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Artists & Scientists Interview

Interview with Poet J. L. Moultrie

[Image: J.L.’s library and keyboard]

J. L. Moultrie writes poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction. We met through our writing. J.L. has previously guest-blogged on this site: offering a previously published poem, “Memento Mori,” and an original essay contextualising it. Today, I pick J.L.’s brain about how he discovered writing, how he approaches the creative process, and where he finds inspiration.

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Amita: Tell us a bit about your childhood. Did you enjoy school? How did you spend your time as a child? If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

JLM: Me and my mom moved around a lot, so stability was nonexistent. I went to numerous elementary schools and I enjoyed some more than others. I seemed to thrive in environments where there was a lot of diversity in terms of ethnicity, curriculum and ideation. I did well in school and enjoyed it most of the time. I was terribly shy, so when I was selected for an academic competition, I tried to avoid it at all costs, but couldn’t. I participated in plays too, but my favorite activity was going on field trips because it broke up the relentless monotony.

I didn’t have a concrete ambition or dream, but I wanted to be really good at something. I rode my bike, climbed trees, played video games, collected Pokemon cards, raced and played tag. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d likely be a professor.

Amita: How was your experience at university?

JLM: I attended community college and earned a liberal arts degree and only went to university very briefly, majoring in philosophy and minoring in English. I was really struggling to fulfil my dream of being a writer but had sort of outgrown the classroom experience in a lot of respects.

A certain university counselor talked with me for hours – imparting a lot of wisdom and truth. He told me about how he’d once entered the same university decades ago and had aspirations to be a successful writer, but as the years went by, his dream faded and he still felt anguish because of it. He encouraged me to hone my craft and fully trust in my ability. At the time, I was unpublished, but I knew I had something to say, so I went for it. I kept his card and years later gave him a call to thank him for his advice. I don’t think he remembered me, but his words helped a lot. I’ve not experienced teaching.

Amita: How did you start writing? Have any writing classes or books been particularly helpful to you?

JLM: I began writing as a makeshift form of therapy when I was around twenty. I would just write down what I was thinking, my hopes, fears and ambitions. Before then, I wrote poem sketches occasionally, but was later encouraged by relatives and friends to continue doing it. I’ve taken a plethora of college writing courses, which opened me up to the power of expression through the written word.

Reading The Poet and the Poem by Judson Jerome was huge for me – it refined my poetic sensibilities and staved off my forming problematic habits. I don’t currently keep a journal. I think waiting is the hardest part, the palpable and often crushing uncertainty.

Amita: Waiting for…?

JLM: Responses from journals. Some journals take up to six months to respond, but these are often small teams of dedicated individuals with personal lives and responsibilities, sometimes made up entirely of volunteers. In a certain way, it challenges me to develop patience.

Amita: How did your college writing courses shape your writing?

JLM: The courses did a lot for my confidence – I was forced to think deeply about subjects which were alien to me. I was introduced to a ton of writers I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I think The Poet and the Poem made me realize I enjoyed writing without the constraints of meter, scansion or rhyme. I’ve experimented with these devices, but I feel at home with free verse. It also made me realize that I was depriving my mind and poetic growth greatly by not reading other poets. That book is rather matter-of-fact and I recommend it to anyone who is thinking of pursuing poetry.

Amita: Do you write full-time? What advice would you give aspiring writers in choosing a day job and finding time for their creative work?

JLM: I’m a full-time writer. I’ve worked various jobs over the course of my life, but none of them felt right or added meaning to my existence. Most of them consisted of menial tasks or manual labor, which only chipped away at my soul. Going to college provided me with so much confidence, direction and self-assurance – it nourished my soul.

I would tell aspiring writers to follow their dreams and don’t ever give up on them. As James Baldwin said, “You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.” It won’t be easy and there will be many hurdles, but you can do it!

Amita: Mind telling us a bit about some of these jobs? What variables do you think go into whether someone does better as a full-time artist vs. a part-time one?

JLM: They were all entry level positions comprised of lifting, packing and shipping – basically grunt work. One co-worker I met told me he’d worked at the same entry level position for decades. His hands were full of callouses and he was a character. His situation made me consider my future and what I wanted out of life. I greatly admire writers who work jobs to support themselves, especially if the job is not entirely fulfilling.

Whether to write full-time or part-time – I think it comes down to one’s constitution, disposition and situation. I don’t have any children, so I can remain selfish in this regard. Obviously, if one wants to have a certain lifestyle or financial security, they’ll be motivated to endure the ennui and discontentment. I think working a job can be healthy for some artists… We’re all different.

Amita: I appreciate your optimism! In all our conversation, that’s one thing that’s shone through: your even-keeled, steady optimism.

JLM: Thank you! I think one can seek financial independence without sacrificing artistic integrity or merit. I haven’t done any editing or freelance writing, and make modest sums from my creative endeavors. However, I would advise one not to conflate career with calling – a career is a worldly tool, while a calling gives your existence and place in the world meaning. Both can energize and enhance one another, but your calling should always take precedence.

JL’s growing library, and his keyboard.

Amita: You’re an avid reader, but you began reading relatively late. Which writers have most influenced you?

JLM: I started reading out of desperation. Nothing else provided catharsis or made me feel understood. I was gifted the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff by a friend during a period when I was very frail. From there I went to The Power of Now and A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I feel that James Baldwin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky cultivated my attention by making me aware of inborn expanses that were not alien or abhorrent, though they rose from the “human muck,” as it were. I encountered The Brothers Karamazov first then went to Just Above My Head – I was no longer alone. The words of both authors tore through layers of ignorance, callousness and neglect to penetrate and resurrect my spirit.

I feel that I’ve also been influenced by Ernest Hemingway, Anton Chekov, Franz Kafka, William Shakespeare, Raymond Carver, Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Camus and Jack Kerouac to varying degrees. I began as one of those individuals who considers themselves a poet but doesn’t read poetry.

Some of my favorite poets to read are Rainer Maria Rilke, Hart Crane, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickenson, Ai Ogawa, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas and Pablo Neruda. All of them inspire me in different ways – I suppose the common thread is that they’re wrestling deeply and sincerely with what it means to be human.

Amita: A diverse reading list, leaning classic.

JLM: I experience a certain comfort and affinity with classic prose for some reason. Now I have gotten into the habit of reading more contemporary work, which I used to avoid. I think it’s because I’m largely still finding my voice when it comes to prose, particularly fiction. I feel I can learn the fundamentals from classic writers and their work. My poetry is more developed, so I feel comfortable venturing out into contemporary work.

Amita: Which of Shakespeare’s work has most influenced you?

JLM: MacbethKing Lear and Titus Andronicus. I’m a beginner when it comes to reading Shakespeare, but even encountering a modicum of his work produces a profound effect. I have his complete works but have not made it to his Sonnets yet.

Amita: You’ve described yourself as “a literary abstract artist of modernity.” So far you’ve written and published primarily poetry. What is your process like when writing a poem?

JLM: The genesis of a poem is usually a fleeting, but arresting emotion or short combination of words that holds my attention. From there, I try to build on and keep that initial inspiration in mind, just stretching and mining it in all sorts of ways until I’m satisfied.

The timeline from the germ of an idea to submiting it to journals varies with each poem – it may take me an hour or a few days of intense focus, which borders on obsession.

Amita: Does your process vary when you’re writing prose rather than poetry?

JLM: I think sincerity and originality are the most important aspects of any writing, but especially poetry. It may be my favorite form of literature – every minute detail is so highly charged because there is nothing to hide behind, every word calls for you to put something at stake. I typically try to write only when I’m “feeling” it, which may be around two poems a week – I really try to practice restraint and not get in the way of what’s trying to be said. Inspiration hits me often at the most inconvenient times, such as when I’m driving, running an errand or taking a bath.

Until recently, I haven’t written prose nearly as much as I’ve poetry, but that’s changing. When writing prose, I have to keep so many more things in mind – the reader, plot, characterization, sentence variety, pacing, scene building, exposition, etc. I used to get overwhelmed by this and doubt myself often in this regard.

Recently, I’ve gotten into more of a consistent rhythm writing prose and it feels good.

When it comes to memoir writing, I feel that truth should be the top priority, though it is often shot through with our own inherent biases and perspectives. I try not to let the opinions or feelings of others contaminate my work, no matter how dear they are to me.

Amita: So it sounds like writing poetry is a more personal, purely expressive process – whereas prose is more audience-directed?

JLM: I keep the reader’s experience in mind when writing both, but I try not to let it be audience-directed. When I’m close to finishing a piece, I try to imagine what it would be like reading it for the first time. I think both forms benefit from considering the reader, but one must be careful not to compromise artistic integrity for mass appeal. I believe serious readers want to be challenged, unhoused and made to feel something genuine. I think all great art is inwardly directed – by pain, longing, imagination, curiosity or a combination of each. I feel it can be helpful to keep the reader in mind when writing because one can use their expectations as a literary device to create irony, humor or unexpected profundity.

“A Recurrence.” A painting JL did some years ago.

Amita: You’re currently working on your memoir. How far along are you? Do you set aside time to work on that? What are your favourite memoirs?

JLM: I’m afraid I only managed to get the rudiments down so far – it’s in a very early stage. Sadly, I haven’t worked on it in months as I’ve been focusing on poetry, short stories and a series of essays.

My writing life is fairly unstructured – I don’t set deadlines, but I like to get things finished in a timely manner, without letting them build up too much.

My two favorite memoirs are The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Notes from a Dead House by Dostoyevsky. Both are illuminating portraits of metamorphosis and integrity – they both probe the often catastrophic nature of our humanity while never cheating the reader with sentimentality or parochialism.

Amita: How do you grapple with the potential problems with writing about real people in your life?

JLM: I am very private when it come to my work before it’s published and only share it with a select few. My parents aren’t exactly internet savvy, so they haven’t read much of my work.

Amita: You’ve been published a lot! How do you select which journals to submit a piece to? Which journals do you enjoy reading?

JLM: I’ve gotten better at reading submission guidelines and editor interviews on Duotrope to get a glimpse of what the editors are seeking. I enjoy reading Coffin Bell, Occulum, B O D Y, TRACK//FOUR, GASHER, THRUSH, Sidereal Magazine and The Fiction Pool.

Amita: How do you handle rejection? What’s the most helpful feedback you’ve ever had from a journal editor?

JLM: If I go too long without an acceptance, doubt and restlessness sink in or I am forced to look at my work in a more critical, but honest, light. Waiting four months for a form rejection is brutal but is to be expected. I admire the work that journal editors do, but I don’t envy their responsibility.

I seldom revise a piece after it’s rejected – I’ve learned to have a short memory. I used to discard all my poems or scratch out most of the words until only a few were legible. Now, sometimes I edit as I go, it comes out in a stream and I leave it alone or I obsess over each detail for a few days – it’s a spontaneous and unpredictable process with each poem.

I get a ton of encouragement from concise, personal rejections. Some will say, ”I liked these very much, but not enough to publish,” or “We can’t retain certain pieces we greatly enjoy.” 

Recently, I got some feedback on a short story – the editor said that the conclusion felt rushed and an important character wasn’t explored thoroughly enough. It made me aware I needed to invest more care and time into my fiction.

Amita: Scratch out the words – so you write poetry with paper and paper? What about prose?

JLM: Yes, I have a single notebook dedicated to both poems and stories. I used to write in pen but switched to pencil a long time ago out of necessity. Writing in pencil makes me feel more in control for some reason – just seeing the words written in my handwriting works for my brain. I have a decade’s worth of notebooks full of rubbish sketches, poems and stories. When writing essays or my memoir I “vomit the anguish up” in a notebook then refine and sculpt it on my computer.

Amita: Writing can be an isolating activity. How involved are you in the writing community?

JLM: I think there is power in this isolation – it places you in a cauldron where you can learn what you believe and what you’re made of.

I don’t currently belong to any writing groups. However, I go to readings and stay in contact with a small group of writers.

Amita: Do you have a mentor?

JLM: My mentor’s name is Rayfield A. Waller. He was my poetry instructor in college. I’ve known him for over five years and he is constantly encouraging me with his humor, wit, fervent love of poetry and truth-telling. We have both been touched deeply by Buddhism and he recently shared with me that he’d known I would be a great writer since I walked into his classroom.

Amita: How do you connect with other writers? What advice would you give about networking to new writers?

JLM: I meet writers and curators at events where I read poetry, we exchange contact information and I make it a point to stay in touch.

I largely reject mainstream forms of social media. But I have a profile on Ask.fm and I just signed up for Medium.

I would advise aspiring writers to be judicious when selecting a writing circle – these spaces are vital but be sure you connect with people whose work you respect and whose character you can trust.

Amita: That’s sound advice. What is your attitude to promoting your work? You’ve done some poetry readings.

JLM: I try to make as many organic, lasting connections as I can. One of my doctors is a huge poetry fan and goes to readings all the time. When he read my work, he told me he admired it greatly, which did a lot for my confidence.

I usually meet people who appreciate poetry at readings, however. That’s mainly how I book events – someone in the audience would be an organizer and extend an offer after hearing me read. I think doing readings is a surefire way to build a regional, loyal audience.

Amita: What is the audience and market like for poetry today? Is it true that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’? Do you think there needs to be more public funding for the arts in general, and poetry in particular?

JLM: I think poetry is quietly starting to make a resurgence. There’s all sorts of ways audiences consume poetry these days, such as on Instagram.

I frequent local, independent bookstores and they have very large selections of poetry and poetry journals. The employees are usually aspiring writers themselves or of a high literary mind.

I think I would have benefitted from a poetry class in my early years of education – I sort of had to find my path blindly, but I’m glad I found it when I did. The public education system in the States has been decrepit for decades and I felt its effects directly. I feel that enriching the arts, especially for a kid’s early years, can only be beneficial. It can save lives.

J.L.’s living-room meditation space. A bell, an incense-holder, an image of the Buddha, a plant, and a candle. He rings the bell to signal to himself that his practice has begun.

Amita: You’re a practising Buddhist. How did you find Buddhism? What does your religious/spiritual practice consist of? What does spirituality mean to you? Are you involved in your local Buddhist community?

JLM: My mom and dad weren’t religious at all when I was a kid –  I can count on one hand how many times I stepped into a church. I got into Buddhism when I was about nineteen, of my own volition – I was a walking disaster, as most individuals are when they seek spirituality. I was looking for answers to what I was feeling and experiencing – I didn’t want to act out my inner anguish in negative ways, so Buddhism felt right.

I consider myself a beginner, but I go through periods of intense, focused meditation and then I won’t meditate for weeks at a time. I’m still working on maintaining consistency. I also study koans, which are succinct, potent accounts that aim to reveal the inadequacy of logical thinking, provoking spontaneous enlightenment. As you can imagine, they have a way of turning one’s world upside down.

I feel that true spirituality is meant to unhouse, unsettle, and challenge us at the deepest levels. Though I’m a Buddhist, Jesus and Socrates also thoroughly enrich my spiritual sensibilities. The Buddhist tradition continues to teach me about the value and power of sincerity. It places the responsibility firmly in my hands, which is empowering.

I’m a member of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple here in Michigan. The members are diverse, humane and warm – they embrace me with open arms and answer my numerous questions. There aren’t any physical services going on right now, thanks to the pandemic, but I’ve attended numerous online services, did one on one interviews with our guiding teacher, helped out around the temple and went to various get togethers. I hope to enter and complete Still Point’s seminary training program at some point in the future.

Amita: To be licensed as a priest?

JLM: To be a Dharma teacher. Dharma means “teachings of the Buddha.” It’s a three-year training program, which I likely won’t pursue for a long time, until I feel I’m ready.

Amita: I’ve not read any religious texts, but I have read Socrates via Plato. How has reading Socrates helped you?

JLM: Plato’s Apology is huge for me. Socrates’ thoughts about the living an examined life are, for me, the highest form of wisdom. I also continue to gain insights and inspiration from the Socratic Method.

In line 24a of the Apology, Socrates says, “What I have told you Athenians, is the truth: I neither conceal nor do I suppress anything, trivial or important. Yet I know it is just this outspokenness which rouses indignation.”

Whenever we speak candidly without compunction or intimidation, whether through artistic forms or just with words, it makes people uncomfortable, it unsettles them. This unsettling is a form of death. Without death, there is no possibility of transformation, metamorphosis, or rebirth. Whenever we get rid of an assumption or presupposition, that’s a form of death. In the Apology Socrates also says, “For to fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise without really being wise, for it is to think that we know what we do not know.”

I read Socrates to develop courage and fortitude, two virtues which he put on full display. I also read him to remind myself that success does not equate to greatness and popularity is an ephemerality.

JL’s guitar. Posters: Malcolm X; Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers.

JL’s guitar. Posters: Malcolm X; Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers.

Amita: You enjoy listening to music, and playing guitar and keyboards. Is music something you want to explore professionally? What did you grow up listenng to, and what are you listening to these days?

JLM: I’ve only come up with rough, brief sketches recorded on my phone or voice recorder. Some are better than others. I’m in the daunting process of completing my first full-fledged song on acoustic guitar, the instrument I feel I’m best at playing. I have the secret dream of one day performing songs for a very small audience.

Music is vital to my mental well-being – I listen to it everyday, sometimes for hours. I’ve always been a music lover, though I was largely deprived of it as a kid, except for rides in the backseat and videos on television.

I used to like modern R&B songs as a kid. I feel there is a symbiosis between my writing, music and spirituality – all three inform one another and interact on various levels. At the moment, I’m heavily into lo-fi hip-hop acts such as Navy Blue, MIKE, Earl Sweatshirt, Medhane and MAVI.

Amita: When can we expect your memoir? And a book of poetry? What route you would go for publishing?

JLM: Hopefully within two years – I want to take my time with it. I’m also working on my debut poetry collection, which I hope will find acceptance within a year. There are a ton of small, independent publishers of poetry, so I’ll likely go that route. I have a lot of refining to do before I start submitting.

Amita: Final thoughts for our readers on pursuing creativity, living the fullest life, and finding one’s path to spirituality?

JLM: Try to develop the habit of trusting your instincts and gut feelings – they won’t lead you in the wrong direction. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Don’t simply dream but be willing to invest your entire soul into your creative pursuit while honing your craft. Separate yourself from those who do not enrich or encourage you. And, above all, love.

Thank you for reading!

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J.L. Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.

J.L.’s site: https://jlmoultrie.com/
Contact J.L. Moultrie: Ask @JLMoultrie
Check out J. L.’s other writings at Neutral Spaces
Email JLM: JLMoultrie@hotmail.com

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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