Startled by JOY 2019: Meet JS Absher

Dear Readers...

When I'm not writing, I'm involved in a multitude of other projects, foremost among them 
  • Books and Brews, in which Michael Agnew (Minnesota's first beer cicerone) and I interview local authors as Michael pairs craft brews to their reading and....
  • editing Gabriel's Horn's annual poetry anthology.
This year was our maiden voyage, with the theme of JOY. Our goal is to provide a paying market for poets writing in traditional and classical forms. I was delighted with the quality of poets who responded, with their impressive credentials and backgrounds and am very proud to feature THOMAS R. SMITH and DAN BLUM, two very accomplished wordsmiths. We have a number of poets from the Twin Cities, but also from around the United States, from Canada, and from the United Kingdom. I look forward to having even more countries represented next year. If you're a poet and would like to submit, please visit our submission page.

OUR FIRST EVENT … will be July 7, 2017 at Next Chapter Books, 38 South Snelling, Saint Paul, MN, from 2 to 3:30. Wine, beverages, hors d'ourves and readings from several of our poets!

And so, as we launch Startled by JOY: 2019, I begin a series of interviews with several of the twenty-nine poets. I have enjoyed getting to know more about these people who are part of this wonderful anthology. As a writer and some-time poet myself, it is an inspiration to get to know them better. Today, please welcome:

J.S. Absher

Give us a brief background of your life

I was born in North Carolina and have spent most of my 67 years in the state. However, my stays outside North Carolina (ranging from years to weeks) have been important – four years at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT; two years as an LDS missionary in the Paris, France, mission; two weeks teaching poetry to students (aged 12 to 21) in Belize; two two-week trips to Taipei and Beijing; and, recently, two semesters teaching composition and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Many of my poems are lyric narratives based on my life and my family’s long history in the southern US.

What first drew you to poetry? Was there a defining moment, poem, or poet?
My father loved poetry, so it was natural that I should read it on my own. So far as I remember, I started reading poetry in the seventh grade or thereabouts. I bought a small paperback anthology (which I still own), and memorized at least one of the poems. That year or shortly thereafter, on school field trips, I began to buy the collected works of several poets. I was most attracted by Donne and Keats. Later (still in high school), I read a lot of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. My favorite poem in my junior year was probably Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Left largely to my own devices, I can blame no one but myself for my old-fashioned choices.

I began writing around the ninth grade.

Who are some of your influences? Who are your favorite poets?

I can name those I have been inspired and moved by; actual influence is probably best judged by a reader.

Poets (or specific works) I have read over many years include Shakespeare’s sonnets, Robert Frost, John Keats, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, Marianne Moore, Geoffrey Hill (especially “The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy”), T.S. Eliot (especially “The Four Quartets”), Thomas Hardy, the historical poems of Cavafy, Czesław Miłosz (my favorite book is The Separate Notebooks), Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito poems, Baudelaire (I particularly love “Les petites vieilles”), the heteronymic poetry of Fernand Pessoa, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, Philip Larkin, Spenser’s “Epithalamion.” My father knew by heart great swatches of Robert Service, so I’ll list him here, too.

I’ve tried to adopt some of the techniques of James Merrill and Auden, though, lacking their facility and genius, it is foolhardy to say so. I’ve recently spent a lot of time with James Michie’s translations of Horace’s Odes and with Christopher Logue’s evocation of The Iliad. In the last ten years I’ve tried to write in emulation of Logue, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wisława Szymborska, with varying degrees of unsuccess. 

Among current poets, I greatly admire A.E. Stallings, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Fred Chappell, and many more than I can mention. 

Who are your favorite poets?

To those mentioned above, I’d add George Herbert and the poets in both of my critique groups. I’ve probably learned more from their poems and critiques than from any other single influence. 

Do you or have you studied the craft of poetry and if so, how?

The best high school English teacher I had, Mrs. Kirby, was (probably consciously) a proponent of New Criticism, a very good thing by my lights. My youngest uncle, the late Larry Absher, was an undergrad when I was in middle school or high school. He gave me his copy of John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean. This gave me some inkling of poetry as a craft and the ways one can think about poems. 

At BYU, I encountered the best teacher I ever had. Arthur Henry King was trained in English and Swedish universities as a philologist. He showed how poetry of the Renaissance (we spent most of our time reading Spenser’s “Epithalamion”) was written in creative response to classical Latin and Greek poems and the Bible. He brought an unusual moral rigor to the understanding of literature as arising from the complex interactions between the literary tradition and the character and experiences of the writer. 

After BYU, I earned a Ph.D. in eighteenth-century English literature from Duke University. At the same time, I began working for a large health insurance company. I decided to continue in business rather than academia – in many ways, I felt more at home. I retired from that company after thirty years. 

In the early years, I was a part-time single father, so poetry took a backseat to making a living and raising a child. I did not have the time or means to attend classes and workshops, so for a long time I developed on my own. It was while working two jobs (60-70 hours per week) that I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and was provoked by it to declare myself a poet, though there was not much evidence of it. 

When my son was old enough for me to attend events in the evening, I enrolled in a workshop through Duke Continuing Education taught by Ann Garbett, then a professor at Averett University in Danville, Virginia, and a fine poet in her own right. The class evolved into an ongoing critique group, the Poet Fools, to which I still belong, along with Ann and several other participants in the class. It was in this class that I began to learn how to make my poems speak to readers and not just to myself. Later I joined another excellent critique group, the Black Socks, but Ann’s class was the turning point.

I continue to participate in both of these writing groups.

Do you make a daily practice of writing poetry?

I write almost every day, though not at a set time or for a set period of time, and not always poetry. Though retired from business, I tutor, take on small editing jobs, and occasionally teach classes, I’m heavily involved in my church, and I potter about my flower garden. I’m also trying to write a nonfiction book of “microhistory” about several people who lived in Winston-Salem, NC, in the 1890s. The type of research and synthesis needed are different than what I’m accustomed to, and on a larger scale. Sometimes I neglect poetry for days or weeks, but then it comes roaring back and pushes most other things aside for days or weeks.

Tell us something about your process of writing poetry—what sparks an idea, how do you begin, how much editing and re-writing, etc.

My poems often begin with an incident from history – family history (two aunts politely arguing over who had the largest tumor) or something I’ve read (the engagement between a Mameluke sultan of Egypt and a pre-teen daughter of the King of France); or with an image (the plover that hops into a crocodile’s mouth to clean its teeth); or with a quotation. Napoleon Hill was once famous for his book, Think and Grow Rich; my father used to read it, but apparently he did not think hard enough. A few years ago I looked at the text of the book and came across an evocative aphorism, “You will get exactly and only what you ask for.” I combined this aphorism with lines from Shakespeare sonnets and imagery from a rabbinic commentary on Isaac, and I came up with a traveling salesman who offers a woman weeping in a train depot exactly and only what she asks for. 

Often enough, I’ve set out to write in a certain form. Often, the poem takes over and goes in a different direction, but I’ve managed to write a few successful sonnets; a decent sestina; a hybrid sonnet-ghazal; a ballade (a French form) that may, eventually, turn out OK; several poems in syllabics; and a number of poems in ad hoc forms. 

Many of my poems take a long time to reach their final version – five, ten, even twenty years. That means I am now starting poems I will likely never finish. In revising, I change forms, often adding rhyme or slant rhyme; combine poems or break them apart; add allusions and quotations (e.g., lines from songs or poems); cut out words, lines, stanzas; fiddle with tone, diction, metaphor. One troublesome poem. “Song,” was “solved” by application of a rhetorical device, anadiplosis. In this device, the end of one syntactical unit is repeated at the beginning of the next unit – “A poem for the sycamore, / a sycamore for the snake….” This device works in this poem because it formally expresses the theme.  

Are there two or three themes a reader might tend to find running through your poetry? What draws you to these themes?

My first chapbook was about my maternal grandmother – the 1938 murder of her husband in an interracial incident, and her fifty years’ widowhood. She was aware that her racist feelings were not just, but she said she was unable to overcome them – though in her old age she blessed my brother’s marriage to an African-American and loved their oldest child. My grandmother died in 1990 and I miss her to this day. 

The book arose from the tension between love and knowledge: we love those we know to be greatly flawed; we hope to be loved, however ruinously flawed we know ourselves to be. 

I’ve also written many poems about the terrible relationships in my father’s family (abuse, physical and mental pain), and how they spilled over into my own family, including my father’s suicide when I was in grad school. I was aesthetically attracted by a dual problem – the “real-life” problem of how to survive the inability fully to give or receive love, and the aesthetic problem of how to write about it without succumbing to therapeutic language or self-pity. 

Recently, I’ve been approaching the theme in terms of pictorial art. Legend has it that Gentile Bellini’s depiction of John the Baptist’s decapitated head provoked a new beheading. My alter ego, Patient Doe, explores this question: does the beauty of a work of art justify the suffering that goes into its creation?

What are your hopes or goals for your poetry and/or writing life?

I’ll admit that one goal – one I’ve never achieved and seem unlikely to – is to make money from poetry. No one “but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” according to Samuel Johnson, and I’d like to remembered as something other than a blockhead.

Not that blockheads are bad – we write because we have something to say, or we want to learn some element of the craft, or (blockheadedest of all) it’s a habit we can’t shake.

Occasionally, a poem means something to someone who does not usually read poetry – a friend who’s battling cancer, a relative whose terrible experiences find expression in my lines, a fellow believer who finds comfort in my muddled attempts to express the world as it is, and our hopes of redemption. When such things happen, I feel a lot better about spending so many hours at my desk.

Your links:

• “That’s Alright, Mama, Just Anyway You Do,” Sunstone
• “Mama Talks to Herself,” Postcard Poems
Four poems (“Pregnant,” "Moving Away in Wet Weather," "What I Knew and When," and "Two Things Don't Matter"), The Dead Mule
• “Bum Bam Boom,” Dialogue

Published books and works:
The Burial of Anyce Shepherd (Main Street Rag Publications, 2005) – chapbook
Night Weather; illus. Katie LaRosa (Cynosura Press, 2010) – chapbook
Mouth Work (St. Andrews University Press, 2016) – full-length book, winner of Lena Shull Book Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society. 

The Battle is O'er is now available!
Start from the beginning: Prelude One 
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