James Penha

I have obsessions; I have fears; I have dreams. Mostly, I have questions. Rarely have I deeper meanings or themes or answers. And when I do, I don’t bury them. Whatever satisfaction and fulfillment readers find in my poems emanates, I hope, from the experience etched in them—in the words, the music, the wondering, and wonder.


I often feel more like a jazz singer than a poet. The words denote and imply only insofar as the vocalist improvises a melody, a mood, and a rhythm. Sinatra’s phrasing; Billie’s mimesis. I seek to capture, with the diction and syntax of each poem the sound of speaking and simultaneously the sound of thinking and feeling.

I often feel more like an actor than a poet. I need to think and feel like the speakers of the poems: so many of them lost and helpless, foolish and mean. I need to understand them to play them . . . to give them voice and a chance to redeem themselves.

I often feel more like a painter than a poet. I see what’s horribly and beautifully in front of my eyes—only peripherally visible to passersby—and try to frame those images with colors sometimes bolder than real (sometimes black and white), with a composition that leads an audience in time through a narrative, and with discernible brushstrokes proving that some one, at least, has noticed.

Writing a poem is a strangely selfless act, I think. Although the motivation for starting a poem is often a deeply personal feeling of loss or pain or confusion or joy that must be expressed, the poem will make its own demands on the poet. The poem wants clarity; the poem wants beauty; the poem wants to become a medium through which one individual experience can be communicated over miles and years to be felt by unknown “generations.”  And so the poet must come to care more about the poem than about the intimate emotion that gave it inspiration. In this way, poetry heals–not by disremembering, but rather by revising memory into a palpable presence. One that can be shared. Poetry immortalizes.

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