Unconditional love can only blossom as a result of being honest with ourselves about the subject for which we harbor our emotions and feelings. Romanticized ideas cannot be sustained or developed to unconditional levels if we are not willing to fully accept a person, place, or thing for everything that it/they are while also being acutely aware of everything that it/they are not. We have to chisel away any facade that prevents us from seeing a person, place, or thing for who/what they/it truly are, blemishes and all.
Writer Tim Gilmore has a deep connection with Jacksonville, both past and present. The deeper Gilmore delves into the complexities of Jacksonville's history and identity, the stronger his voice becomes as he advocates for the city he calls home. But, as much as Gilmore advocates for Jacksonville, he is also critical of its improvable shortcomings and vocal about topics and events that sometimes make others uncomfortable. As a purveyor of history, Gilmore refuses to tuck away the darker side of Jacksonville's history into crevices where they can never be discussed or analyzed further.
Gilmore, who is also a Professor of English at Florida State College at Jacksonville, has authored 15 books. Past books by Gilmore have focused on individuals worthy of celebration, such as Eartha White and Ron Chamblin, as well as those deserving condemnation, such as Bob Gray and Ottis Toole. His most recent book, titled The Book of Isaiah was released on Saturday, October 28, 2017. Through this book, Gilmore explores the life of Jacksonville's founder, Isaiah Hart, a man who, among a long list of professions, was also an American plantation owner and slave master. He is who the Hart Bridge, which crosses over the St. Johns River, was named after.
Gilmore is also the founder of JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival. This annual event is held near the intersection of Park and King Street in Riverside and is a platform for literary artists to directly share their work with others through public readings. The 2017 festival, which is scheduled for Saturday, November 11, will feature 28 writers presenting work at 14 different venues. The event is free and attendees can determine which readings to attend by reviewing the event schedule online.
10 Questions with Tim Gilmore
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
I always start new projects while I’m working on others. Typically, I’ll have a book-length work, or two, near completion and start exploring for the next thing.
I work at the writing process every day, though mostly at night. I don’t have separate research and writing periods. Instead, I write as I’m learning. Which, for most projects, means I try to bring the reader in as investigator with me. My process involves driving around the city and wandering through landscapes in order to try to understand their relation to my subject. It also includes poring through old newspaper articles, etc.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
Writing keeps me tethered to the world. It’s the way I navigate. I’ve known for a long time that I’m obsessive-compulsive. Everything I write is a product of that. These things aren’t strengths necessarily. In fact, I sometimes think that if I weren’t writing, I’d lose myself. Every now and then I fantasize about stopping though and kind of disappearing.
I always used to think that I wrote just because I had to write and didn’t care what people thought about my writing. But, over the years, people’s kindness to me and my writing has shown me how much I do care. Anytime people tell me that what I wrote meant something to them, it reaches deep into my heart. So, although I think that I’d be writing continuously even if no one cared, I do want my writing to do real work in the world.
It surprises me that I haven’t always known that.
How do you define success in what you do?
I’m building a house one brick at a time. It’s a lifework, a body of work, a corpus, the thing that stands as the strongest and truest version of me - and hopefully still stands when I’m gone. Ultimately, if I can see some beauty and truth in what I’ve created, that’s success. At the same time, every individual work is a part of the bigger work. Really, it’s all one story.
Each project has its own terms. Of everything I’ve written, Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity has created the largest discourse. It may well be the most important thing I’ll ever write. It was wonderful, however, to transcribe Stalking Ottis Toole into a play and seeing it brought to life on stage at FSCJ’s Wilson Center for the Arts. On the other hand, there are some books I’ve done that I never marketed and that have only ever sold a couple dozen copies, and that’s perfectly fine for the peculiar entities that are those particular books.
How do you vet whether a subject is feasible to write about, publish as a book, or market to an audience of readers?
The only factor that determines this kind of feasibility is whether or not I can fall in love with the subject enough to immerse myself in it. Otherwise I could never bring it to fruition. It needs to bear about it a great and deep sense of mystery. There’s no beauty without mystery and wonder.
You've written about multiple aspects of Jacksonville's history, including some of its dark times and figures. How do you see your role as a preserver and conveyer of our city's history?
It’s ironic what’s happened for me. When I was younger I said I’d escape. Various life factors kept me here and determined that I had to shape my voice to this particular city’s identity. Jacksonville has its own identity and I’ve spent the last couple of decades getting to know it, wandering its strangest lanes, extricating what’s been buried. I’ve come to understand that Jacksonville’s history is deeper and richer than just about anywhere else in Florida.
Despite all the 20th century suicidal destruction of its urban core, the amount of gorgeous historic architecture that miraculously remains illustrates that. For anyone who understands American Gothic, and particularly, Southern Gothic, Jacksonville is an unyielding treasure trove of stories. Lots of those stories are indeed dark, but if we don’t know them, we don’t know who we are.
Since I was about eight years old I’ve identified as a writer. I’ve always admired and most related to historic writers. I’d love it if I could be to Jacksonville some combination of what James Joyce was to Dublin and what Joseph Mitchell was to New York.
How has your tone or point of view as a writer changed or evolved over time?
I’ve always written poetry. My dissertation at UF focused on poetry. Reflecting on my writing from 10 and 15 years ago, I think I waxed a little too "Whitmanic." Most of my early writing was fiction. Since I loved (and still do) the magic realism of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, and early Salman Rushdie, my writing blurred the boundaries of the realistic and the fantastic.
As far back as elementary school and then high school, I gravitated toward dark topics. I’d write and then read stories to my third grade class that had titles like “The Grotesque Dragon.” A sense of wonder always accompanies true horror, so perhaps it makes sense that at different times in my life, I’ve been infatuated with Romantic poets like John Keats and William Wordsworth or with the horror mythos of H.P. Lovecraft.
When I was 18 and a student reporter at FCCJ, I learned that the best way to overcome my natural, painful, and sometimes debilitating shyness was to ask questions. Conversationally interviewing people is one of the most important skills I’ve ever learned. My love for Mitchell’s writing, especially Joe Gould’s Secret (and much later, Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth and the creative nonfiction methods of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), would make the intermingling of interviewing, research, and writing all seem natural and lead me to what I’ve been doing for the last several years.
Your newest book, "The Book of Isaiah" is being released with a soundtrack. What led you to integrate an audio component into this release and how was the soundtrack composed?
I love collaborating. I also like blurring borders and tearing down walls. So when my friend and colleague Shep Shepard, one of the most brilliant people I know, agreed to illustrate this strange book about the founder of the city, I was overjoyed. But as Shep’s artistic ingenuity isn’t bound by one form, he also felt inspired to write a couple of songs based on passages from the book. That "couple of songs" turned into three, then five, then seven. His band Dead Shepard Sounds recorded the full album.
Anyone that attends the book launch on Saturday, October 28th will be treated to some short films that use his songs and will receive a CD. The accompanying album will also be available through iTunes and other platforms.
What led to the development of JaxbyJax? Additionally, how did you envision the literary festival before launching and how does your original vision compare to the current day festival?
Over the years, countless people have shown me kindness and been supportive of my writing. It felt great to receive that support, but it also left me feeling guilty because I couldn’t adequately pay it back. JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival resulted from my desire to give back and create a platform of support for other literary artists.
I also want to live in the kind of city that has events like JaxbyJax. It’s not a “writers’ festival” per se, because you don’t go to attend workshops. There is incredible value in those festivals, but I wanted this to be an event where you hear from diverse voices, each given short periods of time to read original material.
JaxbyJax is much different than what I’d originally envisioned. Quite honestly, what I first pictured was a bunch of writers bottled up in one location, each giving a short performance in what overall would have been an absurdly long block of time. Jo Carlisle, a fellow FSCJ English professor who also happens to be my wife and best friend, suggested splitting writers into separate venues, walkably nearby, and using the city as a stage. Thus, the format for the festival.
It happens along the axis of Park and King Streets. Every venue is within a block of another, many of them side by side. Two writers share a venue and rotate 15-minute performances every half-hour from 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM. You can decide who you want to hear and see ahead of time, or you can play it by ear. This format also means that with a large attendance, individual venues will still feel intimate. There may be a thousand attendees, but they’re spread among 14 venues to hear 28 writers and they come and go from venue to venue.
We’ve also been fortunate enough to have FSCJ sponsor JaxbyJax and help promote. Beginning last year, JaxbyJax begins with a Student Showcase, wherein students from FSCJ, JU, Edward Waters, UNF, Douglas Anderson, and elsewhere can share their work.
In addition to FSCJ, CoRK Arts District has become a major partner. Our afterparty takes place down King Street at CoRK.
JaxbyJax IV, on November 11th, will have the largest number of featured writers and venues yet. It begins with the Student Showcase, from 1:30 PM to 2:30 PM. The main featured readings take place from 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM, and the Afterparty from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM.
How do you describe the literary scene in Jacksonville, both past and present, and what is something that you can share about the literary arts in our city that you think would surprise most people?
Jacksonville has had a surprisingly robust literary scene for decades. I wrote a story about it for Arbus Magazine in the late 1990s. Some of the best known figures then were Al Letson, Lynn Skapyak Harlin, Johnny Masiulewicz, Troy Lukkarila, and of course, love him or hate him, Alan Justiss. Today’s literary scene blends well with the visual arts because of contributions from multi-faceted artists like Jeff Whipple, Liz Gibson, and Jim Draper. Publications like Mark Ari's Fiction Fix, now Flock and Carl Rosen’s, Hurley Winkler’s, and Sam Bilheimer’s Perversion Magazine have influenced and helped advance the literary scene over the years. Bridge Eight, and Folio Weekly have launched and evolved writers working in multiple genres, like Tricia Booker, Susan Cooper Eastman, Dan Brown, and Claire Goforth.
Jacksonville's literary scene is diverse and rich. Still, promotion comes hard to lots of writers. It’s a solitary craft. A few of my favorite Jacksonville-based writers are Heather Peters, Matt Lany, and Teri Youmans Grimm. Heather’s written of finding her native Georgia clay in France, and Matt’s written several very different works, all dark and surreal. His book-length first-person drifter horror poem A. Violet will be available for the first time at JaxbyJax IV. Teri ’s poetry narrative about the early film industry in Jacksonville, Becoming Lyla Dore, is among the most beautiful works of art I’ve ever experienced.
There are other literary artists whose work also deserves to be mentioned. Sohrab Fracis is an internationally acknowledged novelist and short story writer. Frances Driscoll’s The Rape Poems also has an international presence. The poetry of Ebony Payne-English traverses both stage and page, while Mal Jones and LoveReigns take spoken word and hip hop into high art as a folk art. Barbara Colaciello has created a laboratory space for storytelling through Babs'Lab. Lastly, next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Jennifer Chase’s musical play Majigeen with performances at FSCJ.
Even as I wax passionate about this diverse range of writers, I know I’m inadvertently leaving out so many people who deserve recognition. But hopefully what I’ve said so far will stir at least a few readers to explore Jax Lit (as Mark Ari titles an annual UNF event) further and find the writers in this community they need to know.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow the city's creative economy?
I’d like to see several things that are presently in the works come to full fruition. I'd like to then see the city as a whole support them.
All of us who care about the arts should recognize Ron Chamblin as the quiet, behind-the-scenes mastermind who’s built one of the largest book empires in the country. Chamblin’s bookstores rival Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. Ron is expanding beside Chamblin’s Uptown and at the Chamblin Bookmine site off Roosevelt. Jacksonville should champion Ron Chamblin. You could also read my biography of him, We Are All Used Books.
A truly successful creative city has a strong literary scene. Not only does it have a strong literary scene, but it knows it has a strong literary scene. Great solitary writers can grow up anywhere, but what kind of city plants, nurtures, and supports them systematically? James Joyce loved Dublin and he despised it. Mostly, he wrote about Dublin from Paris. Now Dublin loves Joyce. You can hardly walk a block in the central city without seeing some form of praise to the city’s most famous writer.
FSCJ is moving its culinary program and café to West Adams Street downtown. As a community college, it should restore and revitalize the architecture and physical presence of its community. FSCJ President Cynthia Bioteau has said she’d like the college to integrate with the urban core, just as Savannah College of Art and Design has with that city’s core. Jacksonville should do everything it can to help FSCJ do just that.
Jacksonville has a more beautifully historic urban core than any other Florida city. It’s a no-brainer to fill that core with the arts and to fill it with residents. To work as it should, downtown must become a densely populated neighborhood. Then, its presently vibrant urban satellites, such as Riverside, Springfield, and San Marco, will buffer the success of the center. Downtown Jacksonville must populate itself, filling its glorious historic architecture, some of this city’s greatest pieces of art, to the point where no one can call the heart of the city weak or empty.
Great music, in the form of the blues, germinated in poor, rural, illiterate, and racially brutal Mississippi. Great visual art appears with “outsider artists” in desolate locations like St. EOM’s Pasaquan, Simon Rodilla’s Watts Towers, or Jacksonville’s own Walter Whetstone’s Whetstonian and Jim Russell’s Coquina Gates. Still, where’s the effort to save these native Jacksonville outsider artworks?
We'd like to thank Tim Gilmore for his participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for taking the time to read this week's 10 Questions interview. If you enjoyed what you read or you found it engaging, please consider making a donation to the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Your donation supports the advancement of the arts and culture in Northeast Florida.
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