Joseph Lease & Ben Mirov discuss poetry as soul-making
the opposite of sincerity is mediocrity
Ben Mirov: After reading Testify for the first time, I couldn't help but feel that it was the book for our particular moment in American history. It addresses huge political and social issues without lapsing into diatribe or didacticism or sacrificing the musical integrity of the poems. The tone is an oxymoronic mixture of pathos and courageousness. Do you get the sense that Testify offers a vision of salvation from the mess the country is in? Or is it more important that the work embody a yearning towards an alternate future than the one being offered by politicians and CEOs?
Joseph Lease: It may be easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That’s what Mark Fisher says in his book Capitalist Realism. I think it’s more important than ever to have different ways of imagining. I think poetry is the best way of embodying and enacting different ways of imagining. And that involves different ways of imagining social space, different ways of imagining capitalism and justice and the ideal of democracy.
BM: One thing I love about the work in Testify is how the musical quality of the poems has a catalytic effect on their subject matter, which is often politically and or emotionally charged. Can you talk about this quality in your work?
JL: A poem makes passages of emotion and thought actual in a construct of words. My work is ear-driven: rhythmical control answers/embodies the emotion that animates the poem. So a poem isn’t merely political. It’s not alienated. A poem is ethics and eros and spirit. A poem of erotic experience embodies and enacts what it feels like to move through the world—to be alive—to have a body and a mind and desire and a conscience and an unconscious mind.
BM: Another thing I admire about the work in Testify is the application of repetition throughout the book. Lines come up again and again, or they morph slightly into different versions of themselves. It occurred to me that this repetition and the repetition in prayer have something in common. How important is prayer in Testify?
JL: Rhythmical control answers and embodies the emotion that animates the poem. The music becomes incantatory. And, yes, the music of the poem—the emotional trajectory—makes the poem matter so much more than a summary of a political or emotional argument could matter. Poetry can enact changes in awareness so well because that isn’t the only thing poetry does. Let me try to say that a different way. A poem is a rollercoaster ride, not a description of a rollercoaster ride.
BM: One of the ideas that's come up when we've talked about the breathtaking poem "Broken World (For James Assalty)" (from Broken World) is creating community through "mystical individuality". For me this idea encapsulates the visionary aspect of your poems. How is "mystic individuality" important in your work? How does the idea play into the poems in Testify?
JL: James was one of the smartest, toughest, most gifted writers I have ever known. I needed to write a proper elegy for him. And I love the connection between elegy and political anger in “Lycidas”: so when I write to James—“You are with me / and I shatter // everyone who / hates you”—I am enacting a ritual—and I believe that poetry connects the living and the dead in mystical community and democracy (if you are part of a true democracy, you are part of something spiritual).
BM: We've talked about the idea of "soul making" in your work before. How does the idea of soul making play into your poetics, specifically your work in Testify? Is it a sense of structural and/or musical completeness you look for in your poems? Or something less tangible and ineffable?
JL: I don't want to sell poetry short. Sometimes there is a bias against strong emotion in contemporary discussions of poetry. Sometimes there is a bias against real intelligence (emotion enacts intelligence). Sometimes there is a bias against sincerity (sincerity is not the opposite of irony—sincerity is artifice made actual in a construct of words—the opposite of sincerity is mediocrity). So, sure, Keats believed we aren't just put here to suffer—we are put here to make our souls. Soul-making demystifies lies.
BM: "Soul-making demystifies lies" is really wonderful. For me, this is a summation of the connection between the individual and the political in your work. Your poems are courageous in the way they put so much faith in the reader. They are the exact opposite of the empty rhetoric we're spoon-fed by politicians, who treat their constituents like idiots. It strikes me that you must have a great deal of faith (faith in the reader, faith in poetry). Is poetry a religious practice for you?
JL: It's a spiritual practice, yes. I'm a leftist Jew but I don't go to temple. I read psalms and Walter Benjamin and Emily Dickinson. Reading poetry aloud can be prayer. "The exact opposite"—I like that. I've studied and written about oppositional poetics. I think post-capitalist political language can be poetry—resistance—poetry that resists dehumanizing lies—we need fullness of representation, fullness of embodiment and fullness of enactment.
Ben Mirov is the author of Hider Roser (Octopus Books, 2012), and Ghost Machine (Caketrain, 2010) which was selected for publication by Michael Burkard, and chosen as one of the best books of poetry in 2010 for Believer Magazine's Reader Survey. He is also the author of the chapbooks My Hologram Chamber is Surrounded by Miles of Snow (YES YES 2011), Vortexts (SUPERMACHINE, 2011), I is to Vorticism (New Michigan Press, 2010), and Collected Ghost (H_NGM_N, 2010).
Joseph Lease's critically acclaimed books of poetry include Testify (Coffee House Press, 2011) and Broken World (Coffee House Press, 2007). Lease’s poems "'Broken World' (For James Assatly)" and "Send My Roots Rain" have been selected for Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (Second Edition). "'Broken World' (For James Assatly)" was also selected for The Best American Poetry 2002.
*Note: This interview was conducted in 2011, after the release of Joseph's book TESTIFY (Coffee House Press)