with John W. Leys
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
John: I’ve been making up stories, though not always writing them down, for as long as I can remember. Mostly these took the form of what would now be termed “Fan-Fic” in that I would make up stories about characters from books/TV shows that I loved.
I first started writing poetry when I was a freshman in high school (around 1987-ish). Initially it began as the urge to try and write songs. I had just been introduced to musicians/songwriters such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan and was so affected by their songs that it made me want to create my own. The big problem at the time was the only instrument I played was a saxophone in the school band & I had no idea how to write music. The solution came in my Freshman English class, in which we had an assignment to write a poem. This was revelatory to me, I had never considered writing poetry before, but once the idea hit me I was lost forever.
My earliest influences were songwriters like: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Pete Townshend & poets I discovered in school, or by browsing the poetry section of my local used bookstore: Lord Byron, Erica Jong, Catullus, John Keats, TS Eliot, and others.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
John: Its hard to narrow down to just one, I feel like I have so many influences, since I try to leave myself open to inspiration from any source. Ultimately, I’d have to say that in recent years Allen Ginsberg has been a huge influence through his style of free verse, which relies on irregular natural rhythms of the language to drive the poem along. I have also been influenced by his often-repeated philosophical notion that a poet should be authentic and true to themselves above all else.
Another recent influence on my work has been ancient and medieval poetry, specifically that dealing with legendary/mythological themes. I’ve been interested in mythology my whole life. In fact, my most recent book is a collection of mythologically inspired poetry. A lot of mythological sources are written in verse (Illiad, Odyssey, the Eddas, et al.) and, even reading in translations, I’ve absorbed a lot of the techniques of these ancient poets. Old English, Norse, and medieval Welsh poetry doesn’t usually rhyme. Those poets relied on other poetic devises when writing their verse, such as meter, alliteration, kennings, and so forth. Especially since writing a books worth of poetry based on these traditions, I’ve found some of these techniques bleeding over into my “normal” poetry.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your work? Have any travels away from home influence your work?
John: I grew up in Albany, Oregon, which is a small-ish town in the Willamette Valley. I’m sure it had some sort of influence, but none that spring to mind.
I’ve travelled around quite a lot in my adult life. I joined the US Army right out of High School and was stationed in Germany and Ft Sam Houston, TX. After the Army I lived for a while in Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York City. In general, I’d say it influenced my work by giving me a different perspective on the world, exposing me to different points of view and cultures.
Q4: What do you consider the most meaningful work that you’ve done creatively so far?
John: That’s a tough one, but the first thing that comes to mind is my poem ‘Kaddish for Karen Leys,’ which I wrote for my mom after she died in 2018. The seed of the poem was planted as I wrote her eulogy, I just kept feeling like there was so much more that I needed to say. So I took the eulogy, sprinkled a little inspiration from Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish,’ which he wrote after his mother died, and wrote for days. The finished poem is 7 typewritten pages long and really crystalizes what my Mom meant to me. I chose it as the final poem in my first book, The Darkness of His Dreams: Poetry, which I published the following year.
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
John: It really all goes back to that writing assignment in high school. That was the moment when I realized that poetry was my “thing.” I began writing more and more, reading and absorbing as much poetry as I could. From that moment on I viewed myself as a writer and a poet, even during times in my life when I wasn’t writing that much, that’s always how I’ve seen myself.
Honestly, I don’t think it’s a matter of me “wanting to be a poet,” its just a fact of who I am.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
John: The obvious answer is reading, which I’m sure I have in common with most writers. But next to that my favorite activity, which I do to relax and for pure enjoyment, is playing the ukulele. I first became interested in ukuleles via George Harrison, who was obsessed with them. My folks bought me a cheap little ukulele as a present when they went to Hawaii many years ago and I taught myself how to play it. I now own 8 ukuleles of various sizes and usually play every day just to relax a bit. Sometimes I’ll even just sit and strum while I’m thinking, instead of fidgeting.
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
John: My most recent work is my book Whispers of a One-Eyed Raven: Mythological Poetry, which was published last November, and which is available from all the major on-line book retailers. It’s a collection of poetry based on and inspired by mythology (primarily Norse and Celtic). There’s more information, as well as purchasing links, on the book’s page on my website: https://johnwleys.com/whispers-of-a-one-eyed-raven-mythological-poetry-2020/
Another recent project that I’m very excited about is Through The Looking Glass: Reflecting on Madness and Chaos Within, an anthology from Indie Blu(e) Publishing on which I served as a guest editor and a contributor. The theme of the anthology is writing, poetry, and art from writers and artists with mental illnesses, writing about their experiences. It’s a project I’ve been looking forward to reading since the idea was mentioned to me a year or so ago, and was blown away when my dear friend and co-founder of Indie Blu(e), Kindra Austin, asked me to join the editorial team for the project, which consisted of myself, Kindra, Christine E Ray, Candice Louisa Daquin, and Marcia Weber. We received an incredible volume of brilliant submissions by some of the most talented and brave writers/poets/artists across the globe. The finished anthology contains the work of 158 writers and artists and is available from most online retailers, including Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1951724089/
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
That’s a tough question. At the moment these verses from my poem ‘Myrddin Wyllt,’ from Whispers of a One-Eyed Raven, are among my favorites that I’ve written:
Where soldiers were slain, I have stood,
From Camlann to Arfderydd.
Arthur lies in Avalon
Under Morgan’s healing hands.
Gwenddoleu lies in his grave
Under a cold Carnedd of stones.
I hide, a hunted man,
Among the apple trees.
For great oak groves I searched,
To divine truth as in days of old.
Why was I left behind
By the raven hoard of Annwfn?
Why am I alone not allowed to die?
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
John: The first name that comes to mind is Kindra M Austin, a poet I met through our WordPress blogs about 5 years ago. She’s given me some great feedback on poems I was struggling with, for one reason or another. I trust her to tell me the truth, which is important because I usually don’t believe people when they praise my work. She’s also good at offering suggestions without imposing her own style/voice onto the work. Her belief in my work has gone a long way toward boosting my self confidence.
Poem “It’s Getting Darker” by John W. Leys in Avalanches in Poetry Writings & Art Inspired by Leonard Cohen