Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest John Diamond Nigh whose debut short stories, Sacred Sins: Short Sensual Stories has just been published.
John is a man of many talents, poet, visual artist, playwright, sculptor, and author. As a poet, (John's MFA is in poetry) he has published in many renowned journals including The Paris Review, The Sewanee Review and Agni, and a book of poetry, Labyrinth.
For several years he and his wife wrote a monthly column for the much-awarded Pennsylvania magazine, Mountain Home.
Twice he was an artist-in-residence at Alfred University, where the classes he taught were focused on aesthetic union. As he states: “Whenever I see a depiction of a couple making love, in Renaissance painting, in current cinema, I think that’s it: one of the two is literature, the other is art (that is if their love-making goes well). If one gets shot by a jealous spouse, of course I retract the analogy.”
Norm: Good day John and thanks for participating in our interview.
When did you first consider yourself a
poet and now a writer of short stories? Why do you write and how has
your environment/upbringing/education colored your writing?
John: I started writing plays in high school. Looking back, though I no longer have those plays, I think they were an apprenticeship both in poetry and short prose, being a blend of both. It was then that I thought of myself as a poet. I started writing short stories about six months ago, but they had a long, long incubation in other genres of writing, including journalism.
I will defer my reason for writing to a later question here. My upbringing was a fairly severe evangelical one, like that of Jeanette Winterson, which both attuned my imagination to the sacred dimensions of life–a gratitude, if you will–but that also imposed on me a really punitive moral severity. Literature was a road out of that, a liberation, an exit. University, later, was paradise for me. My undergraduate and then graduate years were still close enough to the turbulent 70’s that experimentation was fostered–crazy, big exuberant projects that mixed writing, performance art and art installations. To this day I think that the core of creativity is just such exuberance, just such experimentation.
Norm: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
John: Several: the
poet Molly Peacock. Liam Rector. Sven Birkerts. All the writers that
I studied with at
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a poet and writer?
John: Being original. I place that rung at the top of the ladder. Here where I live in Asheville, I might hear a hundred good rock bands, but just one affords something I’ve never heard before. That curious taste of turmeric. There’s a line in my upcoming volume of poetry: I want to be a heretic. That sums up both the risks and the difficulties.
Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your various careers?
John: My books, my exhibitions (that often include poetry). But I consider a collaboration between myself and the renowned Japanese composer Yoshi Kunimoto, and the performance of our work together to be a high water mark. If only for the joy of it and the perfect spring day on which it occurred.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
John: Making a special space, where, whenever you pick up a pencil or open a computer, the spirits have already convened. My first such space was a treehouse. Your solitude should be beautiful, haunted. The most destructive notion was that to be an artist you had to comply with almost a Bible full of prescriptive principles. You get a lot of that in art and writing programs. Yeah, of course you work hard, you push your work, but the deep currents of creativity follow their own riverbeds.
Norm: What advice can you give aspiring writers that you wished you had received, or that you wished you would have listened to? As a follow up, what would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
John: Following on
your last question, do not write or paint or compose to a resumé.
For those of us who have
taught, it’s like teaching to a test and not from the soul. (Ask
any teacher how that is working
out.) At any point in life, the whole genealogy of our creative lives should be there in
the poem or painting itself. If I look at a late Rembrandt painting,
or a Wallace Stevens
poem, the soul, the majesty, the accomplishment are there before my eyes. I don’t need
their CV to tell me so. I understand our current obsession with celebrity, with fame
(2 out of 3 young Americans would rather have fame than sex).
I know artists or
writers who have that one obsessive objective in mind, to get
published in such-and-such a
journal, to show in such-and-such a gallery. To get that line on
their CV. To engrave that
line on their hearts. To have that status. To your second question, that’s hard to
say. I’ve seen artists in one tree who should be in another, but
will never get there because of
a stubborn determination to stay in the first. There are a hundred different ways to
weave creativity into our lives and communities. Stay flexible,
diligent, modest. I’ve seen
more brilliant things happen out of diligent modesty than out of
titanic self-esteem. In
short, inhabit a bliss, a love. If that is strong enough, you’ll
know it; it will buoy you up. At the
same time, cultivate the hard habits of workmanship that will carry you through the
Norm: As you are a published poet and your MFA is in poetry, what would you say makes poetry come alive in a classroom? How can teachers foster a love of poetry, rather than a fear of it, in their students?
John: Funny thing is, I’ve never taught poetry per se in a classroom except in tangential ways. I’ve always taught art. But with any art, your own passions, your own charisma, your own joys and convictions are implicit in what you say and that is what puts a student at ease; that’s what excites a love of their own. I remember a professor, when we came to Jackson Pollock, jumping up on his desk, tearing off his tie and jacket, tearing off his shirt to expose a faded old T-shirt printed with a Pollock drip painting. Was there any doubt this guy loved Pollock? I’ve loved Pollock ever since. Similarly, poetry professor recited William Carlos Williams as though she was making love toevery syllable. Hey, as I’m writing this my computer keeps changing ‘poetry’ to ‘poultry.’What’s up? Guess my computer is thinking of Williams’s ‘white chickens’.
Norm: Your recent published work of short stories, Sacred Sins: Short Sensual Stories has been described as “intellectual erotica.” Could you define what is “intellectual erotica” and are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to this genre? Does it even have a form?
John: The term means erotica that considers the libido, considers natural human desire not only to be the root of creativity itself, as Yeats believed, but as worthy of imaginative and literary exploration as love or war or any other essential human conduct, unhampered by the puritanical taboos of our culture. Have you ever really stopped to wonder why sex is taboo at all? Or why sex so often is deemed to be ‘dirty’ or outré? It is a stigma, a moral prohibition that has, in turn, precipitated true monsters. Intellectual erotica faces that fact. Its aesthetic advantage is owed to that urgent, even ethical invitation to reassess pleasure, re-imagine desire. It is an urgency that animates my stories, though I don’t think it gives them a distinctive form. Not at all.
Norm: How did you decide you were ready to write these short stories and where did you get your ideas for the stories?
John: Well, three of us were sitting in a bar. One of us asked, what if we started a journal devoted to a new eroticism, a spiritual, highly literary eroticism, say on the order of Anaïs Nin? Great idea. Let’s each of us give it a whirl, and meet again down the road. Next day I wrote a story; six months later I had a book that I think does propose a ‘new eroticism.’ Where did these ideas come from? A lifetime of keeping my ear to the sidewalk, listening to stories, to those vibrant and essential things about our humanity that we keep hush-hush. I don’t know if the journal will ever get off the ground. But that’s how things work.
Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish reading these short stories?
John: I hope they love the book, the sex, the tall tales, but I also hope that it stands for something larger: an allegory of how we all may enhance our lives and defy our conventions with one big talent all of us possess–imagination. There are other worlds than this physical one, and imagination is the royal road to those sacred, ecstatic other domains.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing these short stories and did you learn anything from writing them? What was it?
John: These are controversial stories written in a novel genre: they are very short, almost like poems. As Charles Bukowski put it in “Style,” “to do a dangerous thing with style, that is art.” But any time you tamper with danger, with settled ideas of propriety, you feel some apprehension. You lose some sleep. On the other hand, great writing is always beyond you; some dog or angel barking or singing dictation, and when that happens, you comply. I read a lot of Carl Jung, the great psychologist. Always, always, he admonishes, stay in touch with your deeper, darker, more ancient self, either through dreams, or hypnosis or, in my case, creativity.
It is, as I said above, a royal road downward, and if you attend to what you discover there, life will bloom in radical ways. Writing can be like a stent in a clotted artery. It opens avenues, particularly from the unconscious, that society has closed. It broadens and extends life. Did I know that? Yes.
To the extent that I never would have imagined these stories were in me, did I learn it Anew?Ah, wonderfully so.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
John: MY WEBSITE
Norm: What is next for John Diamond Nigh?
John: A book of poems will be published in the spring by Aldrich Press. It is called Twine. I am almost finished with another book that combines my photographs with short texts. If you’ve seen Blind Spot by Teju Cole, it’s more or less in that vein. In turn these texts (usually a half page long) will be pruned and modified into poems. Art is a perpetual self-plunder.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
John: Hmmm, nothing about Donald Trump? Not that I’d have anything to say. Although . . . Sacred Sins obliquely points up this paradox: that religions and pieties can dissemble within themselves vast, anxious obscenities, (most Evangelicals voted for Trump) while those things we might consider obscene, such as sex, may actually be most genuinely holy.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
John: Thank you.