Essays on Writing and Life
by James Sallis

Never mind working without a net; living as a writer is like working without even the tightrope, learning to balance, suspended, in mid-air. That's the way James Sallis has lived for almost forty years, publishing a blizzard of novels, short stories, poems, essays, translations and biographies in everything from "Transatlantic Review" to "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction." Two rules, he says. Put your butt in the chair. Don't look down.

Stalked by Poetry!

"So there it was.

Thirty-six years in the making.

A modest, beautifully produced book of 114 pages titled Sorrow's Kitchen from Michigan State University Press.

My first poems and stories came to publication almost at a blow. I was, what, twenty-one, twenty-two? Within the year, I'd be living in London, where enormous personal changes and influences that would largely form my writing life awaited me in a bedsitter off Portobello Road. The first fiction sold to New Worlds, which I relocated to London to edit, and to Damon Knight, in whose Charles Addams-like home I'd find myself ensconced upon returning to the States. The first poems took squatter's rights in Ann Arbor Review, Open Places, City, Extensions and Transatlantic Review, where the amazing B.S. Johnson served as poetry editor. Ensuing years would see three volumes of musicology, translations of French poetry and of Raymond Queneau's novel Saint Glinglin, eight novels, three collections of short stories, a major biography of Chester Himes, hundreds of essays, articles and reviews. And through it all I'd continue writing poetry.

That's a lot of poems. Seventy-two collected in Sorrow's Kitchen. Fifty (with no duplications) in Black Night's Gonna Catch Me Here: Selected Poems 1968-1998, forthcoming from Salmon Publishing in County Clare, Ireland. Forty-six recent ones in Leaning into the Electric Day, currently making rounds. (Psst. Mister! Want a date?) Untold others published in such magazines as Poetry East, North Dakota Quarterly and American Poetry Review and bypassed in the dig, or tucked away safely like cockroaches in the corners of dark folders.


Well, for one thing, that's how I got started, the first image I formed of myself as a writer, and for years after starting to sell stories I went on thinking of myself as primarily a poet. Being a poet in those days of Robert Creeley's eyepatch and pews jammed with people for the St. Marks readings was cool, sort of unacknowledged legislatoresque and bad-boy outlawish at the same time. We were the one-man garage bands of literature. Now, of course, tell someone you're a poet, a cleared throat and wild look about the room for help is the general response. People have been known to leap through windows to get away.

Also, at some point back there in that London bedsitter, encountering quantities of literature in translation that came in for review, encountering, too, the high level of criticism and literary journalism in British publications, I grew to realize that what I wanted to be, in the best European tradition, was a man of letters. Not a novelist, not a poet, not a critic or journalist, but a writer who did it all, one who went wherever impulse and exploration took him.

Fish gotta whistle, birds gotta rollerskate.

Okay. Why so long for a collection, then? All those dozens upon dozens of poems, thirty-six years on the fringe, riding back into civilization again and again dirty and long-coated, thirty-six years as intellectual mercenary and literary hired gun and this was the best I could do?

Apparently so.

Well, okay: I was distracted by life. By relocations from London to New York to Boston to New Orleans to Texas to Arizona. Distracted by the stories, later the reviews and essays, that kept me writing, kept me out there.

Maybe I was also distracted by editors, reviewers, interviewers and readers who told me they don't read poetry. No one reads poetry, it seems. It's simply gone off the cultural radar. Not a blip. Whatever allusive presence it has nowadays is demotic, head pushing up like a quail's from the undergrowth of poetry slams, face peering 'round the doorway of hiphop songs. It's seceeded from the union, been expelled. Broken away from the mainland and drifted out to sea, a tiny island nation. Become a guild secret, passed back and forth among initiates. Like bird droppings, of which there's also a plenitude, poetry misses most of the population.

Yet, astonishingly, more poetry may be published today than ever before. It pours from the spouts of small presses, spills over Internet floodgates, fills quarterly journals the size of telephone directories or computer manuals. The poet-to-be can easily spend hundreds of dollars a year, at fifteen or twenty-five a whack, on entry fees for contests. Is there sometimes a dreary sameness to what's published? Sometimes, yes. But there's also, and especially now, with the Internet, a great sense of freedom, diversity, cross-pollination. That's what little magazines were supposed to be about -- remember? Break the crust, brush the cat's fur backwards. Literature: love it and leave it. Take nothing for granted and as many prisoners as possible.

That's the agenda and responsibility of websites like this one, all these rafts carrying émigrés to new land, forever just under the radar, stumbling their brave, sometimes foolish way along, lost and found at sea.