"I have this theory that our influences and interests form a web, and if you look closely at the places in the web where the strands intersect, that’s where you’ll find the essence of identity."
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Mr. Dennis, you have a new book of poetry forthcoming, Listening Devices. Please tell us about your new book.
JAMES DENNIS: Listening Devices, my second poetry collection, is due in June from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. In homage to T. S. Eliot, this new collection is divided into four sections, four quartets, each based on a piece of music that sets the mood for that quartet. I’d been reading a lot about memory, psychology and neuropsychology, and I started thinking about identity, about what makes us “us.” Because the James Dennis at sixty is very different than the James Dennis at seven.
Do you know what “flashbulb memories” are? [I am shaking my head here.] Flashbulb memories are memories that we as a society hold in common, like, we all remember where we were when the Twin Towers fell, where we were when Armstrong stepped onto the moon. So, I read about a study where the subjects were asked to write about their flashbulb memories of a particular event one year afterward, then again at three, five, ten years. And what happened was the subjects, ten years later, said they didn’t recognize what they’d written a year after the event, a year after the memory was formed. What’s more, they said what they’d written wasn’t the truth.
And, so often, when a soldier comes back from war, their families say they aren’t the same person. And the families are right; they’re not the same person. Trauma changes the wiring of our brains, changes our memories, and if our memories aren’t reliable, how can our sense of ourselves be reliable? Yet, our sense of ourselves is inseparable from our memories.
Many of the poems in your first collection, Correspondence in D Minor (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016), were written as fictional letters to or from figures from literature, history, and scripture. What goes into the process for choosing and arranging a poetry collection?
Correspondence in D Minor was structured around that theme, the letters to and from different historical figures. I had been working on many of those poems for years, and the poems came first. With Listening Devices, the idea for the structure came first. And the poems for this new collection came fast and furious; I was writing last spring and summer, during the first days of the pandemic, and I wrote three poems a day, sometimes. Seventy percent of the poems in Listening Devices were completed in three months. It was like bull riding in rodeo—I just tried to hold on to the muse.
And it can be a painful process, especially when a poem you love doesn’t fit your self-imposed structure or theme, and you have to kill your darlings, as they say. Hopefully, there’ll be a place for those darlings in the future.
I know that you are very involved with the design of your books, working with a longtime collaborator. The letter-pressed cover of Correspondence is just as much art as the poems it contains. How does the design process work?
Lana! Lana Rigsby, designer and collaborator and partner in crime. I’ve known her since I was nineteen; we grew up together, artistically. She’s been around since the beginning, when Brent Douglass, John Davis, and I wrote Thin Slice of Life, the first Miles Arceneaux mystery. For Listening Devices, we knew we wanted images to accompany the poems, but we also knew we didn’t want illustrations because illustrations are limited; they have a one-to-one correspondence with the text, and we had something more complex in mind. We settled on these photos in Listening Devices because we feel they illuminate the poems; there’s a conversation going on between the images and the text.
Lana gets me; she is half of my life and more than half of my madness.
You mentioned that you’re a little anxious about how some poets may react to your use of imagery in the collection, that somehow it won’t be received as “pure.”
I’ve thought of an answer for that: Blake.
You are a novelist, a poet, a retired attorney, a Dominican friar, and a golf-starter on the course where my parents play, which I am told involves breakfast burritos. Setting aside (for the moment) golf and burritos, how do these parts make the whole?
Identity again. I’ve always been curious, and I’ve always been a reader, and before that my mom always read to me. In a way, I’m a picky reader and then I am also a profligate reader. So, I can be picky about a subject or genre, but then I’ll read anything in that subject or genre. I really liked biography, but I wasn’t picky about which biographies—I read every biography in the library at Burnett Elementary in Odessa. My parents bought an encyclopedia set, and instead of reading about particular subjects, I read them cover to cover.
So I think reading widely in multiple subjects did a lot to make me all of those things in your question but especially religious and spiritual themes and a love of language. And I think we all operate in multiple contexts. I have this theory that our influences and interests form a web, and if you look closely at the places in the web where the strands intersect, that’s where you’ll find the essence of identity.
You also volunteer your time for a book club. How has COVID-19 affected this work?
I had two book clubs going on when the plague arrived. One of them was with a group of older women at Good Samaritan; we read popular fiction with a faith aspect, but sadly, this group was a victim of COVID, couldn’t make the Zoom transition. But my second group, the book group at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, made the Zoom leap. During the school year we read theology, then we read fiction during the summer. We’re going to read one of my very favorites books this summer, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.
You grew up in West Texas and currently live in San Antonio. Would it be possible to be the writer you are without Texas?
No way. I am descended from Irish immigrants who settled in Texas before Stephen F. Austin ever got his hands on a land grant. I grew up in Odessa, Texas, with blue-haired, Irish Catholic ladies who went to Mass every day. To be Catholic in Odessa was to worship in a church with Spanish influences. There were many different cultures clashing in Odessa because almost anybody could get a job in the oilfields. And they came. And so I’m a combination of these different streams of experience and culture, which is a microcosm of the state, of the border state of Texas. These countless combinations are a rich, rich vein for art of every kind. And I am the beneficiary; every story I’ve ever told, from my poetry to the Arceneaux mysteries, are a product of cultural conflict.
And then there’s what Sarah Bird calls my “aw, shucks” persona. I’m interested in creating poetic ideas in common language.
Tell me about Calvin and Hobbes.
Calvin and Hobbes! Calvin and Hobbes . . . I’ve posted a Calvin and Hobbes strip on Facebook every single day for several years now, yeah. It used to be music; I used to share music every day, probably been doing one or the other for ten or twelve years. Because those are two things we never have enough of: music and laughter. I want people to laugh more.
And, as a child, I may or may not have had an imaginary friend. And I may or may not have shared certain qualities with Calvin. I may still.
Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?
Well, we’re going to launch Listening Devices at St. Mark’s on June 3 at 6 p.m.
This could be my last book, but as you pointed out, I’ve said that before. Maybe another poetry collection, maybe a novel. I have a couple of ideas for a novel that won’t leave me be. The deciding factor may be how busy I am. Individual poems are not the time commitment demanded by a novel.
What books are on your nightstand?
Celtic Daily Prayer book, collected poems and stories of Jorge Luis Borges, Nothing but Blue Skies by Thomas McGuane. Shortly to arrive on my nightstand is Hemingway’s collected short fiction—so I can appreciate the documentary properly. In the documentary, Tobias Wolff says Hemingway rearranged the furniture that every author sits on today. That’s how I feel about T. S. Eliot and poetry.
James R. Dennis is a novelist, a poet, and a Dominican friar. Along with two friends, he is a co-author of the Miles Arceneaux mystery series. He also writes and teaches on spiritual matters. In 2017, he was honored by the Texas Legislature for his contribution to Texas literature. He was born in West Texas and lives in San Antonio with his two ill-behaved dogs. His first poetry collection, Correspondence in D Minor, was released in August of 2016.