Interview with Laurie James

Aye! Way back at the end of January, at the end of my interview with Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, I said: I’ve another interview, with another poet. I’m thinking, now, I’ll post here as well, say, in a week or so.

And, oy, how it’s been so very much longer than “a week or so.”

Four or five years ago, I interviewed Laurie, planning to submit it to an online poetry ‘zine which went “on hiatus” right when I submitted it. (And it’s still on hiatus, which is sad—it was wonderful, and filled a necessary niche.)

Back then, I’d known Laurie for years, and I still regularly touch base with her. When she was the Featured Poet for Telluride’s monthly Talking Gourds, two years ago, I made it a point to be there.

So, without still more further ado, here’s my interview. Laurie has been beyond patient, waiting for this interview to finally leave my laptop, and enter the outside world.


1) How’d a Montana woman find herself in dinky-town, Colorado? Further, what’s kept you here, forty-plus years?
Well how does anyone end up where they are?  Guess I went with the flow of my life and let it take me where it wanted me to go … but I made a very hard decision to live here in 1972 by leaving behind a good relationship and a different future in Los Angeles. Of course, it changed my life.

I was born and raised in Montana and that certainly still has a huge influence on who I am and what I write about in relation to my younger self and the landscapes I experienced there.  But, I haven’t lived there since I was 21.  I am still just a cowgirl without a horse.

The Montana winters were no fun and this little valley in Colorado has so much sun and good clean air and a pretty mild Winter season.  California was one big season and I felt unconnected to time in that place.

I almost went back to Montana to live in 1974 but something bigger than me came up and I stayed in Salida instead of moving on.  I was married for a short time, had a wonderful son who has given me two incredible grandsons. I was a single mother for 13 years which taught me a slew of survival skills.  I had a great job for 30 years at the local newspaper and things got easier.   But even now as a single woman, I still am tested from time to time. I am a tough old bird and I totally protect what life I have built all by myself.  I don’t have any regrets about any of that but often wonder what other life I might have had if I had stayed in California or gone north in ’74.

I was in Los Angeles in the late 60s and early 70s, of all places, living with my boyfriend at the time, who was an aspiring musician, a drummer.  We had some interesting adventures together trying to survive there. I mean homeless part of the time, down to our last quarter, without a car a lot of the time, hitchhiking and living on bananas. But things turned around and in 1970 when the big earthquake happened I sorta knew I didn’t want to live in LA much longer.  Plus I felt so out of touch with my surroundings.  Being a nature lover, I found all the concrete overwhelming and the people less and less genuine and difficult to relate to.  A fish out of water, is what I was there.

It’s a long story of many things but in December of 1971, I came out to Salida by bus to visit a very close friend who had moved here.  I had only planned a couple week visit but ended up staying for 5 months before I went back to LA and packed up my cat and my sewing machine, hitched a ride with a friend going cross-country to Florida in a VW Beetle.  I landed in Salida and lived in Smeltertown without running water or electricity, where I cared for an adopted goat, and lived on fried egg sandwiches and beer …  until the snow fell.

My first job in Salida was at the now burned down Poncha Lodge as a waitress and bartender.  I drove a 1952 dually-flat-bed pickup I bought for $150.  Friends painted “ Ultra Violet’s Dance Hall and Saloon” on the driver-side door.  I was happy. I had returned to a simpler way to live; wood stoves, blue jeans and letting my hair blow in the wind.  Earthy people instead of city blowhards.   I just knew I was in the right place.  Salida was not the town it is now, but a workingman’s town with miners, railroaders and cowboys—with a few hippies and artists thrown into the mix. It has slowly changed over the years but mostly to my liking.  Seemed then, a lot like Montana in that it had its own special character and characters.

After moving here, I discovered that my father had lived in this area in the 1930s and his father, my grandfather, owned a sawmill in Howard, down the road 12 miles.  That’s a whole other can of worms, but guess maybe that is what made me comfortable and made me stay… a familiarity in the DNA perhaps?

2) Tell me about poetry: How did you come to it, and/or was it vice versa? Or, maybe, how’d you come back to it? Why, specifically, poetry, rather than prose—or painting/sculpting/rose gardening/music/cooking/whatever?

I grew up in a town of 600 people in Western Montana.  It’s claim to fame was “The Largest Bull-Shipping Center of the World”.  I had a happy childhood.  I spent more time outdoors than between walls.  I often sat high up in a cottonwood tree to read, or on the roof of the back porch daydreaming.  I am an introvert by nature but have learned to enjoy the company of others most of the time.  My nickname in high school was “the mute”.  Seriously.

My mother was into culture … classical music, good books and she had one little volume of poetry that I must have read hundreds of times as a kid.  “The Pocket Book of Verse – Great English and American Poems” with a copyright of 1940.  I still have it and still read it.  Everything from Chaucer to Joyce Kilmer.  She also had a volume of Dorothy Parker that enthralled me to no end. My mother could recite by heart “The Jabberwocky”.  I was drawn to the rhythm of words and I believe it’s how I began to think, in cadences. I often would write in my head, a short line or a rhyme.  Wish I had written these things down, but I didn’t.

But I also was a voracious reader of all sorts of literature and read my way through the Book Mobile that came through town during the summer.  Otherwise I had to rely on the grade school libraries which were less stocked.  My Aunt Rose lent me books.  She had a big library and was a school teacher who always had her eyes to the page.  I read War and Peace when I was thirteen years old.  I always read way beyond my age.

Words strung together meant a lot.  We didn’t have television.  We listened to the radio and tons of music on a phonograph.  In 1958 my mother bought a stereo and we thought that was the wonder of the world.

My sister played piano and oboe.  I was deprived of  musical instruction because I wouldn’t practice.  That was a disservice to me I still complain about.

But at 14 my parents “split the sheets” and my mother took my sister and I to Missoula to live.  It was a big thriving university town. I had excellent English teachers in high school and when I was a junior, my English teacher told me I was a natural poet. She submitted one of my poems to the school yearly literary publication and I was published for the first time. After that, friends would kid me about being a poet, like it was some sort of abnormality.  I didn’t flaunt it.

My father died in my senior year of high school and that event had a huge effect on me. I wrote in journals over the years but never developed a cohesive collection of anything worth saving. I have a few but they are just awful. Self-absorbed, depressing stuff.

After high school I attended the University of Montana and lived in the dorms.  My roommate was a poet. She was studying poetry with Richard Hugo. We’d stay up late at night and write poems together, or read his poetry and the poems of others.  Hugo had a huge influence on me.  But I left after a year and moved to California where I went to college for another year but kinda lost my way.  Survival I suppose.  Living on $100 a month and trying to be a student was difficult. I turned on, tuned in and saw the light. I went back to Montana in 1967, “The Summer of Love” for a final go around.  I could write a book about that year.

So moving way ahead in time to 1997, a friend of a friend, Jude Janett, started a writing group in Salida and I started attending and things just started pouring out onto the page.  It felt safe and at the same time it was scary as hell.  I finally got up at an open mic and read something.  It so empowered me that I stuck to it.  Then Jude got me involved in the Sparrows Poetry Festival, which lasted 7 years, and I met and became friends with so many regional poets and it’s all sorta uphill from there. It was like, oh here is my tribe!  I had gone many different directions but this one looked like the fork in the road I had to take, and so I did.

From Sparrows, I was invited to be in the poetry troupe River City Nomads.  We have written and performed together for over 10 years now. We perform together 3 or 4 times a year and write to different themes.  It’s good incentive to get things polished up and ready to deliver out loud to audiences.  We have way too much fun together and it’s been a valuable experience.  They are brothers and sisters in all the best ways.  They make me better.

I dabble in black and white photography as an alternative to the world of words. But poetry only takes a pencil and a piece of paper… napkins, deposit slips, post it notes whatever is nearby when the words come.  When it comes it comes and I had better get it down or it flies away.  I write mostly in longhand and then for ease of editing, transfer it to the computer.  Each poem is a process.

3) Have you considered publishing a book of your poetry?

Well of course.  I haven’t felt like a collection has matured enough but I am working on a collection. I am still emerging.  Whether or not it manifests, remains to be seen … remember I don’t like to practice …

4) Whose poetry voice/style would you like to borrow for a short bit (say, a day or a week, or maybe a month)?
Richard Hugo or Sharon Olds or anyone but me would be enlightening.  I’d embody just about anyone else for a period of time, for new perspectives and processes.

5) What keeps you attending Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival? Talking Gourds events?
I go to gatherings to keep in contact with the tribe.  There is nothing like a passel of poets getting together to rock your world.  Any excuse to get together, not just festivals.

6) What one workshop would you sign up for, immediately?
Always Judyth Hill.  She opens me up like no one else.  She is ecstatic and it’s contagious.
An afternoon with Billy Collins or maybe Charles Bukowski or Jim Harrison would be interesting. Richard Hugo of course.  I enjoy the company of men.  I find men fascinating in the way their minds work, opposed to mine. There are women I also admire and write with that make me aspire to better things.

7) Are there any workshops you’re hankering to teach?

I don’t think I am the teacher type.  I would probably walk around the room with a ruler and smack people on the knuckles if they stopped writing.  It might be something to look at but there are too many other things to do and I am running out of time.  Never been drawn to teaching … it takes a lot of patience.  I am still gathering knowledge and not dispersing it.  Selfish perhaps but I know nothing about how to convey to someone else how they become a poet or how to inspire them to write better.  I’m okay one on one or in writing groups where there is no judgement or overt criticism.  Who am I to inspire someone else and prod a good poem out of them?  I don’t see myself in that light. I am still learning and developing too.

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One response to “Interview with Laurie James

  1. Pingback: Elegy for Laurie | A Hundred Falling Veils

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