AJ Buckle on Capturing Specific Moments in His Poetry

Hands holding Capsule Stories Spring 2021 Edition open to the poem "I Told You It Takes Me Hours to Water My Houseplants" by AJ Buckle

AJ Buckle is a poet and teacher living in and writing from his apartment in Ottawa, Canada. He holds an honors BA in literature from the University of Ottawa. He enjoys listening to records and tending to his houseplants when not having an existential crisis. His work has previously appeared in The Broken City and Joypuke.

AJ Buckle’s poems “I Told You It Takes Me Hours to Water My Houseplants,” “Phoebe Bridgers,” and “Crown Shyness” are published in Capsule Stories Spring 2021 Edition. The poems explore change and renewal, as well as how people bloom during new love or after going through heartache.

Capsule Stories: Your poem “Phoebe Bridgers” centers the album Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers. Can you talk about the influence music has on your poetry?

AJ Buckle: Music has always been massively influential in the way I write. Because I have no musical aptitude at all, I write poetry the way I’d write a song, if I could. Part of my writing process is reading things aloud as I work on them. I need to know how particular words fit together and if lines should be broken up or arranged differently than how I’d originally written them. Quite often, I’ll find that as I’m writing, it will make me think of an album or an artist—something that fits that specific mood—which will then have an influence on the direction a poem will take. Some line in a song or the way someone sings something will lead me down a path I didn’t know I was leaning toward.

I suppose the way I write poetry is the way I would approach putting a mixtape together for someone I love, or once did. I love songs that are about a certain moment in the artist’s life, and I try to write like that. I’ve never had poetry written about me, so I think I’ve always tried to write with special care given to the subject matter.

Generally, most of the music I listen to is very abrasive. I lean toward punk music because as an introvert, I’m drawn to artists who unabashedly confront their own emotions. I like when people aren’t embarrassed to shout about what they’re feeling. Punk music does that for me, by proxy. But lately, I’ve grown to really love music and writing that makes you have to lean in to really hear what’s happening. There’s real strength in raising your fist and loudly proclaiming “this is me!” but so too is there power in being delicate about it. Aggressive music brings itself to you, quiet music forces you to come to it. I like the duality in that.

Each of the poems I have in Capsule Stories Spring 2021 Edition has at least one song, if not an entire album, associated with it. The “Phoebe Bridgers” poem, quite obviously, was written just after someone had recommended Phoebe Bridgers’ music to me and I fell in love with it immediately. “Bridgers” had two or three different versions in its nascent stages, and because I was so enamored with the way she writes, I found myself using similar word choices and cadence. I eventually got rid of that in favor of having Punisher be the quiet but persistent soundtrack to the encounter I was writing about, and I think that helped shape the poem into what it became.

Capsule Stories: You have a lot of houseplants, and you write about them so beautifully in “I Told You It Takes Me Hours to Water My Houseplants.” What draws you to writing about plants?

AJ Buckle: In “It Takes Me Hours . . .” I’d sat with the lines “Strange how even the / inconsequential things / become important when you’re alone” in my notes app for a while and I knew it was something I wanted to build on, but the lines never felt quite right in the other pieces I tried to bend around it. When someone I dated really did tell me they thought it was stupid that I spent so much time caring for the houseplants, I found a direction to take. 

The thing I love about having plants around, particularly the houseplants I’ve chosen, is that they give me a ritual. I like taking the time to dust the leaves, to think about the position of each one in relation to the sun, to give them new pots when they outgrow older ones. I can understand why that would be uninteresting to some people, but quite often, I find mundane aspects of life indescribably beautiful. How the heart-shaped leaves of the philodendron drip water, how the holes in the leaves of my monstera is a phenomenon called fenestration, I love it all! To be honest, this was kind of a thinly veiled metaphor for the way that I love. I could have been writing about anything here. When I love, I give myself fully. It’s a strange thing to say, but the plants ask very little of me, and I can give myself to them completely. I like being relied upon.

Capsule Stories: Your poem “Crown Shyness” explores this beautiful metaphor of the phenomenon of crown shyness in trees, in which trees don’t touch each other. How did you arrive on this metaphor for touch and intimacy in relationships?

AJ Buckle: “Crown Shyness” was something I’d come back to off and on for about a year. I had a simple idea for this poem when I first sat down to write it, but that changed dramatically as I thought about it more and more. Originally, I just wanted to talk about how beautiful and heartbreaking I found it that trees avoid touching each other as a survival mechanism. 

“Crown Shyness” started out more textbook definition, rather than metaphor. When I came back to this piece later, I’d just come home from a date where I wanted very badly to hold the hand of the person I was sitting next to but was terrified to do so because I didn’t think I could handle the intensity.

And that made me start to think about alternately holding hands with someone for the first time, and eventually, for the last time. I love intimacy at my very core, because it’s always a journey. The metaphor of trees not touching fits this perfectly, I felt.

There are two things in this poem I had some trouble with, not particularly in the writing, but in the meaning. Both were in the second to last stanza. The first struggle I had was with the lines about weaving fingers through the grass as a way to practice gentleness. I wanted it to sound like it could come from two different people: me writing this poem and, alternately, someone speaking to me. The confession could have gone either way. I was thinking about the ways that people can and sometimes do hurt each other, which fit perfectly with the imagery of crown shyness.

This is very much a poem about the baggage that people carry around and how there can be a lot of unnecessary pressure put on both yourself and someone you’re maybe falling in love with. 

The other part of that stanza I had a tough time with were the first three lines of that same stanza: “on warm days / I lie naked in the forest / and look to the tops of trees.” I’d debated including these lines specifically because of the vulnerability that nakedness inherently brings with it. Nudity is simple; people are nude a few times every day whether in the shower or getting dressed or climbing into bed with a lover. Nakedness, however, brings exposure both physically and emotionally. I struggled here because masculinity can be imprisoning and that’s something I think about constantly. Vulnerability is tough for everyone. As a man, I have to think about whether or not I care about the implications. While this is a poem about the things we carry and how they may shape the way we approach relationships, it’s also a poem about coming to terms with the nakedness of my feelings and starting to be okay with them.

Capsule Stories: What other writers have influenced you, and specifically, these poems?

AJ Buckle: When my brother and I were very young, my parents would read Robert Frost to us alongside children’s books, and the quiet melancholy of the simple things he writes about hits me right in the heart every time I read his poems. The final stanza of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is something I’ve adored for thirty years, and it makes me tear up every time I read it.

Matthew Dickman’s amazing collection Wonderland was a book I discovered at a point in my life when I needed it the most. A couple of years ago, I dealt with a significant death in the family and a breakup all within the space of a month, and like a flash of lightning, Wonderland appeared. The poems in that book are ones that I come back to over and over again. I love them the way I love punk music. There’s very little pretense in them and an economy of language I aspire to have when I write.

Hanif Abdurraqib’s poetry is a recent discovery for me, but I adore it for this same reason. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much does this thing, maybe intentionally, where each piece in it is about a specific time and place. It seems to me that in this collection, Hanif is very aware of the feeling he wants the reader to have when reading these poems. They are obviously very personal to him, but it strikes me that he writes in a way that is accessible to everyone, regardless of their own personal experience.

The way Sierra DeMulder writes about heartbreak speaks to me a great deal. Her book Today Means Amen has a permanent spot on my bedside table and is one I’ve given away to people. I’ve always had conflicting feelings about the fact that I am an intense person in the way I feel and how I love, and the way Sierra DeMulder writes makes her seem unconcerned by her own intensity, which is indescribably beautiful to me.

Past Capsule Stories contributor Glennys Egan (@gleegz) has seen many of the pieces I’m most proud of in their nascent stages and has been a shaping force in many of their final versions. Her advice is exceedingly good in most places, and knock-you-to-your-knees humbling in others. The poems she writes are stunning, but in a language I don’t speak as eloquently, which makes me jealous of her talent. I have a lot of respect for them, and her, and look to the way she writes as a high-water mark.

Capsule Stories: Does knowing that people are reading your poetry affect how you write and what you write about?

AJ Buckle: The short answer is no, because I don’t write for other people. That sounds flippant and I don’t mean it that way, because I’m humbled that people read my poetry at all. The long answer is that people reading my poetry terrifies me. What I mean is, I write for myself because I have to. I know that what I’m saying has been said before. Of course it has, but that’s the beautiful thing. I want to say something that people relate to, in the way that only I can. It goes back to music; if I can’t find a song that taps into how I am feeling in a specific moment, I’ll look elsewhere. And that’s what I want to do with my poetry. I’ll be the Side B when Side A just doesn’t cut it.

When I read poetry, I look for a particular piece that speaks to the way I’m feeling in that moment and if I can’t find it, I write it in the way that only I can. Charles Bukowski was, by all accounts, a terrible person. However, I can’t help but love a lot of his writing. The opening lines of his poem “so you want to be a writer?” are “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you / in spite of everything, / don’t do it.” and that’s the way I’ve always approached writing. My poetry may be uninteresting to some people, or inaccessible because of subject matter or language used. But I have to do it, I have no other choice!

I really admire writers who have the ability to speak about difficult things lyrically, but that’s just not the way I write and it would be disingenuous to try to do so. I want to say the thing in as direct a way as I can. If you’re lonely or in love, say that. If there’s an interesting way to do it, do it that way. And now that I think of it, much of my writing is a direct confrontation. If I feel some way about someone, for better or worse, I’m going to say exactly that. I love poetry as confessional, as a way to say things that you might be too frightened to say otherwise. Poetry is something you do behind closed doors. It’s private and maybe there’s a little shame, but despite that, I like being out of my depth by leaving the door open a little bit and inviting people in.

You know, when I really think about it, all three poems I have in Capsule Stories Spring 2021 Edition are about love, in some form or another. I heard someone say once that love is muscular and demanding. Love is a verb. And I wanted to give voice to that.

Readers can follow @ajbuckle1985 on Instagram, where he’ll sometimes post what he writes. You can also find him on Twitter at @buckle_aj.

AJ Buckle

Read AJ Buckle’s poems in Capsule Stories Spring 2021 Edition, available in paperback and ebook wherever books are sold.

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