This interview took place on March 13, 2021.
Randy James is the author of a debut chapbook, Shifters, published by Nomadic Press and is a recent graduate of the MFA Program in Writing at the University of San Francisco. His poetry has been published in Myriad, Westwind, Red Cedar Review, Palette, and Fem Newsmagazine. Randy has performed in venues across Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. His work is featured in Hayat Hyatt’s “Villanelle,” which has been archived by Collectif Jeune Cinema. In April, he is reading at Literary Speakeasy’s event and is part of the writing group, At the Door, that features and uplights BIPOC voices in monthly readings. James currently resides in Southern California.
I met up with Randy, via Zoom, to discuss his new book and his writing life.
Catherine Karnitis: You recently graduated from the University of San Francisco’s MFA program in Writing, and you have a beautiful debut chapbook that was just released by Nomadic Press. Huge congratulations to you!
Randy James: Thank you.
CK: There is so much I love about your book, Shifters. What first drew you to writing poetry?
RJ: I first came to poetry through music, around 12 years old, around that age. I was becoming obsessed with music and with certain singer-songwriters. One of my formative influences is Fiona Apple. My first poem was inspired by one of her songs. The title of the poem was “Adversary.” My writing grew out of that. It started creatively, but then went in a more personal direction. I did a lot of journaling throughout high school, which I imagine a lot of people do for different reasons. My reason was mainly for survival. Growing up and coming into my identities, I really didn’t have a lot of support, specifically for my queer identity. I didn’t have a lot of support systems for that, so my refuge became writing.
CK: Did you study poetry in college, as well, before you went on to pursue an MFA?
RJ: Yes, I am an untraditional student. I studied creative writing at my community college, El Camino Community College, in Torrance, California, in Southern California. Then I was lucky enough to transfer into UCLA. When I was there, I focused on creative writing, so I definitely had some experience with the workshop atmosphere and general expectations of what is required of creative writers.
CK: And what drew you to the University of San Francisco?
RJ: I went there for poetry, but I really liked the fact that you were required to branch out and explore other forms of writing, because as a writer you should be able to write in all different modes, maybe not every mode, but you can write in multiple ways. Also, the location in San Francisco is really beautiful. I had been there prior to going to the MFA, and I really liked it. And related to the reasons I started writing, there is a large queer community and that was something that really spoke to me.
CK: What are some of the topics and themes that you explore in your chapbook?
RJ: I explore Blackness a lot. I explore queerness. I explore my relationships with family, specifically, the men in my life. There’s talk of death, a bit of religion. I think maybe the most basic theme is the power of witnessing to see and to record; to see something for what it is as opposed to seeing it and ignoring it—seeing it and acknowledging it.
CK: How does writing poetry open up these topics?
RJ: Sometimes it’s the only way that I can go into these topics and have the ability to sit with them and really feel what I need to feel, because I think it’s not easy to be freely emotional and to show that you are aware of your own agency. Sometimes that can be really, really difficult, and poetry is my way of doing that. When it comes down to it, when I don’t have the words, I find the words in poetry.
CK: One of the things I really admire about your book is your engagement with craft and form in surprising and innovative ways. I was wondering if you could speak to your use of form in your chapbook.
RJ: As far as the chapbook, it was something I didn’t notice until the editing stages of the book that I was employing a lot of different forms to write the pieces. I think it works well with my intent for this chapbook. I wanted to display my skills as a writer, to show that I could go into all these different voices and tell my stories and still have my own voice. I think form is really great but I think that there has to be an awareness when you approach the form. It is good to have the form, because it gives you a starting point, an origin or something to branch off of, but if you allow your voice to get overtaken by form, that’s when you miss out. Sometimes the poem wants to break out of the form of its origin, and that’s okay.
CK: You do that so well, expanding the potential of the particular form. There is a great classroom guide at the end of your chapbook. It is helpful pedagogically, but also for poets and writers who want to refresh their understanding of what these forms are and to see your poems as an example for ways to innovate and interpret such forms as the pantoum, the ghazal, the ode, and the bop.
RJ: One thing I’m grateful for in publishing with Nomadic Press, is that when they have a cohort of authors they are publishing, and specifically with chapbooks, they make sure to have classroom guides. If they want to teach it in an actual classroom or in a high school classroom, they have these questions as guideposts for conversations. And it can be used outside of the classroom, for example in workshops, group gatherings, and writing blitzes.
CK: The title of your collection is Shifters, and you have a poem about a lunar typewriter, and the first poem in your collection is an abecedarian poem. You talk about how movement is also a theme in your book, and I thought about shifters in a typewriter. It made me think about the act of writing and the materiality of language, especially in your engagement with concrete and visual poetry.
RJ: It has to do with resonances, things that resonate with me. “Lunar Typewriter” was specifically inspired by an artwork that I had seen, and it just felt imperative to write the poem and to write it in the way I had written it. It had to be visual for it to really make sense and for it to come alive. When you say the materiality of language, I am thinking about the things that we say. I also think about spells and how words can be considered spells and how that gives weight to them.
CK: I understand that you have performed your poetry in the Bay Area quite a bit while you were a graduate student. Some people write their poetry more for the written page, and some people write more for performance. Where would you say that your poetry exists?
RJ: Ideally, I would like to have it exist in the middle, between both, only because when I write I always make sure to include an oral element. I always sound out my poems whenever I am editing them, revising them, because sound is so important to the activation of poetry. I can’t imagine just having my poems and having them on the page and that being it. They have to be read out loud; they have to be activated in that way. That’s my belief. I think spoken word or performance-based poetry, sometimes, it gets a little bit of bad rap, because it taps more into our present time, our present reality, our real time. A critique I hear often about spoken word performance is that it is timely—too timely. I think that is one of the great things about performance poetry is the fact that it is talking about what is happening right now—it is visceral. I think purely on the page poetry can benefit from it, at least taking sound more seriously.
CK: I totally agree. I think that to go back to concrete poetry, there is an idea of a “verbicovisual” form—it is all of those aspects—it is visual and verbal and existing—the human element. Poetry is having a moment now, with your fellow LA poet, Amanda Gorman reading her poetry at the Biden/Harris inauguration and at the Super Bowl. 2020 was such a tough year; the last several years have been especially challenging. What is poetry for in these specific times?
RJ: I would say poetry is for getting people to see each other, getting people to understand each other, because I think that there has been a real communication fall out, politically and coupled with this pandemic. It feels like people are really not in a space to want to give themselves and to share themselves in the way that we have before. I think that poetry could serve to bring people together in that respect: to see someone on the page, first of all, and then have it resonate with you, and to live your life with those resonances—having it influence you, to the point where it changes how you feel into the world. Poetry is a tool for bringing us together, for community. I would say it is one of our best tools right now.
CK: One of the benefits of being in an MFA program is having concentrated time for your own writing. How are you staying connected to writing and sharing your own work, now that you have graduated?
RJ: I am really glad I was in the cohort that I was in because we have managed to stay pretty strong together. We still keep in contact with each other, we have our group chats, where we post information on submissions or fellowships, for example. Also similar to how we used to have writing blitzes during the MFA program, we have a similar kind of deal where we basically write a poem a day for accountability, to make sure we are still in that head space of wanting to create, and having the support system to do so.
CK: Who are some of the poets who have had the strongest influences on you, and who are you reading right now?
RJ: The poets who have had the strongest influence on me would have to be Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank O’Hara, and I’ll say Langston Hughes, because Langston Hughes was one of the first poets that I was introduced to in elementary school—performed and read—definitely foundational. As far as helping with my thesis, I’d say Be Recorder, by Carmen Gimenez Smith, that was a really great book. I recently read Danez Smith’s book, Homie, as well as original kink by Jubi Arriola-Headley, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, and Ocean of Sound by Daniel Toop. I have also been reading a lot of non-fiction too, mostly music-related books, about disco and New York underground dance culture that flourished in the seventies and early eighties. And I’m about half-way through this book on jazz, but it is printed in small type and very dense, so I’m slowly making my way through it. I tend to write a lot about music, even if I don’t necessarily share that work. It definitely feels like fun and work at the same time.
CK: It was a pleasure to read your chapbook, and I wish you all the best in all your future endeavors. On behalf of Invisible City, thank you for taking time to talk this afternoon.
RJ: Thank you for wanting to interview me and for reading my work. I really appreciate it.