James Cagney’s first poetry collection, Black Steel Magnolias In The Hour of Chaos Theory, was the winner of the PEN Oakland 2019 Josephine Miles Award.
His most recent collection, Martian: The Saint Of Loneliness, was published by Nomadic Press and awarded the 2021 James Laughlin Award. James is a Cave Canem fellow and lives in Oakland, California.
Join us for an evening of virtual readings with James Cagney and friends on Tuesday, October 4th, at 6PM PT.
Where are you writing to us from?
My office job at the Embarcadero, about a 15 minute walk from your bookstore. I could have hand delivered these answers to you, but the office happens to be busy today.
What is bringing you joy right now, personally/artistically/habitually?
In the mornings, I arrive at work usually an hour before I have to clock in, an hour before any other staff appears. I grab coffee and water and journal by hand for a full hour. My phone sits running a timer so I can clock in on time. I treat social media and doom-scrolling as a treat for later in the morning. The writing is more therapeutic than artistic. It’s what I call sentence practice—especially if I don’t have any projects or ideas already in mind to play with. I started this during the pandemic by accident, but I’ve grown to love and rely on that habit. If I can fill 3-4 legal sized pages, I feel very productive and grounded by the time the first office noise makers arrive. Turns out that hour is the best part of my entire work day, unless its Taco Truck Tuesday.
Which writers, artists, and others influence your work in general, and this book, specifically?
Several of the poems in the book were written after paintings and events held at MOAD—Museum of The African Diaspora. The opening poem, “Her Majesty Queen Sophie,” is written after work by South African artist Mary Sibande. A poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca, “A Trip To The Moon,” was incredibly helpful for unlocking a childhood memory I couldn’t let go of until his poem showed me a way to write it out of my head and heart. There’s probably several more, but I don’t think the book would’ve come together without them.
What books are you reading right now and would you recommend any to others?
Last year or so, I was incredibly honored to read with Faylita Hicks whose book Hood Witch is genuinely a masterpiece. I envy her greatly. I’m in the midst of Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves and just finished Mutiny by Phillip Williams. Both of those brothers make me feel anxious, like I’m half-assing my work and cheating my books and readers out of some level of quality and focus and intent. I read them and immediately wanted to write my book over.
Attention, attention must be finally paid to Joel Dias Porter and his Ideas of Improvisation, which features poems hidden inside of already stunning poems. With those books, you don’t need anything else.
If you opened a bookstore, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?
I’d open a bookstore near Oakland Technical, my old high school, just out of hope to one day see a teen from my hood holding a book instead of a phone. I believe in science fiction, apparently. I’d call it Book-Ish, or Read Read Redemption, or maybe The Color Beloved. I don’t know about bestseller—but I’d try to have extensive poetry and theatre sections. I’m always scanning the poetry displays in stores for people I know or have heard of and many of them—your store excepted—have mildly disappointing poetry collections.
Theatre, too. I rarely find August Wilson on the shelf and play displays are always sparse. Maybe no one buys them. I used to adore Limelight Bookstore near the Castro because they carried bound film screenplays. Bunch of years ago, for a friends’ birthday, I bought a copy of the script for the 1995 movie, Heat. He nearly had an out of body experience. He’d never seen a film script before.