James Piatt

INTERVIEW

Creative Evolution
Jennifer-Crystal Johnson
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 1

A DYNAMIC AND WELL-ROUNDED INDIVIDUALJames Piatt’s ancestry is an intriguing combination of French, Dutch, Pawnee Indian, and English. He spent his early years excelling academically as well as athletically, becoming the youngest Eagle Scout in the history of Santa Barbara County, and spending three years of his high school career as Class President.

Against the advice and criticism of others, Piatt and his wife, Sandy, married at 20 and 18 respectively. They’ve been happily married for 56 years now, and continue to celebrate a wonderful life together. After dropping out of college to support his young family, he became an electro-mechanical draftsman for Aerophysics Development and aided in the design of the Dart Missile System.

After several years, Piatt was drafted into the US Army and was on the Regimental Drill Team. He was discharged after 2 years and decided to further his education. He earned his BS with concentrations in Electronics and Physical Science at California State Polytechnic University, graduating on the Dean’s List.

For the next few years, Piatt worked at Douglass Aircraft as an Operations Engineer and later at AVCO as a Project Engineer. He and his wife had two children during this time as well: Wallace and Ann, both grown up now and living their own productive lives.

After some time in engineering, Piatt then became a high school science teacher, a great cut in salary but a fulfilling career choice. He jokes that his wife wasn’t happy about the drop in their budget, but the things he accomplished during his teaching career has helped many troubled and at-risk students.

Utilizing his experience as an instructor, Piatt designed an educational program for at-risk students and became the principal of his own school. He remained at this position for 17 years, designing courses and developing programs such as The Minor Parent Program and The Adult Education Program. Not only was he inventive in helping troubled students and students with setbacks, he was also a requested speaker at numerous conferences pertaining to education, leadership, and alternative schooling.

After earning his Doctorate, Piatt proceeded to his next career as the Dean of a Junior College. Feeling pressured and unhappy in this position, he returned to teaching high school students, wanting to test out his untraditional methods on a more traditional system, which worked very well. During his time teaching high school chemistry, he also taught at a nearby University part-time, which eventually led to a transition from the high school to the University as a full-time professor in charge of four Masters of Education programs, where he worked until he retired.

After retirement, Piatt found himself drawn to the poetry of his ancestral family members, John James Piatt and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, who wrote poetry in the mid-1800s. Inspired by his family members, he began to write poetry himself, eventually going on to write a science fiction novel, humorous cozy mysteries, thrillers, and short stories. Though he has yet to find representation or a publisher for his novels, Piatt’s poetry has appeared in numerous publications including Bumble Jacket Miscellany, Taj Mahal, Vox Poetica, Red Ochre Press, Wilderness House Review, and Westward Quarterly. Piatt’s short stories have also been published; he has 14 short story publications. These include “Foolish Anger” in Tainted Tea, “Alienation” in Literary House Review, “The Uncommon Man” in Word Catalyst Magazine, and “Unholy Propositions” in Black Petals.

With heartfelt poetry often based on nature, his work shows a deeply ingrained appreciation and understanding of our world and how to draw attention to its beauty. In his piece One Spring Evening, he says:

“Serene was the evening without city roar,
A night of peace without scarred asphalt:
The wind’s calm obeyed the earth’s spin
As it kissed the sides of the smooth shore,
[. . . ]”

The opening of this poem sets the tone for a beautiful evening away from the noise and bustle that is too often associated with society and civilization. This piece truly brings to life the peace and beauty of nature, the calm of escaping the city for a while, if even for an hour, and taking in the fresh air and brightness of the stars that are so easily missed downtown.

“My poetry is about my personal feelings,” says Piatt. “The things I experience or feel or sense, my longings and fears, real or imagined. [. . .] My poems seem to come from deep within me and I write in a stream of consciousness style.”

§ § §

You have a very diverse and active history. Have you always wanted to write, or was that a skill you came to strictly later on in life?

I actually didn’t start to write seriously until the year 2000; I started writing thriller novels after I retired. I now have four thriller novels, one science fiction novelette, and four “cozy” mysteries completed at this time.

What would you say inspires you the most to write the poetry you do?

At first, it was feelings I had about things like war, stupid politicians, or the terrible injustices that were happening here and around the world. Later, it became the feelings I had sitting alongside a river in the summers, [and] then my darker thoughts. I have always been a sensitive person and feel deeply the pain of others.

You mentioned a river. Is there anything specific about nature that inspires you? If so, what is it, and why do you think the impact is so profound?

I have always loved the beauty, the serenity, the vastness, and the singleness of nature. It gives freely of its beauty and asks nothing in return. I feel somewhat similar about my orchard, which has thousands of flowers; I love beauty. I have done the vast majority of my initial poems, mostly about nature or the seasons, while sitting near a stream. The impact is definitely profound and that might be because of my Pawnee genes. I feel, in my soul, that I am more American Indian than anything else, even though I am less American Indian than French, English or Dutch. I think it also may be that there are few interruptions on the thought process up in the wilderness. I am happy to be alone in the wilderness, hiking on ancient trails, watching the animals and birds, swimming in a cool stream, or just sitting on a boulder thinking about life. I guess I feel God closer there than anywhere else.

Personally, I think the ocean is one of the most beautiful aspects of nature. The open space, the vastness of it – do you feel that, on some level, your work comes from a place bigger than yourself? Can you elaborate on that?

I love the ocean, too, and sometimes go to the beach when I don’t go to the river. I am not sure whether my work comes from a place higher than me; if it did, it would probably be much better than it is. I do know that I get inspiration when I am in nature’s world, but I also get urgings to write when I read a poem, or a book, or watch TV or read about wars, injustice, the misery of others, chaos, etc. I have had constant urges, from somewhere in my being, to write a lot of dark war poems, but not a lot of poetry magazines, except Contemporary American Voices, seem to want them. I would guess that those feelings about injustice, greed, the lack of mercy, etc. must come from someplace higher than me. Those feelings seem to have always been with me since my early youth. I would guess that is why I became a Boy Scout, left engineering to teach, and eventually designed and founded a school for divergent youth. Someone in this world has to care for, and speak up for, those who are unloved, victimized, or treated poorly. I have always had a sense of Weltschmerz; I guess that is another reason why I ended up writing poetry. These feelings also permeate, sometimes in a covert way, my novels.

You have a number of short stories published. Do you prefer writing short stories or poetry?

Good question. I guess it is about equal, although I find writing short stories easier. Sometimes trying to get a poem just right is a difficult thing and I never seem to get a poem to the point that I am totally satisfied with it. That is probably due to the fact that often I write in a collective unconscious mode. It just flows from something I feel or see or experience.

How would you say that all of your teaching and speaking experiences affect your writing?

Hum, now that is a great question. I haven’t really thought about how my past professional life affected my writing. If it did have an impact, I would guess it is probably an unconscious thing.

Though you have numerous short stories, essays, and poems published in various literary magazines, reviews, and other publications, you have yet to publish a book. What is your top goal as far as which work you’d like to see published as a book?

I would very much like to get my novels published since that is what I started out trying to do. I do have an agent interested in one of my novels now, but who knows what will happen. However, I would also like to get a collection of my poems and some chapbooks published, too, and have queries out now.

What was your absolute favorite subject to teach, and what did it teach you? What effect do you think this had on your writing?

That is an easy question; I loved teaching philosophy. It taught me that great ideas never die and can have a tremendous effect upon how people think. I see poetry as a vehicle for one’s personal philosophy. It probably causes me to be somewhat abstract, philosophically, in writing many of my poems.

Who are some of your favorite poets to read? Do you think they’ve influenced your work as well?

Another easy question. I only started writing poetry seriously two years ago after reading the poems of John James and Sara Morgan Bryan Piatt, my past relatives. I love Max Ehrmann, Kahill Gibran, and Shakespeare; of course, everything they wrote is unbelievable. They have affected me tremendously. I also think that every poem Dylan Thomas wrote is fantastic, his, “And Death Shall Have no Dominion,” is brilliant, and T.S. Eliot’s, “The Love Song of J. A. Prufrock,” is a favorite. I like Yeats’ poem, “When You Are Old,” and Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” too. Keats’ poem, “Ode to Melancholy” is a great poem and inspired me to write my poem on Melancholy. I would say that the ancient poets have had the biggest effect upon my poetry.

Of all of the poetry you’ve had published, which poems do you think have the greatest impact on you and your readers?

That is another difficult question. I would say the two poems that have garnered the most positive comments from others are, “Universality,” (Word Catalyst Magazine) and a prose poem called, “Letter to a Teacher,” (Caper Journal). There are three poems that have had the greatest impact upon me: “The Fern and the Spinet,” (Bumble Jacket Miscellany) “The Homeless Man,” (Red Ochre Literary: A Journal) and, “Adieu My Love,” (Vox Poetica). They brought out tears when I wrote them because of the feelings and memories they evoked in me, and even now when I read them, they have the same effect.

What do you think is more important when writing poetry: your emotional state and commemorating or communicating it, or following poetic rules?

I have a problem with poetic rules, especially those for formal poetry. For me, personally, formal rules squash my creative juices! I would guess that’s why I get so few of my formal poems published. (Laughs) Communication of an emotional state or feeling is everything to me!

Do you believe a reader can feel the sincerity of a particular poem? The reason I ask is because, ‘The Fern and the Spinet,’ struck an emotional chord with me when I read it, and seeing this connection makes me curious. Can a reader feel your emotional energy through the words you use?

That is always my hope, and I write to do that! I do believe that emotional energy is transferred to the reader when there is some type of symbiotic relationship between the poem and personal memories or beliefs. I know when I read poems, certain ones connect with my own feelings, probably evoked by my memories, and I definitely feel the emotional energy. I believe ‘The Fern and the Spinet’ has that type of emotional connection for many people.

In Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, (this was my text book for Creative Writing . . .best text book ever!) she states that it’s important to get the shitty first draft out of the way and then revise. What are your thoughts on revision?

Yes, I agree with her. Usually, when I get a feeling or an emotion about something and start writing a poem, it has poor grammar, misspelled words, etc. and is usually only partially done, maybe only a sentence or two. I then let it sit for some time, reread it and start completing it, and then go into many revisions. Actually, even after I send out my poems for publication, I revise them before I send them out again. I believe that every poem must be constantly revised to obtain the exact nuance you want. I realize that that is not always possible, and I feel that many of my poems were not revised enough times, even after seven or eight revisions.

Do you usually have ideas for stories/novels based on a specific character, plot, or setting? Could you elaborate a little on that?

When I started writing my first novels (my humorous cozy mysteries) over ten years ago, I took the time to form complicated plots, develop specific characters, situations, etc., as our writing instructors tell us we ought to do. However, during the past six years, I have found (writing my thriller novels) if I get a general idea for a novel and just start writing, I feel better about the creative process. If I allow the story to take me to wherever it wants to go, and allow the characters, and situations to develop I am much happier with the outcome. However, whether agents and publishers are happy with this type of writing is yet to be determined. (Laughs)

What is your favorite aspect of writing?

Oh boy! Excellent question. I guess it is twofold. First, I just enjoy the act of writing itself; to me, any type of writing is a satisfying, creative process. Second, I get a sense of accomplishment and feel a connection with others when someone else likes my completed writings, whether it be a short story or a poem.

Just for fun: do you have any weird OCD requirements that need to be met when you sit down to write?

No, I just sit down and write, anywhere, anytime. (Quite often in the wee hours of the morning.)

Last but not least, what do you do to get over writer’s block?

First, of course, I stop writing and forget it is a problem because, to me, it isn’t. Second, I go back to painting. I am into acrylics. Third, if it’s in the summer, I go to the woods, sit down near a river, and listen to classical music and jazz, and pay attention to the scenery, the birds, and the flowing water. That usually does it. I think many writers have writer’s block because they have so much invested in the process, or need to make money doing it. To me, writing is a form of self-entertainment and an avocation, which allows me to release my feelings and memories, or say something I feel is important to say. In my novels, there are always moral imperatives – sometimes overt, other times hidden – in the stories. This is also true of my poetry. I don’t need the money since I am retired, so the tremendous pressure to publish or perish is not there, just the fun of producing something creative and worthwhile. I guess I am very lucky in that way!

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Source: Jennifer-Crystal Johnson

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