J.D. Scrimgeour: A Writer Who Struggles to Find Just The Right Words.
Interview with Doug Holder
I think any serious writer who claims he or she doesn’t spend a lot of time and effort to find just the right word, is either telling a lie or is in serious denial. Poet/Writer/Salem St. University professor J.D. Scrimgeour fits this bill. Whether he is writing a poem about a badly disfigured woman or a passage about a basketball game, he makes sure the words make the writing come to life.
Scrimgeour teaches at Salem State University. He recently published the poetry collection Territories (Last Automat Press). He has published another book of poetry, The Last Miles, and two books of creative nonfiction, Spin Moves and Themes For English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of Class. With musician Philip Swanson he formed the performance group, Confluence, and released a CD of poetry and music, Ogunquit & Other Works.
I had the pleasure to interview him on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."
Doug Holder: You collaborated with composer Philip Swanson, etc… to put your poetry to music. Can you tell me about this—the dynamics—difficulties, etc…
J.D .Scrimgeour: I met Phil at some sort of campus event. He is a professor at Salem State University in the music department. We talked about getting our students together to collaborate on something. And we decided to try it first ourselves to see what happened. And so I gave him a couple of pieces of writing and he looked them over. He got really interested in a long poem that I wrote titled: “Ogunquit.” We just started meeting and figuring out things. And we started taking his music and attaching it to my words. He composed some new music. I didn’t actually change my words but I did have to figure out timing—when to come in and when to come out. We talked a lot about when we wanted the music to fade out. A lot of our discussions were about sound and rhythm actually. It was incredibly rewarding.
DH: In your mini-memoir “Spin Moves” basketball seems to be the focal point. You examine your life through your involvement with the game. I have interviewed poets who used boxing and baseball as poetic subjects. Poet Philip Burnham, Jr., described baseball as ripe for poetry of failure. He said if you get 3 hits every for every 10 at bats you are considered doing well. What is it about basketball that allures you?
JS: I was always involved with sports. I played basketball and baseball in high school. Early on I was attracted to the speed of the game. There is also a lot of deception in basketball that is very interesting. As much as it is about grace and power, it is also about setting people up so you are a step ahead of them. I remember the poet Charles Simic came to Salem State and talked about how chess is sort of similar to poetry because you are thinking 3 or 4 moves ahead and setting something up. I am not sure this correlation is exactly for me in poetry but there is an appreciation that the mental and physical are working at a high level, all at once.
DH: In your memoir you wrote that John McPhee’s basetball writing was stilted, too polite, lacking the gusto, the very words that would bring the game to life.
JS: You are picking up on a passage that I feel a little embarrassed about. Probably because I was such a Young Turk at the time. So I brought McPhee down a peg. But McPhee wrote a good book about basketball. I was especially interested in trying to come up with how could language capture the energy, the surprise that is available to a basketball player. How do you set the game on the page? I think the game may need a soundtrack behind the writing to make it come alive. I am also interested with what the writer does with punctuation and how the words are going to sound. So I use sentence fragments, dashes, etc… Punctuation is so valuable to set pacing. What a difference in the feeling between a colon and a dash!
DH: You are interested in the genre of Creative Non-Fiction. This is a relative new category. What exactly is it?
JS: It captures so many genres. It may be a memoir that does not follow a conventional narrative structure. It can be like a prose poem. It is non-fiction that you don’t feel you need a fact checker. You may “expand” the truth. I always indicate to the reader if I am going a bit beyond the exact truth however. Some writers don’t feel the need to.
DH: Charlotte Gordon, a colleague of mine at Endicott College wrote that she believes you mission is similar to that of Walt Whitman, in that you celebrate the common man.
JS: There is no way that I can compare myself to Whitman. I think what she is picking up on is that I’ve always had an interest in writing about other people. My poetry deals with the psychological and the sociological. In my new book “Territories” the first half of the book contains two long dramatic monologues in the voice of a student. The voice is a composite of various students I have known.
DSH “ Terrortories” first half is about a gay man—and at times very graphic. How did you research this? It sounded very authentic.
JS: I had a student that I knew pretty well, that I worked with. And I took a few facts of his life and other students and integrated them. Being involved with the arts you become aware and have to be sensitive to sexual orientation issue. I did informal research. I talked to people. I sent out writing to people to see if it sounded right. There were certain words and phrases that I went back and changed. I once asked a student about how he felt about the term "gay boys" instead of "queens." A couple of students from Salem State performed these monologues under the direction of a Salem State theatre professor. People were compelled by the performance.
DH: I was reading the poem " After the Fire" that deals with a woman's zen-like acceptance of her disfiguring facial burns and her subsequent loses. Can you talk a bit about this powerful piece?
JS: I really like that poem. It was the voice of a woman that was horribly scared by a fire and bad things continued to happen during her life. Her husband leaves her. It is based on someone I knew from my life. She was a friend of my wife's and she was on Oprah. And she said " I want to live." I used that line and the poem came from these things I experienced. Two things were happening in my life at the time. We were having our first child, and if you remember the speaker of that poem, she sort of imagines the children she might of had. Also at the same time a friend of ours Mary discovered that her cancer came back. The possibilities of not surviving colored the poem.
UNDER THE GHOST
If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his
dark shadow followed me even there.
Why should a piece of property
kneel at another’s grave?
The whole earth
is red clay. Master won’t stop
slipping me notes.
“I can’t read,” I lied.
He was at the window yesterday,
white shirt a ghost. Some things
don’t even have to be bought.
I’m fifteen. He has a beard,
his shoes are quiet as weeds.
Momma died a long time ago.
She had one dress,
blue. I wear it
when I come here.
Ants crawl up the blank stone—
searching for a name?
Tonight, I will sleep
with grandmother. The stone’s
shadow slowly draws back.
Does it really disappear at noon?
White people are under crosses.
Jesus used to be white.
Property. “You must be subject
to my will in all things.”
To sleep always under a stone.
Brush an ant off my leg. Is
Momma a ghost? To sleep
with Momma, like I used to—
a shadow. To be under a ghost.
---- J. D. Scrimgeour