Episode 11: James Arthur

James Arthur

In the latest episode of the Poetry Centre Podcast, Niall Munro talks to James Arthur.

James was born in Connecticut and grew up in Toronto. His poems have appeared in many magazines and journals, including The New YorkerPoetryThe New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and The Walrus. He has been awarded numerous scholarships and fellowships, such as the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Hodder Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, a Discovery/The Nation Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship to Northern Ireland, and a visiting fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. He lives in Baltimore and teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

James’s first book of poetry Charms Against Lightning, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012, and his chapbook, Hundred Acre Wood, came out in 2018 with Anstruther Press. His second full collection, The Suicide’s Son, was published in spring of 2019 by Véhicule Press in Montreal. There is more about James and his work on his website.

In this podcast, Niall and James discuss knowledge and childhood, living in Canada and the United States, drone warfare, and the experience of being a new parent. In particular, we talk about three of James’s poems: Ode to an EncyclopediaDrone, and Goodnight Moon, all of which you can read below.

Ode to an Encyclopedia

O hefty hardcover on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living room,
O authority on linen paper, molted from your dustjacket,
Questing Beast of blue and gold, you were my companion

on beige afternoons that came slanting through the curtains
behind the rough upholstered chair. You knew how to trim a sail
and how the hornet builds a hive. You had a topographical map

of the mountain ranges on the far side of the moon
and could name the man who shot down the man
who murdered Jesse James. At forty, I tell myself

that boyhood was all enchantment: hanging around the railway,
getting plastered on cartoons; I see my best friend’s father
marinating in a lawn chair, smiling at his son and me

from above a gin and tonic, or perched astride his roof
with carpentry nails and hammer, going at some problem
that kept resisting all his mending. O my tome, my paper brother,

my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram
of a cow broken down into the major cuts of beef,
and an image of the Trevi Fountain. The boarding house,

the church on the corner: all that stuff is gone.
In winter in Toronto, people say, a man goes outside
and shovels snow mostly so that his neighbors know

just how much snow he is displacing. I’m writing this
in Baltimore. For such a long time, the boy wants to grow up
and be at large, but posture becomes bearing;

bearing becomes shape. The man makes a choice
between two countries, believing all the while
that he will never have to choose.

by James Arthur 


I am the drone of a banjo’s fifth string.
I am the drone that gives bottom
to the chanter in a highland fling.

Haw, hum. I am the drone of drone itself,
planted so pleasurably in the mouth.
A monotone. A lodestone. I’m an MQ-9,

a Reaper Drone, ranging wide, circling
in the sky. No windows, no cockpit.
No one onboard. See how my Hellfires

fly faster than sound. I am drone,
from the tymbal under the cicada’s wing.
I gather no pollen, and have no sting.

Arriving unheard, I haunt the sky
and inseminate the queen before I die.
I am a poetry that celebrates power.

I bring. I bring. The white house
is empty. I bomb air. I bomb breath.
My country, ‘tis of thee I sing.

by James Arthur 

Goodnight Moon

I used to be as unsentimental as anyone could be.
Now I’m almost absurd, a clown, carrying you on my shoulders
around and around Palmer Square, through the cold night wind,
as stores lock up, and begin closing down.

Goodnight, fair trade coffee. Goodnight, Prada shoes.
Goodnight soon, my little son.
You’re a toothy, two-foot-something sumo—a giddy, violent elf—
jabbing your finger at the moon,
which you’ve begun noticing in the last week or two. Moom, moom
for you, the word ends with a mumming, as it begins.

For me, beginnings and endings
are getting hard to tell apart. There was another child
your mom and I conceived, who’d now be reading
and teaching you to read—who we threw away
when he or she was smaller than a watermelon seed.

The chairs; the domestic bears; the clocks; the socks;
the house—
once again a strange cow springs
from the green ground, beginning the enormous leap
that will carry her above the moon.

by James Arthur