Joshua Marie Wilkinson has a bunch of degrees. He’s also written a nice stack of books. If you read a poem of his you might agree that there’s something wild-eyed and ghostly about it. His newest collection of verse is called Selenography, about two handfuls of sprawling poems accompanied by the Polaroid photography of Tim Rutili, frontman of the band Califone, and Josh’s friend.
Part I of this conversation can be read here.
Peter Moysaenko: How, when, and why did the poems and Polaroids of Selenography come together?
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Tim Rutili and I had talked for quite a while about doing this. I think he asked me when another press was interested in doing a book of his Polaroids. Tim’s been taking Polaroids on tour with Califone and all the way back to the Red Red Meat days, when I was still in middle school listening to Jodeci. Anyway, when the editors of Sidebrow Books approached me about doing a project, I thought this might be a good opportunity, since the journal they do is produced so handsomely—and I thought they might do a really nice job of it.
Much of the text was written just after I’d gotten off a couple tours with Califone in 2005 and 2006 (when Solan Jensen and I started making a tour documentary about them), when I was living in Denver. Writing a book with my friend Noah (whose writing is prolix and given to sweeping abstraction and circumlocutionary metaphor) at that time made me want to huddle up alone and work on little tiny image-laden fragments, but to chain them together instead of leave them distinct, as I’d done before in Lug and in the fragment sections of The Book of Whispering.
PM: What system of constraints and engagements produced its form?
JMW: I worked with some of the bits that didn’t make it into our collaboration, Figures for a Darkroom Voice, and some texts that didn’t work with The Book of Whispering—but that still felt vital, alive—and I started to funnel them into the page/stanza/line/syllable form of Celan’s Schneepart, perhaps my favorite of his books. That broke down, but it helped me learn something new about enjambment, and helped me to trust the force of the poem to write with less punctuation, dividers, titles, and less scaffolding in general.
When I’d gathered up all the Polaroids I was gonna try and use with the text, I got home from meeting with Tim at Clava—Califone’s studio in Bridgeport (in Chicago)—and started immediately spreading them all over the table in my front room to see how they might line up with/against the texts, just trying to avoid a picturebook illustration type-thing. It caused me to re-work all the manuscript’s text, page for page, but slowly—over a couple of days—it snapped into place. Cleary, Kris, Jason, and Zuzu of Sidebrow did a stunning job with it—it’s gorgeous inside and out. Tim and I are lucky—especially as so many full-length poetry presses move toward a shoddier-looking print-on-demand construction, hardly the antidote to the bloody e-reader.
PM: At what point, by what instrument, does a poem become a song?
JMW: For me, the poem is always musical and never fully a song. I work in a kind of trance, usually partway aloud and sort of overhear the poem as it’s coming into being—and even in my prose poems—I am never far from that. If it doesn’t work aloud, I re-work it till it does or scrap it altogether. It’s never fully a song because it’s a lyric for me in the old sense of the word: split from the music it was composed against. And because that music is absent, the poem’s forced to do its own work to body forth, but never rises up all the way into the sung—at least not literally. It falls just short of song, and this for me is its stunted work as poetry. No less important, but never quite becoming music in and of itself. But I love that almost-ness—somehow other to spoken language but not quite singing either. In Zukofsky’s sense it’s lower limit speech, upper limit music—and I take solace in that doubled “limit” there—always working with and against the very materials that comprise it.
PM: Your writing seems often to trace lines of rupture. The flickering consciousness of your newest collection nevertheless achieves its own degree of resolution, the condensed meter arranging familiar entities as if portents of a master story. How much sense do you expect from a poem?
JMW: I don’t expect any conventional sense. Meaning is more of an activity, not an a priori, as far as I can tell. And I avoid any “master story” at every turn, shudder even to pause there. But I love recurring images, characters, even lines and phrases—so maybe that’s what you mean?
PM: How can a poem exist outside of dialectics?
JMW: I like the tension between antithesis and synthesis, so that seems good for poetry, even if a poem is—to bastardize a bit of Wittgenstein—composed of rhetoric it nonetheless doesn’t traffic in the rhetorical game of arguments. And I’ll defer to Badiou here, too: “The poem is not a rule-bound crossing, but rather an offering, a lawless proposition.”
PM: Does any written word necessarily represent declaration or interrogation?
JMW: Hopefully declaration and interrogation aren’t the only choices, but they are certainly two modes to animate a mystery.
PM: Can we ever escape narrative?
JMW: Narrative is trickier: I reckon we escape narrative storytelling all the time in poetry. But “saying,” “relating,” or “recounting” experience (that is, narration in these senses) is definitely embedded in poetry for me, as with any poem whose voices drag us on out.
PM: In “My Cautious Lantern” you write—”nobody visits the sewn-up hole / in the ceiling with flashlights.” Is poetry ultimately concerned with “truth”? Is poetry ultimately concerned with “god”?
JMW: I’m not too worried about “truth” in any grand sense; I think if I were, poetry would be the last place I’d spend a lot of time. It’s this search for the “truth” of the poem that often denigrates poetry: by reduction, by hasty summary, by oversimplification, by an unwillingness to stand in the face of the unknown and just shut up, breathe, and listen awhile.
PM: Are existential and metaphysical investigations ultimately bogeyed by semiotic concerns?
JMW: Language—however flawed, slippery, impure—is what mitigates any investigation, so I think of it less as bogeyed and more as a gift.
PM: Can you call to mind some of the common missteps of the emerging poet?
JMW: Perhaps the primary misstep of the emerging poet is hubris. That was my mistake anyway. Already thinking you know what and why you’re writing and how to do it most efficaciously can be a real hindrance to encountering whatever’s beyond one’s first unformed, bland tastes and impulses. Poetry’s a strange set of practices (from reading and writing it to hearing and reciting it, to memorizing it and talking about it, to emulating and copying it, to reading about it, and thinking through it, let alone recalling, studying, and writing about it, among others, no doubt: diagramming, parodying, performing, and erasing it, etc). So, it’s understandable that a beginning writer would just want to zero-in where their initial undeveloped preferences have led them and try to “master” it. This has probably been the downfall of many beginning writers, who tire of their own prescription or begin a career already locked-in from the start by their own shortsighted assumptions.
PM: What about the missteps of the emerging teacher of poetry?
JMW:The missteps of the teacher (and I’m no expert at teaching, but I’ve made many missteps!): perhaps one thing is not challenging students enough. I think new teachers don’t want to tread on a beginning writer’s “expression” and so they make gentle and friendly—but harmless— suggestions that just encourage students to do what they’re doing already with minor adjustments. But what they start out doing is usually awful, as a result of whatever little bit of poetry has filtered down to them. The result is that nobody’s feelings get hurt (how nice), but they have a harder time breaking out of whatever detritus they’ve inherited about what a poem is and can be.
I think the best teachers don’t let you get away with self-satisfied bullshit and don’t have you aspire to “mastery”—enemy of enemies. As Lara Glenum says, “Don’t talk about mastering a form unless you want to enter into the social economy of slavery.” I think this goes for reading poetry too, as beginning readers of poetry often try to find some outside source or motivation (the poet’s own life, say) for what the poem “means.” Eric Hayot’s sentiment sustains me too: “When you think the poem’s no good, I tell them, don’t ask what’s wrong with the poem: what’s wrong with you that you think the poem’s no good? What I mean is: what in you resists the poem, doesn’t like it, is disgusted by it, is afraid or contemptuous of it?” I’ve found these to be helpful questions to ask when folks get bent out of shape reading a poem they don’t immediately “get.”
PM: What major shifts do you see in store for the way poetry is taught and practiced within academia?
JMW: I don’t really know about major shifts in teaching in academia. As far as I can tell, from the 100 essays I compiled for Poets on Teaching, the traditional workshop model is only part of what happens in the creative writing classroom. And it seems to me that the best teachers are always re-framing this format (or abandoning it altogether) to do something else with respect to learning about poetry. There’s more reading, more writing, more reciting, more discussion, more experimenting, more making going on, perhaps, than most folks might be aware of. But this is an unscientific sample of poets—as any cohort of 100 poets (of the thousands, right?) would be.
I chose untraditional poets (across a wide spectrum) for Poets on Teaching deliberately: we already know how boring the traditional model of teaching creative writing is (the old school workshop where the teacher holds court and has final say)—not to mention the dreadful old method of teaching folks how to read a poem (“So, what was Dickinson really saying here?”), as though her poem was merely a stage of action and props for a simple, unified—however encoded—“message” its reader is supposed to guess at or apparently be inspired enough to intuit.
PM: If there’s but one lesson your students walk away with, what would you hope it is?
JMW: I’d say, there’s no secret way, no formula, and no handbook to writing or reading poetry. Simply read and re-read everything, yes, and die trying.
PM:And what in the world has the Web done to poetry?
JMW: First off, I love Geoffrey G. O’ Brien’s response, in an interview with Gillian Hamel for the Studio One reading series, when he says: “I’m paralytically aware of what good intentions can devolve into on the web, a space, like every other cultural space capital permits and maintains, that’s characterized by brevity and disposability and by the reaction-attributes that accompany brevity and disposability: speed, loudness and, often, aggression, contempt, caricature, branding, etc.”
I feel that paralysis that O’Brien mentions: it’s what’s kept me from maintaining a regular blog beyond links to projects, or commenting in any detail on friends’ sites, etc. The Web has enlarged poetry—but that goes all ways. There’s more conversation, but there’s more shitty poetry. As Koch said, “The world never tires of bad poetry.” The Internet seems to have an unslakeable thirst for it. There are some great online journals (Action, Yes, and Trickhouse, for instance), and there are loads of mediocre journals that trade in the same slightly varying cluster of mediocre online poets.
Sometimes I’m despondent when I look at all the poetry stuff online (journals, blogs, poetry sites, articles, flame wars, hubbubs, etc.), but finally I think it’s made for a staggering number of connections, alliances, openings, and friendships. At least it has for me. Along with that, there’s any number of idiotic results of all this: the trolls of the blog world, whose asinine sadnesses and misdirected loathing present a kind of social antagonism that’s a sort of barf-inducing rhetorical comportment, by turns know-it-all aggrandizement, petty rage, churlishness, and abject stupidity that’s just galling to me. I’m one of those people who lurks warily down to the 67th comment on a blog and my stomach starts to turn. Sometimes, you know, I enjoy it, and lurk happily in my malaise, so I’ll call myself out too, as a participant also. The Internet just happens to be the best vehicle human beings have found—thus far, anyway—to showcase their absolute feeble-mindedness.
Yet I’m always so glad when somebody whose work I follow appears in a thread, or when Eileen Myles and Fred Moten and Bhanu Kapil were blogging on Harriet for the Poetry Foundation. I loved it; I’d return to them, forward links to friends, drop an occasional “huzzah!” like some incompetent neanderthal unwilling to engage beyond a show of support and readership. When Moten and Myles posted, I’d read sort of wide-eyed, thinking this is what the Web could do to deepen and expand poetry. Even that was stoned down by brainless haters, bent on rectifying any passing mention of the word “modern” or demanding you go back to Auden’s early works to re-think your thesis on what-the-fuck-ever. Whenever I consider actually engaging, I just remind myself of that little cartoon that Jordan Davis posted someplace of a guy at a computer, avidly typing, who responds to the lover’s call of “Are you coming to bed?” with “Someone is wrong on the Internet.” Then I shut it down and get back in bed with Monsieur Pain.
That said, I think there’s lots to be excited by: htmlgiant’s live readings; the multi-media stuff that Noah Saterstrom does with Trickhouse; the availability of more reviews, articles, and interviews; Andrew Kenower’s archive of Bay Area readings; Pennsound and UbuWeb; and the stellar new Poeteevee. I’m sure readers here could make a huge list of very cool sites unavailable—unthinkable even—for poetry until now.
Part I of this conversation can be read here.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Selenography is available now from Sidebrow Books.