An Interview with Janice King, by Michael Perkins

(In 2002 Janice King published her first poetry collection, Taking Wing: Poems from the Oregon Outback to the Hudson Valley. Michael Perkins interviewed her for the Woodstock Times.)

Book lovers in the mid-Hudson region know Janice King as the smiling, knowledgeable face behind the counter at Woodstock’s Golden Notebook bookstore, where she has worked for sixteen years remembering the literary tastes of her regular customers and sharing her love of books with the world. Poetry lovers know King as a passionate reader of her own poems, usually to packed, enthusiastic houses. Her stellar performance in both these arenas—bookselling and poetry readings—has won her a large local following of admirers. Now, with the publication of Kings’s first book Taking Wing: Poems from the Oregon Outback to the Hudson Valley (A Wyatt Book for Golden Notebook Press), it is to be hoped that her poetic reputation will fly out to a national audience.

In a recent conversation with King abut her book, I asked about its title.

Janice King: It says adventure to me—and, of course, in poetic terms, Pegasus leaving the ground, the ascension that is part of the process of poetry. It’s married to Carol Zaloom’s image of the bucking horse on the cover.

MP: The poet Howard Nemerov has said that “Poetry is a spiritual exercise, the chief object of which is the discovery of one’s character.” Would you agree?

JK: Yes. The poetry that interests me most occurs from writers who mind themselves, and are able to express intellectually the convictions their hearts have already made.

MP: What were your early influences in writing poetry?

JK: I started making rhymes in fourth grade. My favorite anthology was The Children’s Book of Poetry. My father was capable, after a few drinks, of quoting Kipling and Robert Service forever. We had a lot of Tennyson in the house, and a collection of Swinburne.

MP: When did you first consider yourself a poet?

JK: Ten years ago I was giving a reading at The New School in Manhattan when a woman in the audience came up to me. She said she could tell I took my work seriously, but not myself. Many women with families couldn’t give themselves permission. I decided then that I would take that risk. But I also remember that when I was nineteen in Peru, the night before I was to climb Macchu Picchu, I told a Mexican playwright I was a poet, and she gave me a copy of Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu.

MP: You’re a a wonderful storyteller, which is part of the power of your poems…

JK: Well, I grew up in a story-telling culture, on our farm in Pendleton, Oregon. My mother’s side was Irish—all great storytellers. My father had a great sense of humor, and was a gaudy liar in the best sense of that word—a good exaggeration is better than a little truth. I also grew up around the Umattilla Reservation, and my mother, who was a photographer, would take me with her to listen to Umatilla storytellers. Stories are a currency in their culture. You sit down with them and they say, “Tell me a story.” Orson Welles said, “The highest form of theatricality is that which is unreal but true.” That gives the writer a lot of leeway—how to make it true.

MP: Which poets do you admire?

JK: I like Yusef Komunyaka, May Swenson, Richard Hugo, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Alan Dugan, Jayne Cortez, Ai. I read poetry every day, all the the time. I keep a lot of bad poetry in my collection too, because I think it’s important to think about how something fails.

MP: What are your thoughts about the current national poetry scene—has there been a renaissance, as many claim?

JK: I think that often performance overwhelms craft. Language can succeed in performance, but that doesn’t make it good poetry, meaning the poetry I like. I think that culturally there is a renaissance in awareness of the art. Our culture is one of tasteless extravaganza, and poetry is an emotional and spiritual antidote, particularly for people who don’t have a spiritual anchor. At a profound level it opens you up to yourself.

MP: What about the local poetry scene?

JK: I think we have a very strong local poetry scene. There are a lot of people who have dedicated their extra time to presenting forums so that a poetry dialogue can happen—Cheryl Rice, Bob Wright, Phillip Levine, J.J. Blickstein.

MP: W.H. Auden was quoted as saying that the poet’s job is to protect the language. What do you think?

JK: We’re living in an age of despoliation of language. Look at e-mail—what a horrible way to communicate. I think you have to maintain language as a force, and that it doesn’t always have to be accessible, but you could enjoy the sound. My work is very accessible, however. That is a goal of mine—I write to be understood. I’m not an oblique poet. I think that a strong point in my work is that people who somehow don’t feel as if poetry belongs to them can enjoy my poems.

MP: Music has been an important part of your life and work. You were married to a jazz musician.

JK: In an odd way, music is more important to me than poetry. If I were forced to choose between them, I would have to choose music, because it can more profoundly express what it means to be human. It was through music that I met my ex-husband, Baikida Carroll, who plays trumpet. (I still miss hearing his long tone exercises on the instrument.) We have a daughter, Jade, whose creativity is in theater—she’s assistant directing a play right now. We all have our own language and creative dispositions.

MP: So many people know you as a bookseller.

JK; I’ve had 37 jobs, and since I’ve been at The Golden Notebook for 16 years, we can assume this one suits me. I like it because everyone who walks in the store is engaged. They either know what they’re looking for, or they’re in search of something new.

MP: What have you learned about making a book from selling books.

JK: I’ve watched so many local writers have meltdowns and experience great disappointment when their books are published. Publication is very different from the process of writing.

MP: So your own experience with publishing has been good?

JK: There has been an unusual grace to this whole project. Bob Wyatt has been great. He’s taught me how to be very serious and yet playful in pulling it off. I received help from Patricia Holtz, who typeset the book, Nan Tepper and Ellen Shapiro who proofread it; Barry Samuels was enthusiastic and supportive.

MP: It strikes me that we send books out into the world like messages in bottles. Who do you hope will pick Taking Wing off the beach? Who is your ideal reader?

JK: I don’t have one. Poetry has always been my sanctuary. I write to please myself. I hope it pleases others.

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The Hudson Valley Poetry Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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