A Poet in the Time of COVID-19: IG Book Chat with James Schwartz

*transcript from IG Book Chat 6/2020* 

If you have never read James Schwartz you should. Having finished his minor masterpiece The Literary Party: Growing Up Gay and Amish in America (2011) and his most recent chapbook Punatic (2019) I have a deep appreciation of his brilliance *read his sonnets!*, somewhat overshadowed by the gay Amish label. There are no LGBT ex-Amish poets out there putting him in a very unique literary position. Following the 2011 publication of The Literary Party Schwartz was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and received accolades from the literary community. 

Nearly a decade would pass before his 'comeback' although Schwartz continued to write short indie collections - Arrival & Departure appeared in 2014 followed by Secular Satirical & Sacred Meditations and his poetry has appeared in over 25 anthologies (Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience, QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman from the prestigious Squares & Rebels Press). 

He has dabbled in short stories, essays, microchaps (Alpine Suite, Michigan Meditations) and visual poetry along the way as well as spoken word and slams. 
Last year he made his overdue return to the forefront with Punatic, a compilation of Big Island photography, Hawaiian inspired poems where he lived until recently, the Lovejets anthology, poetry slam sets and an appearance in the Nā Leo TV documentary film From Pahoa with Lava 4. Schwartz credits living in 'the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii' and a book by Hank Wesselman The Bowl of Light for his liberation.

While his Amish heritage is inevitably mentioned in passing it is not his focus which I found interesting. A Google search for Amish writers will bring up a litany of tortured memoirs by conservatives which contrasts with Schwartz who credits Arthur Rimbaud and Hart Crane as his idols. 

I caught up with Schwartz, 42, on my Insta Book Chat for all things literary, Amish and more:

KS: Hi James! Thanks for joining us this morning!

JS: Thank you for your offer! I read your post on Proust which I loved. I can remember reading Proust for the first time feeling lost at sea! It took me awhile to understand his genius like Shakespeare. I spent many years on the Amish farm self-educating myself in the classics. I've read everything. 

KS: What writers and poets inspired you?

JS: Arthur Rimbaud and Hart Crane are idols. Oscar Wilde, Christopher Isherwood, Paul Bowles, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, so many... I am in awe of Jericho Brown and Tommy Pico.

KS: Do you read any Amish writers?

JS: Where are they? (laughter) I confess I do not. I was happy to leave the Amish and I do not romanticize that life. It is a hard, thankless, fearful existence I wouldn't wish on anyone! You are literally used by the church and spat out. Many people in the church long to leave but cannot so when people ask me if the Amish are a cult...well... (laughter) They are European colonizers on stolen Native American land. 

KS: Could you elaborate?

JS: Could I?! All day long! (laughter) Well, Amish are very sheltered people. They are denied many of their human rights by the church which is led by ignorant men. Education is limited, there is no exposure to the arts which factored into my own rebellion and there is a homogenous, herd mentality thing going on. Visit any Amish Facebook page and you'll understand. On top of that there are a lot of right-wing conservative groups influencing the Amish which is a tragedy as early Anabaptists were quite knowledgeable and radical. The Anabaptists were rebelling against the Catholic church but today are very similar and growing more so. Lots of shunning! Women and LGBT Amish have no rights whatsoever. 

KS: You are the first ex-Amish to march for LGBT Amish in a Gay Pride parade. What was that like? 

JS: Magical! It was time! I had to throw that fucking brick, metaphorically speaking. 

KS: Good for you! Was there pushback from the Amish?

JS: Oh my God! Some of the Bishops felt so threatened they preached sermons against me! Drama queens! (laughter) 

KS: Do you see any change happening?

JS: I'm sure there is on some level. Amish have cell phones now so they can educate themselves but for the most part this has led to a more solidified, fundamentalist position. FOX News is big in the Amish communities even though officially you're not supposed to consume media beyond the newspapers. 

KS: There have been recent articles on widespread abuse within the Amish. Do you see any change happening there? 

JS: Hard to say as they are segregated from society in general but there are resources available through LGBTAmish.com and the Amish Heritage Foundation. There is more sexual, physical and mental abuse then most people realize. 
When I was a kid I played with matches and almost burned the milkhouse down. My brother beat me up, I had to go to the hospital but I couldn't talk about it. It was hushed up, typical of the Amish! 

KS: All children can be naughty, but that is definitely abuse! I'm sorry to hear that. Are you on better terms with your family today?

JS: Where are they? (laughter) I learned a long time ago not to count on them for any type of support. After my father passed away my siblings were out for blood. I didn't join their churches, I wasn't interested in their lives and so we lost touch. Thank God for my chosen family! 

KS: You went from the Amish community to the Gay community. I just love that! (laughter) 

JS: You got to spread your faerie wings and fly! I loved the club kid phase of my life which was basically my 20s and early 30s. I still love a night out but at the moment not possible.

KS: You are in an a new international anthology titled Poetry in the Time of Coronavirus, are you going to write more on this? 

JS: This is our new reality, life in a pandemic. I hope to have another book out by next year, possibly my last! We are in a pandemic! I am called an "essential worker" but it is also called "human capitalist stock"! Who knows what the future holds... or doesn't! If the end is near so be it, I am going out with a bang! (laughter) 

KS: James, you are essential! I hope you're around for a long time and will produce more books. The Amish need to hear your voice as do we all!

JS: Sweet of you to say! I have a manuscript in progress so we'll see.

KS: I was actually reading your blog last night, I love the Andrew Yang content. He's a brilliant mind!

JS: Absolutely. Make America Think Harder! 

KS: Who are you supporting for the Presidency? It's an election year so I have to bring up politics! (laughter) 

JS: It's ok, of course I don't support the current occupant, but the Black Lives Matter movement is beyond inspiring. I am hopeful for the future. Yang 2024! 

KS: You are in Olympia Washington now, will you stay there or go back to Hawaii or the Midwest? 

JS: Who knows what the future holds but I am ok with everything being up in the air. Nothing is ever set in stone and I love traveling. 

KS: Thanks James! 

You can find more on James Schwartz's writings at Headline Poetry & Press and  The Good Men Project