Local author James Leader on ‘High Talk,’ his recently published poetry collection that represents a life’s work, his inspiration, and what makes for good art.

Having spent much of his early adulthood living in different countries and learning languages, James Leader moved to Luxembourg in 2000 and has been teaching at the European School of Luxembourg since then. A writer of both poetry and fiction, his novel “The Venus Zone” won first place in the 2016 Luxembourg Literary Contest, and one of his short stories placed second in 2012.

Between teaching, raising two daughters with his wife René, and running in the woods, Leader has found time to put together a collection of poems, “High Talk,” which has recently been published by Editions Phi. The collection, which contains several award-winning poems, represents several decades of work by a dedicated poet who shows deep respect for the tradition yet imbues many of his poems with refreshing humor.

Is there an overall arc in “High Talk” in terms of themes, voice, or style?

I used to write fairly simple lyrics, such as in the oldest poem in the book, “Sleeping with Friends,” which is near the beginning. It’s very much one singular voice, which is me. Over the years, I started experimenting with a more dramatic style. That use of dramatic voice is probably the biggest change since I began. I don’t automatically feel that I need to write in my voice.

Your poems are generally structured in classical forms such as the sonnet. Why do such forms appeal to you?

I love the idea of being part of a tradition, to incorporate the words and forms of previous generations.

Sonnets bring certain expectations, and they create certain resistances, which are very useful. With free verse, there isn’t enough resistance. Forms create surprises, and you find yourself asking, what’s he going to do with that? For me, there is an element of magic, of conjuring, which creates pleasure. Frost said that free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Sonnets are also easier to memorize, which is something I ask my kids at school to do.

One sonnet that’s in the collection that I’m quite proud of is “Empty Nesting”; it’s about the lies parents tell themselves to try and believe their children haven’t really left home. Another sonnet is “High Talk”. Both don’t immediately jump out at the reader as sonnets, and I like that surprise element: “Oh, it’s a sonnet. Cool, I didn’t see that at first.”

How have your travels inspired your poetry?

Almost always I come back with some idea for a poem, based on where we’ve been. I try to write poems that are in the voice of a person who lives in the place we’re visiting. One of the best poems I’ve written is called “Roger, Rudjar, Ruggero,” which is in the collection. We were in Sicily, walking along Corso Ruggero, which translates as Roger’s Street. I was intrigued, so I read about this guy Roger, and it turns out he was a Norman king around the same time as the Norman Conquest.

I got very interested in the idea of a Norman king working with Muslim builders in an Italian culture, and these three different languages and cultures living together, and him being changed by the experience, which inspired the poem. It’s actually a very Luxembourgish poem. It’s about adding different cultures to your own identity. In the end, he doesn’t know which exactly he is anymore, the Norman Roger, the Muslim Rudjar, or the Italian Ruggero. The inspiration for that poem was living in Luxembourg and being European, English, and American (a culture I’ve added on because my wife is American, and we lived in the U.S. for a time).

As you grew up in England, how is your Englishness present in your poetry?

The third section of the book deals quite explicitly with Englishness. It begins with “After the Bombings,” which is about the July 2005 bombings in London. This is followed by “Sunday Cricket,” which is about English values. I really like this poem because there is something wonderful about English cricket and how very boring, tolerant, and amateur it is – and how encompassing. I’m marginally involved in the cricket scene in Luxembourg, and you’ll see games with 13-year-old boys and wheezing, asthmatic old men, and they are all playing together. For me, the seventh and eighth verses* sum up the good part of Englishness, and I often find that at the cricket pitch. The next poem is “Elegy for England” which talks about how old people in English no longer want to be mature and enforce moral rules. It's kind of a free for all, everybody trying to be cool and pick up young girls. That poem is fairly savage and satirical about England.

Overall, Englishness figures into my poetry in several ways. One way is humor. I think English poetry (and English literature in general) is different from all other literature that I know in that it’s funnier. Humor is accepted and appreciated in English literature in a way that it isn’t in most other cultures, particularly in poetry. I would also argue that Englishness can also be seen in the poetic tradition in which I’m writing. You’ll hear echoes of other English poets. The volume concludes with a poem spoken in the voice of John Milton. There are also allusions to Larkin, Auden, and Eliot.

Some of the themes that appear frequently in your poems are bodies, lust, nature, seasons, love, and allusions to both classical works and deities as well as paganism. How do you see these various themes connecting with each other?

I have a pagan way of looking at the world. I tried to be a Buddhist, and I used to be a Christian. Both left me dissatisfied because I think they don’t honor the created world enough, the world of the body, the world of pleasure and nature. They’re both in rebellion against the created world. I think I’m much closer to the Greek tradition, which of course is a pagan tradition, wherein man is part of nature and our desires are fundamentally good, and the body is fundamentally good. I think our civilization has gone profoundly wrong, and we’ve been out of balance for the last 2000 years.

A lot of the poems are looking for moments when we are connected to nature, or where we are connected to other people. One title for the collection I was using for a long time was “Twin Beds,” based on a poem in the collection that was inspired by being with my wife in Portugal. Instead of being in a double bed, we were put in twin beds. I woke up at four o’clock in the morning and reached out for her, but she wasn’t there, and there was this panic. That’s a key poem for me. The reason I was going to call the collection “Twin Beds” is because a lot of the poems have this search for connection between one person and another, animals, or nature.

For me, some of the most important things in life are love, sex, and humor. Those all involve a connection between people. When you look at the monotheisms, they’ve got no place for humor. I hope people will find my collection of poetry funny. There’s a lot of humor in it, which I think is very important, especially in a world that can be somewhat of a dark place at times. I have no desire to engage with art that simply reflects back the chaos and despair. I think you need to go beyond that.

Could you tell us about a poem in the collection which is particularly important to you?

The poem “At Bathtime” is about when I used to have a bath with my daughter every night when she was around one, two, and three months old. That poem has won prizes, and I’ve read it a lot, and many people have loved it. It’s not the technically best poem in the collection, but it does almost everything that I want a poem to do. It’s got humor, and it’s very emotional. I haven’t said this yet, but I think poetry needs to be emotional. That seems like an obvious thing to say, but when I read most contemporary poetry, I find that it’s too cerebral, just as I find most contemporary visual artists too cerebral. It doesn’t have enough impact on the emotion. My poetry aims at people’s hearts as much as their heads. “At Bathtime” was written while I was a new parent, which is a very different place. Raw, vulnerable, and lovely, when you like Disney movies and sentimentality, and that’s all in the poem.

The collection opens with “Sunday Morning Valencia,” a poem which appears to be about youthful lust and the exhilaration of living abroad, and it ends with “Mr. Milton Laments His Late Wife.” Could you explain this choice?

I have in mind that I will return to England and maybe die there, so you could argue that the trajectory of the collection goes from this young Englishman discovering abroad, living through a lifetime mostly abroad, and then possibly returning to England at the end. I wanted to finish with a poem that would go beyond this life into the next life.

Milton was a Christian, and I absolutely don’t share his religion, although I adore him as a poet. But what I do like about Milton’s Christianity is that in “Paradise Lost,” he has angels talking about how they have sex, and I like that idea of an afterlife where you are doing that. The lines in my poem use his language, to an extent. The word at the end, “Reparadis’t,” is a word straight out of Milton. My poem ends with, “And love as angels do, mix and joyn / Body, soul and heart, / Reparadis’t / For all eternity.”

I like the idea of giving the poetry collection the sense that there might be some connection beyond this lifetime, between the two people who have been figuring mostly in it, the love couple. I’m not saying that the love couple is just me and another person, but there is kind of a love couple that goes through most of the collection.

James Leader’s poetry collection “High Talk'' is available at Alinéa, FNAC, and Ernster All English Bookstore, as well as through www.james-leader.com and www.editionsphi.lu.

*‘Give the youngsters all a knock.

It doesn't matter if you win.

Let the old, half-blind, infirm,

Try out their unusual spin.

Drama, climax, and a proper end

You can do without.

Chat with the umpire when you can,

And walk, unprompted, if you’re out.’

“Sunday Cricket,” lines 25-32