Bellaire-based poet Leland James has led the life of a true Northern Michigan artist: the fact that he now lives in a 100-year-old cabin on Lake Bellaire sufficiently supports that claim. Five years since his first publication—which came at the ripe age of 62 years—his second collection of poetry, This is the Way the World Ends, will be available in July. MyNorth’s Evan Perry spoke with James about his journey as a poet and writer, Poet’s Night Out—a free poetry reading on Sunday, April 27th in Traverse City—, and chainsaws.
When did you become a poet?
The opening line of the poem I’ll be reading at Poet’s Night Out was written when I was twelve years old—so it’s been around for a while and I brought it back to life. That poem, which is published in my upcoming book, was the runner up in the Fish International Poetry competition.
I had my own business doing consulting and training, and I eventually became a turnaround CEO; along the way I published a few novels and short stories, and a book about faith. But poetry was my first love—I wanted to commit myself to it and do it right, which I could to do when my wife and I permanently moved to Bellaire from St. Augustine, Florida in order to take care of her parents. She’s fifth-generation Bellaire.
How has your writing developed since you published your first poem?
While I do write in open verse, I’m also what you’d call a “new formalist.” I write sonnets and villanelles in strict meter—I’m technically far better since I published my first poems.
Writing poetry all the time sensitizes you to it. It’s like anything else in life—you get better at it. I’m also better with a chainsaw since I first moved up here.
Walk me through “Poet’s Night Out.”
It’s my first time reading at the event, but poems are solicited from the five-county area, and are judged blindly. 25 of those poems are selected to be read by their authors, some of whom are in high school, at the City Opera House. The audience will then vote for the Poem of the Year, and a chapbook featuring all of the night’s poems will be available at the Opera House.
Tell me about the poetry appreciation program you do at area schools.
I break down my presentation into three parts. I first ask: What is poetry?, and then I give about six different definitions and read poems that work with those definitions. I read the classics, and some of my own work.
Then I do what I like to call “sizing up and seizing poetry”: I’ll get into meter and rhyme, and metaphor, assonance and dissonance…basically what makes a poem magical.
Lastly, I put the poet in context. It’s important to understand poetry through a poet’s past. Poets all have signatures: Frost is pasotral, Plath is dark, Shakespeare is all over the place—I’m a little like that. I write light, dark, serious, funny. The fact that the name of my book is This is the Way the World Ends suggests that I can be pretty dark.
Anyway, the program is an hour and a half long, and it’s a pretty packed hour and a half for the students.
Poet’s Night Out is a free reading at Traverse City’s City Opera House on Sunday April 27th. Visit Traverse Area District Library’s website for more information.
Visit Leland James’ website for more information about his work and to download a free digital edition of his first poetry collection, Inside Apples.