Interviewed by Jasmine Ferrufino Editor in Chief at Chaotic Merge
Jasmine Ferrufino: What would you love your audience to know about you that you might not express in your writing that often?
James B. Nicola: Oh, I host the writer’s circle at the local library branch on 51st and 10th avenue, on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month, from 1:00 to 3:00 pm, and it’s all genres. People can walk in off the street. It’s a safe, supportive and productive environment. So all the feedback is of a certain nature. And we sometimes have guest poets from New York and outside of New York, but that’s what I’d like people to know. Come to the writers’ circle, share your writing, and if you don’t want to present something, we do an in-house exercise, get your blood going or juices going, and you can just listen and or share a piece from someone else’s work that you love.
JF: There are many new/ arising creatives out there, but I wonder how your specific process works and if you have any advice for them.
JBN: Be an autodidact! Remember, Shakespeare only attended school until sixth to eighth grade, August Wilson till ninth grade, and Frederick Douglass had no schooling & was self-taught. So find out everything you can that they’re not teaching you. And remember, if you’re in a creative group, even ours, most of the feedback is from nonwriters. Therefore, what are you going to do with it? That’s up to you. That’s a hard thing to swallow, but you have to have higher standards for yourself than they have for you.
JF: Do you have a certain setup before writing? (Example: Do you wake up at 5 am? Do you have to make coffee before? Do you write random lines until you finally get going?)
JBN: All of that is in the past, and now I spend more time rewriting than writing, but when I get an idea or something, whether it’s a catchphrase or an idea that would be a good poem, short story, or an article, I’ll write those things down, and when they burn, I write. And then, because I’m in the zone, I can do nothing else. And now I also love taking little notebooks to strange places, like if I’m going on a subway or meeting someone for a show, I’ll just bring it.
JF: If you had one sentence/fact to describe you and your life, what would it be?
JBN: “Let’s go, people.”
JF: What made you want to write Wisteria and the Whale: Synchronicity, Serendipity, and Hope during the Plague, and how do you think it has evolved to the version it is?
JBN: I was actually saying to somebody that a friend of mine saw a whale here yesterday and to keep their eyes out, and as I was speaking, there it was! That was sort of synchronicity. And then, later, I witnessed the Wisteria tree in total bloom. I finally saw there were no vines climbing it. So for the first time, I told myself, “Okay, you are a wisteria tree.” Then that very day, for no reason, I went on a different route that took me to this other Wisteria tree in full bloom that was almost as big, that I’d never seen before ever in my 42 years of living in New York City. I couldn’t believe it; that was too much of a coincidence.
As for the form that it took, well, we talked about this on the phone, too, about the peripatetic structure, so it’s in a “taking a walk” structure that is not typical, and to try to keep it interesting, I had to reveal things that were not just the episodic facts of these various walks but numerous things I’d seen in my life as well as during the pandemic. It was challenging to keep someone turning the page when it wasn’t building to a climax. I’m telling you, all these things are going to happen one after the other in no particular order, but I have to keep you involved. That was the task. So the structure is almost like a poetry collection where, you know, a sequence of events.
JF: Wisteria and the Whale: Synchronicity, Serendipity, and Hope during the Plague has many references to NYC and nature. Can you speak on how you got interested in these topics/locations?
JBN: I was always a nature buff. In second grade, I published a poem about my home city, Worcester, Massachusetts. By fifth grade, I was published in the paper about saving the marshes. I would also take pictures in the woods of waterfalls and trees in New England, which is still stunning. As for New York, it’s because I’ve lived here for so long. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve lived in this apartment longer than half my life. Now I go, “How’d that happen?” One of my favorite things to do, if someone’s in from out of town, is to go for a walk with no place to go. So you turn a corner, never turn, and go, “wow, I didn’t know this was here.” I especially appreciate the parks so much, the sort of wild setup of them. You know, the winding and the bridges are all different– it’s great to get lost in.
Who is James B. Nicola?
James B. Nicola’s poems have appeared in the Antioch, Southwest and Atlanta Reviews; Rattle; and Barrow Street. His full-length collections (2014-21) are Manhattan Plaza, Stage to Page, Wind in the Cave, Out of Nothing, Quickening, and Fires of Heaven. His nonfiction book Playing the Audience won a Choice award. His poetry has received a Dana Literary Award, two Willow Review awards, Storyteller’s People’s Choice award, and eight Pushcart nominations—for which he feels both stunned and grateful.