James W. Moore is a writer living in Winooski, VT. His work has appeared on Vermont Edition, and in the Houston Chronicle and Found Poetry Review. I Am the Maker of all sweetened possum, his debut collection of found poetry from Scarlet Sister Mary, was published by Silver Birch Press in 2014. As a playwright, he is responsible for in apparati, cart, [an adaptation of] Robin Hood, and Ubu’s Last Krapp, amongst others. His on-line home is jameswmoore.wordpress.com
Geosi Gyasi: You’re often regarded as a poet and playwright. Do you have a special preference over the other?
James W. Moore: I do not have a special preference – I go through phases where I focus more on one than the other. Lately I’ve taken to calling myself a writer, as it allows me more freedom to pursue whichever avenue currently occupies my fascination. There’s a set of short stories, for example, that would quite like to see the light of day…
Geosi Gyasi: Do you continue to live in Winooski, VT? If so, could you tell me a little bit about the place?
James W. Moore: I do live in Winooski, VT with my wife, two cats and a fish. Winooski is a lively, developing community – a one-mile square town right next to Burlington. Its name means “the wild onion place,” which sounds just about right. There is a lot going on: housing has been affordable enough that Winooski is home to a good number of Vermont’s refugee population and also to young professional folks. It feels to me like there is a real pull between how to provide for both groups. I love it here, and I hope to see it sustain all of its residents. Intriguing side story: in the 70’s, there was a real push to cover the town with a dome – R. Buckminster Fuller was involved, plans were drawn, but the dome never came into being.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you give me a brief synopsis about your book, “I Am the Maker of all sweetened possum”?
James W. Moore: “I Am the Maker of all sweetened possum” is a series of found poems created from Julia Peterkin’s book Scarlet Sister Mary. Inspired by a National Poetry Month initiative from the Found Poetry Review, I used a variety of mediums to cover, obscure, and manipulate the text in order to create new poetry out of Peterkin’s already poetic work. I think of the book as part poetry, part art project, and part suggestion that people rediscover this unique book.
Geosi Gyasi: Was it difficult finding a publisher for “I Am the Maker of all sweetened possum”?
James W. Moore: It was not as difficult as I had imagined, actually. Silver Birch Press had linked to an unrelated found poem on my blog, and in a series of emails, I mentioned this text, and everything fell into place quite nicely. I feel pretty lucky that they stumbled upon my work and took an interest in more. Silver Birch is a very avid supporter of found poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you often start a poem?
James W. Moore: I usually start a poem with a gesture or a moment – something that caught my eye or ear. Sometimes it’s immediately recognizable as poetry; other times, it struggles to make itself a poem. For example, I saw a person kneeling to tie their shoe, and there was something in the movement, how they reached and almost melted down, that felt like a poem to me. It still lingers somewhere in a journal though, decidedly non-poemed.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you often end a poem?
James W. Moore: I end a poem when I know that to write more would ruin it.
Geosi Gyasi: Who is a found-poet, if I may ask?
James W. Moore: I really like this question. I think anyone who finds poetry in their life is a found poet. A found poet is a person who jots down that overheard line at the bar because there’s some beauty in it. It’s the person who underlines that sentence in a book that changed their life. I’ve started to think that all poetry is found poetry – we find an image, a moment, a word that says something, and we try to make it say that thing to more people than just us.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write your play, “cart”?
James W. Moore: All told, cart took two years to write. It started as a sketch of a frustrated man taking his aggression out on a metal shopping cart, which I sat on for a few months (the sketch; not the cart). Then it became a 20-page script about being somewhere one shouldn’t be. Over the course of a residency at Caldera Arts, it became a more completed story about conformity, racism, and the dangerous mistakes we make when we vent frustration outwards instead of finding out what’s really behind it. The rehearsal process for the world premiere at defunkt theatre really crystallized what it was and wasn’t. There’s nothing like hearing your words from other people’s mouths to help you realize what you’re doing.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “in apparati”?
James W. Moore: in apparati came together more quickly. The piece came about as a response to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. I was sickened by the idea that people could be held for any duration without stated reason or trial. A number of people called the situation Kafkaesque, and the idea took off from there. My four prisoners are unnamed and held by two guards – one convinced of his mission and the other…not as convinced. I wanted to say something about what happens to us as a country if we put our stamp on actions like this. It’s not a traditional protest piece, nor is it a traditional jail break piece – though it has elements of both. It’s like Beckett and Kafka put together a science fiction protest piece.
Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind, “wish”?
James W. Moore: wish. is a twisted little piece that looks at how two people try and fail to connect through their interaction with a boy who might have killed his mother. It was inspired by a real case that took place in my home town of Salem, Oregon. The whole incident seemed so unreal and so strangely out of sync with our town and the people I know – so this other-world version of the incident emerged as an attempt to understand how something like this happens. I actually started writing that piece in college. It was a pretty compact 30 page play – too long for a one act, too short for a full-length. It was only when a show we had planned on producing fell through that I worked with a cast to improvise a more fully fleshed out script. The director, actors, designers, and I ended up with a completely different beast than I would have imagined. As an example, there is now a scene where a puppet hamster sings a rock ballad.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you come from a family of writers? Can you say something about the musical collaboration you did with your brother, Richard E. Moore?
James W. Moore: My grandmother was a poet, and my great-grandmother was a writer. I also come from a family of artistic enablers. If we wanted to do something, we were encouraged everywhere. My mom always supports our creative endeavors, and my grandparents were the first to introduce me as an artist, instead of as a legal secretary (the job I held at the time).
My brother and I have collaborated for years. We made sock puppet shows as children, and Richard designed sound for a number of shows I directed or wrote. He is a talented singer-songwriter, and an award winning sound designer and composer in his own right. When the (brilliant) director of the Northwest Children’s Theater, Sarah Jane Hardy, suggested that the two of us take on an indie-rock version of Rapunzel, it was a no-brainer. We had a lot of fun bandying ideas back and forth and creating a whole world that worked for us as a funny, engaging show for kids and their parents and/or adult friends. There were many late night chats, emails, phone calls with flashes of inspiration and random musical jokes. He is one of the easiest people with whom I have had the pleasure of working.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever tried acting?
James W. Moore: Acting is where my love of theatre began. I have acted for the past 22 years, and I still get nervous in that moment before I step on stage. I love that energy between my fellow actors and the audience. The Back Door Theater (where I spent most of my acting time) was in the back of a coffee house and held 40 people. On a good night, we’d have 2/3rds of that in the house. The intimacy this created really made you feel like they were part of the show. It was lively, surprising, and never the same experience on any given two nights. Lately, my wife and I have been more and more interested in dance as a theatrical performance. While I love words and love working with scripts, there is something empowering and especially challenging in trying to communicate with an audience without those tools…
Geosi Gyasi: Do have a special purpose for why you write?
James W. Moore: If there is a common thread in my writing, it’s in trying to find beauty in any/all parts of our world. I want to use a slightly fractured lens to look at how I (and we) live life – holding up all of it for examination – not necessarily in a critical way, but in a way that takes nothing for granted. It’s not just the beautiful earth that we live on that’s amazing – it’s also the fact that I have a working machine that is my body and keeps me alive and engaged with the world, and when my shoe is untied, all of this stuff works together to help me kneel down and tie my freakin’ shoe. And that’s also amazing.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest challenge as a writer?
James W. Moore: Getting over my own doubts. In my work as a teacher, I am always encouraging students to be do-ers and to get out of their own way. However, as a writer, that’s exactly what hangs me up. I doubt, so I don’t write. I doubt, so when I do write, I don’t submit that work. I doubt, so I freeze up. It’s a nightmare, really.
Geosi Gyasi: Which specific writer do you regard as your favourite?
James W. Moore: Hands down, it’s got to be Mac Wellman (poet, playwright, theatre thinker). Wellman uses language in such interesting ways – he is easily our most linguistically playful writer. For him, language is a tool to communicate, but it is also a tool that constrains us. He explores (and/or makes fun of) the difficulty of how to convey unique thoughts in a language that is hamstrung by cliché. Wellman pushes us further and deeper into the dark side of language, fully embracing deep cuts from the OED, streams of profanity and half-unfinished words to create an image of America unlike any other I’ve seen. It’s challenging work that is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but if you surrender yourself to him, he’s an enthralling creator. As a writer, he encourages me to look beyond what’s easy and go further, go harder.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your hopes and aspirations as a teacher?
James W. Moore: My hope and aspiration as a teacher is to empower students to find answers and not settle. I want to encourage students to communicate clearly face to face and to take chances and explore different avenues. Our culture encourages us to seek confirmation from the outside world; I want to encourage learners to find their own satisfaction and let them find out who they are without relying on others. I want them to be informed, engaged members of our communities. So…ya know…nothing big…
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of the future of poetry?
James W. Moore: It’s so bright, I have to wear shades. Poets are finding new ways to get their work read or heard or seen – and the internet is providing many avenues for that. In a time where people are embracing “old school” information delivery systems (like vinyl), it seems like the printed version of poetry isn’t necessarily going anywhere either. It all just feels full of possibility to me – but then, I’ve always been an optimist (wrapped in a cynic’s skin).
Geosi Gyasi: Do you hope to continue writing found poetry?
James W. Moore: I do hope to continue writing found poetry. It breaks me out of my shells and tricks. I have a way that I like to write poems, and when I am forced to use the tools of another, it pushes me in new directions. My own written poetry has gotten stronger since playing with the words of Peterkin, Douglas Adams, the Coen Brothers, my friends, etc… I also find that when I don’t know what to write, found poetry is a great version of a prompt. I can take a page of whatever I’m reading and mess with it. I have a blackout tool on my computer so I can hack away at any web page that is currently stalling me from writing. Found poetry helps me always be creating.
Geosi Gyasi: I learnt from online that you’re fond of making shortbread. This may sound silly but who taught you how to make shortbread?
James W. Moore: In a way, my mother taught me how to make shortbread. I did learn to bake from her, but she taught me a more important lesson than just how to make that one kind of cookie. She told me that as long as I could read the instructions, I could do anything. So I learned to make shortbread by reading the recipe. I had heard that shortbread was difficult to make, but I find it rather relaxing and soothing. And so freaking delicious.
Geosi Gyasi: Who taught you how to build Adirondack chairs?
James W. Moore: And here’s the same answer. I learned it by reading the directions. In fact, my mother actually bought me the instructions for how to build our Adirondack chairs. I learned my basic tool usage from my parents (and my grandfather) (and some set designers in my work in the theatre) and applied what I knew to the new task. It probably took longer than it would take a skilled carpenter – but the fact that I built them makes them that much more cozy…
Geosi Gyasi: You have the liberty to ask yourself a question and answer it?
James W. Moore: What will you do directly after finishing this interview?
James W. Moore: I will go outside and see if the laundry on the line is dry. If so, I’ll take it down and fold it, and I’ll hang up the next load. If not, I’ll let it keep drying. And then: lesson planning…