James Arthur loves bringing his poems to readers.
The Princeton poet, who will be reading at the South Brunswick Library with Jean Hollander on Sunday, Jan. 20, says that “interacting with an audience” offers him an opportunity to see how well his poems work and to create a connection with an audience.
“When I can see my poetry affecting people, I gain energy and confidence,” he says. “When I see one of my poems boring an audience, I know that the poem needs more work.
“But most importantly, I’m writing for a listenership, as well as for the solitary reader. I think my poems are most enjoyable when they’re heard. So I’m glad to be out in the world, giving readings, putting my poems in front of people.”
Hollander has done quite a few readings over the years, but reads less frequently now that she has settled in Hopewell. New Jersey, she said, is “so spread out, it takes hours of driving to get to the various centers and book stores.”
But, she adds, “I still enjoy giving them to see the reaction from the audience.”
Arthur’s book, Charms Against Lightning, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012. Hollander’s most recent book, Counterpoint, was issued by Bright Hill Press in 2011.
The poets bring very different backgrounds to their work. Arthur is American born, but was raised in Toronto. He’s moved around quite a bit, he says, and has held an array of jobs — medical transcriptionist, timeshare salesman, and bookmark maker – that “were just ways of making rent.” He currently serves as the Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts in Princeton.
“In general, I don’t think of my own life as being very important to my poetry, because I’m not concerned with telling my story or testifying to my own experience,” he says. “Of course I can’t help being myself; when writing, I often draw from the materials of my life, because those are the materials that I know best. And there’s no question that my opinions and biases narrow my perspective. But I think that’s something to struggle against, not something to embrace."
Hollander was born in Vienna and came to the United States at age 11. She learned English during her first summer in the states by reading an English translation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and eventually went on to study literature at Columbia University’s graduate program. She has taught literature at Brooklyn College, Princeton University and The College of New Jersey, where she was director of its writers conference for 23 years.
Her earliest influences were Goethe and Schiller when she lived in Vienna, and she remains greatly affected by 15th- and 16th-century Dutch paintings.
“I always take a pad and pen when I go to a museum and will often get started on a poem,” she says.
Arthur also takes inspiration from other art, both high- and low-brow.
“I take my influences wherever I find them,” he says. “I’ve learned lessons about composition from Zen gardens and Jackson Pollock paintings, but I also picked up some ideas about assonance from an Eminem song. Whenever I need to remind myself of what a magnificent performance looks like, I go to YouTube and watch Sinead O’Connor singing ‘Troy’ at the Pinkpop Festival in 1988.
“I think it’s easy to fall into priding yourself on what you don’t like—on the music you don’t listen to, on the books that don’t interest you, on the kinds of food you would never eat—but in my opinion, that’s not a useful mindset for an artist. Look at everything, and listen to everything. Many pop songs are unsophisticated in their messages, but that doesn’t mean that pop songs aren’t well made, or that you can’t learn from them. Most songs that rise to the top of the charts are almost perfectly engineered.”
He takes inspiration from “whatever’s at hand,” he says.
“A worn-out coat, an avocado, an ergonomic bicycle. Whatever,” he says. “For me, the point of departure doesn’t matter so much. What is important is that the poem arrive somewhere interesting. Both as a writer and as a reader, I like poems that surprise me: poems that cause me to look more closely or think more deeply."
He describes his work as “partly old-fashioned, partly not.”
“I like rhyme, and I pay close attention to syllable stress,” he says. “I enjoy creating rhythmical structures in my poems. But unlike Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ say, or John Keats’ ‘Bright Star’—two poems in which rhyme and meter create strict, identifiable symmetries—my poems are asymmetrical. I try to create rhythms that change from line to line, constantly reinventing themselves.
“Not that I don’t enjoy expressions of pattern. I do. But I think the deep patterns of nature, such as weather systems or the codes articulated by our DNA, are unimaginably complex. That complexity, which sometimes seems like randomness, is what I find beautiful and what I want to express. The originators of the sonnet believed in a very different world!”
James Arthur and Jean Hollander will read at the South Brunswick Public Library, 110 Kingston Lane, Monmouth Junction, at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 20. An open reading will follow. The event, sponsored by the South Brunswick Arts Commission, is free, but a donation of a nonperishable food item for the South Brunswick Food Pantry would be appreciated. For more information, call the South Brunswick Arts Commission at 732-329-4000, ext. 7635 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.sbarts.org.