J.P. Dancing Bear is the author of nine collections of poetry including Inner Cities of Gulls, winner of a PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles National Literary Award, and Conflicted Light, and the award winning, What Language.
"If I describe this book as good, then I dismiss its true merits. If I describe it as very good, then I describe roughly half of its contents. Family of Marsupial Centaurs and other birthday poems is excruciatingly ambitious in its scope."
KMA Sullivan: Recently I had the very good fortune to talk with J.P. Dancing Bear about his new collection Family of Marsupial Centaurs released by Iris Press. This mesmerizing collection of poems originally emerged from a desire to respond to friends on their birthdays and grew to a year-long project producing over 1400 pieces that offer a gifted poet's integration of visual art, biographical information, and personal remembrance. Let's take a look at the work and a few of Bear's thoughts on the collection.
you hear the voice of Federico Garcia Lorca weeping: in every guitar: which are always of two minds: one searching for the strumming hands of a musician: the other desiring to sing for everyone: and does not care if it is discovered by the clumsy feet of a Galapagos turtle: which reminds you of Napoleon Bonaparte: in exile: where he took to standing on the back of a turtle: (one sailors had brought to solve the entire loneness of the Atlantic Ocean): because the turtle was so adept at ravaging the emperor’s vegetable garden: Napoleon had finally reached a compromise with something: he rode standing on the shelled back: in windswept mornings: hand in vest: reading the great philosophers: to his reptilian companion: at night: after the turtle would eclipse in heavy underbrush: then trundle over to forage the garden: the emperor would weep: having lost everything: again: even the slow moving turtle moon: with its wide O-mouth: mimicking the singing face: of a weeping guitar
—for Mark Doty
KMA Sullivan: I have to tell you that because you are the only person I know who I address as "Bear" and because you show up in my email as "Dancing," I declare your name: Best. Name. Ever. But I feel compelled to ask -- what does the J.P. stands for? If you get asked this all the time or don't like the question feel free to ignore!
J.P. Dancing Bear: I do get asked it a lot. Jerold Pierre. Just a mouthful. I used to just go by "Dancing Bear" when I first started, but there was a singer-song writer in Santa Cruz who used that name, and another poet on the east coast who apparently did so too. And then people who didn't know me, kept calling me "Dancing" and I just decided that adding the "J.P." at the beginning made things easier for everyone. Although, I still get the occasional address "Dancing" . . .
Tristan and Isolde
together they marry: she is always reaching out: he, with his dandelion head, is afraid of weather: in their uneven seams of shadow small animals have made a home: first mice: he has a pair of entwined trees for an advocate— roots snaking this way and that: she believes in the power of wheelbarrows: she is a strong supporter of underbrush: many birds move into her hair: there is a storm on the horizon: light breaking everywhere: and then he realizes that she is not reaching but positioning her hands to protect him from a gust of wind
—for Oliver de la Paz
KMA Sullivan: These poems are described in your introduction as at least partly ekphrastic. Could you talk about the role of visual art in the emergence of this collection? How do you think of the ekphrastic elements of the pieces as being in relation to the personal reflections about the friends whose birthdays are the springboards for these poems?
J.P. Dancing Bear: I used the artwork as the backbone. What would happen is on the occasional days where the writing workload was not too much, I would spend a few hours looking at art and would say have a feeling that it might be something I could use. I liked the various movements of surrealists best, probably because they were more malleable to the project at hand. So I had a bank of hundreds of paintings and sometimes photos. Then I would go to each friend's Facebook wall and read their recent statuses, their hobbies, their interests, favorite music, movies, and quotes. Then I would take my notes and find a piece of art that would best go with the them. This meant my idea window for writing was something of about 20 to 30 minutes. I would generally do this in the morning, then reread in the afternoon before posting. I would say this worked about 300 days out of the year. The other 60 I would struggle harder with the work, but the idea of loosing the challenge I had given myself would finally motivate me to finish.
Floating Away at Night
you see a boat: almost too white in the night: as if the universe had forgotten to tell it to dim: its reflection ripples and drifts back to where you are: and now this feeling of needing to be on it: as it noses further into the dark: beyond the few visible white crests of waves: and it’s not for the leaving that makes you want to be onboard: not because you feel entrapped: it has nothing to do with escape or freedom: it is that brightness: slipping into the unknown: casting light where only the blackness of night is expected
—for Martin Vest
KMA Sullivan: In your introduction you mention settling on a form for this collection that you first encountered in CD Wright's work. I am intrigued by your use of prose poem blocking while employing colons to separate thoughts. It feels as if you are imposing a type of lineation on an intentionally unlineated form. I love the tension you create with this choice. Could you talk about the ways in which this form supports the poems in your collection? What were you trying to accomplish through the form and do you feel you achieved it?
J.P. Dancing Bear: First off, the prose/colon blocking was probably about 90% of the poems; there were some straight-on free verse poems and a few gacelas, but they are not in this collection. At first, when I started the project I wrote mainly traditional prose pieces. I was satisfied completely with the end-result. Prior to this process, I wrote mainly free-verse, with an occasional venture into rhyme and meter or prose poetry. I'm not sure why I remembered two C.D. Wright poems "Song of the Gourd" and "Crescent", it is probably because I had heard her read these poems and (because I generally consider sound above all else in my work) the form seemed a good way to build more sound into the prose work I was doing. I was instantly satisfied with the result and the style took over. When I was in the editing process, looking to submit work to journals, I rewrote a lot of the earlier prose poems into this form. I still use it to write some of my new poems.
Still Life with Mandolin
sound hole of seeds: a thumbnail moon to strum the strings of a lyric body: nourishment and lullaby: blue curtain night: greensleeves on greenleaves: ear twitch: god tonight the animals want to sup on the tender flesh of music: sprout tune: vibrate: glisten: blossom and root: fill the room with acoustic aroma: tart sweetness: seed queen: lean into lyric wondering: tendril and pluck: the musicians gather: fruit heart: they bow: they plead play in the new day
—for Ada Limón
KMA Sullivan: While the poems you created are not entirely biographical in nature, they were inspired by specific birthdays and you have mentioned using biographical information such as hobbies and interests posted on Facebook, as starting points for the different poems. Did any interpersonal issues arise as a result of this? How much license did you feel comfortable taking in the service of the poems? And did anyone respond negatively to the poem written for their birthday?
J.P. Dancing Bear: In the total 1408 poems I wrote, there were two people who responded by saying that they didn't think the poem accurately captured them. The feeling I felt is very much the same as when you give a gift to someone that's "wrong." It's a little more than embarrassing and I guess I should count my good fortunes that it didn't happen more than that. The main reaction that I got from the poems were a lot of people were really thrilled by their poem and I still get messages from people thanking me for the gift. I think this has brought me closer to a lot of the recipients, as mutual fans, contemporaries and friends.
Nautical Still Life
you are watching on the breezeless deck: as though you have stumbled upon a still life: a square is mocking another square: because it has found a life boat: canvas bunches to make the outline of a face: you say quit casting shadows: but only more lines fall: you call out: the aura of oars: but they stand straight-faced: not a hint of laughing: even the flags are twisting: they dream of becoming boomerangs: almost free enough to soar away: you test the rigging: yes—taunt enough: the oars are jealous: of the lifeboat’s rudder: everything is so anxious in its aspiration: you can see the sun starting to sink: red skies—those damn lucky sailors
—for Dana Guthrie Martin
KMA Sullivan: Could you take us through the process you employed in taking a set of over 1408 poems and cutting that down to 82 in the finished book? This seems a mind-bending task. Did some of your thoughts about the collection shift during the editing process?
J.P. Dancing Bear: I didn't actually go back and begin editing the originals until I was half way through the project. At that point I started pulling the poems that I felt best about and began the normal editing process of evaluating word choices and phrasing. Then some of the decision process was made by poems being published and some of the responses I received from those published poems. When I was contacted by the publisher, I had a group of about 160 poems that had gone through the editing process at least once. I then read through them and picked the ones that I thought went best together. I'm still going through the birthday poems and editing them now, and more have been published since then. I now have a second manuscript of birthday poems put together and ready.
someone is always crafting something: an animal built for travel: retractable wings: rudder: engine room: and wheels: here you say love is the possibility of shapes: down a hallway and you are following ribboning lines: and you think about language: being fluid: flowing: here you say a language without love would surely die: someone is stitching fabric to a couch: one they have imagined: framed: cut from wood: here you say love is building a place where your friends can relax—stay a while—and talk
—for Patty Paine
KMA Sullivan: The strict parameters you set for yourself regarding poem generation within this project are striking. Has that working process influenced your current creative process?
J.P. Dancing Bear: YES! Since the birthday poems project ended, I started a Facebook group that has a weekly ekphrastic challenge. And so once a week, at least, I usually can sit down and write a poem to a painting. The birthday poem project also made me realize that writer's block is a mental block writers imposes upon themselves for whatever reasons.
the woodpeckers are in love with your new look: ruff of a burl: ball dress of wood: you prefer peacocks: the eyes of Argus: look out: o look out: for the predators of burrowing birds: nesting near hoops: in knotholes and grains: they flap at all intruders: you feel safe in their graces: this family of beaks and quills: you watch after the fledglings: when the parents forage: they nuzzle in tight: under the eaves of your collar: sometimes the adults bring you a bouquet of dandelions: pulled out by the roots: you’ve developed a common language of life: you help preen their speckled bodies: they stencil your gown: in a pattern: percussing a code: a code: a code: of love
—for Julianna Baggott
KMA Sullivan: Can you tell us something about what you are working on now?
J.P. Dancing Bear: I just finished a year long project of 52 love poems based on a lot of surrealist artwork. And I'm still working in the Facebook Ekphrastic group, and out of that group I've realized a sub-project of "days" which started last year when I wrote a poem titled "Labor Day" and one titled "Father's Day". I've written four more since then and now I've realized what it is, I'll finish it out. And I have a second manuscript of birthday poems now compiled.
KMA Sullivan: Thank you so much to J.P. Dancing Bear for offering his time and his poetry. Let's finish with one more from Family of Marsupial Centaurs.
today you sit down to write in long hand: you dress the part: in garb from another century: quill pen and inkwell: but this is only for mood and ambiance: you work through the process slowly: you build stanzas: intricate metrics and geometry: tiered lines: words with angles: each as valid as the other: spheres orbiting refrains: edges are created: sections are not X’ed out: so much as an exit to begin new ideas: you embody the poem: taking on its features and angles: or it becomes you: bringing to light those curves and corners you had not realized are there
—for David Yezzi