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10 Questions for James Haug

"The river was collecting snow on itself. Almost nobody  was coming to see it. Its banks were either slick and muddy, or frozen and rutted. The river was letting itself go. Here and there it was jammed with branches that trapped chunks of ice from the current, and plastic jugs and scraps of chicken wire, and here it was that snow collected...." —from “Dismal Levels,” Summer 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 2)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Early on I tried little stories in a Jack London vein: dog stories, man and dog stories, man and wolf stories, man alone in the wilds playing harmonica near a campfire stories, man hallucinating in the driving snow stories. It seemed pretty heady and elsewhere. It was all about being elsewhere.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Max Jacob, Gertrude Stein, Edward Gorey, Joe Brainard, David Markson, Francis Ponge, Félix Fénéon’s  Novels in Three Lines, the cartoonist Chris Ware. I like captions, particularly ones with images, but also captions without images arranged consecutively, or captions at odds with images, as Max Ernst did. I think I brought some of that to prose poems. I like how box-like prose poems are, both accommodating and enigmatic. I sometimes try to present a perfectly reasonable surface, where everything seems to go together, but then a small kink in syntax or logic gets in there, a word choice that’s off, so that underneath the lucid reasonableness, things begin to appear out of joint. Like Ponge says, “Ideas are not my forte…. Objects in the external world, on the other hand, delight me. They sometimes surprise me, but seem in no way concerned about my approval: which they immediately acquire.”

What other professions have you worked in?
I drove a cab after high school, soon after getting my driver’s license. In a record plant, I punched out labels from 45rpm records and then fed the remaining vinyl into some kind of grinder for re-use. That was fun, but very loud. I’d smuggle vinyl home in the trunk of my car. I was an office clerk at the Craig Developmental Center in western New York, which was a repurposed epilepsy colony. There I was charged with going through patients’ files that went back a century, all stored in the basements of buildings that also went back a century. The files were mostly records of patients admitted as young people who had then lived out their lives at the facility, and that was heartbreaking.

What inspired you to write this piece?
A small river runs near our house, a creek, and sometimes it looks pretty beaten up. Like “Dismal Levels,” many of the poems in Riverain present a river, either as a feature, or a place, or as a speaker. In this case, the river is talking to itself. Talking to oneself is something many of my speakers do, and I have no problem with the pathetic fallacy, which strikes me as neither.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Yes, sometimes, an imagined place, a city that doesn’t have to adhere to what we know about it. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a perfect example of this.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
It was a breakthrough for me to realize that I could work at something with the television on, or the radio. My wife, Alix, used to write lovely term papers in grad school as the soaps played on her TV. I must credit her with showing me the way. Music can help conjure the imaginative field you may want to wander around in. Sometimes I’ll listen to Bill Frisell, or Daniel Bachman, or Jenny Scheinman, or Wadada Leo Smith playing [Thelonious] Monk—music that conveys a great sense of interior space. On the other hand, while I'd like to think that loud music is great for editing, that’s probably not true. Silence is just as good, or the sound of my dog breathing as he sleeps.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
For poems, I mostly just sit down and start writing with the first thing that comes to mind and hope that that goes somewhere. Then I get up and pace around a bit, and then sit down and try some more. Using analogous form can be useful: list, letter, essay. Writing prose poems allows me to think that I’m not writing a poem at all, and that’s really the best thing, to not think you’re writing a poem but just to write it. Sometimes it helps to read a little bit of a certain writer, or look through an art book. I almost always welcome interruptions. That’s where the radio helps, for stray bits of speech to get started with, or what something somebody in the house might say. Then maybe a line or phrase will get in my head and beguile me and prompt me to find out what might be said after that: how will that sound, where will that go?

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Music. I’ve attempted playing a variety of instruments, without much success, but maybe some pleasure. I play a little harmonica. I’d love to play a National Steel guitar, or an electric banjo. Alix bought me bongos, and Dara Wier gave us a concertina, which I’ve yet to master.

What are you working on currently?
I have another poetry manuscript done. It’s called Big Crow Town, and I’m filling a notebook with 5-line poems and have no idea how that’ll go. I’m also trying to get my little publishing imprint, Scram Press, off the ground.

What are you reading right now?
Just finishing up the fifth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and anticipating the appearance of the translation of the final volume this fall. I’ve also recently read books by Dag Solstad and Gunnhild Øyehaug, two other Norwegian fiction writers, as well as Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Joseph Cornell’s dream journal is currently on my desk.

JAMES HAUG's latest collection, Riverain, has just been published by Oberlin College Press, in its FIELD Poetry Series. His graphic story "Cuba Hill Diary" appeared in the Massachusetts Review.

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