Interview with Jim Landwehr

You dabble in multiple styles of literary art; how does your writing process differ depending on the genre you’re working on?

I’ll start by saying my first love is writing creative nonfiction/memoir. I think it is what I do best and what comes easiest to me. And, as you alluded to, the process behind my nonfiction writing is radically different than when I write poetry or fiction. When I write nonfiction, I focus on a single event or story and try and recapture it as fully, completely and creatively as possible. This includes trying to reconstruct the dialog and emotion of any interaction as well as the setting and circumstances. When the words are coming to me, I just let them run, knowing that I’ll reign it all in during the editing process.

When I write poetry, I give myself considerably more creative license with what goes down on the page. It frees me to go outside my comfort zone and dabble in the obscure. It allows me to get playful in a way that memoir does not. At the same time, it requires an economy of words which forces me to think much harder about word choice. I’ll have what I feel is a solid poem, then I’ll take it into my writing workshop and my colleagues will give me four or five alternate words that will make a good poem great.

None of this is to discount fiction. It is my weakest genre, but one I’ve come to enjoy working with. I recently finished a series about a couple of nefarious clowns that go rogue. I had great fun writing and showing it to my colleagues, but I am having no luck getting it published. So, when people ask, I always say, “Yeah, I write fiction and I enjoy it, but nobody seems to like it.” That kind of sums it up so far.

Both “Stellar” and “Giants” are pieces that beg the reader to consider their size and significance in the universe. Yet, they do so in opposite ways; “Giants” compares the human experience to that of a Sequoia, watching from a near-omnipotent point of view.

On the other hand, “Stellar” enlarges a single human relationship to galactic proportions. Could you comment on the relationship between these two pieces? Ultimately, do you find yourself identifying more strongly with one or the other?

I have to confess that “Giants” was inspired by a couple of things. My wife and I visited Muir Woods in California on a trip a few years back and the experience was completely humbling. I consider myself a big environmentalist, so to me Muir Woods is a sacred place.

The other inspiration for the poem was the tree characters in Lord of the Rings—Ents, they were called. They gave these trees a wisdom and character that was endearing. So when I stood among those spectacular Sequoias, it was almost like I could hear them speaking. These trees have been around for, in some cases, thousands of years, and it occurred to me that they have seen multiple generations of humans come and go in the span of their lifetimes. The thought that there was an energy between the trees was too much to pass up in a poem, so I wrote about it.

Stellar was inspired solely by my wife and kids. As with much of my poetry, I’ll start with a subject and see where it takes me. This one went into space for some reason, and once it started going that direction, I just let it go. I think everyone has a solar system of family or friends, and I used the idea of orbiting and gravity to kind of lead up to a subtle sexual reference with the big bang—the starting of a family. From there I meddle with the point that we are aligned as a family into something that is not only infinitely awesome, but also a completely unique little world.

So, if I had to say which of the two I align with, it would have to be Stellar. But obviously both works have a place in my psyche.

When do you consider a poem/piece to be finished? Do you ever find yourself wanting to go back and add more to a piece, or change it after it’s completed?

Usually when I’m writing poetry, as I go along I begin to have a good feel for how long a piece should be. As I mentioned earlier, I workshop most of my poems through a local writing studio, AllWriters Workplace and Workshop. What I’ve found is that, more often than not, the writers in the group will tell me that a piece is not done, if that is how it feels to them.

With regard to adding or editing a piece, the answer is yes! A good example is a three poem “series” that I wrote about a road trip I took in a rental car from Minnesota to California with two friends in the early ‘80s. I mentioned that I thought it could become a little chapbook unto itself someday. Well, a colleague encouraged me to pursue the thought and it became a twenty poem series I’m calling “On a Road.” It’s a play on Kerouac’s book, On the Road, and includes references from his book—I even give my friends Kerouac’s character names. I’m very proud of it and am hoping it gets picked up by a small press. I think it’s unique enough to make it appealing. But I’ve been wrong before. Ha!

And I don’t think there’s a writer alive who doesn’t look back on some of their earlier work and say “Oh, my gosh, that’s dreadful! I would write that so much better today.” We never lose our editorial eye.

Are there any authors or pieces you consider to be most important/influential to your work? If yes, please explain.

I have always been a big fan of the Beat generation. I feel they turned the literary world on end a bit, and their influence on me as a writer is undeniable. Richard Brautigan is one of those whom I never tire of reading. I remember reading his book Trout Fishing in America while camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota and it kind of blew my mind. At one point he’s describing a trout stream using phone booths as a descriptor and the trout as being hunchbacked. Well, does it get any better than that? Genius.

If I had to list a few other influences, it would be Kurt Vonnegut—love his black humor—Bill Bryson and Michael Perry for their side splitting nonfiction stories, and, at the local level, the poetry of Cristina M. Norcross, Margaret Rozga, and Mary Jo Balistreri—all of whom I aspire to write as well as someday.

Thanks to you and the entire staff at Portage Magazine for the opportunity to talk about my work!

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