author of Themes for English B: A Professor’s Education
Interviewed by Amy Yelin
Solstice Assistant Nonfiction Editor
Amy: You know that old chicken and egg question—I’m wondering what came first for you—writing poetry or prose? How does the writing process for one vs. the other differ for you?
J.D.: Once, when I was five, my father, the poet James Scrimgeour, took me outside at night. We lay under a tree next to the apartment complex’s parking lot, and he asked me to sing (I used to make up songs lying in the back of the family’s VW bug). As I sang, he recorded my words:
By the way
I’ve been travelling
singing all the way
through the whole wide world
with the grass so green
the sky so blue
the world’s so new
it’s so fun by the trees
it’s better than I say
the whole world is better
than just light of day
maybe I just like it
down the sea in a boat
maybe that’s the matter
with dumb for nothing me
I should be a tree
we like the way
we have the world
sound by sound
if you had just one day to live
you’d be sad
but the next day your baby would be born
and you’d be dead
So poetry came first.
As for prose, I was a scholar of autobiography before I wrote it. After I finished a dissertation on autobiographies by people ranging from Woody Guthrie to Langston Hughes to Lillian Hellman, I started noodling around with memoir-ish essays myself.
My nonfiction comes out of rage and fear and guilt and wonder.
My poetry comes out of joy and grief and guilt and wonder.
Amy: Your book, Themes for English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of the Classroom, which won the AWP award for Creative Nonfiction, as well as your Solstice essay “It Grows Back: Three Students” each reflect how much you care about your profession and your students. Did you expect teaching would have such an impact when you first entered the profession? Have you been surprised at how much teaching influences you as a writer and a human?
J.D.: I’ve never been much of a planner, never thought about where I was going until I was deep in it, so I don’t think I imagined how much teaching would become part of my identity. I feel fortunate that I’m able to make a living doing it.
You mentioned that I care about students. I think every teacher cares about their students. One realization I’ve had is that my students care about me—not because I’m anything special as a teacher, but because, well, they are kind. The day after the election, I got choked up for a second in class. Later, I got emails from students checking in on me. How can I not acknowledge them in my writing?
Teaching, at its best, isn’t competitive, and so it has helped remind me that life doesn’t need to be always competitive.
Amy: Your personal essays and poetry often explore class and education. What draws you to these themes?
J.D.: It’s my life. I’d better have something to say about it.
It’s as much of a cliché now to challenge the cliché, “Write what you know.” I’m writing about what I witness from the place I’m at. That place, though, while it may seem entrenched (I’ve lived in Salem for 20 years!), is fertile for me because it’s tenuous. I find I’m straddling boundaries and identities, and I like to write about those spaces, those times when the self seems pulled in different directions and tries to expand, or to hold itself together.
Teaching at Salem State I began to realize how different the idea of higher education was for my students than it was for those people I had attended college with at Columbia. Trying to summarize these realizations here (and they keep coming) would be unsatisfactorily reductive, but they are fascinating and they refresh my world and work.
I was just in conversation with the writer Ed Pavlic about Adrienne Rich and her essay, “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” which is about Rich’s time teaching in in CCNY’s SEEK program, how it fundamentally changed her vision. I wasn’t coming from quite the same place of privilege as Rich, and Salem State students aren’t SEEK students, but teaching at Salem State helped crystalize amorphous, nearly unconscious feelings about class that I’d picked up on my own educational journey. I think this is because classrooms can be some of the most intimate public spaces.
In addition to my teaching experiences, my time as a citizen of Salem has focused my interests in class and education. My wife teaches in a low-income public school in Lynn, and my children attended diverse public schools in Salem.
I used the words “tenuous” and “straddling” before, and that’s because there are real differences between my life and my students, and real differences between my own children’s experiences and many of those that they played little league with, that make me always feel a bit of an outsider in whatever group I’m in. Still, for me those shared experiences—on the ball field, in the classroom—hold the promise of connection across difference.
Amy: Sports is another favorite writing theme for you, particularly baseball and basketball. You even wrote a memoir called Spin Moves. I read somewhere where you said that you came by sports into writing (and that you’ve probably written more poems about basketball than anyone). Can you say more about how that happened- how sports brought you to writing? Do you still play a lot of sports? And if yes, does it still impact your writing…or asked in another way, does playing sports have a sort of Poincare (sorry can’t do the accent) on the bus effect – are you unconsciously working/making art as you play?
J.D.: I spent a lot more time on the basketball court in my twenties than I did with a notebook. It never amounted to much, but I probably was the best basketball player in my poetry workshops, and the best poet on my men’s league basketball teams.
I blew out my second ACL a few years ago and quit basketball (In case you missed it, my retirement announcement can be found in Todd Davis’s anthology, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball). I play casual tennis now.
I’ve been drawn to sports because of the way masculinity gets defined in them. In my first book of poems, there’s a section with a lot of sports poems titled “Playing Men,” and there’s an element of sports in which boys (and girls, now) act out certain strands of masculinity, but all within the confines of a set of rules, and all for stakes that are obviously circumscribed. If you lose a game, you don’t get literally killed, but during the game itself you often play as if that’s the case (or maybe that was just me). This idea of sports being a fairly safe outlet for competitiveness seems important, too.
Lastly, community gets created through sport, a kind of intimacy forged from bodies working with and against each other. Just the other day, I went to a polar plunge at a beach in Salem. Over a decade ago I’d played in a pick-up basketball group with one of the guys working security, and we instantly recognized each other and both of us—I sensed—experienced a camaraderie. It was easy and natural to slap his gloved hand and smile with him.
As for playing and writing…different sports do different things for me. The wonderfully fast pace of basketball always helped me empty my mind of anything else, and the exhaustion that set in after playing was cleansing. I miss that.
Amy: I also read in a Boston Globe piece I think that you value the element of surprise in reading and writing poetry. Do you consciously create that element of surprise? Or do you mostly surprise yourself when you’re writing?
J.D.: The unofficial credo of the New York School, “above all, be interesting,” is useful. Teaching poetry, I like to emphasize leaps of thought, those moments when a poem shifts direction, makes an unexpected connection, challenges the rules it seems to have established for itself. The same approach applies to prose quite well.
Surprises, of course, can take many different forms. The ones that most interest me are the shifts in the train of thought in a poem, as opposed to linguistic shifts (deliberate changes in diction or syntax or structure).
When I’m writing, I operate on a very simple principle that took years to recognize and articulate: if one’s writing something and gets bored, stop. Put a period on it and shift gears. This has saved me from turgid transitional sentences or obligatory descriptions or explications, and it has allowed me to surprise myself. If I’m describing a Thomas Cole painting and suddenly feel like recalling something I read about the Fukashima Daiichi disaster, then I allow myself to write about that.
Amy: Bonus question: In researching you work I came across your narrative poem (is that what you would call it — or just a poem?) “Territory.” It’s such a moving and powerful piece – and reading it in light of our current political climate, it feels so relevant. Can you tell me about your process for writing this poem? Was it healing for you? Do you ever consider the act of writing – or making art of any kind – healing?
J.D.: “Territory” is a long dramatic monologue (thirteen pages) in the voice of a young gay man whose life is stabilizing after several harrowing years that begin when he’s kicked out of his house at sixteen.
Over my years of teaching, I would catch glimpses of my students’ lives, both in their writing and in conversations. That poem, and some others in Lifting the Turtle, a book forthcoming in November, draw from the stories I’ve heard. I took a few incidents, invented a few others, and wove a voice around them.
I wish I knew why, after I wrote several of these monologues, the voices stopped, and I just couldn’t write them anymore. There are a lot more stories. In all the monologues, the characters are taking stock of their lives and how they feel about where they have landed, making peace with what the world has done to them and the choices they have made.
In “Territories,” and all these pieces, I showed the work to the students whose lives I drew from before attempting to publish them. That was a bit nerve-wracking. It wasn’t about whether I could publish the work or not, but simply whether they would feel hurt or betrayed by the poems. Even though the characters I created felt very different from the students to me, the poems couldn’t have been written without their stories. I was grateful for their understanding.
Is art healing? Art is about finding truth. Truth can heal, it can wound, it can keep you awake at night, and it can tell you where you are when you feel lost.
J.D. SCRIMGEOUR is Professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Salem State University. He has published two books of nonfiction, Spin Moves and Themes For English B: A Professor’s Education In & Out of Class. The latter won the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s (AWP) Award for Nonfiction. He’s also the author of the poetry collections The Last Miles and Territories and his latest book of poems, Lifting the Turtle, will be published in November 2017. He has collaborated with artists in other mediums, including choreographer Caitlin Corbett, photographer Kim Mimnaugh, and Director Peter Sampieri. With musician Philip Swanson he released the CD of poetry and music, Ogunquit & Other Works.
The musical that he composed with his two sons, Aidan and Guthrie, Only Human, premiered in Salem’s Ames Hall Theater in 2014.