Cassie Grillon: The poems in Actual Miles are beautifully lyrical, and the way they are arranged on the page varies interestingly from short stanzas to blocks of text similar to prose. In your writing process, do you focus more on lyricism or the visual appearance of the words?
Jim Warner: For me, the visual aspect of the poem is the very last part of the process, simply because it’s the most difficult for me. When I was in grad school, it came very apparent that my poems didn’t utilize the field of action when it came to line breaks and lineation. My poems were like 2×4’s: dense and solid. In a lot of ways, the look of the poem ran in direct competition with the rhythm of the language. As a result, I spent the better part of the last decade really focusing on the look of the poem. As far as the lyricism of the poem, as an auditory learner, my writing always starts with the play of sound. I am a son of sound, due in large part to being in love with the radio. Growing up, I wanted to be Paul Westerberg, Chuck D, or Tom Waits, I’ve settled on being the best misterjim.
CG: Familial relationships play a large role in the book, and food is often connected to family and memory. What kind of inspiration do you find in your family (and food)?
JW: If you ever had my mom’s fried rice and lumpia, I would challenge you to find better poetry anywhere. It’s in her fingers, and always has been. Spoiler alert, I’m very close to my family, and my relationship with them has informed the way I approach the literary community. My dad worked a seven day swing shift for Pennsylvania Power and Light so my mom could stay home with me. My mom volunteered at my school library from the time I was in first grade all the way through middle school. They taught me to not only seek community, but to be an active, contributing member of it.
CG: How did setting influence the way the book was written?
JW: I’m unsettled, always. For the better part of the last five years or so I’ve been on the move. In the last five years I’ve gone from Scranton, PA to Central Illinois to Knoxville, TN and back to Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, for now). In the next six months, my wife and I will be pulling up stakes again to…? I like being in motion, love the road. Granted, having a giant record and vinyl collection to wrangle each move is intense, but it’s fuel for the fire, right? Travel keeps you honest, forces you to pare down, be neat and compact. I probably do as much writing while behind the wheel as I do behind a desk.
CG: What is a good book you recently read? What did you like about it?
JW: Over the holiday break, I finished Hanif Abdurraqib’s amazing essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. What I love about Hanif’s work is how his voice radiates regardless of personal essay, criticism, or poetry. When I saw him read at last year at the Rock n Roll reading at AWP, I was immediately floored by the marriage of pop culture, underground scene, and identity going on in an essay.
CG: Do you have any upcoming projects you are working on?
JW: Right now, I am working on a collaborative writing project with Beth Gilstrap. We are writing haibun-inspired pieces based on our mutual experiences in punk and hardcore. Over hanging out at AWPs, we discovered that we both spent time in our area’s punk communities. At the time, I had been writing haibun and haiku and was looking for a way to experiment with my writing using them as a base. Since last March, we’ve written nearly forty pieces and have had a real positive response both in publication and reader feedback.
CG: Which part of the writing process do you find the most enjoyable?
JW: The editing after making it public. Usually I pound away on a draft and then share the work either at a workshop, an open mic, or (most often these days) with my wife Aubrie Cox. Getting that immediate response as well as the act of sharing immediately takes the piece out of my head, and on some level, closes the circuit for the work. This isn’t to say that my revisions are reactionary or that I just make changes to satisfy person x,y, or z, but having eyes/ears (both familiar and not) gives me an experience I can’t replicate alone in front of a computer. It fills in blanks for revisions, places the work may be falling apart, and reinforces for me that in order for a piece to be successful that at some point, I have to no longer claim sole ownership over it. One of the principles of haiku I really dig is the concept that a haiku is not finished until it’s shared with somebody. The revision after making work public then has some additional context. In a lot of ways, the best poems in this book are a direct product of making the pieces public, particularly with Amy Sayre Baptista and John McCarthy (aka Guaranteed Agony aka the best writing workshop I’ve ever been involved with). Every poem that went through the Guaranteed Agony grinder ended up getting published. That’s just crazy.
CG: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
JW: Swearing in church.
CG: Are there any authors whose work you disliked at first but have now come to appreciate? What changed?
JW: I wouldn’t say disliked but I never really understood haiku until I met Aubrie. I was very much in the mode that 95% of the world is when it comes to haiku: 5-7-fucking 5. We fill in the box, syllabic mad-libs style, and boom: haiku. That syllable count is a carryover from Western translations: Japanese poets do not count syllables. It’s all about breath and the juxtaposition of two images. The simplicity is its strength, and its complexity. For comparison, think of the early Beatles catalog or even punk for that matter: simple three chord, three-minute wonders whose style belies the lean muscle working under the surface. Going back and reading classic haiku like Basho and especially Shiki with this in mind (as well as writers like Alan Pizzarelli, Roberta Berry and Nick Virgilio) has given me a larger appreciation of their work as well as informing how I teach writing.
CG: What advice would you give to new writers?
JW: Make time daily. Writing is a muscle that needs to be worked as much as any other you’re training. Discipline and routine may need to be built into your schedule, even if, and probably especially if you’re not “the schedule type.” Learning about how you write is as important as anything you will write. Learning what time of day, what the writing space needs to be, what pen/notebook/computer/quill/vial of blood will be your best medium–all these things need to be understood in order to maximize both your time and your output. That old chestnut/story of person X telling a writer “I’ve always wanted to write X but…” is a usually product of 1) totally not understanding how much writing means to you and what you’ve done/sacrificed/ruined to commit to being in the life and 2) totally not understanding their own needs/styles/motivations/approaches to best maximize their time.
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Jim Warner’s poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, RHINO, Hobart, No Tokens, New South, and is the author of two collections from PaperKite Press. He is the Assistant Editor of Frogpond and teaches in the MFA program at Arcadia University. Jim serves as host of the literary podcast Citizen Lit.
Cassie Grillon grew up in the small town of Henderson, KY. She received her BFA in creative writing from Murray State University in Murray, KY and is now focusing on earning her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis on fiction from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. Her short story “Dry Grass” was recently awarded the David Madden Award for Short Fiction (2017), which was judged by ZZ Packer.