- What are the origins of Anti-Heroin Chic? When did you first decide to create a literary magazine?
James: I think, in a lot of ways, the origins for Anti-Heroin Chic were born out of a yearning for community. I didn’t necessarily feel part of one at that time, and sometimes the best thing you can do when you feel that way, is to just be the thing you feel is missing, in your life and in the world. My initial vision was for a literary journal that shared a very common core with 12 step recovery meetings, where people from very different walks of life could all sit, side by side, in a circle of caring and sharing. A place where, as a friend of mine used to say; “our differences make no damn difference.” And on the heels of my time spent in Occupy Wall Street, I also wanted to be able to mirror some of the egalitarian ways of being together that I found there, which is why I likened it to the spirit of a commune. You know, honestly, some days it feels like group therapy. It’s amazing how I can be going through something really intense in my own life and then I’ll receive a submission from someone who opens their heart to me in their cover letter, a stranger going through the same damn thing, and in their poem is their heart speaking to my heart, and in some inexplicable way that encounter seems to make a difference in the lives of two people who’ve never even met before. I feel extraordinarily lucky in that way. But I also know we only ever get what we put out on the table. That’s what I was looking for around 2016, and I am very happy to say I found it. It is community, but it feels like there should be another word for it also.
- How long have you been writing poetry? When did you become serious with writing and interest in helping in other writers?
James: I began writing poems when I was around 13. I remember I had come across some poems in a Rolling Stone Magazine, written by death row inmates, who had turned to poetry as a way to cope and make sense of their impossible situation. My household, and my neighborhood, were both very chaotic and violent, and I remember thinking; “if this thing could help them, maybe it could help me too.” And it has. Who can say for sure what saves us in the end, but my bet is that I would not have made it without poetry in my life. As to when I became serious about writing, well, I was institutionalized for two years when I was sixteen, it was a serious moment in my life, where I had little else but the poems, and I think that moment was do or die for me, really. The urge to help other writers began around 2016. But the urge to help people in general, that began in a jail cell at age 16, when I wrote a poem called “The turning of the tables,” and my cellmate cried reading it and copied it down so that he could carry it with him. Sadly, he didn’t make it, and ended up taking his own life. In so many ways I often feel like I’m still writing all of my poems to him. A little light, in a lot of darkness. But that was the moment I realized that I (or the poems, really) had the ability to touch lives, to help those in great pain feel understood and held in it.
- What do you find most rewarding when putting an issue together, what do you find most frustrating?
James: I put together a very special issue on grief and loss a couple of years ago, after my Grandmother died, (I had cared for her in hospice during her final days,) and was completely undone in my grief. Unanchored and adrift, I really didn’t know day from night then. All I knew was I didn’t want to be alone in it. My thought was that a lot of people probably yearned, just like I did, to share their grief as well in a community space. That issue was the most rewarding and meaningful issue I’ve ever curated. That was a real turning point for me as an editor. I realized then that what I was aiming for was a shared and collective healing process over all else. When that’s your focus, the frustrating parts kind of just roll off of you like water. Each issue feels very therapeutic to me, to our contributors, and to our readers. It’s hard work to put the issues together, of course, and before each launch, I am quite literally spent, but the joy, healing, and hope that gets spread around from it, my God, makes it all worth it.
- How often do you put issues out, and do you change thematically between issues?
James: We currently put out 6 issues a year, in the months of February, April, June, August, October and December. The themes are always guided by the contributors, but tend to be about addiction, mental illness, poverty, working class issues, trauma, abuse, recovery, and hope. My co-editors have a big hand in helping to shape each issue also, my main contribution is our poetry category, as I want my co-editors to feel they have complete autonomy in selecting what resonates with them. It’s really astounding, organically the issues seem to always be what they need to be. Often, I just have to get out of the way of whatever force brings all of that together.
- Tell us more about your own work? How often do you write, and tell us about your book/books.
James: Most of my work centers around many of the same themes explored in Anti-Heroin Chic. My first book, This Someone I Call Stranger, was a loosely autobiographical book of poems that delved into my childhood experiences around poverty, abuse, parental addiction, institutionalization, and the ways in which we find our “homes at the edge of the world,” how often our families of choice, much as we would have wanted them to be, are not always our families of origin. My second book, All Things Beautiful Are Bent, forthcoming from Alien Buddha Press soon, is a themed book of love poems which imagines two lovers with deep trauma in their lives, trying to sort out ways to love each other that unburden the past from the present, and go forward in new and more vulnerable ways. I imagine it as a book where two people’s inner children speak to the goodness we all once were, irregardless of all that may have gone wrong along the way. Another collection that I am still sending around to publishers, called Motel Prayers, is a very character driven work that tries to tell the slightly fictionalized stories, in poem form, of the people I have known, who, as Carson McCullers’ puts it; “found it hard to live and therefore had to live a little harder.” Most of my recent poems are centered around addiction, as my little brother battles an intense meth addiction and bouts of homelessness, the only thing that I have in my tool box that helps me move through the ‘living loss’ of that are poems that speak to the fact that, where there is life, there is hope.
- What authors, poets, musicians, artists have helped shape your mind & work?
James: Joyce Carol Oates was probably the first to impact me as a writer, along with the poet Jorie Graham. But long before I was a reader of books I was a reader of song lyrics. I was very lucky to come of age in a time when singer-songwriters ruled the air waves. I learned to write from them, really. Songwriters like Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, Cheryl Wheeler, Julie Miller, John Gorka, Natalie Merchant, Paula Cole and so many more. Folk music is definitely the closest thing to poetry, I think, and having it in my life at such an early age really helped me to fall deeply in love with what words could do. In my early to mid 20’s, outlaw literature was my steady diet. Authors like Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, kathe Koja, Jack Micheline, Miguel Pinero, Samuel R. Delaney, Doug Rice, Lydia Lunch, Pierre Guyotat. My anger probably very much needed these authors to help find ways to ‘scream it out’ onto the page. Suffice it to say though I have mellowed out quite a bit in my late 30’s. I am back to where I started these days, reading mostly Joyce Carol Oates and Jorie Graham.
- What are some of your hobbies, what keeps you creative & interested in putting together poetry & mags?
James: Music and films are my biggest hobbies. I used to love going to live music shows back when the world was somewhat normal. I enjoy photography, though I am by no means a photographer, I do like to capture things that most people might ignore around the city. I began making art collages a few years ago, which I really enjoyed and allowed me to tap back into some of my early and darker influences. It helped me to deal with my depression in ways the poems couldn’t and they reflect just how dark my head was becoming. I’ve also enjoyed putting together interviews for Anti-Heroin Chic, which allowed me to learn a lot about things I didn’t really know beforehand, like the world of comedy and visual art. I was also able to find that I had a real knack for live conversation that I didn’t really know was there. I tend to be pretty introverted, but interviewing people, at least by phone, forced me to improvise and take risks. I learn a lot about myself through others. The interviews have been sort of therapeutic for me in that way as well. They keep me curious, which is probably the main ingredient in staying creative.
- What styles of writing do you prefer engaging in?
James: Confessional, I guess. I used to be much more experimental and Language poetry oriented, but it didn’t allow me to go deep enough really, or to the heart of the matter. Something Jorie Graham says about knowing when a poem is ready is that one should test it against one’s own pulse, and when it matches, there you go. Part of it is that I feel a lot more grounded in my own life today, thanks to a lot of therapy, and so I feel like I’m in this season of my life where I kind of know what I want to say in ways that weren’t always possible for me. I’m still learning what this strange expression known as poetry is. It’s like a conveyor belt of despair and hope. Most days you’re working with both. How do you make room for it? Well, I’m learning to invite it all in. Style is probably just listening to where we’ve been and telling that story.
- Have hometowns, vacations, people influenced your work?
James: Hometowns, definitely. I grew up in the south, in not so happy places. I try to tell the stories of the people I’ve known and been. The people that have influenced me the most though are less poets than they are the one’s in healing professions. Case workers, respite providers, therapists, psych ward staff, art therapists, special ed teachers and guidance counselors; I am a legacy of these people who held me up when I could not walk emotionally or psychically. They were the first people to take real, genuine interest in my writing and encourage me to not give up on it. The biggest debt in my heart goes out to them.
- How has the pandemic and lockdown effected your work?
James: Well, I got Covid last April and the long haul effects of the virus took a toll on me. I’m getting better, but I still have days of brain fog and weakness, and I have some other health issues that have stemmed from Covid that I’m still getting treatment for (but not much answers.) It can be hard to write when all these weird things are happening to your body that no one can seem to explain, but I’ve managed to write some things I’m proud of, despite it all. I just have to know there are days when I can’t function at full capacity.
- Please leave any promotions for your work, social media, blogs, etc.
James: I have a new book, All Things Beautiful Are Bent, coming out soon from Alien Buddha Press, you can follow them on Twitter @thealienbuddha. My first book, This Someone I Call Stranger, is available from Indolent Books and Amazon. You can follow me on Twitter @diaz_james and you can follow Anti-Heroin Chic @Heroin_Chic_Mag. Visit our website for the work that we do there, and my own personal website for more on my work.
Thank you so much David!
photo by James Diaz on his website https://jamesjdiaz.weebly.com