The Last Summer
Sunrise erupted on a cloud-ridged horizon.
Land so level, sloping just inches from the lake.
Hear the squeak of oars, the slap and swivel
half in darkness, edging shoals as the boat
came clear to open water. I would hold
a tin of worms in warm dirt. My granddad,
sturdy and terse, would ferret them out
with a pocket knife, then quarter an apple
to stall our hunger. Hours until breakfast,
the boat wandered in faint waves, un-anchored.
The man would smoke, or with several strokes
nudge us in among reeds to a sinkhole.
In one of his moods, with little to say
as bobbers ticked on the wavering glare.
Some cartographer's error
and we squandered days,
a river on the map now swamp;
glacial fissures drained to marsh,
so a channel angled south goes east then north,
to halt canoes at a beavers' dam, trunks big as log cabins.
Millions of droplets per cubic inch, and brief efflorescence
in stalks, leaves and lacy ferns already by August
curling for an onslaught of snow. Head-high grass
spread by prows keeps no trail of keel, paddle blade, or feet
as flies toil and bite, as boots spew rot from muddy sockets.
Redwings creak on cattails like farcical guides.
Bullfrogs thrum directions only a blackbird could decipher.
Who are you to the herons, to the beavers felling trees?
Who cares for you? say the barred owls,
as soft to disappear as puffs of mist.
How far to your vanishing point?
Our lives became things,
callused joints and scarlet knees,
with hair tied back to tumble behind. Six of us,
strangers since, a rank and cantankerous crew.
On day three we crossed a flowage in porridge-thick fog,
tracking island to island by compass
with twelve-foot visibility encircling each boat.
Near noon a bush plane, the growling saws.
The village on Red Lake. But remember
how the land made its own way, with no one there.
-from As When, In Season
BIO: Born and raised in Wisconsin, Jim Schley moved to New England in the mid-1970s to attend Dartmouth College, where he majored in Creative Writing and Native American Studies. He earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers and for many years worked as a literary editor and toured extensively with experimental and activist theater companies, including the world-renowned Bread and Puppet Theater, the Swiss ensemble Les Montreurs d’Images, and Flock Dance Troupe. He is former co-editor of New England Review and editor of the anthology Writing in a Nuclear Age and of more than a hundred books on a diversity of subjects. After a sudden change of fortune he became an extreme freelancer and had twenty-four part-time jobs in one year, an experience described in an essay written for Newsweek magazine. His poems and essays have been featured in Ironwood, Crazyhorse, Rivendell, and Orion, on Garrison Keillor’s radio show “The Writer’s Almanac,” in Best American Spiritual Writing, and in a chapbook, One Another (Chapiteau, 1999). An associate member of the journalists’ collective Homelands Productions, from 2006 through 2008 he was executive director of The Frost Place, a museum and poetry center based at Robert Frost’s historic farm in Franconia, New Hampshire. He is now Managing Editor of the literary book publisher Tupelo Press and he teaches writing to adult students for Community College of Vermont. Jim lives with his wife and their daughter in a house they built themselves on an off-the-grid cooperative in Vermont.
An Interview with Jim Schley by Robert Lee Brewer
Robert Lee Brewer: Jim Schley's first full-length collection of poetry, As When, In Season, was released in 2008 by Marick Press. However, he is no stranger to poetry. Schley is the former executive director of The Frost Place, a museum and poetry center based at Robert Frost's former homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire, and he's currently a managing editor at Tupelo Press (which publishes some of my favorite poetry titles).
As When, In Season is a wonderful collection that includes nine odes for female muses. Here's one of my favorite poems:
The morning glories
but such a caprice,
that lavish clambering toward
--what? Only sunlight.
For this they open, every day.
I feel can't be
In moonlight broad
as the sprawled land we look across
the blossoms are closed
like miniature umbrellas,
our clothes on the line
colorless yet bright
beneath a white platter of mercury
that orbits a world
where our dear ones
These nights we hear transports
from the airbase upstate.
These days I hear fighter jets
at ungodly speeds.
The morning glories are
"Blue as our girl's eyes," or bluer.
Tinted rose, as wishful thinking is said to be.
Wrinkled slightly like crepe paper
with white centers,
on avid green vines that climb
whatever we do
the killing frost.
RLB: What are you up to?
Jim Schley: For the past three years I worked as director of a museum and poetry-conference center at one of Robert Frost's former homes, which was the most pressurized job I can imagine. I had the sensation of being scalded by adrenaline, continuously--I could never complete all my tasks, and the tension never, ever abated. When I was laid off last autumn I was very sad, but I've also experienced a tremendous relief and release from basically impossible responsibilities.
For me, solving the riddle of how to make a living is inextricably connected with making a haven in my mind and imagination for creative ventures. If I'm too rattled by circumstance, I read (constantly), but I don't write poems. Along with teaching adult students in a community college setting, I've now found a couple of jobs editing for pay, and I find this blend suits me well — the editor's total attention to incremental details and fine-tuned schedules and costs, and the teacher's gregarious accessibility, which is really a form of performance.
My life is much calmer than it's been in a long time. Presently I'm concentrating on finding a viable balance between the work I do for a livelihood and the more open-ended, purposeful yet (at times) "aimless" exploring a poet needs to learn and grow. I'm re-immersing myself in a long-term project that incorporates forms of prose and verse as well as documentary historical materials: the story of a mysterious heirloom, a nineteenth-century eagle-feathered headdress from the northern Plains region. My family is trying to understand where this belongs, in perpetuity, and I'm both a participant in the family quest and a chronicler, observing from a slight distance.
RLB: You've toured extensively with experimental and activist theater companies, including the world-renowned Bread and Puppet Theater. What was your role typically? And what were those experiences like?
JS: I worked for a number of years with one of the most accomplished and influential theater artists of our time, sculptor and director Peter Schumann, whose unique creations with Bread and Puppet Theater are known throughout the world. Bread and Puppet is a radically pacifist, communal troupe, metamorphosing over time, and swelling from small touring ensembles to enormous crowds of performers, depending on the needs of a given project. I was involved in that theater for about eight years, and I also spent three years with another traveling theater, Les Montreurs d’Images, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Both are very international in atmosphere and orientation, and along with the thrill of becoming a strong performer (I'm an excellent stilt dancer and skilled in using masks) I loved the experience of working among puppeteers, dancers, and musicians from many countries, in a fantastic ferment of languages. I also loved the ways, as performers, we were each involved in all aspects of a production, with no division between "artistic" and "technical" tasks. And because I'm a good administrator and communicator, I specialized in tour coordination.
I continue to feel that theater has the most comprehensive scope of any art, from the minuscule details to the grand, sweeping movements, blending visuals and sonic elements, text and gesture, what filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky called "sculpting in time."
The theaters with which I've mainly worked aren't "naturalistic," in the typical (American) sense of portraying realistic episodes of daily life. Instead, Bread and Puppet and those who've been influenced by Peter Schumann's approach create dreamlike, physically arduous, encompassing visual and musical sequences of images and sounds, often without words, or with words used in perpendicular ways. Many of our pieces utilized the motley, manic format of circuses. The opportunity to immerse myself in work where words were seen with circumspection and even suspicion--and where the English language was by no means primary--was disorienting and provocative to me, as a writer. For years I felt as if what I most fully understood to be "poetry" could be reached more decisively with theater pieces, not with verse on a page. I'm reminded of how Wallace Stevens imperative for poetry, in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction": "It must be abstract. It must change. It must give pleasure." Abstraction, change, and pleasure . . . these are also the qualities of virtuosic circus techniques, as practiced by many of my theater colleagues during that crucial era of my artistic life.
I suppose that now my poems, in many respects--especially their fascination with audible textures and with syntactical "choreography"--aspire to be theater pieces.
RLB: You live with your family on an "off-the-grid cooperative" in Vermont. What's that like?
Since my college days, I've been drawn to communal living. This has been a complement to also being inclined toward generous supplies of solitude. Our present arrangement is a modest miracle: in 1986, a group of individuals and couples bought a beautiful, neglected hill farm and 150 acres, and almost twenty-five years later we're still here, still largely the same group. We're incorporated as a cooperative, and while each household has a fair degree of autonomy (and legal title to a house), we share in sensibility and also take care of many practical necessities together. This is a low-key, very good-humored, really intelligent little neighborhood, and I've felt well supported here as a person, a civic activist, and an artist. My wife and I were able to build our own home entirely, from the ground up, with the help of neighbors and friends. And our electricity comes from solar modules and golf-cart batteries, because the regular power line ends a mile away, which we were emboldened to try because our neighbors were doing likewise.
RLB: In your collection As When, In Season, you have a section of nine odes. What do you feel makes an effective ode?
JS: An ode is an ancient verbal-song of praise. Pindar's seminal odes were composed for choral voices, with cresting lines and surging acclaim for athletes and other heroes, and they combine rhythms and images in daring ways, reaching for ecstasy through reasoning and metaphor. I've loved reading and hearing the Greek myths since childhood, and that feeling was refreshed and transmuted as I rediscovered those stories, reading to our daughter when she was tiny (which I still do today, when she's sixteen). In graduate school I wrote a seventy-page essay examining every aspect of Keats's marvelously varied, fluid yet precise "Ode to a Nightingale." I wondered if a poet today could write a compelling ode in a natural contemporary idiom. There's a certain grandeur, in tone and amplitude, I was reaching toward . . .
Years ago I had the idea of writing a series of portraits of crucial female teachers; I intended to make a set of nine, each named for one of the mythological muses, and each representing a certain domain of knowledge and action. In my view, these muses wouldn't be the inspirers of a male artist, but would be virtuosos in their own right. I couldn't find a suitable structure for this "suite" of poems, in which I knew the musical component needed to be particularly strong. In the mid-1990s I began experimenting with an invented form, which I called a chanoine after the French word for chain, and this time (probably my third or fourth attempt) the series came together steadily. Each poem has thirteen rhymes on the same sound, and there are many, many images and allusions; for some readers, my odes may seem too full, as I've tried to see how far I can push the momentum of the sentences in relation to the "staves" or measures of the lines, using syntax for flex and spring. While the form is the tightest I've ever used, the writing process was euphoric, as I learned firsthand how much artists gain (including the most absorbing pleasure) by addressing a resilient, resistive vessel of form.
The muse poems are each a portrait of a specific person (or in one instance two people, entwined), writers and artists, also my wife and our daughter. Only one of them is named outright (the poem for Grace Paley uses "grace" as the rhyme-sound). Whether these poems succeed as odes with respect to the whole tradition, I can't know, but I love reading them to audiences. I have the sense that they reach a listener through the ears more directly than they reach a reader through the eyes, and I'm making plans to do a recording of my delivery, where I can attend closely to pacing and clarity.
RLB: This is your first full-length collection, yet you're very experienced in the poetry world. How long did it take you to get this collection together?
JS: From an early age, I knew I wanted to make a living through reading and writing, and soon after college I started work as a literary editor, apprenticing to the boundlessly dedicated and knowledgeable Sydney Lea, founder of the journal New England Review. This led to other editorial jobs, which were entwined with my theater work.
Like most young writers, I made efforts to get my work published, with only sporadic success. Meanwhile, I edited more than a hundred books in a variety of fields, including poetry, fiction, and essays. Gradually I came to an understanding of what the book I'd want to publish would be like, in texture and shape. With a state arts council grant, I published a chapbook in 1999, featuring the muse sequence and four lullabies, which was a 150% good experience, and in 2006 after I'd entered a round of book contests to no avail, I decided instead to publish another chapbook, with a new linked series. At that point the poet Ilya Kaminsky asked to see my manuscript for Marick Press. He and publisher Mariela Griffor said "Yes," and all of a sudden the book was being produced, to my surprise (and relief).
RLB: You're a managing editor at Tupelo Press, so I imagine you get to see several very fine collections that get published, as well as good and bad collections that don't quite make the grade. As an editor, what do you think makes a great poetry collection?
JS: I'm presently most involved in the step-by-step production of Tupelo's forthcoming books, working closely with authors on editorial adjustments and working very closely with book designers and printers, a part of the process with which I have a lot of experience. It's extremely exciting to navigate the transformation of a book from word-processing to designed pages, comparable to the translation of a dance or theater work from rehearsal studio to stage.
Even after working as a professional editor since 1980, my answer to your question of what makes a powerful, moving, satisfying book isn't so different from the answer I'd have given as a child or teenaged reader (though my frame of reference is wider, as I've read hundreds and hundreds of books in a number of languages and from many eras). I remain an "innocent" reader: longing to be transported, by imagery and story; willing to be challenged, by language and ideas; most drawn to a dynamic, unfolding relationship between the details of a collection, part by part and passage by passage, and the shape of the whole.
RLB: Who are you currently reading?
JS: I read each new book by several splendid, very inventive novelists from New England. I've recently read After You've Gone by Jeffrey Lent, which maneuvers through time in unexpected ways, and am just finishing Ernest Hebert's Spoonwood, which shifts the narrators' vantage as I've never seen before. I'm also rereading--very slowly--two new books of poems, Angela Shaw's splendid The Beginning of the Fields, which I shepherded through production for Tupelo but which is opening for me on all kinds of other levels, now that it's published; and Jody Gladding's Rooms and Their Airs (Milkweed, 2009), the first new book by this astonishingly subtle poet in many years. I'm getting ready to read the only book by W.G. Sebald I haven't yet read, The Rings of Saturn. Along with Czeslaw Milosz, I guess I think of Sebald as the greatest writer of our age. I'm also savoring the prospect of time this summer to read Marilynne Robinson's Home.
RLB: If you could share only one piece of advice with other poets, what would it be?
JS: Read! Read aloud! Read to others! (Is that three pieces of advice, or one?)