Interview with John Spaulding

by A. Jay Adler on May 13, 2013
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From the spring issue of West Magazine, my interview with poet John Spaulding. Your can read Spaulding’s poems in the issue here.

John Spaulding holds degrees in English and psychology and earned a PhD in psychology from the University of Arizona, Tucson. He has worked as a psychologist for the Phoenix Indian Medical Center and the Puget Sound Service Unit of Indian Health Services. He teaches writing at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Roses of Starvation (1987); Walking in Stone (1989); The White Train (2004), chosen by Henry Taylor for the National Poetry Series; and Hospital (2011). He also coedited the cookbook Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book (1999) with this mother, Lily May Spaulding, a former nurse and restaurant owner. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Hunger Mountain, Rattle, Nimrod and many other periodicals.

Questions for John Spaulding

A. Jay Adler: How early did you write your first poems? When did you first know that you would be a poet or begin to think of yourself as a poet?

John Spaulding: I wrote a few poems in high school but really began writing seriously in college. It wasn’t until of my books were published that I began calling myself a poet. It
Seemed presumptuous of me.

AJA: How long was it before you first began to think you might have produced good poetry?

JS: I still wonder if my poetry is “good poetry,” but I have my own internal standards
now (which may not be high enough). So I write for myself—that, I think, is what
happens to every writer eventually. You learn that “good” is so subjective that you
really have only your own taste to satisfy.

AJA: What is it that you think makes a poet in contrast to a writer of prose? Of course, some people write both and there may be the matter of where one thinks one’s greater skills lie, but is there something more essential to the writer or the calling or the relation to language?

JS: I think of many of my poems as highly condensed and miniaturized stories.
Writers of prose have lots of room to move around, but poets do not. Prose writers
need to make every paragraph, every sentence count, but poets need to make every word
and sometimes every letter count. Making a poem is akin to putting a mosaic together—
The dictionary is like a tray full of compartments of different colors. One must be careful to pick out just the right color to fit into the overall picture.

AJA: You have had a variety of careers besides writing, particularly in the fields of psychology and health. What has been the relationship between those other careers and your life as a poet? The subject matter of your different collections suggests a strong connection.

JS: Although I have had several careers, my poetry has remained a constant throughout.
Two of my books were directly generated by two of my careers.

AJA: Your work in the health field has been in Indian country, and your second collection,Walking In Stone, is concerned with the early European-Native contact. How did this all connect for you?

JS: Growing up in New England and a family legend of an Indian ancestor, I became interested in the Indians of New England. That, together with my Congregational background and a great
passion for history, led me to explore the initial interactions of the puritans and Pilgrims with the native people.

AJA: The White Train, which was chosen for the National Poetry Series, consists of poems about or in response to old photographs. What was that project about for you? Do you have ideas tending toward the universal about how writing should work with images or was your approach very particular to this project?

JS: History is a recurrent theme for me. And old photographs resonate with their time and place and people. Because we can’t go there, and the pictures are all we have, they are like poems, ultimately evocative and mysterious.

AJA: Your collections vary widely in subject matter, which produces significant variations in voice in your poetry. Speak a bit about the role of voice for you.

JS: My poems are very often persona poems. They tend not to be about me in any direct sense.
I am more interested in other people, other times, other cultures than I am in myself. Besides,
there are plenty of poets writing about themselves.

AJA: You currently teach writing at Pima Community College. That is a subject of interest in these parts. What is that experience like for you?

JS: Having taught at various levels of education, I can honestly say that I love teaching and my students; however, my community college students in particular, often come from very difficult backgrounds. Many of them are working fulltime and carry a full load of classes. Some are parents in addition. How they survive is amazing. But their desire for a career and a better life for themselves and their families carries them forward. I admire them for that.

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