Writers on Writing, Volume 15: Jim Whiteside
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 Boston Review. Originally from Cookeville, Tennessee, he holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and lives in Berkeley, California.
Beginning on February 21st, Jim will teach A Chapbook Primer class at Left Margin LIT.
What are you currently writing about?
I’m currently in the middle of a few writing projects. Last summer I put what I hope are the finishing touches on my first full-length poetry manuscript, and I’m currently sending that out to contests and publishers. I’m also working on a couple projects that are much more early-stage: a book-length meditation on grief and family history following my father’s death, and another smaller collection that’s more of a queer coming-of-age story with punk rock undertones. It’s all very exciting, but overwhelming, too, because I’ve never had this many irons in the fire as I do now.
Could you describe your writing process to us?
Poems come in waves for me. It’s not uncommon for me not to write anything for weeks at a time and then churn out a few drafts over the course of a week or so. It’s inconsistent and maddening, but what in poetry isn’t? I’m constantly mulling over images in my head—carrying them around, writing them down in my notebook, and eventually things start to come together. I think reading is as important as writing, and I keep books close by while I’m drafting new poems. I usually start out a writing session with a cup of coffee and reading 10 or 20 pages from a book of poems.
What inspires you to write? What were some of the things that inspired Writing Your Name on the Glass?
I’m really interested in how art is informed by art, so ekphrasis is one of my natural modes. The poems in Writing Your Name on the Glass—and the book-length manuscript those poems later became a part of—interrogate love and loss through the lenses of the visual and musical worlds. There’s something really wonderful that happens when you refract the ideas in a poem
through some external thing, something better is made. These poems often use music and visual art to make sense of the world. They’re poems about art while also being poems about heartache, about finding one’s voice again in a world marked by loss.
I noticed that you've lived in Tennessee and Wisconsin prior to Oakland. Have these locations influenced your work?
I’m not sure how much Wisconsin has impacted my work apart from teaching me the true meaning of winter, but I know my work is entirely framed by my roots in the South. Having grown up in Tennessee and lived in North Carolina for six years during and after graduate school, I’ve had such a strange relationship and affinity for the South. It’s the place where I grew up, that feels most like home, but it’s such a complicated love when the landscape is characterized by violence, by harsh truths, by intense heat and the constant threat of violence. My poems often depict queerness in various Southern landscapes – the city, for sure, but also the mountains, forests, rural places. The speaker, then, must grapple with what it means to love a place that would never choose to love him back.
I was immediately drawn to the two poems you have entitled “Morning Song.” I thought of Plath's poem with the same name, and like Plath your poetry contains moments of confessionalism. Do you see the poem as a space for confession?
For sure! Poetry is such a mechanism for confession for me—I love poems that are bare and tender, that don’t hold back with how they feel. The poem is the device by which I synthesize the world around me and make sense of it—and in order for that to happen, I need to be honest with myself and the reader. I think I’m at my most self-accepting, honest, and self-critical on the page, which helps me learn more about myself. If I’m not making some sense about myself through my poems, how can I expect them to resonate with others?
Outside of poetry, what are your main interests, and how do these interests influence your work?
I love spending time in cafés and museums—places I’ve missed dearly over the last year. I’m a café writer usually—I love the dynamic energy, the comings and goings in a coffee shop—so not being able to venture far from home has made me reimagine my writing process a lot. I’ve done a lot of re-imagining of my creative process, and I’ve made a lot of progress in writing at home. I often remind myself that, after all, Charles Wright made a whole career out of looking at his back yard and describing what he saw! I’m looking forward to going to museums again one day, to visit a brewery with friends, go to a record shop or bookstore. I love live music, and I miss it dearly. Those gathering spaces that are also cultural spaces are my favorite part of living in any city, and I’m hopeful for the eventual safe return of those opportunities to the Bay Area.
I read that you're currently a Stegner Fellow. Could you talk more about the work you've been doing as a fellow?
The Stegner Fellowship is a really wonderful opportunity that arrived at just the right time for me. The fellowship’s requirements are mostly to attend a weekly workshop with the other fellows and live close enough to commute to campus. We have the occasional opportunity to work with Stanford undergrads, usually in one-on-one tutorials. The focus really is on independent writing time, and I used my first year to focus on the manuscripts I mentioned earlier. The opportunity to (I hope) finish my first book-length collection and make a lot of headway on a second has been such a gift. The added benefit of having some stability during a patently unstable time has been an added blessing.
How did you start writing poetry, and what writing related advice would you give to your younger self?
I wrote a bit in high school, where I had an amazing English teacher, Carolyn Hawkins, who encouraged us to read deeply and enthusiastically. She founded a literary journal at my high school and invited me to be one of the editors. This really helped me to think more critically about what makes a piece of writing good and engaging. After not writing much at all for a few years, I found poetry again in undergrad, and was lucky to find the support of some incredibly supportive faculty there as well. I wouldn’t be the poet I am today without those early supports.
My piece of writing advice would be to remember that poetry is fiction. I spent way too long thinking of poems as little documentaries, which really held me back from writing more deeply in to the deeper truth—the thing truth we can arrive at in our poems by writing into the imagined space. You know who told me that one? David Roderick—Left Margin LIT’s Director!