Rachel Nix: It’s been wonderful getting to work with you on this issue, James. We broke the rules of solitude a bit by meeting up back in June, but managed to spend time in places where solitude often leads individuals: bookstores, crowded streets, and taverns. I had the chance to hear you speak on the spectrum that is solitude, which draws a different perspective from most everyone—as is evident by the contributors of this issue.
So for those who haven’t gotten to hear your thoughts, why do you think the theme is so hard to pin down? What makes solitude less of a noun, more of a verb?
James H Duncan: The idea of solitude is such a specific thing for everyone. For some it’s terrifying and for others it’s invaluable, and while it varies from person to person it’s also universal—we all experience solitude and it affects us in so many ways, and that’s why I thought it would be an excellent topic to explore. The submissions didn’t let us down, in my opinion. I think it’s a really diverse and revealing collection.
Solitude is important to me because in a world so inundated with input, media, entertainment, and social connectivity, the act of being alone with one’s thoughts feels so vital. I see the lack of this ability most when I travel. Whenever I’m out and about I see this need to feel constantly connected, this need to stare zombie-like into our phones or call someone, anyone, just so we aren’t sitting idle on trains or buses, on subways and airplanes, alone with our thoughts. It’s almost like an avoidance of allowing one’s mind to settle. It makes me wonder what people would find if they allowed that to happen, if they let the silt drift to the bottom of the pool of water in the deepest recess of their mind.
The time I am able to carve out of the days and weeks to do this is so important to me. It recharges me. It allows me to feel more like myself. Is it odd that I feel more myself when I am alone than at any other time? Maybe, and some may find solitude a lonesome or sad thing, but for me it is a vital thing, an act I need, it makes me who I am, and it is indeed a verb, a much needed verb.
RN: You’re the editor behind Hobo Camp Review, which is as stated on the website: a gathering place for the road-weary storyteller. Can you tell us more about The Camp and what made you want to create a journal with a welcome mat for those of us who can’t stay in one place for long?
JD: It started out selfishly, to be honest. I went through a period around 2009 where I wasn’t connecting with a lot of the poetry I read in journals or online, so I decided instead of seeking out poets I felt I had a connection with, I would make a way so they could seek me out instead. I’d let poets do all the footwork! I always had an affinity for the rambling lifestyle—my twenties were very much an on-the-go era of my life, filled with travel—so I thought that would make a great theme for a magazine. Hobo camps (or “jungles”) were places where transients could stop, eat, rest, tell stories, then move on, and so this little tucked away review became a hobo camp for the literary world. Nothing fancy, nothing loud, but a place where the dusty poets of the road and rails could tell their stories. But it’s much more than just “hobo” or “travel” poetry. In fact, little poetry we publish is about just that. It’s a place where all can come and share. The road is for everyone. The road is total freedom. All voices are welcome at the camp.
RN: Outside of editing endeavors, you busy yourself as a writer of both poetry and fiction, and have contributed several essays to the publishing world—that said, your poetry reads with a storyteller’s voice while your prose leans on a fairly poetic approach. What urges the blending for you?
JD: I love poetry that tells a story, that has movement and evolution, where something changes somehow. I think this is because I started out a storyteller first, from writing my own comics as a kid to short stories as a teen to novels yet published (but looking for homes!) later on. I didn’t come to poetry until my mid-20s. I wrote some earlier but I didn’t feel like I had anything to say; they were a little clichéd and lifeless. But after getting kicked around by life, experiencing some painful losses and aimless wandering around, I discovered poetry. More than any other medium, poetry allowed me to not just express my feelings and experiences, but express them in ways that connected to a wider world and built bridges to greater meaning. Like many poets, I started out writing about myself, but my favorite poets evolve to write about others, about the great invisible threads that connect us all, while also including ourselves in that conversation in subtle ways. This is what I aim for now. I think stories and poems can both do this on their own, but writing that can combine the two can do this in a very appealing, powerful way.
RN: Where can we find your work? Any newly published pieces or other projects going on that we should know about? We’re a nosey bunch.
JD: I don’t submit as often as I should, but I’ll have pieces appearing in Lonesome October Lit, Picaroon Poetry, and elsewhere this autumn, and I write a lot of columns for The Blue Mountain Review. These columns are similar to the writing advice pieces I wrote for Writer’s Digest Magazine, and I also post about poetry, pop culture, and my upcoming books pretty regularly at my website, jameshduncan.com. Feel free to drop by!
RN: Lastly, congratulations on the release of your new book, We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine, which deals largely with the concept of solitude. Care to tell us more about the collection and how we can get a copy?
JD: Thanks very much! We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine speaks about solitude in a couple of different ways. This full-length collection goes back and forth in time, with poems about going through chemotherapy as an adult and how isolated that made me feel from the world (it was a very lonely time) and pieces about being a child, a young bookworm, and growing up in a rural neighborhood where I didn’t feel like I belonged, where I felt out of place. In both eras within the book, solitude appears in healing and harmful ways, but there are also moments of feeling truly connected to people and places, bits of warm nostalgia and innocent hope. This book is a few years in the making and is so important to me. I believe the editors at Unknown Press, Bud Smith and Devin Kelly, truly helped make this book my best collection ever. It will be available by Halloween, 2017 and I couldn’t be more excited!