think you're directly speaking to the reader of your work, so maybe there is an Ars Poetica moment here as well:
Walking Down and Backwards in Walnut Canyon

After the switchbacks, early in the easy slope
to the bottom, you can risk jumping
onto the terrace below, then backtrack
through transition growth, a mix of juniper,
pine, cactus and agave. The scent of wet limestone
wraps you in the great, shaded funnel
where you find yourself, under a shelf,
squatting next to the groove
cut by fast, tumbling water. Empty pools
are within hand's reach, and fish bones
if you scratch into the waterless shore.
Simply look across the canyon, at eye level,
and there's a dark shelter, with the wall
of uniform stones and its doorway: neighbors
across the water that isn't there. Now
you'll want to straighten up, move that branch
from the way you came. But don't, because
then it will be a path, and the wrong one
because it was all different then,
and that is all I'm going to tell you.

JIM CERVANTES:  The irony, of course, is that “all I’m going to tell you” is a lot since all that’s missing is a surveyor’s flag to give you the starting point for the path described in the poem and then you’d find the ancient fishing camp. The poem is all in the details.

KIRPAL GORDON: How can Giant Steps readers stay in closer touch with your work?  Tell us about the publication and launch date for Sleepwalker’s Songs and how we can purchase it.

JIM CERVANTES:  They can visit my Facebook page! From time to time I do mention a publication and they can always “friend me” and ask in a private message what I don’t give away on Facebook, which is a lot. The official publication date for Sleepwalker’s Songs is October 1st and at this writing I await the final proof. It will be available via Amazon, of course, and from the publisher, Hamilton Stone Editions. I’ll post details on Facebook when folks can begin ordering, and I’ll let you know.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see new poems from Jim Cervantes here. I have very much enjoyed his work over the years. Thanks for the fine interview, Kirpal.