James Valvis is an incredibly prolific, solid poet and writer who's been producing great work for several years, now. A retired soldier, a father, a poet and novelist; he's that rarest of things: a writer who can crack a joke. He's got a new collection, How to Say Goodbye, coming out soon from Aortic Books.
Me: You write poetry and fiction—do you consider yourself a poet or novelist? What—to you—is the difference between writing poetry and fiction?
James: Both. Neither. I consider myself a writer. That’s all. I don’t bother with classifications. Writing is writing, and I’m happy to do (and sell) any kind of writing. My goal is to excel at all the kinds of writing that interest me. Many of my favorite writers have been solid at a number of different forms and genres. Like Stephen Dobyns, Raymond Carver, William Saroyan, etc.
The difference between poetry and fiction has been blurred so much I don’t know that there is one anymore. If you read the work of, say, Russell Edson, I can see little that separates it and surreal micro-fiction. Very often, when a poem runs long, I take out the line breaks and sell it as flash fiction. Or a story that runs too short can be turned into a poem. Once I turned a literary poem into a science fiction story and it sold at a better place than a lot of my intentionally SF short stories. Go figure.
In fact, I think there’s a strange effect on the ADD-addled modern psychology. People will not read a poem that runs three pages—because it’s too long. But they will read a flash fiction tale of the same exact length because it’s viewed as short.
Me: How has being a father influenced your writing?
James: Immensely. Besides the flood of material it gives me, it has changed how I see even the old material.
For instance, I wrote a lot of stuff about my parents before my daughter was born. Now I see that same material in a different way. It’s not necessarily a better way. I’m not saying that. But it is different, and so it has opened up that material again, making it fresh for me. There’s no doubt you view your parents much differently when you become a parent. Like, suddenly it’s you who has to say no, hand out punishments, demand good grades, etc., and this shines a new light on your childhood.
People without kids, I’m afraid, are forever doomed to see their parents from a single angle.
Me: Who are your biggest literary influences? & how have they influenced you?
James: Well, there are two ways to read this question. There are the literary influences, and then there are the personal relationships that influence your writing. I would say my wife is the biggest influence in my life, including my writing life. My work ethic and writing approach have more to do with the time I spent working with my father in his woodshop and the time I spent in the U.S. Army than any literary person.
Still, I suppose you mean literary influences. And that’s an almost impossible question to answer in any abbreviated way. There are so many it becomes hard to remember half of them. In the end, my literary influences are the entire canon, those who influenced me directly and those who influenced the ones who influenced them. I will say that when I was a young man the two authors I felt very connected to were Raymond Carver in fiction and Edward Field in poetry.
What excited me about them was the way they took everyday situations and language and transformed it into something that had a deep emotive impact on the reader. I wasn’t much for intellectual puzzles, especially back then. I didn’t want to shock people or perfect the world through activism or create for myself a cult of personality. What I wanted was to get on paper the essence—not the reality, but the essence—of what I had experienced as a human being in a way that all people who could read would find valuable. It seemed to me that those authors, and others like William Saroyan, had done that.
Me: What have you read recently that knocked you on your ass?
James: You mean, besides my dentist bill?
Hmm. What doesn’t knock me on my ass? I wrote an essay once, published in Thoughtsmith, about how I love reading old and long-forgotten paperback novels because I think they need me. I’m profoundly grateful to writers of all stripes, since reading is my primary solitary pleasure. I get sentimental about everything I read and it takes a lot for me to dislike something. It can happen, but the writing has to be very, very poor. Usually that kind of terrible writing gets knocked out by the editing process. But sadly, not always.
Anyway, I just finished reading a book of poems by Mather Schneider, He Took a Cab, which I got to read early because I was asked to write a blurb for the book. I thought it was outstanding. Schneider is a writer more people should know. I was also recently reading and loving the stories of Etgar Keret and more poems by Ron Koertge. Finally, I have to mention Vern Rutsala, the best unknown poet (even to other poets) in America.
Me: How would you describe the Valvis style or voice?
James: I wouldn’t. First, that’s something for others to say, not me. But also because I don’t think I have one. I write everything, and in many, many styles and voices. I think there are people out there who try for a style or a pose. They bully everything they write into that style—never mind what the poem or story wants to be.
I try to let my writing be completely free to be whatever it wants. Often technical concerns determine the voice or style of a piece. One of the reasons I can write as much as I do is I do not put up obstacles to writing. I’ve been reading some poets for years who have never once cracked a joke in a poem. Not once! Now, either these are the most singularly humorless people in history, or they are simply blocking anything that might be funny from their work, since they consider it sub-literary. Not surprisingly, I write more than they do, and they can’t figure out why.
Me: You are very prolific. Can you tell me a little about your writing routine?
James: I try to write every day. I try to write both a poem and some prose every day. I don’t always succeed at this, especially the prose part, but lately I’ve been averaging about 300-400 poems, 20-50 short stories, and 2-3 novel drafts a year.
I write in the morning, right after I exercise, since that’s when I’m freshest. I used to be a night writer, but I no longer have the mental energy to perform that deeply into the day. I write for about three or four hours—with some of that time spent editing and some spent playing Hearts.
I try never to let myself buy into excuses to not write. I never leave the desk without getting something done. I write seven days a week, and on all holidays: Easter, my birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my anniversary, even Super Bowl Sunday. I cannot write on the road, so I don’t write on vacations, but I always bring a novel draft for revisions. I consider a day with no writing progress to be a wasted day.
Me: What are you working on?
James: As far as new stuff, just poems at the moment. I’ve spent the summer editing a YA novel that I expect to send out sometime before the end of the year. I was planning to start a new novel draft in September, but I’ve been called to jury duty, and so I have to put it off until mid-October, since I don’t want to be interrupted mid-novel with something that far out of my routine.
Because I have to wait on the novel, I thought I might spend September writing nothing but short stories. In 1999, to honor Saroyan, I wrote 30 short stories in one month and posted them online as they were drafted. I’ve since wondered if I could do it again. Maybe this will be the month.
Me: If you were to be remembered for one work, which would it be?
James: My daughter.
As for the writing, I have no clue. In a way, I hope there isn’t one. My good friend Michael McNeilly, may he rest in peace, was a brilliant poet. He wrote reams of terrific poems and some short fiction. But he also wrote the turtle poem. You should read it. It’s an awesome poem, one of my favorites, not just my Michael but by anyone. And yet it was so successful and so loved it overshadowed all the other wonderful work Michael did. It was all anyone wanted to talk about.
I wouldn’t want anything I write to do that. I’ve written a lot of poems and stories. To me, they’re like children. I refuse to pick a favorite.
Me: I am looking forward to reading your forthcoming poetry collection. Can you tell me a little about it?
James: How to Say Goodbye (Aortic Books.) It’s due out soon! Maybe September or October 2011. It’s my first full-length collection. Hell, it’s my first collection of any kind. I’ve never even put out a poetry chapbook before, so this is the first time people will have the chance to own a poetry book with my name on it.
It’s a whopper, too. I don’t know how many pages it will end up being, but I sent Kevin almost 300 pages of poetry to consider. It represents over 20 years of my verse. The work is not thematic, but it runs the gamut of styles and subject matter.
I hope people buy it—for everyone they know.
Me: How has being in the military influenced your writing?
James: First, I learned a lot about discipline in the military. I especially learned not to complain. When I listen to some talk about writing, I don’t wonder if they could make it in a war. No chance of that. I wonder instead if they could make it through the first week of Basic Training.
Second, it gave me material not commonly found in the small press. Let’s face it. There are not many poets who would join the military, let alone the army. Yet such an experience is more interesting and singular than whipping up mocha at Starbucks for spending cash while finishing an MFA. Also, when I write a poem about war or army life or soldiers, it has authority because I joined while there was a war going on, trained for war, and knew men who had been in war. I’m not speaking in generalities, which is—rather than sentimentality, as is so often said—the true enemy of effective verse. These are real people to me, not pawns I can use to grind a political axe.
You see, the general population, and especially the general poetry population, are both fascinated and repelled by the military. We tend to get either vilified as baby killers or erected as saintly martyrs. We’re either the evil tools of the imperial government, a real life version of the faceless storm troopers, or we are ignorant victims taken advantage of by dark forces inside the halls of American power. It never seems to occur to people that most of us might be fairly bright souls who believe in America, flawed though she is, and are neither insane blood-thirsty murderers nor children in need of protection from our own ignorance and impending destruction. In the end, most of us are not heroes either. Especially not me. I spent most of my time in the Army filling out forms to send people on leave or attach them to some temporary unit. Hardly Audie Murphy.
A lot of my army poems and stories are anti-war, since who likes war but crazy people, certainly not most of the guys I knew, but a number of them deal with how soldiers and vets are viewed as pawns by everyone, including and maybe especially by those who claim to be speaking for our welfare.