James J. Siegel on Looking Beyond Your Own Fences
James J. Siegel is a San Francisco-based poet originally from Toledo, Ohio. His first poetry collection, How Ghosts Travel, was recently released from Spuyten Duyvil Press. “The collection is a rearview mirror looking back at life in the “fly-over country.” Abandoned amusement parks, zombies, slasher movies, Ouija boards, Catholicism, and college happy hours are just some of the topics in the book, which examines literal and figurative ghosts.
For the past ten years James has been a literary arts organizer in the city. His current literary project is Literary Speakeasy, an evening of poetry, prose, music, and martinis each month at Martuni’s Piano Bar. His work has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Good Men Project, The Cortland Review, Assaracus, and Divining Divas: 100 Gay Men on Their Muses.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
This has always been a hard question for me. When you are at a party, and you meet someone for the first time, that question is inevitably asked. And 99% of the time people are really asking “What do you do for money?” So if you say you are a poet, they give you that strange sideways look, very similar to a dog confused by a high squeaky noise.
So I make a distinction. I tell them that when it comes to paying the bills I’m a managing editor for a technical trade magazine. But in the other part of my life I’m a poet and literary arts organizer. If you are meeting another writer for the first time, they completely understand those secret identities.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I have two big struggles. One has always been confidence in my work. When I start to get wishy washy about my talent, my best friend always reminds me of a great quote. “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” So I really try not to fear those doubts.
I also struggle with frustration when it comes to tackling a poem and trying to figure out what it wants to do. Once I start trying to make it do something I’m already losing the battle. Some poems are relentless that way. No one wants to be the pageant mom of their poems. I might be trying to put a tiara on my poem, but sometimes it would rather rip off the sash and go play in the mud. That is when I need to learn to relax and say, “Ok, let’s go get in the mud.”
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Read. Read and find artists you admire. Find poets and writers that you identify with. Find artists with voices that really speak to you. Then do what they do. I’m not saying copy them. But you really start to find your own voice when you listen to the voices of other poets.
Also, find a circle of artists who are kind and will support you. Find artists that are thrilled with your success as much as they are thrilled with their own success. I honestly would not have achieved some of my goals if I didn’t have those people supporting me and rooting me on along the way.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I’d like to think so. But success isn’t really a destination. No matter what, you keep striving for something. Success is happiness and joy with what you are creating and doing right now in the present. If you can feel good about what you are doing right now, and it thrills you and fills you with energy, then you are doing great.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
It’s all about Autotune The News. More specifically the Backin’ Up song. Never gets old!
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I thought for sure I was going to be an actor when I was 10! I was in all the school plays and stuff. That path didn’t quite pan out. I also loved Stephen King when I was in grade school. I would write short horror stories on my little word processor in my bedroom. My Catholic school teachers were very concerned for my well-being. But I turned out just fine! And speaking of Catholic school, I remember when Like A Prayer came out. I think that changed everything for me. When I saw this woman kissing a black Jesus and dancing in front of burning crosses… I was immediately awestruck and in love. So Stephen King and Madonna. Horror and Vogueing. Does it get better than that!?
What’s wrong with society today?
Maybe it all boils down to self-centered behavior. People have a hard time looking beyond their own fences. Maybe that is human nature, but I think things would be so much better if we just looked at things from another person’s perspective. Hopefully art can accomplish that.
What is your fondest memory?
My college years in Bowling Green, Ohio. It was the first time I was really on my own, but when you are in college between the ages of 18 and 22, you are in this wonderful limbo. It’s the “real world,” but not really. College was like adult summer camp. And we were broke after we paid the rent and bought books and fed ourselves, but if you had a few bucks left for some cheap beer and a pack of cigarettes you could have a really good time! Trust me.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Not sure about love. But I’m sure I fall in lust multiple times a day. Don’t get me started on that.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The end of religion imposing itself on public policy. That would be a great start.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I don’t have a rigid definition of art. I think if it invokes thought or a feeling it’s art. If it moves you, if it just makes you move your body or tap your foot, it’s art. It could be a classic painting or a pop song. If it makes you feel something, then that is your personal piece of art. No one should tell you otherwise. I don’t care if it’s Anne Sexton or the Spice Girls. If it brings you joy, that is all that matters.
What are you working on right now?
My first poetry collection just came out from Spuyten Duyvill press. It is called How Ghosts Travel. Right now I’m really trying to promote that as much as possible and planning to get some readings together so I can get the book in people’s hands. I’m also curating a monthly literary event at Martuni’s Piano Bar in San Francisco. It is called Literary Speakeasy and it’s been a tremendous amount of fun. I get a range of different writers, about four or five each night, and sometimes we throw in a musical guest. The crowds have been spectacular. Sipping a martini and hearing someone perform their work makes for an amazing night. People can find out more at facebook.com/literaryspeakeasy.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
All the amazing artists that are leaving the city. I’ve lived in San Francisco for 11 years and it just keeps getting worse. If we’re not careful all the cool things about the city will evaporate. Great stores are also leaving because the rents are too high. And then in their place is another coffee shop. Come on Castro District, do we need another coffee shop?!
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
I live in the Castro District of the city and I’m first to say that I get stuck in my “bubble.” But I really love my neighborhood and I love bar hopping with a handful of good friends. Love spending time out, having some drinks, having some laughs, tipping some go-go’s. Then crawling home with a bag of Mexican food. It’s the best.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Gosh, what wouldn’t I do! So many countries I would love to visit. But I always have this joke about what I would do if I won the lottery. (But it’s not really a joke). I would buy a Winnebago and just travel all over the country. Not really having a destination, just deciding it on the spur of the moment. Like, “hey, how does the Grand Canyon sound today?” Or we could just drive from one Comic Con to the next. Or one haunted hotel to the next. It would just be a beautiful RV ride of geekiness.