2016 Poetry Month: An Interview With James Richardson

James Richardson is most recently the author of By the Numbers, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award, and During, just published, which won the Poetry Society of America's Castagnola Prize for best book-in-progress. He teaches at Princeton University.
04/01/2016 03:30 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2017

James Richardson (www.aboutjamesrichardson.com) is most recently the author of By the Numbers, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award, and During, just published, which won the Poetry Society of America's Castagnola Prize for best book-in-progress. He teaches at Princeton University.

I first saw you read at a Best of American Poetry launch reading in New York City about eight years ago. You read a mesmerizing list of aphorisms that seemed simultaneously ancient and fresh. Every one seemed to contain a wisdom that only rough experience can bring. I can still remember, "Snakes cannot back up." Why aphorisms?

It was an accident! I was reading La Rochefoucauld and marveling at the way he can take something proverbial and then, with a little twist or track-switch related to what happens in a joke, flip it into something different. "We all have strength enough to endure the troubles....of others." (I've added ellipses where his droll pause would have been). But the turn of an aphorism doesn't have to be funny, or even what you'd call witty. Porchia's key word gets re-defined, mid-sentence, and you can feel the deepening. "Before I traveled my way, I was my way.

I'd been working on essays, which I guess have to prove a thought, and poems, which we say have to "earn" one. An aphorism just....finds one. I liked not only the brevity, but the freedom to jump from one little experiment with ideas and feelings to another. One minute you could be saying "All work is the avoidance of harder work," the next "If you want to know how they could forget you, wait till you forget them," no transitions required. Writing them was a pleasure as guilty and addictive as video games or Doritos. Suddenly there were hundreds.

Hundreds!? I feel like many of us would spend a lifetime coming up with 20 good aphorisms. Do they become easier to create over time? Does the creation of many of aphorisms eventually make it harder to come up with new aphorisms? When will you be aphorismed out?

Well, think of it stretched over 20+ years: it only comes to about one a week, not impossible if you're alert for the aphoristic in what you're thinking and reading.

When I started, a friend asked if I thought writing aphorisms might short-circuit my poems. But no - they weren't, for me, poem-material. In fact, I had a pretty deep reservoir of half-articulated thoughts, wisecracks and habitual meditations that I'd never been able to use, so at first the work was fast, though the mortality rate was extremely high: so many of them looked like terrible duds the next morning! As you go on, you get a little better at knowing which thoughts will settle into the form, and how to manage the various sub-shapes, e.g. a=b definition

Sophistication is upscale conformity.

or pseudo-proverb,

Water deepens where it has to wait.
Snakes cannot back up.

or flip,

Disillusion is also an illusion.
What I hope for is more hope.

or double-flip,

Pessimists live in fear of their hope, optimists in fear of their fear.

But yeah, there are limits. There's room for a million poems on love or mortality or injustice, but how many aphorisms on romance do you want to hear from one guy? These days when I come up with one, I run a keyword search on the old ones to make sure I'm not repeating myself too much. I've surely slowed down a lot, though there are a hundred in my new book, During, and I've got plenty in reserve...

Tell us a little bit more about your new book, During.

The impossible agony of self-description! I'll rely on my friends, who tell that me the best things in During are "To the Next Centuries," which is a combination of Romantic crisis poem and elegy for the planet; some rambles called "Essay on Clouds," "Essay Traversed by Deer" and "Essay on Wood;" and a section of microlyrics, some as short as two lines:

What's New

My heart leaps, running for the stick
you never threw.

And yes, aphorisms. This time around, I've arranged them in four groups, much more thematically focused than usual, which I think of as "braided essays." The idea is to make individual aphorisms do a little community service, though it's kind of like harnessing butterflies to a wagon. I've also been a little more flexible in what I call an aphorism, so that a meditation can begin with a traditional aphorism, "Maybe what interests me in the mirror is not myself but that person who looks so interested in me" and end, twenty-some sections later, with something like a poetic fragment, "As strange to me as my own hand."
And maybe I'll dare to say in my own person that it's an unusually various book, both formally and tonally, and that a few readers may be surprised to find that The Aphorism Guy writes poems so close to the lyric end of the contemporary spectrum:

Very Late

Even our tenderest
buds and shoots
(though we are pained)
endure unharmed
the late, late snow,
which is, as cold goes,
almost warm.

There are times when your writing reminds me of Paul Celan's "Backlight," where he write lines like, "Four seasons, but no fifth to give our choice perspective" and "She turned her back on the mirror, hating the mirror's vanity." Which poets from the past have had the greatest influence on you?

Like most poets asked "What should a young poet do?" I say something like "Pay attention to Life, and read, read, read." I never start writing without a book in my lap and a window nearby: windows and books are surprisingly similar. .

My education was English Major, Old Style. I've spent a lot of time studying Renaissance and 19th-century poets, in particular, and I still swim in them. My longest poem, "How Things Are," is a kind of fantasia on the sciencey poet Lucretius, and I have other poems in direct conversation, though they don't always admit it, with Homer, Ovid, John Keats, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and W. S. Merwin, all of whom I've been dizzily in love with at one time or another.

But really I don't know who has influenced me most, since I don't know what my work looks like to others - a reader could say better than I can. I imagine myself as some kind of belated swirl of all their influences, and lots of others, a kind of floating island. It's funny you mention the Celan, because that's another metaphor I've begun to use for it late in life - the story after the story of me, the season after the seasons. I've actually wanted to title a book The Fifth Season, except these days it would sound like a reference to a long-running TV series!

Could you do us the pleasure of ending our interview with a closing aphorism?

You saw it first here:

The secret of unhappiness is knowing exactly what you want.