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Literature : Interview

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Part I

by Peter Moysaenko


Polaroids by Tim Rutili.

Josh 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. Really a subdued lyricism, a whistling voice in a darkened theater, say. Image-laden, you might say, staggering. He likes, like great poets before him, coffee, music, movies. And as much as he likes writing poems, he likes talking about poems, talking about talking about poems. Sure, he’s an inveterate poet, but he has other interests. These fascinations and relationships not only bleed into the work of the poem but guide whole books of his. The 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. Mr. Marie Wilkinson—a nom de plume of sorts in memory of his grandmother—also recently edited the book Poets on Teaching, a compilation of 100 essays bent on disrupting old school workshop limitations. He is a man in conversation with poetry. He’s a teacher, but not some starched collar. He’s not tired, he’s thinking, he’s watching. He’s a workhorse.

Peter Moysaenko You once wrote a poem comprised solely of the moon from Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji. And the title of your new book invokes that same old celestial handmaiden of verse. Can you talk about your gravitation toward the orb—as image/idea/thing?

Joshua Marie Wilkinson I’m obsessed with the moon’s appearance in literature. There aren’t many nouns that span so many poems (across languages albeit, transhistorically—I can almost hear Foucault picking his teeth, laughing at me). For Sappho: “Stars around the beautiful moon / hide back their luminous form” (tr. Anne Carson); for Stein: “Only a moon to soup her…” There are dozens in Stevens, a favorite is: “The moonlight crumbled to degenerate forms.”

I think it was Macgregor Card’s line, from a poem in FENCE five or six years back, that got stuck in my brain: “Let the Moon refrigerate the child.” Card’s line actually led me to start looking everywhere for the moon. It’s there in Alkman, in the Odyssey, in all my favorite works: The Grasmere Journals, throughout Faulkner, Moby-Dick, “Briggflatts,” Muse & Drudge, in just about every poem by Niedecker, Frank Stanford, and Basho—all the way to O’Hara (“We hardly ever see the moon any more / so no wonder / it’s so beautiful when we look up suddenly / and there it is gliding broken-faced over the bridges”) and Silliman, too (from Ketjak: “The moon is in the penthouse too”).

I once counted every appearance of the moon in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, and I think there are nearly two hundred in that poem alone. Stanford’s other short poems are replete with them. I’ve copied them all out some place. Dorothea Lasky, Alice Notley, Graham Foust, Jay Wright, Lisa Jarnot, Will Alexander, Andrew Joron, and many of the contemporary writers I love use the moon often, as with Elizabeth Willis’s “The moonlight has a human grip.” There was a big piece a while back in Conjunctions by Tan Lin that stayed with me too: “When I was five I thought the moon was made out of flame-retardant.” Beckett’s moons are—not surprisingly—astonishing: “Let me hear nothing of the moon, in my night there is no moon, and if it happens that I speak of the stars it is by mistake.” That’s the epigraph to the last section of Selenography

The moon appears in Gilgamesh, in Chaucer, and the Romantic poets all drew on it heavily. Somebody sings a song with a moon early on in War and Peace, and in Crime and Punishment the moon doesn’t appear until a couple hundred pages in, when Dostoevsky gives this incredible, lengthy description of it. I love this sentence of C.S. Giscombe’s, from his book Prairie Style: “Inland suffers its foxes: full-moon fox, far-flung fox—flung him yonder! went the story—or some fox worn like a weasel round the neck.”

The moons of The Tale of Genji that you mention—they are staggeringly beautiful, whatever we lose in translation. So, as a Christmas gift for the poet Lily Brown, I copied them all out in their order of appearance and bound it into a chapbook.

PM Can you speculate on sources and ramifications of poets’ persistent selenophilia? Or is it phobia?

JMW I don’t think it’s phobia—it’s selenophilia definitely—as the moon always lets us stand above what we’ve created and also zero in on what we want the moonlight cast upon. It’s a strange doubling that says, “Look up there!” and “look down here at this!” simultaneously. And: “By the way, it’s night.” Since, like everybody else, I’ve been obsessed with Bolaño, I’ll close this response with one of his moons, from Monsieur Pain (tr. Andrews): “Suddenly, like the waning moon peeping through a gap in the clouds, the scene appeared before me stripped of all semblances…”

PM Could you see yourself getting much writing done in outer space?

JMW I don’t think I’d write well in space at all. I prefer earthly gravity.

PM So does Selenography represent another nod to the band Rachel’s?

JMW Rachel’s, yes. I wrote my first book, Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms, in my early 20s as a sort of paean to their record Music for Egon Schiele, which was in turn based on a performance of Schiele’s life. I thought, one more link in this chain would be nice: a poem for a score for a performance for a painter. Selenography denotes the study of the physical surface of the moon, and it’s both the name of another Rachel’s record I love and the name of my most recent collection of poetry.

PM Do you ever write while watching a movie or listening to music?

JMW I wrote my first two books listening almost exclusively to Rachel’s, and I think wouldn’t have finished my film school master’s thesis without having found their album Systems/Layers when I lived in Dublin. That song “And Keep Smiling”—I listened to that for days on repeat, writing.

I have experimented with watching films and writing at the same time. This has had some passable results. One work, the third in a five-book sequence I’m working on, was written while watching this short film by Epstein called Le Tempestaire over and over in the Chicago winter—that and Cornell’s amazing Rose Hobart. I watched those two on a loop and sort of scribbled alongside them for a few months. A big hunk of that is coming out in the new Verse and in the new Lana Turner. Much of my fourth book, The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth, was written in response to Antonioni’s La Notte and Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive.

PM Does your poetry—your enactment of poetic material, let’s say—feed off silence or co-motion?

JMW I don’t know if my writing feeds off silence, but I like pauses, I love enjambment, I love white space, and page breaks. I get a lot of flak from my friends for having too much white space. But that’s all right. I figure the spare lyric worked out fine for H.D., Niedecker, Creeley, and Williams—so I’m not too worried about it.

PM Can you think of any profoundly tired tropes—themes, terms, narratives, objective correlatives—that seem, at present, beyond resuscitation? Is the boredom of trees, of concrete, of shadows, of light, of sky, of rain, of stars, of bathtubs and shoelaces, reliably significant?

JMW I don’t think there’s anything that can’t be reworked. My friend Mathias just sent me an excerpt of some “Business Plans” that he’s written. They’re wonderful and funny. I think the “self” of Stafford’s “I thought hard for us all” as his speaker pushes the deer over the edge—that’s a tough one. Language poetry, thank god, pretty much eviscerated that. Not that your average reader of the laureates would know. It’d be difficult, for me anyway, to write about an uncomplicated self that stands in for “everyman.” But many of the contemporary poets I love (Catherine Wagner, Aaron Kunin, Judith Goldman, Hoa Nguyen, Dana Ward, Farid Matuk, Sawako Nakayasu, Brandon Shimoda, Anselm Berrigan), I mean, how they articulate the self I find staggering and numbing, even inspiring. So, it’s not really a question of worn-out objects or frayed symbols. Besides, Steve Zultanski will probably try to pick up all the old tropes with his anatomy anyway and find a way to record it for us.

PM What’s the phrase—write to remember, write to forget, write to remember that you forget? Participating in a poem as either reader or writer, are you after reception or apprehension, accuracy or mutation? The line that impresses itself upon the mind or the passage that eludes static meaning, will not readily commit to memory? Is any simple statement suspect?

JMW As a writer, I’m interested in making a little world I like the look and sound of, but that isn’t mastered or all-the-way known to me. Its mystery stays intact, and it haunts. However small it is (even two lines, or a line), I want it to feel like I can stay a while. I don’t want to create a perfect little bauble. I fight myself to leave in moments that still resist me, but that I’m nonetheless compelled by. I’m bored with a poem if it feels like I get it immediately. I think that’s where I overlap in sensibility as both reader and writer. I’m not interested in getting to the epiphanic moment at the end of the poem. I like befuddlement, I like a quagmire. But I like a seduction too. It’s easy as hell to be vague—and thus adopt a pseudo-philosophical stance—in a poem. How to make a compelling quagmire (where things are clunky, things don’t fit all the way, there are elements that seem not to belong, but it’s no less an articulation of desire, curiosity, intellection, memory, experience, etc.)—that’s what I’m most interested in.

Even though the “well-wrought urn” is held up as the New Critical apotheosis (or trite abomination on the other hand), I think even Keats had this to a lovely extent—along with Clare and Blake, especially Dickinson. There’s so much clunk and awkward (lovely, arresting) phrasing in Dickinson that it’s just stupefying. But most poets are trained in school to polish this out, to get their poems squeaky clean. I think this is why Spicer is still so startling, Guest too. I go back to Barbara Guest when I want to get spun around and dizzy; I go back to Jack Spicer when I want the piss kicked out of me, and to laugh.

There’s no simple statement to sum it all up, you know? Each poem—if it’s at all good—disturbs any single statement about poetry. We just need to stop apologizing for poetry’s unique strength: its unassimilability.

PM If you had to say goodbye forever to one or the other, which would it be—fruits or vegetables? Leather or wool? Pencils or pens? Lamps or candles? Chocolate or coffee?

JMW Easy: Fruit. Leather. Pencils. Candles. Chocolate. The only one that pained me was pencil, but I write more with cheap pens, so: goodbye, little pencil. Candles pained me a little, too. But a lamp, notebook, pen, black coffee, and a grey morning = paradise to me. I can’t write (or live) without coffee or overcast weather. I guess I’m from Seattle, after all.

PM How do you know when a poem’s done? Or dead?

JMW I try not to over-polish stuff. Usually I work on something obsessively until I find nothing more that I need to alter. If I read it aloud to a friend, then that always shows me flaws. Sometimes they can show me stuff, make suggestions. I have fewer and fewer friends I show work to, but some are really helpful and don’t let me get away with bored turns. But usually I work on books simultaneously and drift from manuscript to manuscript until I have a sense that there’s nothing left to add or subtract or change. I read it aloud alone dozens and dozens of times, and if I can finally get through all 60 or 70 pages without wanting to rearrange or cross out something, then I try to stick it in a box under my desk for 6-12 months. When I return to it, it’s usually very nearly done or I know to put it in the shredder and resume elsewhere.

PM What role does the prospect of publication play in your habit of writing—could you see yourself continuing to write without publishing?

JMW I would definitely continue to write without publishing. I don’t think much of publishing a book while I’m working on it; in the midst of whatever I’m working on, I can be flooded with the thought of “this is totally unpublishable”—so I try not to worry about it. I’m in that mode right now as I’m working on a new long poem. I haven’t sent off a single word of it to anybody. I have read it to a couple of friends, and it scared them, and me. But when a manuscript seems done—or close—then I try to find a home for it, and I do this for at least one of the following reasons (not always certain which or why): to be part of the conversation in poetry, to see the manuscript through so that it doesn’t haunt me as abandoned, or so that I can finally stop working on it—after the proofs are in—in order to move on to what’s next.

PM What aspects distinguish writing that sees print from writing that stays put in your notebook?

JMW The writing that doesn’t make it is usually bland, vague, static, lacks vitality, rips somebody else off, or sounds too much like something I’ve already written. This accounts for perhaps 95% of what I write. Slash and burn. Walk the dog. Put on another pot of coffee. Read a little Hart Crane. Head to the coffee shop on Clark and Olive. Slash and burn. Repeat.

The second part of Peter Moysaenko’s conversation with poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson will appear next week on BOMBlog. Keep your eyes on the skies.

Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Selenography is available now from Sidebrow Books.

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