Dominic James, Monday Writer, 24 August 2020

Dominic James

Dominic James was born within earshot of the Rolling Stones, north of the river, in the suburbs around Kingston upon Thames. From his early years he worked in London and up and down the Guildford line until his thirties when he began moving west by degree. Currently he lives with his partner, Helen, in a Cotswold village near the Slad Valley.

James started writing in earnest in his late twenties. Always bookish, short-stories seemed the way forward and he enjoyed working on many un-lost pieces. Despite small success he stuck with fiction into his forties when he took up poetry, since when he has let prose slide. Poetry is more his thing.
A late starter, he went about it vigorously. Figuring that, as poetry is for speaking, he had better speak out. He soon found himself an embarrassed, grown man reciting his poems upstairs in pubs and other, usual venues. These days he has few qualms about public reading, and always gains something from live events – soon may they return – yet all the points of poetry still have to be addressed, in one’s own fashion: form, measure, tone, sense and utility.

The Monday Writer Interview

The Beginning
After about a year, one Saturday morning, I wove a few apt lines on the strands of an idea into a poem of two solid stanzas deft enough to touch the depths and amusements of the language: Vaults of Babel, pitched just so. Happy day! That was ten years ago. It has taken a while to get to the stage where I am regularly published and shortlisted, win the occasional prize. While the successes are certainly affirmative, the process is little easier, although I process dead-ends more quickly. There is progress to be made and ample room for improvement.

What do you write about?

Anything, in my ambit. I have a memory for travel and have worked in a wide variety of circumstances. Experience feeds in and with that, as we should use all our voices, I try to keep alive my younger self, speak for him now and then, even if he talked plenty in his time. I find a sense of play is needed in prose and verse even while walking around in someone else’s shoes is a serious business. I seldom broadcast writing on issues such as war and politics, which for me don’t reduce to allegory or persona with proper conviction, so those I keep to myself, if I write at all.

I realise my surroundings can loom large in my poems. Sometimes lagging behind by a few years, more as I dip into memory. There’s plenty that’s new and plenty to revisit: writing suits my older self.

Why do you write, and how much of your work is autobiographical?

The nub of it is self-expression – how often do we hear the word? – I draw in pencil and biro, can’t play a note and silence is dyspepsia. Writing has its cathartic element; where a trouble named is tamed and a problem aired is a problem shared. Hard-won as poetry may be it contains that essential release. It is also my entertainment, my pleasure and mental exercise. Is it autobiographical? Often. Still, a poem works in the general scope so writing I try to find natural sympathies broader than my own. Anything less is likely to be too particular and feels unjust. If the work is not honest it founders.

What are the challenges you have faced as a writer?

Poetry for me has not come of a piece. I half recognise its power but my ears are made of tin. Slowly then, and coming to grips with the mechanics of my own work, I tune in to the proper, running sound of words. GMH is a study, Ivor Gurney too, I follow the language patterns of the best as best I can and, of course, pick apart a passing lyric. For me, poetry must be learned and everything is required. So I work on my weak points, perhaps construction or sound and they alter as times go on – or as I become aware of them. It’s good to find myself working to improve earlier strengths: there’s progress. And, it may be worth noting, plenty of verse will not emerge from its own drafts for days, months or years, they need to be turned over from time to time: marinade.

What advice have you received as a writer, and what advice would you offer other writers?

Work ceaselessly. At a lecture, Sinclair Lewis upbraided his bright, young audience: “Why are you here? You want to be a writer? Write!” But let’s keep all dictums within bounds. Do not be put off by failure and, certainly in prose, be ready to murder your darlings.

SPM Publications published your collection, Pilgrim Station, in 2016. Do you find yourself reading it when nobody is watching?

I rarely pick it up but lines recur on occasion, say, crossing a bridge on foot, over the Dora Baltea, or simply in that incantatory pleasure of reciting verse, it isn’t usually my verse that crops up, but it happens. Poetry, a thought you might utter, has hit the mark.

What are the 5 best books you have read? Is there any one of those you wish you had written?

I used to read all the time, for instruction largely, I think. Let’s deal in favourites, the Russians: Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is a witty breeze and Dostoyevsky – Hemingway said he wrote like a forest fire – is enthralling, with The Brothers Karamazov, I recall my dismay on finding I only had 50 pages to go. The Grapes of Wrath, for Steinbeck’s unbowed celebration of human spirit and, on a wide, wide canvas, Stapleton’s Star Maker, which swallows the genres. Then, it occurs to me, for its terrible impact, Plath’s Under the Bell Jar bring us down to earth with a jolt. Five books and I wouldn’t care to have written any of them. It seemed to me books are our companions, so are the authors who stand behind them.

Would you say the authors of these 5 books have been the major influences on your writing? If they are not, which writers have influenced you the most?

No, not major influences, they are more like lights on the horizon. I don’t take prose cues from them although Sylvia Plath has the authority of her verse, for instance, in reducing the draw of the nativity to: You are the one/ Solid the spaces lean on, envious. /You are the baby in barn. Which puts me in mind of Lowell, who so clearly conjures up Wm James’ study on the attraction of the cross. For the Union Dead: …He rejoices in man’s lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die –. Lowell has the idiom, Shakespeare may require practice but one soon sees why Coleridge read him every day.

From King Lear, Kent (in disguise):
I do profess to be no less than I seem;
to serve him truly that will put me in trust,
to love him that is honest, to converse
with him that is wise and says little,
to fear judgment, to fight when I cannot choose
and to eat no fish.

Would you walk us through your writing habits?

From any given starting point – reaction to relations/events/observation/a likely phrase – I might jot down a paragraph, a stanza or two in rhythm and rhyme, perhaps just a line that holds the essence of the thing. The former I’ll refine, the latter, flesh out. I do lots of quick edits, and turn the piece over in mind as the poem takes shape. The process slows as I find what I’ve made of tone, what’s needed for rhyme, structure etc. and I let nonsense fill gaps until I am sure of my meanings. And I’ll write as the piece takes me – there’s always some poetic thing going on in the back of my mind –I do try to keep Saturday mornings for poetry.

So, on a new poem I’ll pursue it, writing in notebooks, chopping and changing on the word processor. (Version control suffers). When I think I’ve got it: I’ll put it aside for a few days. That is the stage when I’d ask for/want feedback. Red as they are, generally I have to use my own fresh eyes – more revision – and then: is the poem finished? I still struggle with the urge to submit work that isn’t ready. Where there is doubt, there is no doubt… who’s line was that, DeNiro?

The Poems

White Tree
Six miles out of Tewkesbury
tractors, sweat and dust
new mown hay, diesel heavy
on the air, onset of dusk
a skyline aquarelle:
the antique sketch’s
smoothly executed hills,
delicate as apricot
on glass, hard as porcelain,
robust. A china glaze
surrounds The Lawn Hotel.
Its clientele, rakish
in their tilted hats, old men
under parasols
mill around the garden chairs,
through wisps of grass they seem
too brightly painted, reddened
by some heat dyed-in
before today’s fierce sun,
murky at the last hurrah.
Further in, on pastureland
an oak stripped white and bare;
from its ruptured trunk run spears
of milky lightning
into the soft night air.

Sad, wild winter flower,
nodding palely on the snow,
meltwater and an hour of sun
nourished you below the Rowan
high among cold barren ways.
Your petals are the same sky blue
as your short, still while of day
and now chill breezes capture you,
child, night is your domain.
Unmoved, she cannot smile.

Where the treasure lies
From Fontaine’s fable L’avare qui a perdu son trésor
illustrated by Marc Chagall

A cumulus of soil, the wash Chagall made loose enough
to turn into his well of love, below a digger sprawled
on cloud, on earth splashed back and knees,
the clown: white-face transformed by miseries
doubled-up in anguish and heart racing
with thought turned day and night on the locus
of his worship. His soft paws cracked, stretching out
to anchor on a weightless honey pot:
My treasure, taken!
One fine day his nest
discovered hollow at the fountainhead.
The moans, the bared teeth were unashamed
beneath the worried gaze of a passing gardener
whose own brown fingers tainted, dipped in zinc,
dab at the handle of a spade: bright-eyed
mole apparent in the corner of the picture,
all set to sink a trowel into the futile questions.
Ask them.
In the deluge of his agony
the miser worked ash and bone: become a source
of wonder to his neighbours who, at the loss
of untouched gold, quickly rose to crow:
What then was the use of that?
You’d do as well to bury stone.

Bar Modele
to Peter Pegnall

In Marrakech the Café Bar Modele
has a garden where the brown leaves fall
like artillery shells and empty bottles
accumulate on thirty good for nothing tables
under the benevolent eye of a frowned-on waiter.
While alley cats wind roughly after chips,
swallows dip and – since the evening’s warm
and, let’s face it – we are not pressed
to be about the daily task of coffee shop;
there would be no finer place than this, I think,
to sip a Flag or two with you and discuss
what stands between us, that is, the body electric.

‘White Tree’ Published in The High Window 2018
‘Anemone’ First appeared in The Dawntreader 2012
‘Where the treasure lies’ Published in Earlyworks Anthology 2019
‘Bar Modele’ Published in Pilgrim Station, SPM Publications 2016