Journey of 1,000 Poems
by Sara Chojnacki
Ellie and I were introduced, by sheer fortune, to Scott James at the first meeting for what would become The Fool. At this point, we had no name, no clear vision, and had only known each other for about a month. All we knew was that we wanted to start some sort of publication about local artists. Ellie was fired up and wanted to get anyone available involved; I was more trepidatious but was encouraged by her enthusiasm for the project as publishing has always been a dream of mine. We were waiting for Ellie’s crew of curious potential members, all male, (we joked that they weren’t really here to start a magazine) when she noticed a Meetup group for book publishing was currently at the café. While I debated the relevance we could have to them, Ellie saw an opportunity to talk about our project. Fortunately for us, she approached the picnic table of strangers and told them where we would be sitting. It was through one of those women that we were introduced to Scott that same night. He was the first person to hear our pitch, and to our mutual surprise, someone worth interviewing for The Fool. That night, he gave us the fortune he had in his wallet; it read: "A charming friendship is in the making." We are happy to count Scott as The Fool's first friend.
Scott James is a typewriter poet and author coach who, at the beginning of 2015, sat down and “called bullshit” on himself. He decided he would write 1000 poems in one year, and, (spoiler alert) he actually did. Ellie and I interviewed him at Bennu Coffee in October. He was wearing the same shirt he had been wearing the day we met him: a gray t-shirt with the words “you’re beautiful” printed in black ink across the chest. He looked like he had just finished running, and when he sat down he handed us a poem he wrote for us, inspired by Ellie’s fascination with the “Hero’s Journey.” We talked about the birth of his project, his advice as an author coach, and how to set goals as an artist that will help you actually finish something.
TF: Are you finding the Thousand Poem Project harder or easier as you go along?
SJ: It goes in waves. The last two weeks have been really hard, really grueling. I’m not sure why. I’m not really sick of it. Stuff’s getting in my mental way; that’s what’s happening. It’s easier when I prioritize it.
TF: How do you prioritize it?
SJ: My ideal day is I wake up at six o’clock, do morning pages out of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, then I go for a run, then I come back and I write the poem. So if all goes well, then that’s the first two or three hours of my day. At that point it’s 8-8:30 and then I can go to work. I work at home so that means either going to my working space or designated office room. I work as a consultant for authors. I basically help people either turn ideas into books or market books that they’ve already written. Business has been good, so I have a lot of work. So what happens is I end up working late. I don’t get up on time. Or I have a deadline, you know, just normal stuff, so it gets pushed. Probably two or three days I have my ideal day. When I don’t, I have to figure out another time [to write a poem]. Essentially that boils down to putting it on my to do list. Very unsexy, but that’s it, just say “this is as important as anything else.”
TF: What strategies do you use when you write?
SJ: If I’m going to write at my house, or write from me, then the way that I try to do it is with a lot of stage setting. That’s why I like to write after I run. Then I have beginner mind: a little more clear and receptive to what comes my way. That’s when I have the most pure mind.
TF: What happens if you have ideas for poems throughout the day? Do you write those down and use them?
SJ: I have several boxes, big ass boxes the size of this table, like moving boxes. I never do anything with them. I can’t throw them away. This is something that I came to peace with, which might sound sad, but it’s not. I’m never going to do anything with any of this stuff, but nobody cares. I find that pretty empowering. I could burn it, but I can’t quite bring myself to do that yet because I grip up with anxiety, because what if there is that ingenious thing in there? Occasionally I go back and sort of look at them and reminisce, but most of the time it’s better as a reminder of what I did not do. I have these piles and piles of stuff where I wrote down an idea and I was like “oh I’ll get to that” and then I never got to it. And that’s part of the reason I did this project, and the way I’m doing this Thousand Poem Project, is because this is my truth as a working poet, this idea that I’ll come back to it is bullshit, but I never will. If I do have inspiration that attacks me, that’s great and I can write that stuff down. What I never had before, but I do have now, is a place to put it. I’ve never purely done writing. That’s a dream, if my job was to write poetry.
TF: Do you think that’s possible?
TF: Could you stay sane?
SJ: You’re kind of right, that’s what I was circling around. There’s never been a period of my life where that was it; I didn’t have to make money, I didn’t have family obligations or something. There’s always other stuff.
TF: Would you give up teaching if you could focus on writing, or is that something dear to you?
SJ: I have to do both. I went to college to be a teacher, then I was a teacher for awhile, then I was an outdoor educator—a guide for ten years—and now I’m a coach. Even when I envision my perfect poetry life, [it] would be writing and teaching workshops. If I didn’t have to make money, I would just throw free workshops all the time and host writing sessions at my house.
TF: Do you consider yourself contributing to an “ecosystem” of art, where you’re sharing ideas with and receiving them from other artists?
SJ: Ecosystem is a good word. Now that I’ve been doing this project especially, I think of it as work. In a good way. Writing it, talking to other people about it, even talking to you both about it is really good. I’ve learned so much from the people that I coach. And it keeps me sharp. If you live all the time in your head, you totally go crazy. You get kind of lost, you end up chasing your tail, absolutely. And I’ve done that a few times, chasing my tail. What I will say is I spend about 80% of my time on making money work and the other 20% on the writing work. I would like them to be more like 60% writing, 40% work. That’s what I’m actively working towards. I have very intentionally decided at the beginning of this year to do this project, and to identify as a poet and a writer. I read a lot of Stephen Pressfield. He’s got a book called the “War of Art.” It’s like, inspiration is nice, but at the end of the day, that’s not how the work gets done. It’s your job. You punch in, you punch out. I advocate that.
TF: That approach hasn’t tainted your work?
SJ: You think it’s going to, and I was afraid of it, but it’s not mechanical at all. It gives you a place to put your inspiration. It gives me a place to put it. Sometimes I sit down and write ten poems in a row, and then that’s a great day and they go into the project. But if I don’t have that then I can just put things off and they just end up in that box. Or not even.
I do think it’s good to have an endpoint. Another book I would recommend to people is the “Happiness of Pursuit.” Basically, the thing that I gleaned is that giving a quest or project an end point, and giving it edges, will keep you motivated and keep you going rather than overwhelming you. It’s simple advice. That’s why I picked one thousand rather than just saying “I’m gonna write a lot of poems this year.” I think doing something every day is very important. You do not take Saturdays or Sundays off. You do it on holidays, on vacation, when you’re hungover, you do it when “whatever.” It doesn’t matter. When you skip a day then you make it okay to skip a day. It’s more productive as a practice to write 300 words a day than it is to write 1000 words twice a week.
TF: On your website you said you called bullshit on yourself.
SJ: I did?
TF: Yeah, you said that.
SJ: I think the bullshit was “I’ll get to this later” or “I’ll put the energy into this later.” Here’s what it was like: I had a sheet of goals and boxes of writings. I had twelve projects, and I was like, which one do I want to work on? None of them. Which one do I want to work on first? I could burn this. That was the bullshit, thinking I would get to this list of stuff. I admitted it, and that was very freeing. It was one of those kind of moments, like “what do I really wanna do?” And what I really wanted to do was write more poetry. I literally just sat down and said, "what do I have to do, what can I actually commit to?" I decided I’m just gonna pick this one, even if it’s not the best one, even if it’s not fully formed. I’m gonna give it general edges: 1000 poems in a year. Those other projects I just roped in with it.
TF: What have you added to the project since you first started it?
SJ: When I started, it was just the thousand. I realized that I really liked giving them to people. At first it wasn’t solitary. It was inspired by an event called the “Feast of Fools” I went to that a friend of mine threw in East Austin. She said why don’t you come down and bring your typewriter, write improv poems for people. I volunteered to read a couple of the good ones on stage at the end. And I was so terrified because I didn’t know any of the people there.
TF: We would love to know how you shaped your community, since creating can be so solitary, and how specifically you did that in Austin.
SJ: I just bring it up in every conversation I have. That will work. I try to draw out from people what they are working on, whether it’s a book or not. I don’t meet anyone else who’s writing poetry. For Austin it’s in the DNA. I would venture to guess that half the people in this cafe are writing poems or books.
TF: Does that intimidate you?
SJ: No. I think it’s great. The more people I can bounce the ideas off the better. It’s a good question, though. I only moved here two years ago, and it’s really hard to build a creative community, ‘cause it’s easy to do some work but [difficult] to find someone else who has the time and energy and trust-level to care about it. If you’re creative and have any kind of taste then you’re probably going to think that other people aren’t very good. Action step wise, I went to lots of Meetups when I first moved here. I would definitely go to events that had nothing to do with writing. I like just going to happy hours that are sort of tangentially connected to what I do, and then trying to talk to as many people as possible. I literally play games with myself, like I go to this happy hour and I have to talk to the tallest person, the person with the longest hair, anybody with a cocktail instead of a beer, it doesn’t matter.
TF: The game you play, is that because it was hard at first?
SJ: It’s because I’m scared. I’m totally scared. I basically try to force myself. I did it when I met the two of you at Radio.
TF: The artistic types seem to have a lot of those reservations because they're so internally focused. They have to figure out ways to get out of themselves. Writers, or other types of artists, are so consumed by their own thoughts that they can be limited to their own perspective. How do you try to put yourself out in the world where you’re actually seeing things through another lens?
SJ: I try to do a lot of work. I volunteer on projects. I try to collaborate whenever possible. I basically try to find an excuse to work with that person again. That’s really my number one tactic. That’s one thing that I tried to do with the typewriter poetry project. Because it’s an attention-grabber, people will be drawn to it. There’s a pretty wide variety of places that I can just cold call and say “I’m a typewriter poet and I would like to do this at your shop.” There’s no work on their part, so people say yes.
TF: What do you have to sacrifice to make room for your art?
SJ: Specifically for this project, my wife, for one, has had to say yes you’re going to do 2-5 events on weekends. I’ve had to choose that, and she has had to choose it too. It’s not even about being okay with it as much as it is about doing it. There’s just the reality that as humans we get lonely or things happen and we have responsibilities. I’ve had many moments when I’ve had an emergency but I committed to go write poetry at this event and that’s when it gets real. I’ve had to prioritize it over personal life emergencies, and I think that’s when you’re really taking it seriously.
TF: What comes after one thousand poems?
SJ: Partnerships. Next year will be the year of partnerships. And a book, so there will be a book hopefully in the spring, turning what I just did into a book. I might just curate this thousand or do something more and put it out in September. I know there will be a book but I’m trying to focus on this first.
The thing I’m most excited about… to me this book is just the outcome. I really like the collaboration. It’s hard to motivate myself to do the book because I’ve already done the fun part. It will legitimize myself a little more. That’s a dream. I just need to do it. That’s next.
To read more of Scott's poetry, go to scottandrewjames.com