There is a Word file on my computer called “poems i love,” and when I read something that knocks me out, or inspires me, or makes me jealous or giddy, I try to add it to the file. For me, there is something powerful and instructive in typing a poem you wish you’d written. And when I get to that point where I begin to question my choice to dedicate so many hours to reading, writing, and publishing poems, I open up that file and read a handful of poems there, and I’m invariably reminded of all the powerful things poems can do. It’s like a personal anthology or maybe my very own poetry jukebox.
When I can get permission and access to the poet, I’m going to reprint some of those poems alongside a brief conversation. I hope you enjoy.
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The Old Film — Jim Valvis
Because I’ve seen this film before
my mind wanders and I think
how everyone in the movie is dead:
debonair leading man, gorgeous starlet,
uptight comic spoil, and even the little girl
and her dog, all resting somewhere under dirt.
I’m sitting with my wife and daughter
and we were having a good time,
so I don’t understand why these thoughts
fill me with such sudden sorrow.
Possibly it’s the many troubles in the movie
now seem trivial, all entanglements
long ago coming to nothing. Even the baby
in the crib pushed down clean sidewalks
is at best so old he can no longer feed himself.
I flinch when the camera moves in
for a close-up of the starlet,
who on celluloid remains everything a man
could hope to hold, but in reality
is decayed flesh and white bone whose kiss
would make you vomit.
Unable to keep watching, I go outside for air.
While I suck sky, inside I still hear
my wife and daughter laughing—
and who can blame them? They’re normal.
Morbidity isn’t ruining things for them.
Two breaths and I’m almost sane.
I decide I’m silly, making a lot out of nothing,
and I should head back inside.
But when I turn I see my wife knitting,
my little girl eating popcorn,
the two starts of my life framed in the window
like a screen that’s one click from going blank.
Justin Hamm: Jim, thanks for giving me a chance to feature “The Old Film.” I have a Word file on my computer full of poems that have moved me profoundly or taken root deep in my head over time, a kind of private anthology that I return to when I’m down and having trouble remembering why I or anybody else would even want to write poetry anymore. Your poem is there because it leaves a startling impression of what it is really like to be human and temporary, and to know it.
You’re probably the most prolific writer I know. What, if anything can you remember about the origins and composition of “The Old Film?”
Jim Valvis: Generally speaking, the genesis of a poem is a mystery to me and any attempt to reconstruct it involves a little mythologizing, making more rational that which is not completely rational, giving facts that may have come before or during or after the initial drafting process, but I will do my best to talk about it.
When I want to work, which for me is every day, I sit down, open a new page, and search for an edge of an idea that I can start pulling toward me, preferably in a dramatic way. That edge this time might have been that over many years I had begun to notice something strange about our generation—that we are the first people to watch movies or listen to old-time radio broadcasts or watch the early newsreels where all the actors, even the youngest, are no longer with us. This strikes me as a more serious disturbance than with characters in books. True, everyone in Moby Dick is long dead, including the whale, but in print form it doesn’t seem to matter much. You get carried off to sea and there you are. In movies we see not just the character but the actor, who had his own existence aside from the character, a person who is now dead but is still on the screen moving, talking, loving, a ghost who can do nothing at all but say the same lines again and again, follow the same inevitable course to its settled conclusion, like some extreme Calvinist version of determinism or maybe Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence of Same Events.
Anyway, I must have commented about this to my wife a dozen or so times, and each time it was met with a polite shrug, a c’est la vie, which is probably the normal and sane way of dealing with these things, but in my warped imagination these thoughts began to coalesce, began to take on a darker edge and meshed with my struggles to deal with impermanence, especially the impermanence of love and those I love and, let’s face it, myself. Add into this the fact that for years I’ve suffered from panic disorder and I composed a scene that may not have happened exactly but did piecemeal.
“The Old Film” is one of those few poems I kept multiple drafts for. The general outline was right from the start, but I couldn’t hit the language right, the final lines, the kick I look for at the close, the snapping shut of a verse that will leave the reader feeling resonance. It was rejected several times, probably rightfully so, and in fact never was published in a magazine and is one of the poems that is exclusive to my poetry collection How to Say Goodbye. But you’re not the only one to name it as a favorite from the collection.
JH: That image of the actress’s corpse is terrible and jarring in its truth and accuracy, just the sort of irrational and yet not-quite-really irrational image that would feed a moment like this. And I felt those intakes of air meant to calm the speaker, too.
I admire the way you can create such a vivid and emotional experience for a reader out of ordinary language, stuff that can be understood. Can you talk a little about your thoughts on language and how they might pertain to this poem?
JV: Language for me doesn’t mean what other poets generally mean by it. I’m not talking about the use of fancy imagery or metaphors and other things like that. In fact, I’m deeply distrustful of them. I feel sometimes when I read poetry I’m reading an enhanced version of language that has become grotesque. Like a woman with surgically enhanced breasts so large she can hardly stand up straight, these poets jam in imagery as if the parts of a poem matter more than the whole. In fact, whenever someone compliments me on a specific image, I wonder if I made a mistake including it (or not working hard enough on the rest of the poem), because no part of a poem should be stronger than any other part and if one part is then it’s distracting. Like a white picket fence where one picket is painted black, the eye is drawn to the black one and away from all the other pickets. Not a big deal if it’s a fence. It is a big deal if it’s a poem.
What I mean by language instead is something akin to voice, but again I have to throw out a caution because when you speak of voice people think you mean you have some monolithic tone or kind of diction that you rinse each and every poem in. The Hemingway voice, etc. That’s not what I mean. By voice I mean the language is, for that poem, internally consistent and no part stands out or feels out of place, that the reader goes through the work without ever stopping either to find fault or praise, since both are equally damaging because both corrupt the reading experience and stop the flow of reading.
This flow is much harder to achieve than many non-writers realize and can be lost with a single poorly chosen word or a favorite but off-center phrase. This is why Faulkner said to kill all your darlings, but it’s not enough even to kill the darlings. You have to hire the right word for the right job at the right moment. You may prefer the company of doctors, but he’s no good to you if the toilet’s clogged up and you need a plumber. And the end result is to have a beautiful and strong house, not to impress your friends with the company you keep.
Anyway, in “The Old Film,” I worked long and hard (over months) to get the language right. One tricky moment was when the narrator goes outside and has to “suck sky.” I struggled over that phrase a long time. You see, it’s odd diction, the kind of thing I was talking about earlier, the kind of weird phrasing that makes a person stop, and yet it does everything I want it to do. It not only gets him breathing but gets him breathing up, as if his head is tilted back and he’s breathing in not just air but sky. It stayed, but only after fighting with myself about it over several drafts. Phrases like that can drive a poet bonkers as he struggles to determine whether to keep or change.
JH: Thanks for taking the time to talk about “The Old Film,” Jim. One more question. Above, you consider the poem from a craft perspective. Now I’m going to ask you to consider it from a personal perspective. What, if anything, does writing a poem like this do for you? And when it gets out into the world, what do you hope it does for the readers who find it?
JV: I’m not sure what writing any individual poem does for me. I wrote my first short story in the second grade and was probably composing them in daydreams before that and so I don’t have a time in my life when writing was not integral to the way I go about living. But when I write a poem my mind is entirely on the poem, on making it say something, on communicating. I suppose there’s a therapeutic value, but I don’t write for therapy. I read for therapy. I think it’s very tough to talk and listen at the same time and listening is where I find my greatest comfort. But I feel some obligation to do my part in the great conversation that mankind has been having. If I can earn my nosebleed seat at the great theater of the poetry where folks like Shakespeare and Dickinson are seated in the front row, then my poems have given me more than enough and probably more than I deserve.
What I hope the reader gets is a more interesting subject. Often it varies from poem to poem, but in all my poems I am aiming for the universal, something that reaches across whatever lines divide us into that spark of humanity that we all share.
Not too long ago I came across an opinion piece by a famous editor and poet who said that in order to make poetry popular again (as if it ever was) we needed to become far more in-your-face political. We needed more activism, he contended, not more art. I feel he couldn’t be more wrong. We already get plenty of that crap from every other medium in the world, novels, movies, news channels, blogs, internet memes, you name it, all hammering home a political viewpoint, and if all poetry has to offer is more of the same it doesn’t have much to offer at all. I think people hunger to hear words that connect us, rather than divide, and poetry can do that in a compressed fashion; poetry can bridge disparate human beings and find the common spark in all of us. Too many people profit off hate, off division. I don’t want to do that. You ask me what I what I hope my poems do for readers? I want someone of any gender or race or politics or religion to read my poems and think, “Yes, that’s how it is with me too. Thank God I’m not alone.”
And if I can’t do that, then I like to make people laugh. There’s not enough of that either.
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James Valvis is the author of How to Say Goodbye (Aortic Books, 2011). His poems or stories have appeared in journals such as Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Natural Bridge, Rattle, River Styx, The Sun, and many others. His poetry has been featured in Verse Daily and the Best American Poetry website. His fiction was chosen for the 2013 Sundress Best of the Net. In 2014 he was awarded a King County 4Culture Grant for the Arts. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle with his wife and daughter and too many books.