Thank you so much for being a feature this week, Jim! It is such an honor to be able to include you in our family of poets. Your writing opens the imagination and transports the reader to tangible new places and experiences. I can't say enough good things about your work. You are excellent! I hope you have enjoyed your time here as well.
As we come to the close of Jim's feature, I hope everyone will take the time to check out his interview session below. Please check out the links to some excellent e-zines he's been published in as well. Thanks (as always) to those who take the time to leave comments. It's the readers that make *Mnemosyne* a successful endeavor and we do appreciate you and your thoughts.
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Jim Benz lives in Minneapolis with his wife, two cats, and a dog. He dislikes author bios almost as much as he dislikes the institutional accreditation of poets.
Where Jim is published:
Blackbox Manifold #3
right hand pointing #22
Gutter Eloquence #2
Red Fez #20
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Who are your writing influences and what was it about them that inspired you to write? Who are your favorite poets?
Probably the first two poets that got me really excited about writing, when I was a teenager, were Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth. I can't really say why, because that was a long time ago. Maybe there was a certain radical nature to the content of the poems that made me think. I remember liking all the odd spaces in Ferlinghetti's work and imitating that for awhile. I rarely read either of them anymore - Ferlinghetti seems too sloppy at times, and Rexroth too formal.
I have a strange way of approaching the poetry of others - I get very hung up on grammar and sentence structures, how these elements work in and out of the line breaks to create a kind of rhythm in which the sound of the words and the semantics play toward a broader sense of meaning that goes beyond my own limited intents. So I guess theorists like Roland Barthes or Roman Jakobson excite me quite a bit. I'm interested in the social process that unconsciously dominates the production of meaning, trying to find ways to complicate assumed meanings and build a structure of poetics around the unexamined dynamics of daily life. As for poets along these lines, I don't know. Obviously the Language poets hit this territory head-on, but I don't feel a strong affinity for the poems they create. The Objectivist poets, like George Oppen and Carl Rakosi, get my blood flowing - probably because they have a strong aesthetic sense within their poetry, even while questioning assumptions of human knowledge in a powerfully reflexive manner.
So, I love the aesthetic properties of poetry, how to make a poem attractive and surface-oriented, while at the same time laying the ground work for more complex meanings, or shadows of meanings, beneath the surface. So I appreciate aesthetic qualities, and toward that end I study the grammar and sentence structures of very elegant, well-crafted poetry, like that of Denise Levertov, as well as writers who make some pretty radical departures in syntax, like Gertrude Stein or John Berryman in his Dream Songs. The whole point, though, is to draw the reader into the more complex territory of its inner structures, and to do that I try to make the surface pleasing and interesting. Studying the work of accomplished poets is a way to continuously learn new means for writing a good poem.
I'm also a huge fan of manifestos, like Charles Olson on Projective verse, or any of the many Dada manifestos. I'd have to say Dada in itself is a big inspiration, and probably underlies (and contradicts) much of what I just wrote in answer to this question. I like to see poetry that subverts accepted conventions, but at the same time provides a relatively accessible entry point into the more complicated structures built beneath the surface of the poem. Tristan Tzara would probably scoff at that statement, but I don't really give a damn. Eventually, the individual poet has to become his or her own most important influence. In other words, we have to think deeply and care enormously about what we're doing.
If I have a favorite living poet right now, it would probably be James Tate. As far as dead poets go, I'd opt for George Oppen. Of the lesser known poets, active today in the independent press, Aleathia Drehmer impresses me quite a bit, as does Shane Allison.
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What is your writing process? How do you know when a poem is finished?
That's an interesting question for me, because it’s difficult to articulate a good answer. There are really two different forms of writing that I engage in - the poems I compose in my head while I'm going about my daily activities, and the poems I compose with a word processor. They rarely come together, and I don't carry a note book around to capture random thoughts or observations. I assume these mental compositions serve to keep my mind in the game while I'm doing other things, but they usually have a hard time translating into the written word. Good ideas hardly ever turn into good poems at my house. Still, its my primary 'writing' process, even if it occurs soundlessly and never sees the light of day. Essentially, I think about poetry almost all the time.
To get something on paper, I usually begin by not having any idea at all. I play with words, sentences, different bits of knowledge, standard poetry forms, whatever. Maybe I just write spontaneously and see what comes about. Other times I try to capture some kind of feeling, event, or image. Either way, what comes out of the process is total shit. I write the worst rough drafts imaginable and dispose of most of them. Where my writing comes alive, if it does at all, is in the editing. In fact, the 'idea' for the poem generally arises out of the poem itself. A salvageable draft will usually have at least one little inkling of a direction that I can explore, whether semantically or structurally. Something interesting might emerge. If, for example, there is a sense of alliteration in the draft, my search for more applicable vocabulary might very well begin to give shape to whatever meaning the poem will pursue. Or maybe it's the rhythm of the phonemes as they interact within the lines. Or a kind of grammatical variety. Or strong images that pop into my head as I'm writing. It doesn't matter - the poem, for me, arises out of the writing process itself. Good ideas that precede the actual writing almost always die at birth. So, my process is to sit and write complete shit until something begins to emerge. Usually, I'll read quite a bit of whatever poetry I happen to be reading at the time writing. I let myself be influenced by whatever comes along. On the other hand, sometimes the first draft just works. That always surprises me.
If a poem is finished, I'll know it because I've managed to either eliminate or incorporate all the little things that bug me about the poem. By that standard, though, I've got an awful lot of unfinished poems laying about. Sometimes the best thing to do is just move on. And I always reserve the right to dispose of the damn things. If a poem is not happening, no matter how good its potential might seem, I refuse to pull my hair out over it. Shit poems can probably be made into technical masterpieces, with enough work and feedback, but oftentimes they'll just be well-dressed shit. I'd rather start something new.
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Where does your inspiration come from? How do you deal with writer's block?
More often than not, my 'inspiration' comes from random interactions between words. I might start with a vague idea, or feeling, about something worth writing about, but it’s in the play of words and concepts on the written page that gives rise to what's going on in my poetry. If I have an idea, which oftentimes I don't, I abandon it just as soon as I can. How words interact, both sonically and semantically, is what opens up the poem to something beyond my own limitated imagination. It's mostly in the search for interesting vocabulary, for words that sound good together, that begins to shape the ideas. So, I guess the inspiration comes from the poem itself. Maybe I stumble across a tone of voice for the poem, usually by accident, that gives the overall form to the poem, inspiring more complex nuances that I try to build into it. Or I might throw a bunch of random, unrelated sentences together and then try to craft something out of that. In that case, the inspiration arises strictly through the process. Sometimes I just have a feeling in my head, and I have to work and work to write stuff that begins to represent the feeling. Poems like that are difficult, and I never know what form they're going be in when I'm done. So it’s a great mystery, except that I know it comes from the process itself. Ideas happen in a context, and my context just happens to be poetry. I have to be writing in order to be inspired, and the 'inspirations' tend to come in little chunks that fit together inside of an overall scheme revealed through the process of writing. Or, more accurately, the process of editing.
As far as writer's block goes, I think of it more as an 'inability-to-write-well' kind of block. Sometimes I get in a vocabulary rut, or maybe I can barely write a sentence. Everything that comes out is thoroughly uninteresting and bland. So I keep writing. Good poems come out of periods like this, but they're a lot of work. I think writer's block is more typical of the situation I find myself in every day. It's far more rare to feel like I can write well, or that something will take shape effortlessly. Maybe I have writer's block all the time. That would explain a lot.
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What influences your writing the most? How do you think your poetry impacts the lives of others?
I would say my writing is mostly influenced by the sound of phonemes in relation to one another. Seriously. It's what keeps me going, even if nobody else perceives all these little rhythms going on in everyday speech. It's what I build all my poetry around. And that doesn't mean I don't (more often than not) write for the page. I just like the sound of speech, and I enjoy shaping it into the written word. Different tones of voice can be accessed just by the way words work together. As a writer, I find that very exciting - even if no one appreciates or notices it within what I do.
I already said that the social production of meaning, i.e. ideology, is a ripe subject for poetry, particularly as it exists within common, daily assumptions of 'truth' and 'reality'. Language itself tends to shape our concepts, so poetry is an ideal art form for exploring human society and so-called rational assumptions. I'm not convinced that 'rationality' itself isn't entirely dependant on language. So, this is an influence, but one which is difficult to craft into an accessible poetics. It leads me to explore aspects of thought that seem to exist outside of language. The tricky part is to present something like that in an art form that is entirely composed of words and syntactical structures. Obviously, I enjoy difficult challenges.
The other big influence on my writing are the schools pf poetry that opened doors and helped shape what I can do today. Poetry is an inherently social activity and, as such, I think poets are missing out on a lot if they remain unfamiliar with the poetry movements that preceded our own period, or those with which we coexist. I read a lot of poetry, and I try to be intimate with many different schools of thought, to let conflicting ideas influence what I do. I only wish I were fluent in enough languages to really grasp what is going on in other parts of the world. Meaning, I don't generally trust translations - probably because I'm more interested in syntax (and how it works within the structure of a poem) than I am in literal meanings. Even so, some translators are incredible poets in their own right, and do a beautiful job. But, yeah, the poetry of other writers, past and present, is a major influence on what I do.
As far as any impact that my poetry might have on other people’s lives, I don't have the slightest idea. I'm only answering that question because it’s kind of interesting. It opens up the whole notion of what impact art has on the lives of people in a given society. It makes me wonder about the value of aesthetics, and their complete lack of utility. Granted, poetry has often been used in the past as a means of passing on social values, or glorifying collective ideals, but I don't engage in that, and I don't think many contemporary poets do either. Its mostly a thing of the past - today we're more inclined to question. So, we do "art for art's sake" I guess. Or try to raise issues, and problematize ideological assumptions. Or we just make something that's pleasing in one way or another, that makes people think. I'd like to hope my poetry occasionally stimulates both thought and pleasure. Or pleasure because of thought. More than anything, I'm interested in how the dynamics of poetry work, and how to make them work in an interesting, intelligent manner that engages with social realities. If that impacts somebody, anybody, then I suppose its like any other social activity: we make a meaningful, human connection. And that's a good thing.