Q: Tell us about you, and your writing (themes, influences etc.)
A: There’s a wonderful scene in the film Wonder Boys where Rip Torn stands at the podium to address a university crowd full of literature students and the first words that he says are “I am a writer,” in a professorial, masterful way, to which Tobey Maguire’s character (incidentally named James) roars out in laughter. I kinda feel that way. It’s a little silly to say “I am a writer,” in a overly assured manner. I’m a broken thing who somehow finds that words are a miraculous binding agent, linguistic glue for my soul. I grew up in a violent, drug and abuse ridden home. I remember when I was 13 finding a Rolling Stone magazine in which these prisoners who were serving life sentences had turned to poetry as a way to cope with their impossible situation. Their poems spoke to what I was feeling inside, also a prisoner to a harsh environment, I thought to myself (and I’ve probably never really stopped thinking this) maybe I can do this, perhaps this can help me to survive. And it did. I learned from these prisoner/poets that words can set a soul free, even if it’s all too painfully obvious that we are maybe never really free. Something in us, (in me) is broken. Words don’t fix it, but they cushion me against total darkness/oblivion.
My themes tend to center around trauma and dissociation. For me all words are coping mechanisms to begin with. Language is how we confront the void and chaos of a world without meaning, it’s how we contain our unknowing and anxiety of the unforgivably strange. Poetry, to me, is therapy in motion. I find psychotherapy is itself a shared poem between two people. Poetry starts when I see you as another strange me, as two lives intertwined and yet still separate. I speak- call out to “you” and you respond, this is a poem, a kindness. Therapy is about repairing the soul and I believe that’s what poetry is as well. A lot of what goes on in a consulting room is about shared enactment and creatively working with trauma’s, giving them new narratives over time. If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is.
My Influences have ranged over the years. As a young man I was, as you might imagine, obsessed with Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. In my 20’s my influences were William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, J. G Ballard, Bukowski, Kerouac, Miguel Pinero and the nuyorican and language poets. My influences now tend to be pretty small: Jorie Graham, Alice Notley, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Eigen, Helene Cioxus, Toby Olson. I don’t read nearly as much new poetry as I should. But there are a few modern poets and writers who have impacted my work in one way or another and for very different reasons, Sarah Certa, Julene T. Weaver Brian Jabas Smith and Rachel Custer.
Q: What are some of the ways in which you promote your work, and do you find these add, or eat into, your time writing?
A: I don’t really have a steady submission regiment, partly because I run my own lit journal now which eats into a lot of my time. I am constantly writing, I’m just not sending my own work out as much as I used to. When I get a publication I’ll share it on social media, that’s pretty much the extent of it. I have a book coming out this year, so there are promotional things that I have to do for that, like attend readings. The last one was at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamburg, Brooklyn. It is nice to be able to share my work with people in the flesh and blood. I’m probably not the best public speaker but it’s important to be able to put your voice into your words, like breath into clay. That’s the vulnerable part, to show up with poems in hand and risk opening your world up to strangers.
Q: What projects are you working on at present?
A: I am so excited for the release of my debut book, This Someone I Call Stranger, which is being published by Indolent Books and the incredible Michael Broder. I am so grateful to him and the whole Indolent team, including Samantha Pious, who edited my book. I can hardly put it into words without sounding maudlin, but I am beyond grateful. And to Jessie Janeshek, Sarah Certa and Kym Tuvim who wrote such kind, beautiful blurbs for the back of my book.
I’ve been collaborating for the past year and a half with my friend Elisabeth Horan, a wonderful poet who I got to know through AHC. I’ve lost count of how many full poetry manuscripts we’ve written together by now, it’s at least close to 8 full lengths so far, and a smattering of chapbook manuscripts. We are looking for publishers but haven’t had any luck so far. The greater part of that process for me though is just writing with her. We draw the best out of each other. Again there is that thing about two poets calling out to one another. Our collaboration feels a lot like that, creatively processing our lives.
Other than that I am continuing to edit Anti-Heroin Chic. It’s hard to believe we are in our third year now. A lot has happened since it began, and I’ve learned and grown a lot through the process of being on the other side of things. Editing a journal can be grueling, but ultimately very rewarding. I am so humbled by the people who have shared their worlds and work with me.
Q: What does poetry mean to you?
A: Oh boy. How much time do you have? I could write 20 pages on this question alone, but I’ll try and keep it short.
Poetry, to me, means we’re not alone. Language opens the world up and builds bridges to one another. It’s true that no man or woman is an island, but I think that’s because of poetry, it connects us. This is what art does, it communicates the incommunicable, it’s a felt sensation, like that perfect song that brings you tears. It makes us vulnerable, hence ethical, if we’re exposed so too are others. Poetry, in that sense, is political. I say all the time that I firmly believe everyone is a poet, I’m not sure if people realize how serious I am about that.
We all have a story to tell, in other words we all have pain and trauma to process. We all have a need to call out to others, to be heard and to answer the call that comes back to us. That’s poetry. A shared experience of the sensible human world. Of our fragility, our brokenness. Many of us like to pretend we’re inviolabe, but we’re not. That’s both the pain and beauty of what it means to live. It hurts and it humbles us. A poem hurts and it humbles. It might not make us whole, but it will build us up in love, imperfectly holding us together.
In our era of irony, disposability, and impatience, the poems of This Someone I Call Stranger, James Diaz’s debut collection, reverberate with rare authenticity and lyrical pain. Threading through a past of blind forests and dark basements, empty cupboards, dirty needles, hospital floors, and bad men who won’t die, this book is a necessary example of duende for the twenty-first century. These poems will arrest you. They have hungry souls, and they ache without breaking. They will hang in your brain and settle in your bones, and they will also move you forward, bravely, toward uncertain light.