Checking in with John Casteen IV

What are you working on right now?

I just finished a book that will come out next spring. When I was finishing the book I was working on one poem at a time, start to finish, individually, and I knew when I had to give the manuscript to the editor. So I was working out poems I had in mind for years, but had never felt ready for. So as the due date got closer there was a growing sense of urgency, of now-or-never. You’ve had this idea. Chase it down or don’t act like it’s a real idea. 

That’s different from what’s happening right now. Once I got the manuscript finished I started working much less methodically and in a more diffused way on poems. Probably the last six or seven poems are either in draft or note form and I’m working on a lot of different poems at the same time. It’s very different from what I was doing when I was trying to pound out the poems I had imagined for the book.


Tell us about your day job.

John Casteen IV is pictured with his cat Huck Finn. Casteen, who will release a new book of poetry in the spring, was among the mentors for the Southwood Photo Project, an arts outreach project that produced a book of photographs and poetry, which will be released at The Bridge/PAI on November 1.

My day job during the academic year is teaching writing at Sweet Briar College. My day job during the summer is volunteering. I volunteer through The Bridge. In June, I worked on the Southwood La Finca project, an arts-oriented community outreach through The Bridge. That and taking care of my children is my day job. 


What is your first artistic memory from childhood?

It’s funny you should ask because I’ve been thinking about that in conjunction with the Storyline project. The first artistic memory I have from childhood has to do with rhythm. Two rhythms specifically. One is the rhythm of a basketball on the ball court and the other would be the rhythm that you get from late-’70s, early-’80s hip-hop. Like Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow—people that nobody really thinks about anymore. Those protean songs. In their moment it was so obviously new. When I realized I was being made into an artist, I realized it because other people enjoyed things in a way that I didn’t, and I enjoyed things in a way they didn’t. I was always trying to figure out what I could do that would imitate the rhythm of basketball, or what I could do with language that would have swing like “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa or Rick James, The Ohio Players. For me, the big thing was, when I was a kid on Orangedale Avenue, I realized I could make language do things that music showed me. And that was huge for me.


Favorite artist outside your medium?

Uta Barth. She’s a German photographer. She takes pictures in which the photograph is all background, no foreground. The thing that would ordinarily be there—the object of desire—has been taken out of the image. She’s making a political statement about the way viewers perceive desire. If you think about it, in the J. Crew catalog, the thing in the foreground—the model staring off in the distance with a stoney, vacant look—that person and/or that person’s clothes is the object of desire. Their image tells you, “Want this.” Barth is stripping away everything that photographs typically tell us to want in such a way that instead of communicating through subject matter, she’s expressing through context. 


What’s your favorite building?

My favorite building right now at this moment is the old octagonal brick Expo Barn at the old Virginia State Fairgrounds in Richmond. They turned it into a NASCAR track. It’s this gigantic octagonal brick barn with three floors. It was all for, “Jim Smith built a new corn husker.”


Tell us about a book/painting/record/piece of art that you wish was in your private collection?

“Private collection” is so funny now because of the Internet. My first impulse was to say Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney, but you can get those anywhere. If I can’t have the Cremaster Cycle, I want a Richard Serra sculpture. 


Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?

Damani Harrison. I would listen to him read the phonebook. I’d like to write stuff with him.


What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? 

I would write prose. If I knew I couldn’t fail I would write prose.

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