James Cagney on the Space Between a Hard Laugh and a True Lesson
Oakland native James Cagney is a Cave Canem Fellow and an alumnus of VONA, two leading workshops focusing on the experience of Black writers. He has been widely published.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them … ?
That I’m a poet and writer. Then, the conversation branches off in one of two directions. They either engage me with stories of their writing or wanting to write or they move on to a different subject.
What’s your biggest struggle?
My biggest struggle is the discipline of sitting and committing to the work. Discipline I don’t always have.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
There’s no stronger advice than just read and write. I feel like I should expand on that, but those words would be wasted. Read, write. That’s It.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I do consider myself successful. I had to think about that. My work has enabled me to perform in places, with people and in circumstances that I never would have otherwise. Those experiences were like gold tickets and I’m honored to have had them. I feel confident in my work and my voice. I feel confident that if there’s something I want to say, I can say it clearly. Artists in the East Bay and beyond have been so supportive and loving to me and what I do, I can’t be more thankful and grateful to them. I don’t celebrate getting poems published, but I have a lot out there. I don’t think much about success. I just keep pushing.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
“Charlie Rose” by Samuel Beckett. Genius, beautiful, simple. Something I secretly wish I made.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
My grandfather, Rev Robert Triplett. He was my first employer when I was a kid. He had a landscaping business and when I was in junior high school; before that, I’d help him on weekends cutting lawns and hauling trash. He was a preacher on weekends and would drive to Sacramento, then across Richmond and Oakland to attend or speak at churches. He baptized me. I remember us changing clothes together in the office, and opening my eyes with him holding me under water. I liked watching him give sermons, when I wasn’t asleep. He was always mesmerizing to me. As a poet, as a speaker, he’s my influence. I was never really conscious of that nor was I ever able to tell him. He saw little of my writing. He and my mom wanted me to preach. I wasn’t feeling that. But somehow I’m doing what he was doing, only in different environments and for audiences who are not openly religious or spiritual at all. May I say: One afternoon, I was working with him in the Oakland hills somewhere. I asked him at random — if dogs could talk, what do you think they’d say? And he stopped what he was doing and let out a string of curse words about wanting food and being fed and whatever. And after I stopped laughing he said, the sound animals make … it’s probably how they pray. Some of it is communication, some of it is prayer to whatever they have no name for. If it means anything to you, that’s where I’m writing from. That space between a hard laugh and a true lesson.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Truth told, at 10 years old I probably admired Godzilla the most. And that’s what I secretly wanted. A city crumbling at my feet. Dust and ashes rising around my shoulders. A prehensile tail. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor. My name didn’t mean that much to me then. I took it for granted. But I always loved movies and acting and movie stars and performing. That stuff was always fun and exciting to me.
What’s wrong with society today?
We don’t listen in conversation. We don’t know how to let go. We define ourselves by what’s hurt us the most. We don’t always know how to be patient and present with one another.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
I take a lot of green food supplements, ginseng. Stuff like that. I try to stay away from my doctor. No disrespect.
What is your fondest memory?
I’m glad there’s a lot. Ask every day and every day you’ll get a different answer. I don’t know. A lot of special performances and whatnot, come to mind. Bonding with my best friend. Meeting my nephew the first time. Those memories mean everything to me, personally. Back when I was a kid, my parents, we drove from California to Oklahoma every other summer to visit relatives. We’d hit up aunts and uncles everywhere: Los Angeles, San Diego. Bakersfield. Texas. Arkansas. Oklahoma City. Little towns and little houses in the middle of nowhere. Fishing holes. These are my favorite memories. Especially now because I don’t think families do that anymore. How much did they pay for gas back then? Those are rare memories, nearly exotic. I got to see a lot of America before it was strip-malled and unified under the big 10 stores and corporate branding. Those summers being on the highway, seeing drive-ins glowing on the horizon beneath purple skies and lightning strikes, sitting on river banks, listening to adults tell stories and stuff. Those are my best memories.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Maybe that’s my problem. I forget to fall in love with something every day.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Wow. I think art comes from an individual articulating his or her questions and observations about life in a medium that engages dialogue with an audience. Art is story. And story is necessary to live. Because without story, without the tension between an individual and their desire, there is no reason to live. Without questions and inner tension there’s no reason to create art.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
My goal is to write a play with more dialogue, write more for theater and the like. I admire playwrights a lot. Suzan Lori-Parks, David Mamet, August Wilson, Samuel Beckett. Cormac McCarthy is my hero. It’s hard to believe one could write so vividly and real primarily using dialogue. His pages are fierce, precise and vivid.
What are some of your favorite smells?
I once met a woman named Jasmine and I told her I loved her scent, and I meant that. All flowers really. The ocean. Clean skin. I love baked breads, a clean sidewalk after a new rain. After working with my granddad, I love cut grass.