Discover more from Poetic Routes
An Interview with Betsy James
"Poetry is fruitcake: dense, intense, to be taken in smaller slices."
One of our Poetic Routes contributors has a book coming out this month, so we’re taking the opportunity to chat with Betsy James about writing, poetry, and place. You can find Betsy’s poem “In Tiguex” on the Poetic Routes map.
Why do you write poetry?
Poetry, like prose, is us doing our best to speak who we are. For me, the difference is that if prose is bread, poetry is fruitcake: dense, intense, to be taken in smaller slices. Concentrated trail rations.
How did you get started writing poetry?
My mother was so full of camp songs, goofy ditties, and bawdy parodies that from the get-go we were immersed in spoken rhythm: nursery rhymes, union songs, blues. When we couldn’t sleep she chanted the old poems she’d learned in school, anything with a strong beat; by nine I could recite Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West.” (I still can.) It was only a step from that to free verse, the subtler music of the speaking voice.
How did you develop your writing voice?
By writing. There’s another way?
I shouldn’t be snarky. You “develop your writing voice” the same way you develop your gossiping, complaining, explaining, sorrowing, joke-telling voice: by using it. You write, read, listen, talk, and go on being a human. As with learning to cook or snowboard it takes practice, but the doing feels right.
Who was it who said, “Poetry is a secretion”? I do like to read poetry right before bed—am I remembering my mother’s chants? My favorite anthology is The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.
I write prose directly to the keyboard, but poetry wants paper and the halting human hand. For years I have kept “daybooks”: slightly oversize, with sketch-quality paper that drags a little at the pen:
How does New Mexico appear in your writing?
I’ve worn out many pairs of boots in New Mexico deserts. Look at your own feet; no matter how long they’ve been where you’re standing, your voice is valid. Just beware of thinking you’ve got the answers. We’re all immigrants: on average we hit dirt nine-plus months after a conception in which we had no say. We all—all—struggle to speak who we are.
What are you working on now?
Breathing Stone: Living Small in a Southwest Village is a refinement of the nature-and-history journal I kept when I lived in Placitas, New Mexico, an old mountain town in the throes of growth.
Join us for a release party and writers’ shoptalk on May 31, 6:00 p.m., at Bookworks: 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW, ABQ, NM 97107.
It took the winter sparrows
two days to understand
they were being fed.
They will never understand
it is I who feed them.
Great steppes of space.
On them a tiny figure trudges,
distant, dark, right
as a winter marmot
on a snowfield:
This is my seventieth
year of breath.
The wind smells of wet stone.
I suck in, breathe out particles of stone
too small to see.
I am breathing stone.
A short writing prompt based off of “Breathing Stone”
Think of an animal or plant that you interact with on a regular basis. Consider their point of view. What do they think about your relationship? What do you wish they knew? What might they wish you knew?
Betsy James is the author and illustrator of seventeen books for adults and children. Her most recent novel, Roadsouls, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her paintings are available at Matteucci Gallery in Santa Fe. She teaches in the University of New Mexico Honors College, and lives in Albuquerque’s North Valley.
Thanks for reading Poetic Routes! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.