An Interview with J.D. Whitney,
by Michael Hettich
I first became fully acquainted with J.D. Whitney’s poetry about six months ago when a mutual friend, the poet Bob Arnold, introduced us—so to speak--through email. Though I’d been vaguely familiar with his name for at least twenty years, I owned none of his many books and had never spent time with his work. I did know that Bob held J.D. and his writing in the highest esteem and had even published a book of his selected poems, Sweeping the Broom Shorter (2014), through his Longhouse imprint. Since Bob is one of our most perspicacious and astute readers of poetry, and since he and I correspond on an almost-daily basis, I’m surprised now at how long it took me to come to J.D.’s work. After he and I exchanged some of the books we’d written and I got a chance to really read his poems, I was even more deeply surprised, for here was one of the freshest and original voices I’d come across in years, a writer whose poems were interesting, profound, moving, empathetic and downright funny. In short, his work gave me the kind of enjoyment I rarely find in contemporary poetry.
JD Whitney’s poems gleam with revelation; many of them have shivered me like moments of grace. Spare and unadorned, they employ the American language with an exactness and discernment reminiscent of that essential line of American poetry that moves from Crane to Williams, to Levertov and Creeley and the other (so-called) Black Mountain poets. Beyond its sense of line and reliance on the objective eye, though, his work is profoundly unlike anything these master-poets accomplished. Whitney’s work is in fact most distinguished from anyone else’s by what I can only call his humor: a loving embrace of his fellow creatures great and small, in all their warts and warbling, an embrace that, even in its smallest songs, reminds us of the largeness and variety of our world—and reminds us as well that the whole world in all its various parts is alive and singing. While much of his work is indeed funny, its humor is gentle and embracing, deepened by compassion and tenderness. His gaze is outward: gentle, humor-filled, forgiving, empathetic and alert. His best poems cleanse the spirit, awaken the senses, and fill his readers with gratitude.
This interview was conducted by email in December, 2020, between my home in Black Mountain, NC and JD’s home in Norman, OK. The poems gathered at the end of the interview present a sampling of JD Whitney’s poetry, which first started appearing back in 1964.
M First, to get us started, please talk a bit about your background: Childhood, education, significant experiences. When and how did you come to your engagement with writing and specifically with writing poetry? Was there a particular moment you recall when you felt, this is what I want to do?
JD I was born and raised in southern California (got to know horned toads and trapdoor spiders as a kid); then moved to Detroit area for my teenage years (played with ham radio, hot rods, motorcycles). I was formally educated at Henry Ford Community College, the University of Michigan—Dearborn (B.A.), and the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor (M.A.). While an undergraduate, I met the poems of Stephen Crane and never quite recovered. Though I’ve never taken a creative writing course, I’ve learned by persistent reading and practice.
M Did you have any particular mentors during your apprenticeship in poetry? How did you find your direction (so to speak)?
JD At the new and small University of Michigan, Dearborn, I was writing lame limericks in the lunchroom, making me the closest thing to a “student poet” on campus, so it fell to me to hang out with visiting poets between their afternoon talks and evening readings. I had the good fortune to spend that time with Denise Levertov, Donald Hall, Gary Snyder, and Robert Creeley—who made a life of poetry seem real and possible to me for the first time. After trying to be them in my early attempts, I discovered it wasn’t working.
M When and where did you “come of age” as a poet—at least so far as you understand the term?
JD I don’t understand that concept as a turning point but rather as an ongoing process. I’m still turning.
M Can you describe your writing “practice”? Do you write every day? How has your practice of poetry evolved over the years?
JD I write now and then, on and off, here and there—without any particular schedule, trying always to be attentive and welcoming to poems when they come to visit. I think my poetry has evolved though my practice has not.
M Your sense of line is beautiful and striking—and far more modulated and nuanced than that of any other living poet I can think of. It is reminiscent of such poets as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov—and even of early Anselm Hollo—but it is clearly your own. Would you please talk a bit about how you understand the line—how you approach it?
JD I’ve been clearly influenced by the poets you mention, but my approach to lining is not something I consciously think about in any useful sense. I try to HEAR the poems as I write and then try to line them by “scoring” them on the page, as Charles Olson described it in his “Projective Verse” essay and as others have exemplified. The stepped lining allows me to indicate the lengths of silences as the poem moves. I hope to help a reader hear the poems as I do.
M A few well-known quotes: “No ideas but in the thing itself,” (WCW); “Form is never more than the extension of content” (Creeley/Olson). Explicate, from your personal perspective. And as a follow-up: How would you define “organic form.”
JD WCW’s “the thing itself” has been an important lesson to me: that paying close attention to the objects and phenomena of being alive is more rooted and fruitful than interpretation, generalization, abstraction. But all these mental processes, important as they are in some contexts, are brain-directed, often leaving the body as a bored bystander. As for “organic form,” I hear that as acknowledging the need for the writer to stay out of the poem’s way. It knows where it’s going.
M One of the most wonderful qualities in your work is the humor expressed there, gentle and joyous and what I want to call spiritually playful. It is also the kind of humor—the rarest kind, to my mind—that opens up the world, as it opens our eyes and hearts to the vivid particularities of all beings. Although this life-affirming humor is evident in all your work, it is perhaps best seen in your Sd, and in the two wonderful All My Relations collections. I’m curious about how you came to this embracing humor, so different from the disjunct irony so much in fashion now.
JD Again, it’s not so much a matter of conscious choice as it is a function of how I seem to understand the world and my place in it. I love the playful/mischievous energy of young creatures, the life-joy, the Coyote spirit all around us. Darkness, too; we can all laugh even when the lights are out, sometimes.
M When Louise Gluck won the Nobel Prize in literature, you remarked (to me) that though she was certainly deserving of the award, you thought Gary Snyder should have won. I tend to agree, for my own reasons. What are yours?
JD Her work is wonderful, fully deserving of such reward. Snyder, though, ought to be a worldwide hero for all of the environmental perceptions and teachings offered, in his big-hearted way, long before most of us Euro-Americans came to such awareness. But his value goes well beyond the merely topical because of his writing skill; his energy, economy, and specificity are examples I’ve long loved and learned from.
M For the most part you eschew “confessional” poetry, and I don’t find many examples of the explicitly autobiographical in your work. Your “I” is most often an “eye” rather than a psychology. Is this a conscious decision on your part, or does it just show where your interests lie?
JD It shows where my “interests lie.” I most like poems that present a definite OUTward focus. There are so many things more interesting in the world than the self.
M I find many other animals –animals other than human—in your work. These animals always come across as “themselves” rather than as projections of your own human psyche. You obviously watch things very carefully, and you open your heart to the beingness of the non-human. Can you discuss this way of living in poetry?
JD I’ve been deeply affected, “transformed,” even, by the perception of many Native people(s) and tribal cultures, often represented by the Lakota saying “Mitakuye Oyasin.” A rough English approximation is “we are all related,” suggesting that all creatures and so-called “natural phenomena” are sentient, alive, and deserving to have their personhood recognized. I think the distinction between us humans and “lower forms of life” is a self-serving delusion. So I just spend a lot of time with my neighbors, trying to listen and learn.
M I know your wife is a Robert Frost scholar. Has Frost had any influence on your work, as far as you can tell? And to take the question a bit further and in a different direction, to what extent (if at all) do you think you’ve been influenced by metrical poetry?
JD I’m aware of no direct influence—except insofar as both have helped me learn the rhythms & cadences of the language.
M I sense in your work a great spiritual affinity for Native American cultures, traditions and world views. Have any particular Native American cultural traditions, attitudes, or poetries been particularly influential? Any books?
JD Years ago, I came to feel that my own Euro-American cultural background did not give me good advice about how to be a responsible citizen among other creatures and peoples. At about the same time I encountered books of “Native American myths and legends,” more properly termed “story systems,” and I immediately felt a resonance. From there, I devoured all such books I could find. That led me to Native communities and people and ultimately to friendships with Native writers and their work (Mark Turcotte, Denise Sweet, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Peter Blue Cloud, and others).
M In commenting on your work, Charles Olson, praising it, said, “He is himself.” That sounds wonderful—but what does it mean? What does it mean, to you?
JD I want it to mean that he thought I’d come into my own voice despite obvious influences. But maybe it was just a noncommittal, inoffensive line to dismiss the young me, gently.
M Many of your books feel like one long poem made up of many parts. Can you please describe your process of putting a book together? Do you simply gather the poems you like most from a period of time, or do you have a guiding principle, a goal or kind of architecture guiding your writing from the outset?
JD No principle, really, but it works out as you describe: most of my books have been sequences of related poems: Tracks, Sd, Grandmother Says, All My Relations (books 1 and 2). I think I’m pretty much a one-track-mind kind of guy. These sequences continue until I feel done with them or they with me; then, if there are enough pieces that work together, the gathering can become a book.
M I know you taught at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon County and College of Menominee Nation for many years. What did you teach? And how did your teaching affect your writing (as far as you can tell)? As a corollary, I know you moved to Oklahoma a number of years ago. What drew you there?
JD After some high-school teaching outside of Detroit, I taught Head-Start (summers) and university classes in Wisconsin: the usual composition plus some creative writing and occasional classes in environmental literature and Native American “myth and legend.” All my teaching engaged me with language, literature, and (of course) students and their bright energies. Teaching at College of Menominee Nation, part-time for about eight years, gave me a realer-world understanding of reservation life, along with the problems Native peoples face and the tremendous strengths they possess toward what Gerald Vizenor has called “survivance.” And those classes convinced me, further, that serious learning and playfulness can walk together.
After many years in Wausau and Madison, Wisconsin, my wife and I decided we’d move to a place with gentler winters; we’d visited Norman, Oklahoma, frequently to be with family, so it was an easy choice as well as being closer to my grown children in Colorado and their families. I’d loved the richness and variety of Native cultures and peoples in Wisconsin, and Oklahoma was a natural next home.
M Do you see any current trends or developments in American poetry that look promising to you? Any particular living poets you’ve been reading with interest?
JD I read less contemporary poetry than I used to. Lately, I’ve been following the work of Bob Arnold, Malcolm Ritchie, Ronald Baatz, and Michael Hettich, with delight. Also, Linda Hogan and Gary Snyder stay with me. And I still find plenty of life in non-living poets I continue to read: Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Lew Welch, Jim Harrison, Carroll Arnett, Ed Dorn, and a wide range of traditional haiku (especially Issa).
M What are you working on right now, in poetry or otherwise?
JD I have a little book, titled Ago, of unconnected (!), mostly shorter poems, coming from the Turkey Buzzard Press in early 2021. Otherwise, I’m living my lucky life with my wife Lisa, playing with our two dogs, bicycling, and playing with motorcycles.
• HELLO. Detroit: Artists’ Workshop Press, 1965, 20 p.
• HELLO (2nd ed.). Detroit: Artists’ Workshop Press, 1967, 25 p.
• “wu-shih,” Platteville WI, It Press, 1967, 8 p.
• TRACKS, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1969, 38 p.
• THE NABISCO WAREHOUSE, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1971, 60 p.
• SD, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1973, 20 p.
• SOME, Madison WI: The Never Dismount Press, 1975, 32 p.
• TONGUES. New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1976, 16 p.
• MOTHER, Eau Claire WI: Red Weather Press, 1981 12 p.
• WORD OF MOUTH, La Crosse WI: Juniper Press, 1986, 64 p.
• 6 POEMS, Mt. Horeb WI: The Perishable Press, 1987, folded broadside.
• SD, Peoria IL: Spoon River Poetry Press, 1988, 66 p.
• & SD, Madison WI: The Clearing Press, 1990, 24 p.
• WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 1994, 23 p.
• SD & DONE, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 1995, 40 p.
• WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Madison, WI: Parallel Press, 2000, 24 p.
• WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 2001, 71 p.
• GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Sausalito CA: Arctos Press, 2005, 83 p.
• COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2007, folded chaplet, 12 poems.
• ALL MY RELATIONS, Kalispell MT: Many Voices Press, 2010 106 p.
• MORE COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2011, folded chaplet, 15 poems.
• SO MANY COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: 2013, folded chaplet, 14 poems.
• COUSINS EVERYWHERE! and STRING TOO SHORT TO BE STRING, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2014, folded chaplet, 26 poems.
• SWEEPING THE BROOM SHORTER: SELECTED POEMS 1964-2014, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2015, 173 p.
• & COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2017, folded chaplet, 13 poems.
• ALL MY RELATIONS (book 2), Kalispell MT: Many Voices Press, 2018, 86 p.
J.D. Whitney lives in Norman, Oklahoma, with his wife Lisa Seale and their two dogs. He taught writing and literature for many years at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon County (Wausau) and College of Menominee Nation (Keshena). He has published more than 20 books/chapbooks since the mid 1960s, and his poems have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Origin, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Orion. He is grateful to have learned that stories choose to inhabit us, or not, and that the language we’re alive in is alive.
Michael Hettich has published ten books and a dozen chapbooks of poetry, most recently TO START AN ORCHARD, which was published in September, 2019. His work has appeared in such journals as TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Orion, Prairie Schooner and Terrain.com. He lives with his family in Black Mountain, NC. His website is michaelhettich.com.