An Interview With Poet and Independent Bookseller J. W. Marshall

Lisa Albers

For more than twenty years, J. W. Marshall has been recommending poetry to his customers while writing it himself. He and his wife, poet Christine Deavel, own Seattle's Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of only a couple bookstores in the United States devoted exclusively to poetry and a fixture in the city’s literary community.

In March, Oberlin College Press published Marshall’s first full-length collection of poetry, Meaning a Cloud, winner of the 2007 FIELD Poetry Prize. The collection includes poems that previously appeared in the letterpress chapbooks Taken With (2005) and Blue Mouth (2001), both published by Wood Works, an independent press in Seattle, and named finalists for the Washington State Book Award.

The poems in Meaning a Cloud reflect Marshall’s ecumenical knowledge of poetry, a boon to his work as a purveyor of literature in verse. Informed by poetic tradition but shaped by delirious risk-taking, his writing is unabashedly autobiographical, yet stoically refrains from mere confession. Marshall’s poetic gaze into the interior is motivated not by a need to define his own self so much as by a desire to understand all selfhood.

Marshall’s cultivation of poetic presence extends beyond Open Books, as he and his wife cosponsor the Seattle Arts and Lectures poetry series, which brings top-notch poets—Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton, and Edward Hirsch, to name a few—to read in the city’s Intiman Theater, often to a packed house. The couple also participates in poetry festivals and conferences and host readings at their shop, which, they say, pays for itself.

Marshall spoke with Poets & Writers Magazine at Open Books, located in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. While Deavel readied the place to open at noon on an overcast Sunday earlier this month, Marshall described what it's like to take part in both the creation and the dissemination of poetry.

Poets & Writers Magazine: After so many years of supporting the work of poets in a very direct way—by selling their books to readers—you now have a book of your own. How did you transition from bookseller to poet?

J. W. Marshall: Is it easy? No, it's not. The one thing I'm very aware of is book sales, and so I get to look to see if Ingram is stocking my book, how many copies, and has anybody bought it. It's a curse. You know, it isn't a transition; in a way, it's just two different worlds. They have this intersection. I'm glad to have the bookstore because it keeps my mind off my own book.

P&W: How so?

JWM: I come here, and I'm trying to sell books to people. I'm not trying to sell my book to people because that would get old pretty quickly, and you don't want to bore folks with credit cards in their hands.

P&W: Did you learn things in the process of being a bookseller that you're using now as an author yourself?

JWM: Oh, sure. There are connections I have through the bookstore that I very gently tug on to see if I can get readings or offer the book to people who've written reviews. I certainly do that. The thing that I've done that may be the most worthwhile, honestly [has to do with] Oberlin Press—God bless them; they've been very good to work with. David Young is a terrific guy, Linda in the office too. I like them a lot. But they offered their books at a 30 percent discount when the industry standard is 40 or better, and, through Ingram, they offered them at only a 10 percent discount. While I like my book, I was kind of heartbroken thinking that bookstores are not going to order it at 10 percent. So I politicked with them for months. Now [Oberlin has] changed. With next season, they will hit the standard 40.

P&W: It sounds like you reasoned with them on the basis of understanding the business.

JWM: It was the dreaded confluence of bookseller and author. Watch out, publishers! That's an ugly one.

P&W: What has changed for you with the publication of Meaning a Cloud?

JWM: It's changed my writing, I think, because now I know what it looks like in a book. The chapbooks were one thing, and those helped a lot, but to see it in a book that has some national distribution makes it seem more real somehow, less ethereal. It actually stopped me from writing for about two months. I try to write every day and was doing a pretty good job of that for years, and once the book came out, I don't know; I guess there was this shadow cast over the typewriter. I couldn't quite get there.

P&W: I've heard other people talk about that same phenomenon.

JWM: Yes, and you know, I have a counseling degree, and I can't psychologize it. It's post-partum something.

P&W: The first section, "Blue Mouth," is about an accident you had that landed you in the hospital. I'm guessing that happened quite a while ago.

JWM: 1972.

P&W: The third section, "Taken With," is about your mother's death. More recent?

JWM: Right.

P&W: You and your mother inhabit parallel worlds during your time in the hospital and her time in a care facility, and the juxtaposition is remarkable, to have the poems bookended in that way. The two sections, beginning and end, had previous lives as chapbooks. What was your process for writing them in the first place for the chapbooks and then bringing them together for this collection?

JWM: In neither case were they written to be chapbooks. The hospital poems were published in 2001, and some of those were written in about 1984. It's just a matter of writing a lot and then pawing back through and saying, “This goes with this.” I give credit to Paul Hunter, who was the publisher of both chapbooks, because he heard a reading and wanted to publish—there's a prose poem in the hospital series, "The Nightshift Nurse Brought Her Shoes to Work in a Paper Bag"—he wanted to do that as a broadside. I said, “Of course.” He knew I had other hospital poems he'd heard at readings, and he said he wanted to see a manuscript, so I put one together for him. He gave me an idea about narrative arc; he gets good credit for that. The mom poems just came; she was in a nursing home, and I would visit once a week or more often, and it would spill over into the daily writing. After she died, at one point I just took two years' worth of pieces of paper and pulled out everything that related to her, and tried to find another chapbook because I thought Paul would publish it.

P&W: The middle section, “Where Else,” is a cogent bridge between those two. The beginning and ending sections deal with inner battles, very personal battles, and then the one in the middle seems to contain echoes of the outside world at battle. In your poems, war filters in through the radio and news or manifests itself in a dream you're having. Did you write “Where Else” later than the other two sections? How did the poems in that section come together?

JWM: Because I'm writing every day, some things just speak more loudly and ask to be followed up on. It's probably true for some books that people actually sit down to write them with a set idea in mind. Unless it's a verse novel or something, that's not how I would write. But you're right on it; those other two sections are internal, and I didn't want to be just internal—I wanted to be part of the public. I wanted a voice that was with and among, not so interior.

P&W: When you're writing daily, are you writing full poems, do you keep a journal, or do you just write whatever comes?

JWM: Whatever comes. More and more, the important part is, whatever's in should come out. I don't want to write the same poem. I could give all these other people's descriptions, which is kind of cheating I guess. Mary Ruefle at Seattle Arts and Lectures said that she used to think writing was about speaking, and then she realized it is about listening. In a way, I'm up for that. I have language going in my head all the time, so I sit at the typewriter and press the keys.

P&W: It sounds like you weren't necessarily seeking publication as much as publication sought you.

JWM: I sent to magazines for twenty years. The great thing about the Oberlin is, they publish FIELD magazine, and it's a magazine I have liked a great deal since I started taking poetry seriously—that would be about 1980. I used to keep little index cards of submissions and rejections, and before I got into FIELD, I had been rejected by them for almost twenty years. Then they took one, they took three, they took another, so I thought, well, I should enter the contest. I'd been trying to get published before, just not rabidly. I was daintily trying to get published.

P&W: How did you get from chapbooks to Meaning a Cloud?

JWM: It was [Oberlin's] competition, and it was Alice James, another good publisher. I'd put the two chapbooks together, with nothing in the middle, and sent that in for the FIELD prize four years ago. I got a nice e-mail back from David Young saying, “You're a high finalist,” and that was very encouraging because it was the first time I'd entered a contest. I entered Alice James, and I was a finalist there. In each case, I felt a little guilty because they'd already been chapbooks. I had other work I liked, so I put it in the middle and tried Alice James again but didn't get anything. Then I tried FIELD again and got it.

P&W: You said you have a degree in counseling—do you have formal training as a poet?

JWM: I have a BA and an MFA in poetry.

P&W: From the University of Washington?

JWM: The BA was here. The MFA is from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I came back and got a degree in rehab therapy at Seattle University, which was the best education of them all. They were tough. Creative writing programs are not.

P&W: They're tough in a different way.

JWM: Yes. Right. Socially. [Laughs.] At the UW, the person who got me to really love poetry was Nelson Bentley. Two times a week, he'd encourage us to write a formal poem. He'd say, “Write a villanelle; write a sestina.” As an impressionable, somewhat young person, I tried that, and I liked it a lot. I still look for some kind of iambic progression. I want to bust it up, but I want to know it's there.

P&W: How would you compare those formal experiences with the informal experiences you've had since you've been able to read a lot of poetry and support poetry over the years?

JWM: That's the best education, the bookstore and the customers and the books. I went through school just like everybody else, attending the classes but also attending to my fellow students and my ego and all of that stuff. Reading is by far the best education. We have some great customers who come in and say wonderfully profound, off-the-cuff things that make me look at other writers who I've never looked at. I was just reading an interview with Nathaniel Tarn, and he was talking about Language poetry and how he saw Language poetry against the “workshop” poem and the lyric and talked about people who are doing both. As I'm sure you know, [poetry] is a fairly balkanized art, probably all arts are. What's good about the bookstore is we can't be balkanized or we wouldn't be in business. We each read fairly widely and think widely and don't get into one school or another. That I hope comes through in the writing.

P&W: It does. Even though you're writing daily and you're running the bookstore, you have time to read books of poetry as well?

JWM: You have to in order to sell them. Much less reading just for pleasure: People want to know, “Is this like his first book?” “How is she compared to so-and-so?” If I don't know, then they might as well go to any of our major competitors. We'd rather they didn't.

P&W: That gets me to the next question, too, because you're not just running the shop; you're also supporting poetry in other ways. You've been involved with the Seattle Arts and Lecture series and the local poetry festival. Yours sounds like a dream job to many people, but especially for a poet. Is it all silver lining, or are there any clouds?

JWM: It's retail. There are clouds. This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I was just having a discussion with a wonderful customer, a great guy who was throwing flowers everywhere, telling us what great things we do for the poetry community, and I said, “You know, I'm a clerk. I could be at Les Schwab selling you tires.” There's a hint of that that's true. The Seattle Arts and Lectures work is great for us, but it's economically great for us. While that's supporting the community, it's supporting the bookstore. Anything that supports the bookstore to some degree supports the community. At least it means that people can come here and find a relatively obscure book and find people willing to talk about aspects of poetry when it's difficult to find people who will do that outside the academy, or even inside the academy in some cases.

P&W: Does that ever feel like a drag, the retail aspect: selling, staying profitable?

JWM: Once in a while. In a slow month. There needs to be income. There are clouds to the silver lining. But the silver lining: It's lovely to be surrounded by poetry. And to have the customers who come in have an interest in poetry. That's a godsend.

P&W: How do you choose the inventory?

JWM: That comes from two directions. If we have some knowledge about the writer. Some publishers we trust introduce people to us. We listen to our customers. I guess it's just attentiveness. We're open to failure. On the other hand, we've been in the bookselling business for more than twenty years, and there's a learning curve. We've definitely learned some things.

P&W: Which poets have had the most influence on your own work?

JWM: Because of his love of poetry more than for his own poetry, Nelson Bentley. Bill Knott, and again, partially out of his poetry, which is just wild and liberating in its wildness, and he, too, was a teacher. He at one point asked me in a conference, “So what?” about a poem. That was devastating and was a great question. It's a great question for all art. I'm afraid a lot of art doesn't pass that question, not that there's an answer you could know in advance. Bill was quite important. Then there are people I read, like Dickinson. Early James Tate. White guy American poets in the seventies and eighties.

P&W: What's next for the poet J. W. Marshall?

JWM: I get to do readings in Michigan and Ohio in the fall. I'm still writing every day and liking some of the things I'm writing, and now, I fantasize about a second book. At the rate that I'm liking what I write, it will be a ways off.