Monday, December 3, 2012

Inspiration Interview: Poet, Jim Bodeen

All Rights Reserved. Taken in the New Forest, England. 2011

As part of my new Inspiration Series, I am highlighting creative people I believe listen to the passion that fuels their hearts, choose to live that path, and are true to themselves.

I am honored to interview poet Jim Bodeen of Yakima, Washington, USA. (Yes, the very Yakima that Raymond Carver hails from.)  Bodeen was gracious enough to be interviewed, via Skype, all the way from Myanmar.

Jim Bodeen is a poet who has answered the call to live a poet’s life.  To him, it is a necessity. He didn’t go looking for poetry, but knew he was a poet even in High School.  Though Jim wasn’t writing then, he saw things differently; he knew he didn’t belong in his small North Dakota farm town. Perhaps that laid the seed for a poet’s life: “poetry always comes to look for what other people don’t look for,” says Bodeen.

We met when he was an English teacher at A.C. Davis High School in Yakima.  He would chant in class, “Take a bullet, make a song,” a quote from his poetry book, “Whole Houses Shaking,” that had just been published.  At 17 I understood this. I understood that things can get shitty sometimes, you can go into the dark; but it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to make of it. You can take the violence, you can take the despair and then you have a choice: you can turn it into music, into beauty.  You can make a song.  Or not.

In addition to teaching, Bodeen started a small poetry press – Blue Begonia Press – in 1981 which has published 58 works of poets from Washington State. For many years, the press published poetry with its Chandler and Price New Series Letterpress which was purchased from a local newspaper in 1978. Read about Blue Begonia’s history here.

©Jim Bodeen

Poetry and the Poet
When Jim and I discussed what poetry really is, we talked about words like “terror.” He said “Terror belongs to the poets. Not politicians. We’re the terrorists. Terror belongs to poets. So…then the job of language and truth comes in. Poetry corrects the language. Look at Orwell and politics and language - how language gets used and misused. A poet’s job is to correctly use the language.”

Perhaps the way to use language correctly is not necessarily using it in a way that makes complete academic sense, but to make sense to the heart and clip you to the bone...let the language speak to your gut, tell you the truth.

Jim goes on to say, “Everyone has a poem somewhere in their lives. Or everyone will buy a Hallmark card with a poem on it. Poetry is the most essential part of being. It can’t be bought. It can’t be….the University doesn’t own it, either.”

Who do poems belong to?
I thought I remembered Bodeen telling us in class that once we write something down, it no longer belongs to us. Instead, it belongs to the readers and are offerings to the world.  He couldn’t quite remember saying that, still he agrees with the idea.

“If you write poems so you can control them, it’s a lie for the poem. It’s a gift to hear it…it’s different from what I thought it might be [how another interprets it]. All these things…they belong to poetry and literature. Belong to human beings walking in the world.”

We discussed how not only poems don’t belong to us, but also how others’ interpretations of our lives don’t belong to us:“The way one lives one’s life is an offering. Open to interpretation…the way others experiences us and shares with others.”

Bodeen explained that we may see ourselves in a certain way, but we can’t completely control how others see us (just as we shouldn’t try to control a poem). Others’ interpretation of us isn’t untrue or false.  To say so would be “unfair,” but does make you ask: “what do I want to give?” What is your offering to this world?

What makes a poet?
If you write poems, does that make you a poet? 

Jim says, “It’s only partly about words,” and admits his journey being a poet may be different from yours.  To him, poetry is about learning to listen and about inspiration. He says, “One learns to listen. To music. Orpheus’ net. Going into the underworld, to bring back your beloved. It’s inspiration.”

We discussed Frederico Garcia Lorca and duende. Duende is a character in Spanish and Latin American mythology that plays tricks, “pulls the stool out from under you,” says Bodeen.

But duende also means soul, being authentic – inspired – and is associated with flamenco. Bodeen’s life as a poet and the concept of duende are firmly interconnected.  He says duende is the “moment when the flamenco dancer jumps to the table and gives her dance her life, takes it out of herself. The response to duende, that swirling inspirational moment:  what proceeds + the response.”  This is poetry.

Bodeen also believes that being a poet is a calling. This implies you must write… that you don’t have much of a choice. And that there is also a responsibility.

“The call to be a poet is one of the oldest callings, a calling for a way of life as much as it is a calling [to write],” says Jim. You must respond to the call and how you respond is up to you. If you don’t respond, “the goddess will pick meat from your bones,” Bodeen warns, according to Robert Graves in The White Goddess and the role of the poet.

Read that again: if you don’t write when you know you’ve got it in you to do so, when you know it's what you're meant to do, “the goddess will pick meat from your bones.”  

©Jim Bodeen, Hogback Mountain above Paradise Basin,White Pass. Cascade Mountains, WA, USA.

This isn’t only true for poetry. Or writing. But any creative endeavor, whatever is tugging at you, keeping you up at night, or even barely whispering to you. If you don’t do it, it feels like you’re lying to yourself. What a strong, clear warning.  I certainly can relate and I’m sure most of us can. We have to be honest about who we are. What we’re meant to do.

He reminds us that a poet’s job “…is still to tell the truth. Follow the muse – that goddess – as best you can.”  Jim says the muse is “what is alive and essential.” 

And poetry is not all about academics. “The poetry world is filled with teachers at different levels. A lot different from university writers. It’s also full of frauds and men who write poems to sleep with women.”  

“No parent wants their child to grow up to be a poet. They want doctors and lawyers and MBAs,” Jim said.  I told him I would be quite happy if my daughter ended up a poet. I think I heard him smile on the other end of Skype.

The Nitty Gritty: Practice, Inspiration, and Waiting
 ©Jim Bodeen, Shadowlight, Selah, WA, USA

Sometimes there is a lot of waiting for inspiration, for duende, when you’re a poet. It takes patience. Jim and I discussed how often he writes; he tries to write a line a day. “For some guy who claims to be a poet, how does that sound to someone?” he asked.

Bodeen has published at least seven books of poetry, so part of me wonders if he has the luxury to sit back and not write 500, 1,000 words a day. But if you’re a writer, do you ever have the luxury of sitting back and not writing? Not if we’re to believe Graves and the goddess.

Jim explained how he tries not to press the process too much. “The writer is trying to be present. Not trying to judge it. Different times in our lives, there are different opportunities, different problems, different things we’re given to do to be present. Part of the process is waiting.”

Yet Bodeen also says, “Part of the process is to have the discipline. Writing everyday 500 or 1,000 words is the discipline for being present for that. Duende and the angels and the demons. The expectation, the genius of the moment, the inspiration of the moment… sometimes it can be genius that comes with the discipline. Work brings duende - can bring the inspiration.”

Jim also says that the work, the discipline that may bring inspiration, can be a paradox because, “work can kill inspiration. Discipline can kill inspiration.”

But then we talked about Rilke and his poem, “Autumn.”  He says Autumn is “talking about a man in middle age. That if you haven’t been tilling the soil in your youth, by the time you get to middle age, it may be too late… If you haven’t been doing discipline in your art, the light might be too late. You might not be making great wine.”

Getting into your art later in life?  
Never fear.  Bodeen says, “There is redemption for the poet, the writer, the seeker: this is where the blessed choosing of this path is in fact the real blessing.” 

So write. Or paint. Or take photographs. Or sing. Or sew. Whatever it is that calls to you.

It’s about balance. And about coming back to: telling the truth and being present. Do what you need to do.   

So how do you tell the truth?  How do you stay true to poetry?  There are “so many different ways to try to be true. So many ways to fuck it up and corrupt it,” Jim explained.

There are times it might be difficult to find inspiration, but you can also find it anywhere. It might not be that you’re ready to write about what you discover, but taking notes helps and it might come up at another time.

Jim, like most writers, has a notebook with him at all times. He keeps one in his back pocket and carries a larger one around.  He writes notes in his books. For the last eight years, he has also carried a video camera because he likes the “raw data.” He says there’s a relationship between photography and poetry.

Are poems every really finished?
There are many different ideas about this.  Gingsberg said, “First draft, final draft.” Kerouac was of that school and said you had to trust the spontaneity of poetry. Billy Collins, United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, talks about revision as being a screwdriver. Graves says that the job of the poem is to answer: “who is the beloved?” Others think it’s to confront the abyss, the darkness, but then come from it, joyful, explains Bodeen. Jim tells us that basically, our lives have different purposes at different times and so our poems, too, will have different meanings, different purposes in those times. We are probably best to judge for ourselves if a poem ever needs dredging up and re-worked.

Who inspires Jim
Jim is inspired by poets and musicians. He talks about Van Morrison, a man so passionate about his music, he knew there was no other option than to play. No plan B.

Jim's also inspired and influenced by:

Poetry and Transformation

©Jim Bodeen, Hogback Mountain, Cascade Mountain Range. Washington State, USA.

Poetry changed me. Literature radically changed my philosophy when I was 17. I was brought up to believe in spiritual experiences. I was also taught where they occur and how they physically manifest themselves. I was never taught that literature could make me feel the same way.

Then one day, we were reading Hamlet in class and I had what had always been described to me as a spiritual experience. With goose bumps up and down my arms and butterflies in my stomach, I thought, “if Hamlet is giving me a spiritual experience then the door has just been busted down on all the myths I’ve been taught.” (Or something much less eloquent than that.)

During our interview, I shared this experience with Bodeen. He says, “Poems are prayers. Poetry never wants to be compromised by any church. Poets were here before the church was here. I really don’t get the chance to talk to the church about that. I always try to …the calling belongs to the poet, not with someone who went to university to get a collar.”

As the magic of synchronicity would have it, Jim was taking down the poem, Praying, by Mary Oliver to read while I was mentioning Hamlet…but before I talked about my spiritual experience in class.

I love the poem because it’s a reminder that life isn’t predetermined with a special set of rules or equations that we must follow. Prayers don’t have to look exactly the same way or be said the same way or in the same place. There are no constructs to this. Poems don’t have to be the same. Art is not the same. We are not the same. We are anything. And everything.

On Teaching
©Jim Bodeen, Avalanche Training.

I am grateful Jim Bodeen was my teacher. It was during that time I first began listening to my own voice and trusting myself. Bodeen taught English for 33 years. He taught us Shakespeare and said, “All literature is sacred…Shakespeare is central to the conversation. I got to teach it one hour a day for 15 years.”

I was lucky to have one of those years.

Jim believes the interactions between students and teachers are very important.
“I think it's amazing, and beyond outside commentary. Incredible things happen in these rooms, as your own words testify to. Life-changing moments, hours, classes. Conversations that go on sometimes for a full year, sometimes longer. Colleges and universities often get credit for these, but I think they're commonplace miracles in the public schools. I believe that schools like Davis are the richest and best places, places that transcend anything that could be said about them, good or bad. I think the same can be said for teachers, students, and schools at all levels. What students taught me, gave me, confronted me with, as well as their encouragement, was, and remains, incredible. That experience, daily, certainly contributes to the education of a person, poet, writer. It's the out-of-the-way, off-the-map sort of thing that is critical to my story, and, I think, to the stories of many others, writers or not.”

I can attest to these miracles. Bodeen, hands down, is my most influential teacher.  I’m grateful to continue conversations with him many…many…years later. (You don’t need to know just how long it’s been since I’ve sat in his class!)

At the end of the school year, Bodeen gave me three books: The Death of Artemio Cruz, If You Want to Write, and Denise Levertov’s poems.  These books have travelled to every continent and country I’ve lived. I’ve never left them behind.  They’re sitting nicely on my bookshelf upstairs. I’ve gone back to them many times over the years and I have Bodeen to thank for that.

I’m not the only one, either. Not too many years ago, I had the privilege to work with a few of his former students. We had many discussions about Jim and how important a role his teaching played in our lives. All of us still write. 

Here’s to the poets, the teachers, the writers.

So off you go now...

Go write, or paint, or whatever it is in your heart. You know it is calling you.

To learn more about Jim, you can check out the poetry pole YouTube video or his his blog



  1. Becky what an incredible interview you did with Jim. I learned so much that I can apply in my own life and with my writing. It brought me great joy to get that writing is not all about academics, it's more about doing what is important that's in our hearts whether it's writing, creating art, music or whatever else. It's a process where we do better if we don't push ourselves to make anything specific happen. I will be re-reading this post again and again to take in a lot of the wisdom that Jim shared with all of us in this interview. Thank you to both of you. Very well done Becky. xo

    1. Hi Suzanne,
      I feel really honored that you enjoyed the interview. I loved, too, that what he said about poetry can be applied to anything, really.

      Thank you again. I am so pleased you were able to get a lot from it. :)

  2. Becky, this was excellent! Did I ever tell you that Barry Grimes was my high school English teacher and, although we did not keep in touch, I feel very much the same about him as you do about Bodeen? He had a huge influence on me and I am thankful I had him as a teacher/mentor during a very difficult time in my life. My dad died of cancer in my senior year and my journals for Mr. Grimes helped me write my way through it. He also gave me a collection of poetry written by a man who had also lost his father to cancer and struggled with that difficult relationship and loss. That poet was none other than Jim Bodeen and he helped me without ever knowing it. As I write this I have a tear in my eye, but that's not a bad thing. We all need to be reminded occasionally of the tough times and those who helped us through them. Thank you Becky, and, if either of them read this, thank you Barry Grimes and Jim Bodeen.

    1. Darlene!
      I vaguely remember us talking about Barry was your teacher because he was also my teacher for a bit during my senior year.

      It's amazing how much our teachers have an influence on our lives. I recently read how in Finland, they pay their teachers like they pay their doctors. They hire the best of the best. We were lucky to have the best of the best in our valley. I wish that our country invested in teachers like them because everyone deserves that sort of education that goes beyond memorization and passing tests. They teach you to believe in yourself, to have compassion, and they teach you - in our case - how literature, how poetry, can help you feel less alone in this world.

      I think it's really inspiring to read about how Bodeen's poem about his father helped you during your time of loss. And how it still has such an impact on you.

      I feel like Barry and Jim will read this. I will let Bodeen know. :)

      Much love! And miss you!

  3. Absolutely fantastic interview! I'm such a believer in following your calling...following our muse...such great reminders on living authentically. Personally, it has come to my attention that I need to do some changing on the job front for me to live 100% authentically. Thank you so much for this post. It validates what I already know. Follow your it...or the goddess is gonna pick the meat off my bones!

    1. Thanks, Amy! I am glad that you enjoyed it. It's always great to get those validations, isn't it? Don't let the goddess pick that meat. It hurts! :)

  4. This was very timely for me to read today as I posted something similar in my blog today, this idea of following your hearts desire. In fact, it seems everywhere I turn these days I'm being reminded of that very thing. Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something? Thanks to you.
    A fellow flyer!

    1. Angela,
      I'm very glad that you found this timely. Yes, it definitely sounds like the universe is trying to tell you something. :) Go do it...whatever it is that needs to be done! :)


  5. It was really well-timed personally to see these days when i submitted some thing comparable during my weblog these days, this particular concept of subsequent your own minds wish. Actually, it appears almost everywhere We change nowadays I am becoming reminded of this really point. Probably the world is attempting to inform me personally some thing? Because of a person.

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