Joshua Marie Wilkinson
what you wish to return to will not leave you unmarked
You will build a ship with pigeons & a city of rope. You will listen with your pockets emptying. What you forget is up to you. What the pigeons do at the end of the story is up to them & the lure of the wind. What you lose cannot be recovered if the light is wrong. What you speak will always have the capacity to break you. If this is clemency, I'm learning to be aligned with its torque & needles, with the glug of its voice through water.
still life with earthquake, rice, & the longest creek dock in the county
The messenger picked a powdered tulip & placed it on the frozen windshield of a truck behind the tannery as the tannery smoked. But it was still early & all the bachelors huddled in a corner to watch who came in. I came in. Many people used their bicycles to jam the strange flood of rice when the factory lost a wall in the earthquake. We were covered in fine white dust & several of my brothers' bicycles were buried. Morning started with a dollop of yellow to batten the black sky onto each of us. Electricity rose in the horse's big eyelid, coursed through its body, & shook it silently. If this is the first plank of the dock, how many steps will we need to take before we are allowed to go back to the rooms?
light blew open the hutch & a boy saw it
Another snared rabbit speaks through a cut in its neck & the powder keg floats downriver, winnowing. A truck's lights moisten your knees when a big squall makes an iceblock out of you. Step slowly off the path when the serum tastes of metal.
Coin-operated telephones, laundromat pinball, & airport televisions attached to their seats. What of this will we remember with our hands? What tent will find you as warm night air? How many stories were you asked to bury & which ones did you bury?
The plants grew a hutch around the raccoons & the children grew a city around the hutch.
-from The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth, selected by Contributing-Editor Anna Knowles
BIO: Born and raised in Seattle, Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of eight books of poetry, the editor of five anthologies, and the director of a documentary film about Califone. As publisher and editor, he runs a poetics journal called The Volta, with Afton Wilky, as well as a small press called Letter Machine Editions, which was recently honored by the National Book Awards. He lives in Tucson, where he teaches at the University of Arizona.
His works include two book-length poems, Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk (University of Iowa Press 2006) and Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms (Pinball 2005), as well as The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (Tupelo Press 2009) and Figures for a Darkroom Voice, with Noah Eli Gordon & Noah Saterstrom (Tarpaulin Sky Press 2007). Since 2006, he's been at work on a five-book sequence of poetry called the No Volta pentalogy, which includes Selenography, with Polaroids by Tim Rutili (Sidebrow Books 2010); Swamp Isthmus (Black Ocean 2013); The Courier's Archive & Hymnal (Sidebrow Books 2014); Meadow Slasher (Black Ocean 2016); and Shimoda's Tavern (Black Ocean 2017).
His poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Boston Review, Chicago Sun-Times, Denver Quarterly, Jubilat, New American Writing, and Verse. Online, work can be found at the Poetry Society of America, the Academy of American Poets, and Pen America, among others. His work appears in the expanded Postmodern American Poetry anthology (W.W. Norton 2013) and in many other anthologies.
He is also the editor of five print anthologies: 12x12: Conversations in 21st Century Poetry & Poetics (with Christina Mengert, University of Iowa Press 2009); Poets on Teaching, featuring 99 essays on the art of teaching poetry (University of Iowa Press 2010); The Force of What's Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde (with Lily Hoang, Nightboat Books 2014); The Volta Book of Poets (Sidebrow Books 2015); and a collection of essays on Anne Carson's work called Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre (University of Michigan Press 2015).
He earned an MA in film studies from University College Dublin and a PhD in English from University of Denver, and taught for four years at Loyola University Chicago. Currently, he is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, where he was the recipient of the College of Humanities Distinguished Teaching Award in 2014. He teaches poetry and poetics to undergraduates and in the MFA program in creative writing.
An Interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson by Contributing-Editor Anna Knowles
Anna Knowles: Regarding your standing relationship with film and these poems in particular, I am interested in how that medium is brought into The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth. I'm thinking of the lines from the poem "light blew open the hutch & a boy saw it," "another snared rabbit speaks through a cut in its neck & the powder keg floats downriver, winnowing." These lines seem to be dissected and, perhaps, reconfigured scenes of film. We usually hear poetry existing within a film but not the other way around. What kind of collaboration would you say exists between the two? What's the interplay here?
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Well, I was watching a lot of strange, old movies when I was writing that book. And I'd fallen in love with Elizabeth Willis's prose poems, especially those in Meteoric Flowers and Turnesque (which also draws on monster movies)-so I think a lot of these movies were haunting the writing. I don't work from any conscious place of directed meanings. Of course, I hope the poems are resonant, that they produce a little world, that they move or bedevil or whatever, but I sort of soak in all these influences-movies and books that I love and experiences and memories that I can't shake-and they work themselves out in the shape of these poems. But while it's happening, I honestly don't have a clear idea on how it's happening. I find out later. Sometimes much later.
AK: The poems in this book read cohesively even as they "stand on their own." When you compose poems do you consider a larger manuscript or do they develop independently or is it a mix of both?
JMW: This is really my only book of discrete poems, and even these are very interrelated and somewhat serialized, thematized. So these developed--I wrote them on my front porch in Denver in West Wash Park--really in sequence, with the idea that they'd be read together. Or that was the hope, anyways.
AK: Let's talk about Victor Erice's film The Spirit of the Beehive, Charles Burnett's film Killer of Sheep, and Paul Celan's epigraph: "Nothing but single children with faint, moory mothersmells in the throat, as trees--as black-alders--elected, scentless." What initially attracted you to these films? What do they offer in the writing of these poems? I am thinking of Ana standing in her window waiting for Frankenstein in The Spirit of the Beehive, or the use of vignettes in Killer of Sheep.
JMW: Well, these two movies are just gorgeous and sad and totally haunting to me. So that's the first thing, really. I just wanted to summon any scrap of the energy of these films--that Burnett and Erice just so totally trust these incredibly patient and slow images. I love that they believe in their scenes enough to stay with them and let them unfold, accrue, and develop over time. My poems don't try to effect this, of course, how could they? But that was one of the things that really moved me. Celan, of course, had that uncanny way of saying something totally inexpressible, something arresting and yet no less impossible to parse. The grammar itself (and my German is pretty poor) seems scored with the saying and the failure to say--and in that stammering, what comes out is the form altered by the act of having pronounced it. Many have written better than me about Celan--my favorite is Lacoue-Labarthe--but it seemed like the perfect note to strike on the book's opening.
AK: The poem "still life with earthquake, rice and the longest creek dock in the county" is the only poem in which you announce yourself: "But it was still early and all the bachelors huddled in a corner to watch who came in. I came in." In doing so, you expose yourself within the poem and also to the reader, inviting us to follow. How would you like the reader to experience these poems?
JMW: Oh, that's not me in any sense, really. It's just a speaker of the poem wanting to be located in the scenes that have unfolded. Indeed, there are many other "I"s in the book (and "me"s and "my"s for that matter), but they too are metonyms of the worlds they help characterize and unfurl the mystery of.
AK: How much do the other people in the poems--I am specifically interested in the messenger girl--serve as an alter-ego? Was that in any way intentional in the generation of these poems?
JMW: The messenger girl's first appearance is in this book, I think, and she's in every book I've written since. In fact, my most recent book--The Courier's Archive & Hymnal--is really her chronicle and her songbook. She's stuck with me, it seems. Alter-ego, yeah, in some ways. She just keeps appearing--and she serves as a storytelling thread (that my poems always develop and seem to abandon) as well as a counterpoint and relief point to the natural world that the poems are overrun by. In some ways the No Volta pentalogy that I began right after this book and which is now complete is five books following her-there obliquely, here quite closely and carefully.
AK: How often do you discover sides to your work that you didn't at first realize was there or didn't necessarily intend, i.e., symbols, connections to other poems, links between poems, etc.? How often do readers see such "thing" that you simply feel aren't there, and how do you react to that?
JMW: I discover new threads and connections and ghost images that recur and germs of ideas that I figured were new but clearly weren't every time I go back and look at any old poems of mine. It's not an experience I enjoy. It's hard to say why. Looking over old poems bores the critic in me. The narcissist in me is confused--elated and deflated simultaneously, somehow. And the part of me that likes to work and generate new poems finds nothing useful in returning to the completed poems, finds only occasions to dwell on missed opportunities, slack moments, bland phrases, or heavy-handed turns that I'm wont to reproach myself for. I can feel that that's foolish, but I don't look back with enthusiasm--never mind an air triumph or even satisfaction. It's best when the books are inert and I can distract myself with the lies I like to tell myself about what it my life was like during the periods when I wrote them. God that sounds grim. But I don't return to the work very much at all. Writing each new book must be a foil for covering up the last one. Or some attempt to rewrite its predecessor, to pick up where the last one fell short. Though that fails too. As to your second question, it's interesting what people learn from the work, and the connections they make. It's not really mine anymore anyways.
AK: The lines in "still life with earthquake, rice, & the longest creek dock in the county" read "morning started with a dollop of yellow to batten the black sky onto each of us" and is followed by "Electricity rose in the horse's big eyelid, coursed through its body, & shook it silently." Each line has this intense, startling jolt, which feels a lot like coming to/from a daydream. This is something I admire in your images. Do you have a specific strategy behind this technique?
JMW: No strategy, I'm afraid to say. I think the "still life" aspect of these poems is that impossible thing: to try and hold still, to hold life still to capture it, and yet in the act of capturing it we animate it, and breathe life into it. We think we are looking at a static picture, but of course we are bringing it to life, even if it's just a bowl of fruit and a shiny mackerel on a countertop. There's a doubleness there--a contradiction--that I'm fascinated with. And those poems try to harvest something out of that contradiction.
AK: In the poem "what you wish to return to will not leave you unmarked" the lines, "What you forget is up to you...What you speak will always have the capacity to break you" kickstarts the first batch of narrative poems in the "Jewel Light/Copper Light" section of the book. What generative elements allow you to create these narratives and, structurally, how does this approach allow you to do/say things that other forms do not?
JMW: I think that light is one of the biggest clichés in a poem, and I've long been fascinated by mining something that seems vapid and hollow or just overused and slight to get it to walk again, say something new, find unseen resonances. So the poems are built on clichés, in a way, that they also seek to dismantle and remake. I think the second-person address is really powerful. It's spooky and it's silly in some ways. We rarely use second-person in literature, though I can think of really wonderful examples. There's something too off-putting about it perhaps, to speak at or for or about an other in a direct address. It opened new doors to the work, for sure. And I was in a class of Laird Hunt's, reading Ann Quin and Thomas Bernhard and Sebald and Cortázar and Walser and Diane Williams and Gary Lutz and Beckett's prose and Lydia Davis all for the first time when I was writing these poems, so their adventures in voice and direct address and prose where "nothing happens" but where the voice has its own perspicacious adventures had filtered in, I think.
AK: I have to ask, how do you come up with your titles? They're a little different.
JMW: Sometimes I come up with titles and then write a poem that could suit it, but usually I take a repeatable form--like "still life" or "A Song Called" or "A Brief History of"--and see what I might be able to write below it. I love long titles, even though most of my recent books--Selenography, Swamp Isthmus, The Easement, Shimoda's Tavern, Meadow Slasher--are much shorter obviously. It seems garish and embarrassing to keep coming up with these overlong titles. But I admit that I love books with long titles, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You being my favorite, perhaps...
AK: How do you go about teaching poetry to your students? What do you think can be taught in terms of image and sound?
JMW: In some ways, it's very simple. I try to show students new to poetry what conventions they are already relying on that aren't very effective, and then I try to show them examples--from Sappho and Diogenes and Bashō and Marianne Moore and Fred Moten--where a particularly unusual use of language can be much more powerful, even if trickier to read at first. We have to relearn how to read, which is amazingly pleasurable if hard. With graduate students, it's much more challenging. Mostly because they can cling to their tastes, which aren't very developed, much more fervently than a beginning student who hasn't read much poetry anyways. I try to show them a lot of new approaches to poems, to get them out of their rote patterns. When you look at Mandelstam or Notley or Niedecker or Shakespeare's sonnets or any of the younger contemporary poets I love (Graham Foust, Ben Mirov, Bhanu Kapil, Brandon Shimoda, etc.), you see that the conventions that 95% of students rely on are just tired tropes, often regurgitated from a sort of bastardized version of Bishop. But it's very difficult for students to stand outside their own writing and look at it slantwise and yet simultaneously have the acumen to know how to develop their flaws into original modes. The more I teach at this level, the more challenging it is. Partly because we are looking for praise and recognition and encouragement. Nobody's really bounding into my office requesting a decimatingly thorough critique. But that's the thing. Unless you want to make acceptable, competent, publishable poems. Which, who doesn't, right? But we've got enough of those, so why wouldn't we want to take more risks? Usually I find that one poet can really blast open a student's practices. It might be C.D. Wright, it might be Gertrude Stein, it might be William Blake or Harmony Holiday. But once they see another set of practices unfolding--especially if they fall in love with the poems without being able to fathom it and say why or how--then change can happen, I've found.
AK: Can you talk a little about collaborative projects in poetry? I know you have worked in the past with poet Noah Eli Gordon and perhaps through the work you've done as the founding editor of the journal The Volta. How does a poem benefit from the collaborative process? Was any of the work in The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth done this way?
JMW: Nothing in The Book of Whispering was collaborative. But I was writing it at the time I was getting to know Noah, who's one of my closest friends. And we did begin to write our book together at that time. I think the thing about collaboration is to try and work with somebody who's doing something different than you are. Noah was writing these really dense, hypotactic, philosophically prolix poems in prose when we met--that came out as a book called Novel Pictorial Noise. And I was writing little bits of overheard imagery and voice and fragments of scene and story in intimate zones between siblings and kids and animals and stuff. We couldn't have been writing more differently! So, writing with him was really fun and challenging and frustrating and pleasurable as a result.
AK: What are you working on now?
JMW: This summer I haven't been writing much poetry, as I've been writing prose for The Volta and for the introductions to Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre, The Volta Book of Poets, and The Force of What's Possible (with Lily Hoang)--three anthologies that are soon to come out. And, like everybody else, I've been reading Knarsgaard's My Struggle, and trying occasionally to put it down to go outside, which is easier said than done, when it's 106 degrees in Tucson and when the book in your hands is so utterly engrossing.