MIKE YOUNG: My favorite aspect of your poetry is what I think of as its love affair with tiny things. Digger moths, clam shovels. There's also something about things getting into things—diamonds in forearms, fungus in windshields. Lots of pockets and burying and tucking and uprooting. There is also a heavy bent toward song, a strength drawn from singing's incantatory nature or power. Sometimes your poems will often command the reader toward incantation or song, and always your poems seem to assume—with great effect—that to mention is to make magic. Which do you like more: tiny things or the names of things? Is there something in the gesture of giving a tiny thing over that you believe in real life—perhaps in secret or perhaps outright—to be magic? As gifts go, is it better to give someone a live thing or a dead thing? Do you ever think of a poem as fundamentally a gift, or is that too sentimental? Those are all probably very different questions, so choose whatever you think is most interesting.
JOSHUA MAIRE WILKINSON: It’s funny you mention “digger moths,” as those ghosted in from one of my friend Noah’s poems. I think he made them up; moth experts feel free to confirm or repudiate here. Some of the things you mention resonate (pockets, concealment) and other things (uprooting, tucking) seem foreign to me, but I’m sure they’re there too in the writing. I love the names of things, the split between the word, the phonological presence it has and the objects they point to—however wobbly. The materiality of the voice is something that’s always lured me to poetry; the sounds of the words want their own life to body forth and hang in the air. I’m thinking of how Creeley talks about how long a rhyme might hang in the air as the lines go on. This haunting factor of the sounds of the words—their clumsiness, their arbitrariness—is something I’m forever messing with, reveling in, developing, honing. My students roll their eyes when I light up about amphibrachs and anapestic rhythms and such. I scan people’s language when they speak; I love doing this to find where their stresses fall.
I try not to let sound and the obsession with names function as the only guide in the work; for me, pun-heavy and sound driven poetry often falls short. But I’m a huge Basil Bunting fan. And Hart Crane’s lyricism is entrancing to me. I love, too, the bluntness of somebody like Oppen, where the fluidity is always thwarted. There is a heavily iambic Isaac Rosenberg poem that starts “Snow is a strange white word”—I love how that line breaks with the rest of the poem’s mellifluous iambic roll. Flow unto itself—or rhythmic stability—is usually boring to me. I love friction and interruption and collage more than an overarching fluidity, I suppose. The question about song is how can the poem incorporate all these and still have that spell-like incantatory propulsion of the best lyrics.
I’m not really a miniaturist, though. I don’t fetishize tininess for its own sake. But I do have an obsession with material objects. One of my favorite pages in my dad’s old college dictionary is the hammer page: with little diagrams of claw, riveting, boilermaker’s, bricklayer’s, and ball peen hammers. Working with my dad in his basement woodshop as a kid is here; I am basically inept with tools, you know, but one of my tasks as a kid was to fetch the “right” tool. I’m maybe seven or eight in this memory. What that meant was trying to resolve in my mind what a “ball peen” hammer might be at the wall where all the hammers, mallets, etc, were hung on nails. I would often—usually in fact—bring back the wrong tool. This became a fraught experience. Not traumatic, you know, just vexing. Maybe poetry is a way to re-enter that space and chart a landscape of desire where those terms can be arranged and adumbrated in a world whose stakes unfold as a result of those relations, as they’re articulated and sounded out.
I don’t think of poems as gifts, though I’m attracted to sentimentality in crude forms. Perfected sentimentality always seems like a hoax or a gimmick. I like it when it’s made manifest in more direct ways. Dorothea Lasky’s work stands out to me in this regard. Some of Anne Carson’s work, too, where the sentimentality is used as a passage to something else. C.S. Giscombe has ways of using these cliché song lyrics to operate so beautifully in the Prairie Style poems. Charles Bernstein, too, read these amazing poems for his daughter in Philadelphia all in this hyperbolic silliness that destroyed me with how the sentimentality (with the impassioned voice, no doubt) split a hole in its clumsy hilarity and broke onto something just indescribably sad and wonderful. Jeff Clark’s new book Ruins has poems that demolish me in their pathos and rawness. I don’t know what the best kind of gifts are. I read The Tale of Genji last fall and extracted all the appearances of the moon from this work. I then made a single chapbook for my girlfriend Lily, comprised only of Shikibu’s moons from Genji. It’s a conceptual poem, I guess. There’s no other language, just any and every sentence in that story where the moon appears—elided together, sentence after sentence, in chronological order. There are dozens of moons, and you can read it cover to cover as a kind of compacted (or synecdochal) version of The Tale of Genji. The chapbook came out to be more than 30 pages I think. That’s the best kind of gift I can think of. It’s not a kitten, but it’s alive.
MY: That sounds like an awesome gift. I'm interested in what you mean by "perfected sentimentality." I think I see what you're saying, and I agree, especially via the folks you mention. Is perfected sentimentality an especially confident/calculated sentimentality? Like a gesture that relies on perceiving the sentimental tendencies of the recipient/audience and then exploiting them—coldly, let's say—for effect/persuasion/whatever? Versus what's in the work you're talking about, which is good for being crude and clumsy and hyperbolic because it's risking the speaker themself being "accused" of sentimentality, being sort of "out" about it?
JMW: I think you hit it on the head. I'm reluctant to try and parse out what's a "pure" sentiment and what's schlock, but my point is that it's all artifice and I like when that artifice breaks the fold, when the corniness of old hyperboles is ruptured by the context and veracity and insistence, as with the Bernstein poems I heard. There is something about "calculated" sentimentality where it's presented as reverie, but it's just trite synonym poetry. "Let me find the 'perfect' way to express this banal sentiment" rather than let me see what other kind of variegated terrain of feeling language is capable of by incorporating the banality of experience. I think Dana Ward and Stephanie Young are wonderful at this. There's a kind of overdetermination that presents the contradictoriness of a subjectivity through lyric poetry. John Keene's Seismosis is a great example where the thinking and feeling meld. It's not really borderline sentimentality in Keene's work, but there's a fusion of desire, curiosity, reflection, pleasure, and processing that's lovely. Andrew Zawacki's and Christine Hume's poems I think do this, too, in a spectral way. Fred Moten's Hughson's Tavern is one of my favorite examples, where there's always an excess to the expression, and that excess is drawn out in humor, bleakness, fragment, tenderness, vituperation, awe, insane rhythmic spells, and zeal.
MY: Recently you and Noah Eli Gordon started Letter Machine Editions, a book press. I bought Travis Nichols's Iowa and Sawako Nakayasu's Texture Notes. Both rehearse a very new and careful-feeling reverence, an openness to succumb to mystery without pretending that you can't study and articulate that mystery. They're great. I also like the way they look similar, with similar trim and cover design. Is there any overarching aesthetic plan—content, design, both—behind Letter Machine Editions?
JMW: I like your reading of Iowa and Texture Notes, actually. Thanks for ordering them! I tire of presses whose “about” page says stuff about being “subversive” or “edgy” or what have you. It’s funny how that language—I guess, what? the language of counter-capitalistic consumption?—has become the flag of so much bland, uninventive writing out there on mastheads seeking only the “extraordinary” and “innovative.” We just wanted the books to speak for themselves—to present their own poetics. Nakayasu and Nichols and Sara Veglahn and Anselm Berrigan (our first four authors) all do this. I think we wanted to emulate the practices (in design and aesthetics) of presses we admire: Black Square, The Figures, AIP, Kelsey Street, Dalkey Archive, Edge, Leon Works, Essay Press, Turtle Point, lots of others. We also wanted to find first books by folks whose work we love and are challenged by: Juliana Leslie and Farid Matuk. Noah and I have really different tastes, and I think this is a good thing—as it engenders long conversations about what we think a particular manuscript is doing. Neither of us want to fill a “niche” and neither of us want a “unified” catalog of works. Disparity is good. Dissimilarity is good. Somehow most of our books are prose, but that’s inadvertent. Finally, I think we wanted to support a few authors who have been around a while by given them means to release a work they may not have considered publishing as an object unto itself. I’m thinking here of Anselm and short works forthcoming by John Yau, Renee Gladman, and Peter Gizzi, and of a big work by Aaron Kunin that we’re co-publishing with Fence Books.
MY: A follow-up—You've mentioned that you enjoy the idea and act of poetry editing. Are you a scrupulous editor of others? Do you have any editorial stories from working on Letter Machine Editions?
JMW: I guess it depends on how you define scrupulous. Noah and I both go through each manuscript by hand several times a piece and make comments, suggestions, cuts, and ask questions. This is a fairly slow, involved process; but it’s one of the things I love most about doing Letter Machine. Lily and I do the same thing with Boxwood Editions, it’s just on a smaller scale. We still try to select a small batch of poems that work together uniquely and edit a manuscript together, as carefully and closely as possible. We’ve published chapbooks by Lisa Fishman and Lauren Levin and have a fantastic longish poem by Claire Becker coming out next month called Young Adult.
MY: You do Rabbit Light Movies, which is an amazing project of video poetry readings. Why did you start Rabbit Light Movies? Do you see trends in the way contemporary poets in your circle perform their work? Do you have any opinions on these trends?
JMW: I started Rabbit Light on a lark, as a corollary to the first Octopus Books chapbooks that were about to come out in early 2007. Since my friend Julie Doxsee and I were among the first 9 chapbooks they published, I thought I’d make little movies of us reading and burn them onto dvds and give them out for free in the book fair at AWP. This was Atlanta. Since then it’s grown into a weird project that I still love doing. I don’t see too many trends, per se, as you suggest, but I try to coax writers I’m interested in—or interested in hearing more of—to send me audio or video to fool around with. Most of these folks I don’t actually know, or have met only briefly at readings and such. They sort of trust me to put some footage to it—hopefully neither illustrating the words nor distracting from them—that can stand in as a kind of visual counterpoint or landscape to the poems. Sometimes I just ask them to be filmed reading, and I enjoy this immensely. Eventually, I’d like to surrender it to folks around the country—and beyond—to film their friends, to make their own movies, to have local scene editors (like Fascicle’s old reports on cities)—to get it to grow way, way out beyond what I could possibly film myself. This is starting to happen already as Mathias Svalina and Jules Cohen and Zachary Schomburg, and others are already helping out on future episodes. So folks should write to me if they want to help out. God knows I’ll need it. There should be about 75 rabbits working on this.
MY: You finished your first book in your friend Solan's basement in Alaska. Can you talk about working in a basement in Alaska?
JMW: Man, that was tough. Whatever romance I have about writing is usually thrown into a serious fucking tailspin when I think back on that rainy, dripping summer in Juneau. First off, Solan was gone almost the entire month. There was just this little bluegrass guitar player named Mike—a high school math teacher—who lived upstairs. I had drifted into the “arena of the unwell”—as Withnail says, I think. I just didn’t know how to write the project I’d set out to write. (I’d been living in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and then uprooted to Tucson to try to assemble it all under the auspices of an MFA fellowship). And more and more “selves” and subjectivities and characters and phantoms and voices started to speak through the work. I look back on pictures of myself at this time—usually every time I move when I’m trying to figure out what to discard, what to repack—and these pictures (I was taking self-portraits each day with this half-busted analog camera) really seem to be of somebody else. I tried to figure out how the book would go from the outset—and that turned out to be a colossal mistake. The book needed to unfold differently—but how?—that’s what I had to figure out in Alaska. Everyday I was obsessively reading Wittgenstein’s Investigations, the Culture and Value notebooks, the notebooks on color, etc (classic poetry fodder clichés, by now, but amazingly rich stuff) (fortunately I knew slightly better than to get too bogged down in the Tractatus, but even that is staggering and generative). In some ways all the Wittgenstein was a ruse: to feign entry back into the poetry writing, but actually functioned to keep me from writing. It turned out to work somehow and helped me get that book into some semblance of being completed. I had been to Alaska several times previously, but it’s still a pretty mesmerizing place to work. I’ll be back up there this fall.
MY: I think Mathias Svalina told me once that while you and he and Zach Schomburg were touring the Midwest, you all took turns reading Frank Stanford's Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You in the car. This might not be true, but I like the idea.
JMW: It’s true. It was my idea. One of those books that all of us had copies of, but none of us had actually read, I think, until that trip in 2006 or 2007. We didn’t get through all of it, but I think read more than a third of it, or thereabouts, which we needed on the long hauls between Chicago and Minneapolis and Lincoln and wherever the hell John Gallaher lives in Missouri. It’s ghosted heavily into Selenography, my new book, and heavily—to my mind—into Zach’s second book, Scary, No Scary as well. I don’t know what this will do to Mathias. I am excited (and afraid) to see. In fact, Stanford himself took lots of car trips in America recording other poets with his friend. I think there was a lot of drinking and a perhaps a secret meeting with Alan Dugan.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson's most recent book is Selenography, featuring Polaroids by Tim Rutiliand published by San Francisco's own Sidebrow Books. He lives in Chicago and Athens, Georgia.
Mike Young is the author of We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (Publishing Genius Press 2010), a forthcoming poetry collection, and Look! Look! Feathers (Word Riot Press 2010), a forthcoming story collection. He co-edits NOÖ Journal and Magic Helicopter Press. Find him online at http://mikeayoung.blogspot.com, offline in Northampton, MA.
See Joshua Marie Wilkinson read with Lily Brown on Friday March 5th at 7:30pm at Studio One Art's Center