JUKE JOINT: First of all, Jim, I’m pleased as punch that you submitted work for our first issue of Juke Joint! It’s an honor, truly, that you took part in this project and I’m excited to chat about your work.
JIM WHITESIDE: Thanks for having me! I’m excited and really humbled when someone thinks enough of my poems that they want to publish them.
JUKE JOINT: Tell us a bit more about your current poetic projects, specifically what lead you down this road of assuming Aunt Crane as a persona.
JIM WHITESIDE: I’ve always been interested in writing about place, specifically the place where my parents grew up—southern Illinois and southeast Missouri. I’ve never lived there, but visited countless times in my life. It’s a place for me that feels entirely familiar but somehow foreign, and my poems about that place are part of my attempt at understanding that ancestral home. I’m very excited to read a forthcoming anthology of essays, The Poem’s Country: Place and Poetic Practice, edited by Bruce Snider and Shara Lessley. Place is both an element of location and an element of how one fits within a lineage, how you’re tied to a piece of ground, a culture, a way of living.
JUKE JOINT: Is this a series of poems? What specifically about Aunt Crane’s voice drew you to her and why?
JIM WHITESIDE: Aunt Crane is a kind of synecdoche through which I’m able to filter family stories and anecdotes as well as my own observations about place and family. She doesn’t represent any one member of my family, but she helps me as I reflect on family, place, and history. I’ve had some anxieties about the character—what does it mean not to say these things as me, the poet, and is it appropriate for me to utilize a woman’s voice to deliver these poems? So many queer men, such as myself, are drawn to the voices of women, and look up to them for measured and wise observation. My own mother and aunt are avid bird watchers, and they’re also some of the most astute women I’ve ever known. That kind of hobby takes such patience, and gives them a capacity for observation that’s just amazing, much like you’d want to incorporate in to a good poem. I was hoping to channel that good energy and level of observation in to these poems in Aunt Crane’s voice.
JUKE JOINT: I think you’ve struck the right balance here, which is why we love the poems so much! It’s difficult to convey persona without having the speaker come across as too overtly poetic, and Aunt Crane seems to tow this line well. She’s insightful and poetic, but also real, authentic. I know you grew up in middle Tennessee, and there’s no mistaking “Aunt Crane Hums Lee Ann Womack while Working at the Super D Drug Store” tackles what is a growing crisis in our country—opioid addiction. What drew you to this as a poetic concern?
Poems can and should give a voice to all subjects, all crises, all sources of human pain and human feeling, and so much of that exists in rural America.
JIM WHITESIDE: As a poet from the South, and as a poet interested in writing about rural areas, addiction and opioid abuse have been on my mind for some time, but I’ve never known exactly how to write about them. My mother worked at a drug store when I was in high school, so she was kind of at ground zero witnessing the effects of drug addiction. There are so many people in rural America, people who are desperately underserved and largely written off, people who are underworked or in real pain, who we rarely see given the attention they deserve. This is so much more than a 60 Minutes special—it’s life and death for real people in this country. I think that we’re finally starting to turn from the assumption that poetry and poetics only exist in cities or urban areas. Poems can and should give a voice to all subjects, all crises, all sources of human pain and human feeling, and so much of that exists in rural America.
JUKE JOINT: Woof! What beautiful turn of phrase about the ability of poetry to cover all of human experience. Not to get too political here, but I think you’re on to something essential and indicative of our current moment. Part of what made this recent Trump election so momentous were the feelings of resentment and neglect that fly over states and the heartland seemed to feel in relation to D.C. and politicians. I think these issues finally came to light, and I think you’re getting precisely at this idea: people felt their lives and their struggles were/are unheard and unconsidered.
Your third poem takes a much more apparent, personal turn. And it’s such an affecting piece. I can only empathize both as a friend and fellow poet. It’s hard to let go of someone who leaves such an indelible mark. What strikes me most about the poem is the way, in losing their father, the speaker feels what seems to be a great deal of guilt, (shame even?) over not being “there” or being “unacquainted / with loss” in this degree. There is a deeply affecting sense that the speaker wishes “I could have shown compassion / but did not, out of fear or something else,” whatever that may be. Can you speak to the occasion of the poem?
JIM WHITESIDE: I’ve experienced a lot of guilt and shame after my father’s death. He died in the summer of 2016 from complications resulting from a long, degenerative organ condition. I’ve lived in North Carolina for the last five and a half years, and I would visit home only occasionally on breaks from graduate school or when I could get time off from service industry jobs. My father’s condition—his weakening muscles and changing body, the way his presence in the house changed, how my mother assumed the role of his caretaker—all came in very sudden bursts for me, every few months or so when I would visit. What became their everyday routine was entirely foreign and completely scary to me. I didn’t know how to care for him, and I didn’t know how to help my mother. Even when I would visit, I was an observer. All along, my parents never wanted me to move back home or assist with my father’s care. They always wanted me to focus on my own happiness and the pursuit of my passions and writing. I’m grateful for that, but how could I not feel selfish and guilty? The poem reflects that guilt, and also takes the occasion of the drive through the mountains I take to get to my parents’ house. Once, while driving home, the mountains were literally on fire as wildfires spread through Appalachia—how is that not a poem?
JUKE JOINT: Do you find it difficult to elegize (or even write at all about) family? What are the precautions and/or pitfalls of writing about those we love, especially in death?
Poems about loss are ways of understanding the dead, but also the living, what it means to survive, what it means to pick up the pieces.
JIM WHITESIDE: I recently revisited an essay by Dana Levin in diode poetry journal about elegy and reflecting on her process while writing Sky Burial. “No elegies,” she says, and that resonates with me so much. The emotions that come along with traditional elegy risk being too precious, and I’m more interested in facing the emotions of loss, guilt, shame, head-on. As Levin says, “I wanted to look that fucker death in the face.” Poems about loss are ways of understanding the dead, but also the living, what it means to survive, what it means to pick up the pieces.
JUKE JOINT: Part of Juke Joint’s mission is to give poems about marginalized subject matter a voice. More importantly, we hope to give poets who are underrepresented a platform. Can you speak at all about your experience as a queer writer in the South and how that has shaped your work, if at all?
JIM WHITESIDE: The South is a crazy, mixed-up place. I feel like I can’t escape it, but I don’t always know whether I want to escape it. Being a queer person (or, for that matter, a progressive person, an artist, a person who is in any way non-conforming) in the South means playing a constant juggling game—how does one’s outness mean a kind of risk in any moment, how safe am I, how safe am I in my body in this moment? What does it mean to love a place that does not love you back? I think that’s the big thing for me, this affection/aversion dichotomy. I think a lot of my poems are markedly queer, but in a pastoral setting, making connections to nature, surrounding, and place. That connectedness with the earth, living off of the land, and being so connected to it, is so southern, but when that land has such a history of violence, is marked by war and struggle, what does it mean to call that place home? I don’t know, but I’m hoping that someday my poems will provide a kind of answer.
connectedness with the earth, living off of the land, and being so connected to it, is so southern, but when that land has such a history of violence, is marked by war and struggle, what does it mean to call that place home?
JUKE JOINT: Given my previous question, what are your thoughts on being labeled? It seems as though we are so quick to put writers into boxes, e.g. Southern Poet, Queer Poet, Experimental Poet, ad infinitum for the varied labels we’ve created as writers.
JIM WHITESIDE: We are very quick to put writers in to categories, and I think that’s partially a function of wanting to understand the place they’re coming from and who they’re speaking to. I don’t mind if someone refers to me as a Southern poet or a queer poet, but maybe that’s just me.
JUKE JOINT: How do you, if at all, identify as a writer and does that have an impact on what you write about?
JIM WHITESIDE: I don’t see those distinctions as being limiting to me in any way—I can still write whatever and however I want, and I can have a more nuanced sense of self than anyone else’s thoughts about me and my writing. It’s true that I’m coming from a Southern place and a queer place, but my poems benefit from straddling those two worlds, from existing in the ambiguity that exists between two disparate places.