Friday, November 25, 2011

Meet J.K. McDowell: Night, Mystery and Light

This day, this wonderful time of year, can be hectic. I offer an antidote - beauty, reflection, a pool of mystical meaning in which to submerge. 

Meet J.K. McDowell, a true Renaissance man. Being around him, even just corresponding on Facebook or email, reminds me to stop, breathe and feel the deeper vibrations of life. He reminds me that the mundane world and the mystical creative world are bound together and that it is possible, and even powerful, to have a foot in both. He reminds me that I can create and have a day job because he does. J.K. recently published a book of poetry called Night, Mystery & Light with Hiraeth Press. Just look what he has brought into this world...


Meet J.K. McDowell, poet, artist, mystic.

Q. What is your background and training?
Born and lived in the Midwest most of my life.  Now I am from Lafayette, Louisiana.  Married to my Soulmate for nearly 25 years.   Trained as a PhD in Engineering, make a living in that world, and that supports a separate existence as an Artist, Poet and Mystic.

Q. How did poetry emerge in your life?
Some of my earliest memories are of my Mother reading me poetry.  We moved quickly from Dr. Seuss to Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling.  My Father quoted Shakespeare and Omar Khayyam.  A love of poetry seems inescapable.

Q.  What is the source of your inspiration?
The poet Mary Oliver has some beautiful words “… I do not know how to pray but I know how to pay attention.”   My poetry is driven by image, feeling and phrase.  Paying attention in this numinous world helps fill in the spaces when I work on a poem.  Nature and art are wonderful sources of inspiration.  As a Mystic, you can sense everything is connected, as a Poet you find the thread, the vibration, the beat.

Q. What is your process?
I have a practice where I write at least one poem a month.  I write in a leaping style called the american ghazal, six stanzas, each stanza is 3 lines of 12 syllables.  Each stanza also has to be a stand-alone poem.  The style is leaping because each stanza is its own story and the next stanza leaps to a new topic yet there are threads that hold the whole poem together.  I first discovered this style in the work of Robert Bly.  I have been working in this form for almost ten years and have had this poetry practice since early 2006.  As for process, each poem is different, there is no formula.  You have to stay with the creative process, pay attention.  Sometimes a poem is crafted from fragments, other times a poem flows start to finish.  I work with pen and paper as well as keyboard and software.  Some times back and forth.  I keep a notebook/sketchbook, I think that is important. I sometimes say I write for my sanity and the pleasure of my friends.  This creative habit has become a spiritual practice.

Q. In your book of poetry “Night, Mystery & Light” you seem to pose questions to yourself.  How do you describe the questioner? Jim?
The ghazal poetic form allows the final stanza to refer to the poet.  I often do this in the form of a question.  This brings the poet into the poem, down to earth so to speak, with the reader.  The poets Hazif and Ghalib are very good as this.  Now the reader is listening in on a sort of conversation, personal and yet transpersonal.  The “questioner” can be the poem itself, the reader, the Divine, just a Friend.  And as for “Jim,” “James K.” & “J.K.” they are all me.

Q. Your work almost always contains both the mundane and divine—why contrast these worlds?

The Mundane and the Divine are close together, even interwoven.  A common response is to focus on one at the expense of the other.  Both are important.  Zen masters bow to honor the dust and in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says “split a log, turn over a rock, I am there.”  The ghazal form allows me to move between these worlds.  I am searching for the balance between the Mundane and the Divine that opens more possibilities.

Q. I know this is like asking which of your children is your favorite, but which poem do you personally find the most powerful, and why?
I see my poems as my old friends rather than my children.  An exciting aspect about “Night, Mystery & Light” is that the poetry collection is a sort of eclectic gathering of friends.  They all know me but do not know each other. As I perform poetry readings I am discovering these friendships all over again and learning the best way to introduce these friends to the audience.
As for the most powerful poem for me, I will give you three friends:  “… the sinking.” & “…never dance.” & “…silvery face.”  I have been starting poetry readings with “… the sinking.”  I will probably always read these three poems in any poetry performance.  These three have a balance and flow and energy that just spills over at the end, with the earlier stanzas still in ripples.

Q. I lingered on the phase “Can you savor the sweetness of uncertainty?” in the poem "…and seed."  Can you tell me more about what this poem means to you?
This poem begins and ends with references to the Romantic English poet/painter/composer William Blake.  Blake’s genius is all about possibilities and moving beyond traditional boundaries.  He has a beautiful short poem about creativity and a once blighted tree.
Debby you have found the power-line in that poem.  “Can you savor the sweetness of uncertainty?”  We need to say:  “YES.”  You never know it all and you never will but you can always learn more.  “Savoring the sweetness” because there is always more, uncertainty and questioning leads to more.  A life compared to the whole of human history, compared to the history of the Universe.  Then from “the verse” to the Multi-verse.  Not a sense of more in terms of possessions or experiences but in terms of wholeness and union.
The poem flows to an end “Remember that you are blossom, fruit and seed.” and so not an end but a beginning.  All of nature is transformational, beautiful but not easy.  Even when you dare “read the directions” things do not turn out.  “Rediscovery is always on the agenda,” so “add to the madness.”  Many since Blake have considered him a mad man.  Nevertheless we all can “…hold infinity in the palm of your hands” as Blake proclaims.

Q. What other creative outlets do you have?

I am a glass artist.  Color, light and form are the inspirations there.  I am also a book artist and make handmade journals.  My inspirations there are historic bindings of the first books crafted by artisans for scholars.  I have been a glass artist for about ten years and have pieces in two local galleries and my works have appeared in several juried shows over the years and won a few awards.  On the book arts side, I have mostly made works as gifts and taught classes.  It has been only the past year or so that I have actually made journals for my own use.


Q. Who are your favorite artists and why?
I will use artist broadly and include poets & writers.  Let’s start with poets: the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca; the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz; and Robert Bly, a living American Treasure.  They all have a depth and a spirit that allows the poem to resonate and then linger.  Their poems are all powerful when read aloud.  As for writers, I have been reading a lot of H. P. Lovecraft.  He adores language and the non-linear narrative and most of his stories end, well let’s just say I am glad I am not one of his characters.  As for artists, Dale ChihulyMagrittePicasso and Dali.  Dali and Magritte are surrealists, as much interested in language and the unconscious as painting.  They are very technically proficient and dared explore images of unreality.  Picasso was a powerful creative, unstoppable, worked into his nineties.  Dale Chihuly is the champion of glass art and continues to push and inspire that medium on grand scale.

Q. What is your favorite music and why?
I am listening to Azam Ali.  She is Iranian, raised in India and lives in America.  She mixes cultures and traditions, ancient and modern.  Azam Ali has an incredible, haunting voice and is often featured in movie soundtracks.  Also on the music side let’s add The BoDeansDepeche Mode and James.  These three bands have great lyrics and I have enjoyed them in concert.  I am also a fan of the ambient music artist Steve Roach.

Q. When people buy your book, read your poems, what will they know about you?
That I believe in the human creative spirit.  That I believe that living an authentic life is a struggle but not a burden.  That I believe the Other World is close by.  That I love literature and the arts.  That I believe the Soul is indestructible and worth seeking.

Q. What question do you wish people would ask you?
“Do I have to understand everything about a particular poem to enjoy or experience it?”  And my answer is NO.  Even I do not understand everything that is in a poem and I am the author.  Nothing is more awe-inspiring for me than for a reader to find hidden threads and meanings in my work, things not obvious to me.  This has happened more than once and gives me the shudders, and reminds me maybe that is why I write poems.

Q. Where can we find you online?
I have a blog on WordPress, I would encourage your readers to subscribe.  The blog is called “Night, Mystery and Light” and that is where my monthly poems now appear. I will also post works in progress and prior art on the blog.  Your readers can Subscribe or Friend me on Facebook.

Q. How can people buy “Night, Mystery & Light?”
They can purchase the collection at the Hiraeth Press website.  Hiraeth Press is home to many fine poets and writers and I am honored to be part of that small press.  Please look over their whole catalog.  The collection is also available online at Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble.  If you want author signed copies of the poetry collection please contact me directly by email for purchase.

Q. What is your philosophy of life in 12 words or less?
“The future is a strange and wonderful place. I will meet you there!”
I hope 13 words are OK. 

I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. And I also hope you consider J.K.'s wonderful collection of poetry for yourself and your friends. When is the last time you were given a gift of poetry--how wonderful would that be.

There are several poems that resonated with me, in particular ...and lose, ...and the playwright, ...and seed, and ...arrives soon. You can see a preview of Night, Mystery & Light here. What do you think? Which poem moves you?

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