Joshua Edward's new book, Imperial Nostalgias, is out from Ugly Duckling Presse this month
He will be reading at Studio One on March 21st @ 7:30 with Farnoosh Fathi
He will be reading at Studio One on March 21st @ 7:30 with Farnoosh Fathi
"At times, a poem arrives when language pushes back against the self."
Sheila Davies Sumner: Your new book of poems has an arresting title –– Imperial Nostalgias. Both words have an ineffable quality and taken together that quality is increased tenfold. It seems that any of our senses can be metabolized into homesickness, remembrance, melancholia –– or into the absence of “the bright feeling of belonging.” The word imperial has a second meaning, it’s a synonym for non-metric, for standard weights and measure. Thus, I found myself wondering about the mass and action of nostalgia in your book, particularly in the title poem. What were your reasons for choosing this title? Also, in your acknowledgements you write that the title is based on a series of poems by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Can you say what in your work resonates with or is inspired by Vallejo’s?
Joshua Edwards: First off, since I’ve had the chance to read some of your questions in advance, I just want to say I really appreciate your insightful, considerate reading of the book. I’m so glad you find the title arresting, and I’m pretty sure I chose it as a title for the book before I wrote the eponymous poem. I stole Vallejo’s phrase for a few reasons. First of all, I like its sound and tension (especially since “imperial” translates so unfortunately well into contemporary American English)—it’s ineffable and heavy, imposing and deflated. Secondly, I love Vallejo’s writing and I wanted to reference his itinerancy, poetry, and legend. Although I wouldn’t single him out as a particular influence for this collection—which was written over the course of many years and came together as poems gradually found each other—his agitated lyricism, dark imagery, and use of form and archaic language have definitely shaped my work. Finally, I wanted to create a context for the book in which my position in the world is implicated or exposed. I’m of course against imperialism, robbing people of their land and livelihoods, drone warfare, and any sort of institutionalized violence, but imperialism is in the cereal I eat and the culture I consume, and the ghost of Manifest Destiny looms large in the histories of the states I’ve spent most of my life in Texas, Oregon, Washington, and California. I hadn’t thought about the imperial measurement system until you mentioned it, and I like thinking of the force and mass of nostalgia. The nostalgia I want to come through in the collection itself is quite different than the one evoked by the title, and could perhaps be described as the measure between volition and the present moment. I could describe it as nostalgia for the now—a sense that what’s going on is lost in the happening.
SDS: There is something about your eponymous poem that brings much excitement and much grief. It reverses time and entangles space in a concise, almost scientific way. I wonder if the poet is in conversation with an earlier speaker who asks whether “travel is an enemy to ends.”
JE: I think all the poems emanate from the same speaker, but one who is in different (non-hierarchical) stages or states of being. This is probably the poem that is the most political in that section in some ways, and the "Departures" poems were written while reading a bit of cultural criticism, so there's definitely a link there.
SDS: The arrangement of poems in Imperial Nostalgias is thoughtful and elegant. There are five parts, which I’ve identified in this way: Parable, Lacunae (silence), a Reverie in sestets, a Chorus of forms (sound), and 31 Micrograms. How did you come to organize the book as you have? Assuming there is a story you tell yourself when you write, how does this storytelling help or complicate the way you structured this book?
JE: The sections were each written during very different times in my life, in different places, and the story I told myself came in the selection of the work instead of its writing. Although I often use aphoristic and declarative language, I’m more interested in uneasiness than resolve, so I wanted to convey a sense of a consciousness coming apart while being reformed, opening up as it becomes more focused. The poems aren’t arranged chronologically, but I did want to create the texture of time’s passage.
SDS: I’m impressed by images in your poems that are both visceral and figurative. For instance, the smell of an “approaching language frontier”; a ceiling fan that “helps heighten the hotel’s diction”; time being “something that leaks from lungs”; a speaker needing to “dislodge the extra voice caught in my throat”; and an outsider who “stuck the real up into the imaginary.” It seems that you allow tandem realities –– sensational and imaginal –– to compatibly occupy a phrase, which in turn offered the chance for me to practice playing around in two worlds at once.
JE: I hadn't really thought of that, but thanks for pointing it out! I'm guessing it has something to do with my interest in photography and poetry, how they interact in matters of truth and imagination.
SDS: In the section called Two Parables, the man in “The Traveler” and the man in “The Outsider” possess essential but opposite attitudes: sacred & secular, wise man & trickster, pedagogue & performer. Each man draws a crowd to his specialty; each awakens the crowd differently. In what ways do these parables act, throughout your book, as a reader’s travel guides?
JE: I guess the figures in those poems are meant as guides through the book, but I’m not sure I know how they work. Even if I did, it might be better for me to allow them to exist in their ambiguity.
SDS: “Valley of Unrest” is a series of photographs that follows the parables. I think it’s interesting that we traverse these images, allowing for sudden, silent time to look around before arriving at the first poems in “Departures”. What was behind your decision to place this valley, just so? What are the challenges or what kind of time do you imagine the reader experiences? Are they meant as preparation for or as a kind of mnemonic for poems encountered later? In one poem, you write: “images are more demanding than ideas.” Since you worked extensively with photographs in your earlier book, Campeche, I’m hoping you can describe some of these demands or challenges.
JE: I take photographs to apprehend lyrical moments. I photograph things that move me, or I take a photograph when I want to remember a moment in time or record an image for further meditation and inspection. I wanted “Valley of Unrest” near the beginning of the book to put the reader in the role of a watcher. When I wrote “Departures,” I was sitting in trains, looking out windows, so having the photographs immediately before that section may help recreate that way of seeing. Some things resonate between the images in the collection but there’s no narrative to search for (except for the implication of an ending with the last image), and I wanted to establish this paradigm. Besides all this, my dad (with whom I collaborated on my first book) and several of my good friends are photographers. I’ve learned a lot from them about vision and accumulated meaning.
SDS: Ideas, images, and tightly wound theories are held to place by the reliability of the sestet form in “Departures”. There’s a noise of regularity –– train wheels on tracks –– that is comforting and, because of that, develops awareness of your language of motion, as if your words travel in their own poetic textures.
JE: I really love traveling by train, and at that point in my life I found journeys to be comforting partly because the confusion I found in the world –– which became more apparent in new surroundings while having a traveler's mindset –– seemed to dwarf my own.
SDS: I’m curious what you would answer to the question you ask in one of Departure’s sestets: “What are poets to do with the silence they put their poems into?”
JE: I don’t know, but maybe once the silence is gone it’ll be time to stop writing.
SDS: An emotional fatigue travels through some of these poems. Their tones or atonality are charged with a kind of unction and spiritual significance, like “a journey between exhaustion and joy”. Often, emotions “arise between a verb and its object,” as if sadness, bitterness, and attacks of love exist in a transitional space between the environment and the individual; as if emotions are indigenous to specific sites, and thus discoverable and borrowable. One example might be this stanza:
“I have formulated a new type of / resistance, against my own ignorance: / I transplant my mind a few times a day, / replacing it with unreliable / algorithms aimed at solving problems, / known as poems. I call them departures.”
JE: I wish I had time to look up some psychoanalytic stuff about the totem to address this idea of emotions as indigenous to specific sites, but as you know I'm on the road again tomorrow. I pick up pretty strong vibes from places, or else I project my own anxieties and such onto places, and that transitional space of which you write does often feel very real. To me, it seems even more present between language and the self, than between the environment and the self. At times, a poem arrives when language pushes back against the self, and this happens a lot for me in environments.
SDS: Throughout Imperial Nostalgias the poet chronicles or is accompanied by crowds –– obedient crowds that listen, rebellious crowds that don’t hear, “crowds trapped in margins of stale air,” crowds made up of Beat poets, ancient and modern philosophers, a bunch of sightseers, ghosts and workers, notable photographers and visual artists. These crowds seem to have a vital, psychological function in relationship to the individual. You seem to be saying that the individual requires the crowd to make sense of himself?
JE: Community is something I think about a lot, and I’m glad you pointed out the crowds in the book because I hadn’t realized they were so prevalent. I recall the first time I was in a mosh pit, as a sophomore in high school…I was a really small kid, and I got slammed around really, but I enjoyed it a lot and it changed my thoughts about music, which until then had been a rather private joy in my life. It’s baffling to think of the powers at work in a violent mob or a bhikkhu-sangha joined in meditation.
SDS: On a more personal note I’m wondering what you’re doing these days? I know you’ve been involved with translating and teaching, that you’re the director and co-editor of Canarium books, and you’ve been living in Germany. Please talk about any of these things that seem relevant or of note.
JE: Since October, Lynn and I have lived near Stuttgart at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, an
amazing interdisciplinary residency where I’m on a yearlong fellowship. Our apartment is in an 18th Century palace that’s surrounded by forest, up on a hill, and we don’t go to the city much. Most of our time is spent at a shared desk, or else walking in the woods or hanging out with friends. I feel extremely fortunate to take part in the academy’s international community of artists and thinkers. Besides learning a lot, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with several friends I’ve met here: composer Peter Jakober, architect/artist Alan Worn, and artist Charlotte Moth. The past few months, I’ve also been working on the upcoming Canarium Books collections, freelance jobs, and my next book, Agonistes. After we leave Europe in December or January, Lynn and I will settle (at least half-time) in Marfa, Texas. We’re working on the design of our home with a friend and my dad, and we’ll build it from the ground up with the help of family and friends.
Sheila Davies Sumner has an M.F.A. in Poetry from St. Mary’s College of California. She has also written short stories which appeared in Rampike, Alcatraz 3, and in the graphic-story magazine, one of one, published by Burning Books. In addition, she has written and produced radio dramas, commissioned by New American Radio, including What is the Matter in Amy Glennon, which was nominated for the International Prix Futura Award.
Joshua Edwards directs and co-edits Canarium Books. He's the author of Imperial Nostalgias (Ugly Duckling, 2013) and Campeche (Noemi, 2011) and the translator of Mexican poet María Baranda's Ficticia (Shearsman, 2010). Currently a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, he divides his time between Stuttgart, Germany and Marfa, Texas.