“You Put Down the First Draft, Then the Work Begins”: Eileen James Speaks on Poetry, Writing and Process

eileenm james“No matter what side of the desk I’m on in the classroom, poetry informs who I am,” says Eileen James, a first-year doctoral student in the Writing and Rhetoric specialization. Previously, Eileen earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Brown University and has taught composition and poetry at the Community College of Rhode Island and Johnson and Wales University for five years. Her current (and evolving) research interests investigate rhetoric of privilege and power as well as writing assessment. Eileen will be a workshop leader at the URI Ocean State Writers’ Conference for a young writers session titled “Mini-zines” from 4:45 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. on Saturday, June 20th. She is a native Rhode Islander who lives in Exeter with her husband, Ken, and her twin daughters Waverly and Olivia. This blog post includes Eileen’s poem, “Nightmares”, which was published in Monsters and the Monstrous Journal: In The Blood – Winter of  2014/15. In the following Q&A, Eileen discusses her writing process and how creative writing informs her interests in the field of Rhetoric and Composition.

for Waverly and Olivia

 Listen, dear hearts:
Children disappear sometimes, slip out of their parents’ grip.
Down wells or away with strangers.
Trolls wait on enchanted stumps for little ones to play
out of the sight of love-struck grown ups bound in devotion.
The clouds in the sky can turn soft familiar shapes
into cold wicked figures.
The apologetic mother wonders if her doting hands weren’t quick enough.

And now, inhale this bedtime tale of mother-love:
Ghosts only exist in my dreams.  See, my eyes could not focus wide awake
on quick breaths that sway dead memories through the windy curtains.
The moon is always just a few hours away. I worry about the locks on doors.

 My children, I will cloak you under my bosom. Witches crunch tiny femurs
between awesome teeth.
The wolves will find you. Don’t be fooled by the house of gingerbread
piped with sweet white icing. Woodland greens seem so unsuspecting.


Clarissa: Tell us the story behind your poem, “Nightmares”?
Eileen: I think I wanted an admonition to my daughters: Be careful in the world. I thought about fairy tales. I was taking the books that they don’t read anymore off the shelves and some of them were the Grimm fairy tales and they are grim. The process of writing had a lot to do with images. I could see what was happening in my head and I wanted others to be able to see this vision in the poem. There was a lot of revision, considerations of language and deciding if there would be characters in the poem. If there were characters, who they would be and who would see them and how. I think that by the end, the way that I structured it was the way people talk to their children when they are tucking them into bed. But, there wasn’t a happy ending to the fairy tale.
Clarissa: Interesting. Why do you think you chose that ending?
Eileen: I hoped for an understanding of the crazy nightmarish world that someone could live in. Instead of a happy ending, they could leave with more knowledge than they started with.
Clarissa: You have been selected to run a creative writing workshop at the URI Ocean State Writers’ Conference this summer. Congratulations. Would you speak more about your creative writing pedagogy, in general?
Eileen: Right now, for me writing creatively is a luxury. I don’t have deadlines for it. In some ways, I don’t do it as often as I like to do because of other kinds of deadlines.

I feel that when you work with others and help them with their writing, the job is to provide helpful boundaries for people to flourish inside of. It’s important to help people find their voice. Working with language is fun. Wordsmithing is fun and can be exciting. Having a desired end and trying to get there is one of the most satisfying parts of writing. The actual construction of the poem and the revision is the most exciting part of writing to me. That’s what the work is. That’s what I like to stress when I work, especially with young writers: No one writes the first draft and expects it to be done. You put down the first draft, then the work begins.

Clarissa: You are currently a first-year graduate student earning a doctoral degree in the Writing and Rhetoric specialization. How does Eileen the Poet inform your current coursework?

Eileen: I am interested in ways that people navigate language. I know how I do it creatively, so I am interested in how other people in the world navigate language and use language. I am an advocate of the power of words. I think that what has drawn me to this field is that rhetoric is about what language can do, hopefully good things. The influence and power that language can wield in the world. Perhaps I have a Burkean optimism that the world can be a better place if we consider the words that we use.