Poet Jim Whiteside turns brief moments into lyrical gold

by Rebecca Harrelson

| @writemesweetly

Jim Whiteside’s poetry has been published in many different journals over a short amount of time. Some of those publications include: The Southern Review, Indiana Review, Kenyon Review Online, Post Road, and Ninth Letter. What is even more impressive about his accomplishments is that he is only in his mid-twenties. Having the ability to sit down and pick Whiteside’s mind about poetry and the emotional rollercoaster the craft takes you on was a fantastic window for me. The inspiration, and the grounded nature of Whiteside’s deliberate diction, sounded in itself much like a poem; very specific thoughts and sentences escaped his mouth and allowed me as a journalist and aspiring poet to be able to take that hour or so and just soak in all his shared thoughts.

I’ve met many writers over the last couple of years, and what I have noticed is that regardless of the genres writers are creative, neurotic and they have the most beautiful minds. I say that not yet thinking of myself as a creative writer but in awe of how true writers pull words from the air and make you feel so many emotions all just by reading letters on a page.

Poetry is a love affair of mine. I hide it away at night and I escape to write stanzas on a page whenever my life becomes hectic. I use people I fall in love with as a muse for years on end for my own private writings. I am in love with words, so much so that I choose to put them on my body permanently, and create a career around the craft; but more importantly I’m amazed by writers such as Whiteside who can create pages upon pages of their work for all the world to read. My job leads me to speaking with many interesting individuals with beautiful stories, this conversation as a journalist and aspiring poet meant a great deal to me. I encourage anyone reading this Q&A to check out Whiteside’s work and keep an eye out for any pieces he may publish.

RH: When did you start writing and was it always poetry?

JW: I dabbled in writing in High School, it was always poetry. I appreciated the link between poetry and music. I was one of those kids that was into music that I felt transcended the usual top 40 pop aesthetic, took it to the next level. When you are 17 or whatever, Radiohead was about tops for that mark. I was fortunate enough to edit the literary journal and I also edited the school newspaper. I had the same English teacher from 10 th -12 th grade who really instilled in students the value of creativity and the value of poetry. We read a lot of really great fiction and really great poetry.

RH: Do you remember your teacher’s name? JW: Her name is Carolyn Hawkins! And this is actually her last year teaching at Cookeville High School.

RH: You went to UNCG right?

JW: I double majored in English, with a concentration in creative writing and Sociology at Vanderbilt. And then I did my MFA at UNCG. I went into college planning on being an English major, minor in Sociology and Corporate Strategies, which was my ‘try to make my parents happy kind of thing’ and I eventually decided to double major in English and Sociology and dropped Corporate Strategies. It just so happened that I was in a place with a very strong faculty and a very supportive faculty so I was able to form good, close relationships with several of the professors.

Sophomore year of undergrad I took an intro to poetry workshop, and all the poetry workshops at Vanderbilt are taught by MFA students. I took a workshop with this really great enthusiastic young poet who encouraged us to explore and play around a lot, and I hadn’t really written anything for a couple years since High School and it really turned a switch on for me.

RH: Do you think you developed your style in Undergrad or more so in the MFA program?

JW: Definitely in MFA. Even in Grad School, I thought I had a lot figured out, and even since then I have developed beyond that. So I finished Grad School in 2014, that summer I had already been writing a lot in the thesis process, then I wrote a lot after Grad School, so the summer after Grad school I took my master’s thesis, printed it out and threw away half of it. Ya’ know that was a 50 page volume of work. It was from April to July. Since then I have gone through that same process twice now, where I have scrapped a bunch of stuff and put a whole lot of other stuff in.

RH: Is that processes really cathartic to you?

JW: It’s kind of a relief, that I can say ‘oh that’s pretty awful’ and then replace it with something better. Sometimes it’s really interesting with poems I have really loved and have been very close to, very close to the heart—they end up a year later not feeling that way anymore. Even poems I’ve had published in good journals, they just get scrapped. So I set out to write a book about, well— what I thought was classical music and also the nature of memory. I thought it was a book about the way we interact with memory and also how a memory is remembered differently by different people, and so that’s what I set out to do.

RH: Why a classical music element?

JW: Because my first year of Grad School I had a particularly, for me at least, emotionally involved relationship with a young professional musician. Who we were both in Grad School at the same time and we were both young artists and for me at the time it was the most emotionally significant thing I had been involved in. So through that writing processes afterwards I had to scrap a lot of it because it was too, uhh, a little too — drippy. Nothing really beyond I’m really sad because you hurt me.

RH: God I can imagine, I’ve been there. I’m sure a lot of poetry came from that?

JW: A whole master’s thesis! So within this manuscript there are pieces that engage with works of classical music, many as a response with various pieces of music. Or sometimes it mimics the form, I write pretty much entirely in free verse, so some play with the form of the classical music.

RH: Do you think those “drippy” poems you have to get out of you, to get to something really good?

JW: Ha ha not always, I hope not.

There’s a processes for sure, I had to get those out. So the way this particular relationship ended was very sudden and very traumatic. What I need in that moment and for the next—we will say year, was to write a lot of pretty bad poems about how sad that made me. So that I could eventually get enough distance from it that I could right about those kinds of emotions in a way that was more objective or meaningful to people other than myself, a little more universal, more global. Pieces that do some kind of work for the reader.

So since then I’ve come to see the project as a book length meditation of the nature of power especially the power that is held by the objects of romantic or sexual desire.

RH: What have you been writing more about now?

JW: It seems like lately every time I go to an art gallery I write a poem. I love going to SECCA in Winston-Salem because it seems that every time I go there I end up writing a poem that gets picked up in a really great journal. It’s really great; I probably owe them some money.

RH: So this book, manuscript deal, it is currently being worked on correct?

JW: Yes, there is no end date. I think it definitely has a beginning and it definitely has an end. And I’ve written both of those poems. So now to fill in the middle.

RH: What is your writing process like?

Do you have to write at a desk perfectly situated in front of a window?

JW: Hah it’s awful. I can’t write at home, because there are too many distractions. I can’t have my computer with me. So all pen to paper. I use exactly one kind of notebook. I use a particular pen, every time. I try to eliminate as many variables as possible so it’s like if I use the same notebook and the same pen and I don’t have any distractions and usually a coffee shop of some sort.

RH: What sparks a poem in your mind? JW: So there are a lot of things that can do that. Usually it is an image of some kind, and I usually don’t sit down to write immediately, almost never. I usually carry that ‘thing’ around with me for a couple of days. I do write it down because I’m afraid I will forget it, but I usually don’t forget it. So I think about it for a few days, how I am going to write about it. Many times it is the last line of the poem, so I get to write everything up to that really killer last phrase.

RH: Do you think that is something you enjoy? A poem finishing strong like that?

JW: Yes. A friend of mine in Grad School said that all of my last lines tend to stab you in the gut a little; they’ve got that ‘umph’. A lot of the time I like for that to be the last line, but I think there is, if we can have a few of those moments throughout the piece, that’s when you hit gold.

RH: Do you have a favorite poet that really jumps out at you for their content or style?

JW: Yes! There are many poets that influence me, but the poet and the book that I go back to constantly is “Crush” by Richard Siken. It’s a book about how love makes us do pretty crazy things, and it’s a book about love and loss, and trying to navigate an emotional landscape that at times feels adversarial in nature. His book is sometimes described as a book about panic. I read the book right before Grad school and I think what it did was grant me a lot of permission. You can write about intense feelings you can write about what it means to feel lost, what it means to be a gay man who feels constantly othered. It was like a big ‘it’s ok’ you can write about these things.

RH: With that intense emotion you and I both understand about poetry, why do you think poetry is important when put next to fiction or a novel or a lot of words on a page? What is the draw to poetry?

JW: One of the things that makes poems special is it’s digestible very quickly. One thing all writing does, but poetry does as well, is allows us a way to understand not just emotion or the world but it allows us the opportunity to know that others have felt how we feel. There is definitely a portion of poetry that is made up but there is this backbone of something that is real. There is this greater truth and that greater truth often for me is ‘it’s going to be alright,’ and ‘other people feel what you feel.’ I think there is something very beautiful about affirming people. Even if we are writing into an imaginative space, I think a poem should offer the opportunity for people to say I’ve felt that, and ‘that resonates with me.’ !

REBECCA HARRELSON is a proud Greensboro resident, and an insatiably curious soul.