Jeffrey Thomson is one of eight authors whose poetry collections are being published next year through Farmington’s Alice James Books with the support of a recent $30,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Jeffrey Thomson Submitted photo

We asked the celebrated poet, author and professor of creative writing at the University of Maine at Farmington — whose book “Museum of Objects Burned by Souls in Purgatory” is due out in May 2022 — about Amanda Gorman, writing during a pandemic and how to get words flowing.

Name: Jeffrey Thomson

Age: 54

Lives: Farmington

How old were you when you started writing? I started writing in college — before that poetry for me was Shakespeare or Donne or something frozen in the distant past. Kevin Stein, my teacher at Bradley University, opened up a world for me. He was young then and had just finished his degree at Indiana. He was the guy who exposed me to poets like James Wright and Sharon Old. These were poets that spoke to my lived experience, to my world, and showed me that the material of my day-to-day existence in real and contemporary landscapes could be poetic. Could be poetry.

Were you encouraged to pursue it as a career? After undergrad, I left college and traveled. I went to Europe and moved to Colorado (I was from the Midwest and hadn’t really been much of anywhere). But after a couple of years of wandering, I wanted to go back to school, to be with people who loved literature and writing, but this wasn’t a career, yet. I was just looking for my tribe. I applied to few graduate schools and got into the University of Missouri. By the time I finished my M.A. a few years later I knew I wanted to keep writing and to teach writing. I’ve been lucky to do just that. Ultimately, it wasn’t so much of a plan (by me or by anyone else) as it was a series of fortunate accidents.

It feels like poetry is having a moment right now thanks to Amanda Gorman. Do you think people hear someone like her and get inspired? I absolutely do. She was remarkable at the inauguration. Especially being so young and so charismatic, she cut a remarkable figure with her words on that stage. I am hopeful that she will bring more people to a place of comfort with poetry — lots of people feel intimidated by poetry and poets (perhaps because it is taught like it is a riddle or a code) — and the power of language to transform and sustain us. Having a president who likes and admires poets doesn’t hurt either.

How challenging has it been to write during the pandemic? I think it is hard to write inside something that is this complicated and overwhelming. When the pandemic first started about a year ago, I was just finishing up my newest book. Then we were all thrown into this strange new space. Fortunately for me, I had a few poet-friends who wanted to do a weekly Zoom workshop (since we were all stuck inside). That forced me to write some new work and obviously the pandemic entered into those poems and that thinking. These poems then became the end of the book and provided a depth and focus that really helped bring the whole manuscript together.

Does Maine enter into or inspire your work much? The landscape of Maine is all through my recent books, from the ferns and mountains to the abandoned factories and images of ships at rest in hidden harbors. Because, Maine, for me, is a complicated place to write from. I came into a teaching job that was Wes McNair’s for a long time. I had to fill his shoes. Wes, he is the poet of the small town in Maine. He grew up in this landscape. I didn’t. I am from away. I recognize that. I didn’t want to try and copy him. To fake it. But place is really important to my work. I am a poet of the landscape; I am a poet of the ground. So even when I am playing with other things — fallen angels, memory, science — you can see the connection to Maine in those poems.

It sounds like you’ve traveled a lot. Are you missing that? I do (did) travel a lot. I truly love it. For me, travel is about exploration and learning. It helps me see the world with fresh eyes — our eyesight, like everything else, gets stale with time. Travel refreshes my eyes and gives me new subject material, from the tropical landscapes of Costa Rica and Peru, through the deep history in Ireland and Italy, to the raw wilderness of Alaska. I love it all. And, yes, I cannot wait to get back to wandering around the world.

What can you tease about “Museum of Objects Burned by Souls in Purgatory”? And how did you come up with such an amazing title? The book is named after the small gallery of the same name found in the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio in Rome — that’s another benefit of travel, right? Many of the poems in the book are devoted to meditations on (or encounters with) religious relics like the foot of Mary Magdalene or the fingers of Doubting Thomas, but I am also looking at the power that lives inside other physical objects and works of art, such as underwater sculptures in Mexico, Han Solo in Carbonite, or the Skull of a Tightrope Walker Who Died of a Broken Neck (that one is in the Mudder Museum in Philadelphia). I am interested in these objects as objects, and even more so in the stories they hold and carry, because these narratives are about the idea of the authentic and about belief. About meaning and making. They are about faith, but also about art, and the way these two ideas mingle and join together in our most fundamental narratives. They are about the way we navigate our world through the objects we value and the stories we tell about them.

A student is sitting in your creative writing class at UMF feeling stressed and stuck. What’s your advice to get the words flowing? It is so easy to feel stuck or blocked, primarily because we expect or want our work to be perfect and done immediately. But writing doesn’t work that way in my experience. You need to draft and revise and cut and rewrite. Good writing needs time and revision. And revision means just that, re-seeing, and that takes distance. If you feel stuck, allow yourself the luxury of failure and don’t worry. No one else has to see it. No one else needs to read it — at least at first. And maybe you need to write this “bad thing” to get yourself to the place where you can write something more fulfilling. Or maybe this “bad thing” is only the beginning of something richer, something that will only develop over time. Allow yourself to write first drafts. Allow them to be imperfect. Allow yourself the room to reflect, and improve, and develop. And then go back and reread and re-see and try to make it better. That’s the process. Trust it.


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