Darklight: An Interview with James Diaz

Nicole Melchionda: Anti-Heroin Chic is an inclusive journal that aims to explore the gritty depths of the human experience. When you started this project, was your primary goal to unify others, to fill some kind of emptiness, or something else entirely? Have your goals evolved over time?

James Diaz: I would say all of the above. But maybe also to unify all the fractured parts of my-self. One of the incredible and often unexpected rewards of doing for others more than you do for yourself is that the egocentric heart begins to grow outward. Clearing space for others somehow clears space inside of us as well. Space for growth, for humility. How often I had no idea just how cramped and selfish my own roots had become until I stood close enough to other trees.

More than anything, I suppose, I was trying to do something tangible rather than just complain and react to what I felt, at the time, was a real lack of Democracy in the literary community around me. The birth of online journals, it’s true, were allowing for an influx of voices that we would not normally have heard from. But I had the uneasy feeling that a lot of people were still being left out of that story. It seemed that many of the poets being published by small presses were those with MFAs or from academia. Not that there is anything wrong with having an MFA, (people work really hard for those) but I got the sense that diversity meant diversity from within that smaller circle of higher education. And inevitably, since a lot of these journals were started by people from MFA programs, they tended to publish mostly poets that were friends of theirs or from the same school, same circles. I wondered if this was any different than the tendency of larger presses like the Paris Review, New Yorker etc.?

It seemed to me that many voices were missing and I wanted to provide a space for them. Working-class-poor voices, those with little to no higher education, those struggling with addiction, mental illness, prison, institutionalization, trauma/sexual abuse, homelessness, extreme poverty, the elderly and young voices. Shouldn’t inclusion mean just about everyone? I called it Anti-Heroin Chic as a reproach against the whole Andy Warhol factory ethos, which seemed to me like just another version of the whole ‘mean girls ethos’ being fashionable while being countercultural, being snarky/quick with words while painting oneself an outsider, laughing at the sore thumbs in the crowd. Ouch, right? I wanted to take in anyone who ever felt left out of every kind of circle. I wanted to draw a big beautiful circle around all of our hearts. I wanted to keep us all warm by the fire. I wanted love to lead the way.

My goals with the space have evolved, I think, because I have allowed myself to be guided by what others needed from me rather than from a place of ego. I let my heart listen closely to theirs, and this is what I heard: we need a place where we can break down, be messy, uncertain, afraid, angry, fall apart, and not have someone try and fix us, just a place where we will be listened to, where we will be believed. Where our brokenness isn’t a liability but a beautiful strength.

These words by pscyhoanalyst Sheldon Bach, while describing the ties that bind him to his patients, I feel, in my heart, are also words that describe the ties that bind me to the creatives that I publish:

“We find ourselves engaged with certain [creatives] in an ongoing effort to provide the recognition and containment that was missing in their development; to provide a space in which confusion and ambiguity can be tolerated and explored and in which raw, polarized emotions can be metabolized and eventually integrated. And as [editors] we find meaning in devoting our lives to being useful to our [creatives] and in helping them find meaning in their own lives by being useful to us, to someone close to them, and especially to themselves.”

Like Kerouc once said, “I believe everyone has the vision, what they lack is the method” [or the open space to just find their fumbling, aching, beautiful way through what they create]. At the end of the day, I feel like the gathering in these fields are as diverse as they can possibly be. That’s my allegiance, to the refugees of the methodless. Draw them in, let them join the chorus, for what a beautiful song they have been waiting to sing.

NM: You’ve expressed that there’s a lot of beauty and wisdom to be found in the darkness that fuels your poetry. How do you meditate there without getting swallowed? Do you ever wish that you could write from a source of light?

JD: I was raised in a dark, dark land. I can’t deny how that has shaped and misshaped me. Many of us have poisoned selves and quite often the antidote is fused with the dark clouds passing over the sun. For me, poetry is a place where I can begin to deal with primal flooding. Like Noah sending out his dove, each poem tries to go out and find land. How sweet when it doesn’t return, how frightening when it does. More work to do. It lasts a lifetime. It would be nice if there were an end in sight for healing, but it takes the whole road and then some. “We wish it could be otherwise, but what choice do we have when illumination shines through injury?”

“Not at all life is catastrophic,” writes Michael Eigen, “there is much joy, pleasure, beauty, bliss, goodness. Yet, catastrophe is a thread that runs through it, sometimes more, less.” There are incremental miracles which occur by simply staying with the pain, the darkness. Light gets in, really, because it cannot always reach us. This is an ancient theme: darkness, a dance with light.

I think it is when we romanticize the dark that we have gone astray. We take a piece of our reality and force it to stand in for the whole. But life isn’t at all like that. It is multiform and confounding. Trauma makes it a bit harder for most of us to follow the trail out of the past and into the present. My present is loaded with bags of dark. A poem lets me unpack it and say, okay, that was then, this is now, and they both have something really important to tell each other.

Do I wish I could write from a place of light? I’m not entirely sure that I’m not. Sometimes I feel there could be more but I’m afraid to let it happen. Too much light and I won’t be able to see. Too much dark, the same. Eigen says that “pain is permeated by light.” Darkness, too. There is another metaphor from Eigen which resonates with me deeply: “Trauma can devastate a life and make you stronger, even more creative. Once a desert guide told my wife and me, looking at a cactus – if not for the wound, the cactus would grow straight, it branches out where it is wounded.”

We branch out where we are wounded. The road less traveled?

The title of my book, for instance, gave me something I never expected. When they were designing the cover they accidentally stumbled upon a second shadow title in the form of a question: This Someone I Call Stranger / Is One All Anger? Are we one thing only, one basic fault of a feeling state? Incremental miracles. I am getting to know that stranger, the one who is still healing and slightly more in the light than he has ever been before. Noah’s dove, Noah’s love. Two of every kind: light and dark. If I am still looking for land, it’s because I believe that it must be out there somewhere. Land and light.

NM: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing? Does it overlap with the most rewarding aspect?

JD: That I don’t know where it is going to take me. Where are you taking me, poem? It doesn’t answer until we arrive. Writing is a frustratingly mysterious, often vague tour guide of the psyche. Eigen says, “You hear a cry and feel it all through life. A soundless cry that creates existence. Or, as the psalm says, ‘I go to bed weeping and wake up laughing.’ A presence bottomless beyond touch touches you.” That’s exactly how I feel about writing. I go to bed weeping and I wake up with a bit of joy in my heart that would not have been there had I not written down the cry. Touched by a bottomless presence beyond touch. I may not believe in God, but I believe in this: poems are the entrance into more than we know about ourselves and the world. Does it overlap with the reward? Yes, most definitely. The two threads must meet at the end of every tapestry. The challenge is in coming to believe that more is on the way. When I am depressed, lost in the land of hopelessness and feeling as if I have written my very last poem, (and they all feel like the last) it takes all I have to remind myself that “I have to hold on longer than I think I can. That there is good shit working its way to me that I don’t even know about” (Orange is The New Black). Poems are the good shit. Words matter here: light/dark, good shit/bad shit. I can’t avoid what happened in the past any more than I can predict what is going to happen in the future. If I lay down crying, I might wake up in joy. I have to wait for more.

NM: What’s your favorite word? Are there any words you despise? Why?

JD: My favorite word is resonate. Does this resonate? To ring the bell of bells. Some things are so beautiful our soul cries out when we see or hear them. I use the word a lot, but no one really knows that every time I use it, I use it differently. When I write it to someone in an email or message, I am actually saying it aloud. “I want to say something that is more than thank you, something that is more like an exhalation of breath” (Eigen). The word, resonate, to me, is such an exhalation. You have rung my bell of bells. Thank you.

I despise the word problematic. Have you ever met an unproblematic human? Actually, despise is too strong of a word. I distrust it more than despise. To say something or someone is problematic is to say that there is work to be done. I wonder, sometimes, if we try and take the shortcut just by simply calling someone problematic. It’s like, eew. That’s what I hear when I hear that word. But eew isn’t enough. Yeah, they are problematic. Now what is the work that needs to be done? That is the hard part of being problematic. And asking what must be done forces us to dig a little bit deeper. Am I problematic? In what ways? Am I deflecting my own unresolved problematic nature onto others as a way of avoiding the work I need to do on myself? We have to fix ourselves and the world together, two threads, same tapestry. Doing one work without doing the other: problematic. Don’t get me wrong, people need to be called out on their shit when they are being problematic, but there is also work to be done. In my experience, just because you are doing the calling out doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing the work. Do the work, on yourself and on the world. I think this is a complicated way of trying to say that humility takes a bite out of self-righteousness and helps us to digest it into work. When we are humble, we do the work. Humility is packed to the brim with passion and righteous indignation, worlds apart from self-righteousness.

NM: Where do you find hope and how do you nurture it?

JD: In psychotherapy. Ten years ago, after moving to New York, I reached out to a psychoanalyst who agreed to see me once a week for a reduced fee. She saved my life. She gave me hope. Up until then, I had been loaded on psychotropic drugs, barely alive. With her help, I got off of them. It’s been a long, arduous journey, but I would not be doing this interview with you now if it were not for that work. The world never would have known my poems, or my love, my darklight, nor I the world. I was in a truly hopeless state, for years, on her couch. I can remember the turning point so clearly and so painfully. Four years into our work, she looked at me sadly and defeated, and she held out her hands and she said exhaustedly, “I feel so powerless, I don’t know what I can possibly do to help you. I feel like I can’t make it better,” and then she began to tear up, and then I just wept.

We went over this scene together many times and it occurred to us both that what had happened was that she became the child I had been through the transference. She was made to feel how powerless and helpless I must have felt as a child and adolescent who was raised in trauma. And it wasn’t until I could see the effect that this had on her that I could truly feel, and understand precisely though feeling, the effect it had had on me. I had dissociated the trauma, but by carrying and holding my sense of helplessness, she helped me to realize that, unlike my parents, who could not bear/hold my breakdown, that she was able to both hold it and survive it. That meant that maybe I could, too.

For the first time in my life, there was hope. Nurturing it is lifelong. There will always be a little wounded, broken-boned boy in me who fears stepping into the light of day, lest he be eaten whole by parental monsters. But there are older, wiser, stronger/softer parts of me too, and they are now a part of the conversation. A conversation with all of my parts. I have learned (am learning) how to make room for all of my things and missing things.

I find it in the poems, too. They are very much a part of therapy work. I can dream myself again, see my life from more than one angle. For so long I could not dream, and as long as I couldn’t dream, I could see no way out. In a dream there is always more than one way through something. In dreams, there is as much hope as dread. One doesn’t dominate the other. They dance, they play their parts, then they make room for more.

NM: In honor of your grandmother who recently passed away, can you share a meaningful memory of something she has said or done that will continue to serve as inspiration for your work?

JD: Now this resonates, rings my bell of bells. I want to say thank you, in exhalation of breath, for this question. It takes a very special (resonate) type of person to ask this. My Grandmother was my mother. That’s the first and most enduring thing I want to say. She was my safe harbor, she was love and she was light. As she got older, sicker, and frailer, I began to take care of her in ways that were nothing but an honor. I never felt tired in attending to her, for love does not rest, it carries on. My Grandmother taught me that grief never goes away, that you must stay with it and it must stay with you. Grief becomes your life’s work, the work of mourning.  She lost three sons in ways that were the stuff of tragedy. Some losses you don’t get over or away from. She had a beautiful life despite all of this. But she wanted me to know that grief was a bodily thing, it was a part of you like an extra limb, it was baked into the meal.

She was passionate about saving the planet. She feared what we were becoming. How easily we learned to hate and use each other. She was the exact opposite of all the stereotypes that surround the elderly. Her mind wasn’t closed, it was as wide open as her arms, her heart. She believed in my work. When the AHC anthology, What Keeps Us Here, was released, she read it over and over again. She said to me, “This is such important work that you are doing here. We all have trauma, but we don’t all have a place to talk about it. I was taught to never talk about it, but I now know that that was wrong. We have to talk about it. You’ve done such a beautiful thing for people. This is going to help so many.” That was manna in the desert. She will always inspire me to continue on this road. In life, with my grief as companion, with light in dark and dark in light.

Her last instructions to me were about watering roots. We were in the living room, five days before she passed, and she pointed up to an indoor plant on the windowsill and she said to me, “Don’t forget, every now and again, to give that plant a little bit of water.” She was starting hospice the next day and I knew she knew that she didn’t have long. Why was she worried about this plant now? I knew then that what she really meant was “Here are the things that I have loved, tended to all these years. I leave them now to you. Remember to water them and they will keep growing. Take good care of these things. As you have of me, this plant, too.”

The day after my Grandmother died, I received a beautiful letter from my dear poet friend, Devon Balwit, in which she wrote:

“What is important? I ask myself daily. For you – being with your Grandmother till the end.

Then you will ask the question again.”

That broke me open. I was already broken open, but this reminded me how what breaks us also opens us up. I crawled into her hospice hospital bed and I wept for over an hour. I wept until I thought I would never be anything but weeping. And then I got up, walked into the living room, and remembered to water the plant on the windowsill.

Read Diaz’s poetry in The Collidescope here.

James Diaz is the author of This Someone I Call Stranger (Indolent Books, 2018) and founding editor of Anti-Heroin Chic. His poems have appeared in Moonchild Magazine, Occulum, and Thimble. He lives by the simple but true motto that “feelings matter” every shape and size of feeling. He believes that every small act of kindness makes an often unseen but significant difference in someone’s life and hopes that his poems are a small piece of that.

Nicole Melchionda is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in various journals, such as Abyss & ApexHelios Quarterly Magazine, and Brindle & Glass. Her work has been nominated for the WSFA Small Press Award and the 2018 Best of the Net Anthology. Visit her website here.

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