The poetry in Austin James’s Shrapnel reads like a bundle of exposed nerves, and I mean that in the best possible sense. There are poems about grief, sex, relationships, parenting, depression, and more. The collection is gut wrenching, vulnerable, and—for some of us—eminently relatable.
I’m not one for florid language or lyricism, so I’m usually wary of poetry, but James’s economical use of language put that fear to rest from the very beginning. Every word has been carefully selected to do a particular job, letting the reader layer their own interpretations and memories over a theme, provoking at least an empathic response if not a cathartic one.
Given the chance to ask James about this short and powerful book, I went for the emotional jugular, and he didn’t even flinch.
AMY VAUGHN: Let’s ease into this. How did you get started working in poetry? Which poets have been most influential for you?
AUSTIN JAMES: I don’t really know how I started, to be honest. I wrote a cutesy little thing in first grade that won me a horrifying spot in front of a microphone reading to parents of all the school district’s winners. But really, I think it became prevalent in my teens and early twenties. I have several notebooks full of what I considered poetry at the time. To be fair, I need to give it credit as actual poetry—it really was an emotional expression of my drug-addled soul . . . so yeah, it’s valid. The best of these notebooks is printed in Shrapnel in the “refurbished” section—largely unaltered from their original form other than removing some redundant wordplay.
And then I discovered Bukowski. His work was really my first glimpse at what poetry could be. It felt somehow refined and yet rough at the same time. Rhyming wasn’t even a requirement, which altered my mindset as a poet. His work led me to take a poetry class at the college, which was one of my most important experiences as a writer. I learned about various forms and techniques and was introduced to other poets I admire, such as Whitman and William Carlos Williams.
AV: The themes in Shrapnel are tough and brave. As someone with her own mental health struggles, I was particularly struck by the pieces about depression and suicide. Does writing about hard topics ever come naturally or is it, as I would imagine, always a struggle? Do you think writing in general and poetry in particular can facilitate healing?
AJ: Both, I think. Actually writing about difficult emotions is easy for me. I’m often just vomiting out onto the page without effort. Of course, the emotions that follow as I open that crevice in my soul is where the struggle comes in. And with those darker feelings comes more vomit, meaning more feelings, vomit/feelings, vomit/feelings . . . until I’ve worked through so many wounds I feel numb for a while. I believe this is part of my healing process—these are the emotional growing pains that we go through as writers.
At least, that’s how it was with Shrapnel. Once I wrote the first few poems, the pain grew and I had to write more. It surprised me, which inspired the poem “the exorcise”. What was originally going to be a handful of poems to clear out a few lines rattling around in my head became a full poetry collection very quickly—I think I wrote the whole thing in about a month’s time (which is an insane pace for me as a writer).
I can’t really compare anything else to the experience of writing these particular poems. I was at the darkest point in my life, and the best way I can explain it right now is that it was like being stripped down to basic survival instincts and the only thing I knew how to do was write. Probably 95% of the new poetry in Shrapnel is completely unedited. Writing a poem was like creating something undefinable, and once the words stopped pouring the poem itself was done, a complete expression.
AV: How terrifying was it to (1) submit work that is so vulnerable and (2) to put it out into the world? Was there ever a point where you almost didn’t go through with it?
AJ: Honestly, it’s not all that frightening to me. Probably should be. But it’s like once I’ve completed a piece, I move on. It’s done—no longer mine but instead its own entity. Writing Shrapnel was a major part of the healing process for me, so people reading it several months later is kinda like someone looking through a bunch of old photos. Or something like that.
I’ve warned family members (etc.) that they probably shouldn’t read it due to some of the graphic content—does that count?
AV: I get the sense that people who haven’t dealt with their shit are in for it reading Shrapnel. You can’t read something like this without holding up a mirror. Can you talk about how the reader’s perspective did or didn’t influence you?
AJ: This sounds harsh, but I don’t really care about how readers perceive my work. I probably should, but they’re the last thing on my mind as I write. With these poems I was only concerned about releasing those specific demons. When I happen to learn that something I’ve written resonates with an individual I’m surprised and honored, but that’s a byproduct.
AV: Do you have any favorites in Shrapnel? Any you think are particularly meaningful or representative of you at your best?
AJ: Honestly? None of these are really any good as standalone poetry. They feel more like a complete experience rather than a collection of individual poems. But some personal favorites within this collection are:
- 22,409—literally me piecing together aftershock memories of the night my mother died
- heirloom—personal thoughts about the upstream and downstream hereditary nature of brain chemical imbalance
- Val—a friend asks a simple question that blows my mind
- molt—nothing lasts forever
AV: Are you working on another collection? Besides poetry, do you have any projects in the works?
AJ: I’ve got a few poems completed and more are trickling out. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them, but another collection in the future might be a possibility. These poems are still raw, but more focused on life after death/divorce whereas the work in Shrapnel is based on trying to survive the onslaught. So who knows if they’re even worth a shit. Luckily, I don’t care.
I don’t really have any other projects at the moment. I go through cycles where I’ll write nothing but fiction for a while (months, years?), and then I’ll switch over to poetry for another cycle—if that makes sense. Rarely am I writing both. It’s not even a conscious decision, it’s just what happens in my brain.
Austin James is the author of the 2018 Wonderland Book Award finalist The Drip Drop Prophet & Other Stories as well as Indistinct Conversations and Shrapnel. You can find him online at facebook.com/AustinJamesWriter.
Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books like Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel and Skull Nuggets. She’s also the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space and a contributing editor at Babou 691.