Talking poetry with David St. John

David St. John (Photo credit: Vivienne St. John)

Photo credit: Vivienne St. John

Today I get to combine two things that I love–poetry and interviews.  It’s National Poetry Month which is always great.  I appreciate anything that brings poetry to a wider audience.  We all want to share the things we love.

So here’s my National Poetry Month gift to you–I interviewed my poetry teacher, David St. John about his new book, The Auroras, his writing influences and music.  The first part of this interview is on the Huffington Post and gives you a little background on DSJ and The Auroras.

The Auroras: New Poems
by David St John
Powells.com

The Auroras  is divided into three sections, each with a different voice and different stories to tell.  If you don’t read a lot of poetry, I highly recommend the second section–In the High Country– of The Auroras as a lovely way to find your way in.  There’s not a traditional storyline, but there are clear themes that run through–music, returning home, memory.

Here are a few lines from the poem called “The Empty Frame.”

I need to tell you this now
Because I have you by me the one

I’ve waited for to sketch finally
The story of a boy who’d lie

At night in those fields believing
A world beyond always awaited

Restless in its insistent music

I chose these lines for two reasons.  I think many of us can relate to that restless impulse of wanting to go out into the world, sure that’s it’s better, bigger and more interesting than where we are now.  Especially when we’re young and need to leave home.  The second reason I chose these lines is to get all teacherly on you and point out a literary device that DSJ uses effectively in The Auroras.    When he writes that he needed to tell you this now, he’s using a kind of direct address.  We don’t know who “you” is.  Is it me, the reader?  Is it another character from the poem?  We can’t get the answer from this excerpt, but there’s still an immediacy, something that makes us pick up our head and say, “What?  Me?  Is he talking to me?”  And then you really do hope that he’s talking to you because it sounds like he’s going to tell you a secret.  Who doesn’t love secrets?

To find out more about the mystery and secrets, you’ll just have to get your hands on a copy of the book.

DSJ and I talked about what and who influenced him in writing The Auroras.  He lists Wallace Stevens and Shelley as major influences, with Montale “looking over my shoulder for a lot of that [final section] sequence.”

“Stevens and Montale are poets I have read so thoroughly for so many years that their presence and their influence is always with me.  But Shelley was a poet I had never been able to make use of, so I got kind of obsessed by reading all of Shelley and trying to understand why I had not connected with him and yet, been able to connect so powerfully with Keats.  And of course, this is something many people feel.  There was this kind of breakthrough where Shelley’s work just kind of opened up for me and I was able to enter it in this way and let it sort of wash over me and through me.  But in the process of the writing itself, those influences and those voices are there as echoes and as backdrop, but what I’m listening for is something new and distinctive in my own voice.  Trying to write and listen for something in my own voice that I’ve never heard before.”

What’s fantastic about interviewing one’s teacher is getting hear his challenges, passion and desire to become a better poet.  With DSJ, I’ve heard him lecture on many different poets and respect him enormously for not only his knowledge base, but for his quick, kind  eye in critiquing poems.  We talked about the myth of the poet sitting in a wine-soaked meditation or ecstasy and having lightning strike leaving a full and beautiful poem spelled out in the burn marks on the ground.  DSJ on that notion:

“It’s a wonderful, delicious fantasy that arises from those times where one is so intimately connected to the sources of one’s own sort of creative act, but in fact you have to go in pursuit of that connection.  Lightning doesn’t strike unless you keep throwing yourself out into the storm.”

Great advice to any writer.  Throw yourself out into the storm.  (I think wine’s good on occasion too.)

You can’t skim too far through one of DSJ’s books without finding a reference to music or a poem that reads like a ballad.  Blues is a particular obsession for DSJ.  In “The Aurora of the Lost Dulcimer,” you have blues as master, as mentor, as the guide who says, “Come along, I have something you’re going to want to see.”

Then he opened up just standing there
In a purple bathrobe over a torn T-shirt & freshly pressed jeans

Smiling the way the moon smiles down on Lake Pontchartrain
& so began my true education & the resurrection of my good name.

He wrote, “the way the moon smiles down.”  I thought of this tonight as I drove through the Valley, a little tired, a little hungry.  My eye skimmed the tree tops landing on the surprise of the moon.  Not the bright and smiling moon I imagine from DSJ’s poem, but a moon visible through a scrim of clouds, marked by a diagonal streak of cloud.  It looked like an elegant calligraphy.  What was the message?  I’m grateful to have DSJ and this whole process of reading and interviewing to inspire me.  I wouldn’t have taken special notice of tonight’s moon if I hadn’t read David’s work so carefully and given thought to the guide that we’re all hoping will answer the door when we knock.

Please check out the first part of the interview with DSJ for the Huffington Post.  I really love the stories he tells about poetry and can’t wait for you to read them.


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