Tania James at Fall For the Book

By Evan Roberts

Photo courtesy of  Knopf Doubleday

Photo courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

In Dewberry Hall during George Mason’s annual Fall for the Book festival, Harvard alumnus and new Mason professor Tania James spoke to a packed crowd of eager, rain-soaked undergraduates. I was privileged enough to be one of them.

“I really was expecting to read to only two people,” joked James, author of the well-received novel The Tusk That Did the Damage. And while I was prepared to pester her with questions about the unique perspectives in her latest novel, she made clear that she had turned the page to the next section of her life, moving beyond this latest piece.

For one, she’s a recent mother, and is more recently escaping a year-long writer’s block following childbirth. With less time on her hands, now she writes in “short bursts,” as opposed to forcing herself to write for extended hours. James recounted that previously she spent long periods of time writing “because [she] had to,” but now believes that time wasn’t used efficiently. It’s a predicament I believe every writer can relate to: the desire to produce, or else face the chest-gripping sense of guilt. “It’s a waste of time to work on one thing if you’d rather work on something else,” she said. Amidst all these exciting life changes there is one writing ritual James still abides, one from before her days as a mother: the first two hours of each morning are dedicated to the craft.

Currently, James is interested in what she calls the “weirdness of early motherhood.” In this transitory period of her life, now she’s drawn towards writers who have a surrealistic take because she feels surrealism speaks to her own experiences of past events – specifically to her own experience with motherhood. This new perspective captivated me. It seemed to provide a new source of inspiration, a way to dwell on the most confusing of reflections, and to appreciate them not necessarily for how they actually occurred, but for how they are remembered. When asked how she balances surrealism in otherwise realistic stories, she said that the voice should not be trying to “convince;” it should not linger in trying to explain or rationalize the science of the world, and should instead state what is occurring with authority. By explaining the inner workings of our worlds, we bring unnecessary attention to the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

In the concluding moments of the reading, James spoke on the dichotomy between a novel-length work and a short story. To her, a novel is the culmination of life lessons and perspectives gleaned over a period of several years of the author’s life. A novel is essentially the product of “countless inspirations,” and I truly believe this to be evident in her works. In contrast, James said that a short story has an intense focus – such an intense focus that it’s impossible for her to see past the borders that this single inspiration has framed for her.

Before the applause of damp hands and the formation of a queue by the author’s desk came the inevitable question during any reading: What inspires you?

Said James, “Every day seems to offer something.”

Evan Roberts is the coordinating editor of Moonshine Murmurs, and has worked as an editorial assistant, reader, and media contributor for Stillhouse Press. He will graduate from George Mason University
in December, 2016 with a BA in English.

Risk and Obsession: A Craft Talk With Jericho Brown

By Frank Harder

For Jericho Brown, poetry is laced with doubt. The poet should remain vulnerable, frightened even, in the midst of writing. Each line break drives the poet further into uncertainty. Ironically, Brown feels most whole when thinking in lines. The process he suggested to young poets during his April 21 Visiting Writers craft talk at George Mason involves listening and riffing, relying on reflex and intuition. With this musician’s curiosity, sounds grow to have personality. For Brown, music and aesthetics—an appealing voice, tone, or arresting image—supercedes meaning. He might tell you a poem “needs more bass,” though he’d be pressed to tell you what exactly that means.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Brown, a name which is currently buzzing in the small but fervent poetry world, is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. An associate professor in English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Brown is the author of two books: the musically-driven Please (New Issues 2008), recipient of the 2009 American Book Award for Poetry, and The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), which recently won the 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award and received high praise from Library Journal, Coldfront, and The Academy of American Poets.

The New Testament , Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2014); winner ofthe 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award.

The New Testament, Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2014); winner ofthe 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award.

Brown’s advice to young poets was both energetic and organic during his craft talk. He selected readings from two of his essays, pausing only to clarify where his opinions on a subject had changed or complicated, and followed by opening himself up to our nervous questioning. It was this openness that kept us rapt in attention, the air of tension that characteristically surrounds a celebrity poet of Brown’s stature quickly dispelled, and the conversation livened. Listening to him speak, I sensed that the personal lies at the crux of Brown’s craft, even if the personal is a performance. Performance is closer to the self that one might think, as it keeps the speaker vulnerable in relation to his audience. “The artist’s answer is always risk,” Brown said in a tone of amused experience. “Faith keeps us breathing.”

For Brown, uncertainty drives the process. Take his poem spoken in the voice of Janis Joplin, “Track 5: Summertime” from Please. The lines “So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl/I’m such an ugly girl” didn’t initially come to him direct from the mouth of Joplin. Rather, they were lines he could eagerly get behind, but had to figure out who might say them. As chance would have it, he had Joplin on his mind. Brown’s collage-like process of sorting through lines can be obsessive, and in describing it, he inadvertently answered the one question that many writers fuss over: “Do I need to write every day?” Brown does, he acknowledged, though he distinguished between writing something every day from writing a poem every day. In a span of 3-5 years, he said, you’re bound to write about only a limited amount of obsessions. Books can arise from bringing together these obsessions, attending to and even fostering them.  “Be complete in what you want to do and go all the way,” Brown said.

Frank Harder is a graduate student with George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program, where he studies and writes poetry. He grew up in northern New York and currently lives in Fairfax, VA.