Joshua Marie Wilkinson books include Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms (Pinball Publishing, 2005), Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk (U of Iowa Press, 2006), Figures for a Darkroom Voice (with Noah Eli Gordon; Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007), 12x12: Conversations in 21st Century Poetry & Poetics, Co-edited with Christina Mengert (U of Iowa Press, 2009), and The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (Tupelo Press, 2009), which is reviewed below. Wilkinson is an experimentalist and a risk taker, his work rooted in the material earth and in the profoundly human. Risks are rewarded in language that’s a supple pure imaginative flow. Many thanks to Elaine Terranova for bringing him to our attention.
Yaakov Murchadha: Your self-imposed constraints in the composing of The Book of Whispering . . . : how did they factor into the psychology of the creative process, that is, their impact on writer's anxiety, fear of failure?
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Well, because the constraint was novel—to sit in my kitchen in Denver and write a certain number of pages for each of five days—it was more of a strain just to physically sit down and do it, since I had never composed on a laptop before. I don’t think I had a clear picture of what the book would look like, as I hadn’t before with either of my earlier books; I didn’t know it would be a book at all. I just wanted it to be prose, and the fragments I worked out later. It was exciting enough (read: frustrating and unfamiliar) that I didn’t worry too much about “the book” as such. I found it arresting to write in big, long prose sentences that the process itself carried me—that and returning to Charles Brockden Brown’s work a lot on the porch when I’d hit a wall. As for anxiety, I think it goes hand in hand with writing. I don’t mean this in some romantic sense. Anxiety for me (if not maddening and blockade-like) is actually generative. It heightens the adrenalin of making, I suppose. And black coffee helps. If only I was a smoker. My two best friends who are writers are smokers, and this seems to aid them. You can step outside and reflect mid-process before returning to the work. As it is, I walk my dog.
YM: There are many fine poets writing now. Who do you think are the great ones? The most neglected?
JMW: Off the top of my head, I’m an avid follower and reader of Aaron Kunin, Tan Lin, Renee Gladman, Myung Mi Kim, Anselm Berrigan, Jay Wright, Bhanu Kapil, C.S. Giscombe, Stephanie Young, Farid Matuk, Hoa Nguyen, Fred Moten, and lots of others. Of the dead, I’ve recently been rocked by Mandelstam, Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Yi Sang, Pasolini, and Donald Revell’s new Rimbaud translations. As far as neglected contemporaries, it’s a miracle if you get any attention at all with how many folks are trying to publish their work. Honestly, I think if a book of poems sells 500 copies and gets a couple of reviews, it’s been recognized. Many will see this as sad, but I think it’s terrific that something like underground poetry—a very difficult thing for capital to assimilate into its normative operations—can radiate out through the channels it does.
YM: The Book of Whispering…took shape on a kitchen table. Do you think where you write influences what or how you write?
JMW: Yeah, it probably does. My hope is that writing in new places changes things up, but it’s just a ruse to get me back writing again. I’m a very inconsistent writer; the moment I think I know what I do, it changes. Or the old ways don’t work, and I have to trick myself back into the work, usually by doing something new. Even with the process, there’s no predictability. Perhaps there will be at some point.
YM: By way of analogy, who is the poet closer to, a film's director or cinematographer?
JMW: My first thought was to say director, but now I think cinematographer. I think because I don’t direct the language so much as follow it as it’s revealed. There is directing, I suppose, when I’m editing and re-working a text—but even still it’s a combination of simultaneously following the language while generating it. I’m not sure how much control I have, even when I think I have control of it. I try not to overwork it, even though I’m returning to it over months and years. It’s a hauntology, a taking dictation, in Ronell’s sense. It’s hard not to hear Breton here: even if it’s not exactly the “absence of any control exercised by reason,” the exercise of reason is always trembling, I’d say, in relation to what it casts its dim light on. Better yet, here’s Inger Christensen: “The gift is that you are forced to put much more of the world into the poem. Sometimes it feels as though the poem is carrying you along. You have access to a universe that begins to carry you…into something that you would never have been able to see or write.”
YM: Are you concerned with labels, how they might or might not be applied to your work? How would you classify it?
JMW: I’m not worried about labels. I want to think that our era is less concerned about labels (but then elliptical, experimental, second-generation, post-avant, flarf, con-po, slow poetry, quietude, the new brutalism, etc., all just popped to mind). Maybe it’s because most the poets I know don’t sit around thinking up a name for what they do—perhaps because our work is too disparate from one to the other? As you might imagine, I’m reluctant to fashion one myself, let alone classify it. Even Zukofsky kept the quotes around “Objectivists,” I suppose. However, I would like to revive the Black Mountain School—not so much the name, but the school itself. Is that too much to ask? Course, I’d like to share a pitcher of beer with the Oppens, too. When folks—usually those who are unfamiliar with poetry beyond the laureates (the laureati?)—ask how I characterize the poetry (by school or style or whatever), I just describe the processes by which I make texts: ekphrasis, the epistolary, fragmentation, collaboration, collage, the various tricks and techniques (responding to Polaroids, drawings, films, music) I’ve utilized in my writing. That seems to go over alright, usually quoting Stevens again: the poem as “the act of finding.” I naively thought I was working all alone, but each project—I’ve come to realize—is a collaboration or conversation of one kind or another.
YM: How do you see the contemporary poetry scene, in terms of schools and characteristics? Is it important to have a sense of affiliation with one, or more?
JMW: I think I’m still learning about contemporary poetry. For me, this means trying to figure out, too, what I like about what I’m drawn to (and stunned by) and what I dislike about what repels me. There are a number of writers (mentioned above) whose work astounds and excites me. For me, it’s not important to have any “affiliation” with a school, per se. Though I try to do things for poetry beyond just writing and publishing my own poems. I’ve edited a book of conversations and poetry with Christina Mengert, and on my own I’ve gathered nearly 100 essays that will come out next year as Poets on Teaching from Iowa. The engagement is in every part of my life: attending readings, reading journals, subscribing to presses, teaching collections of poems, publishing others’ books and chapbooks, running a house reading series (Cathy Wagner, Tyrone Williams, and Dana Ward are reading at our apartment next weekend) and a visiting author series at school, letting poets stay at my apartment when I’m traveling, editing a journal, filming and recording and interviewing other poets, writing the occasional review or introduction or blurb, lending and recommending books to friends and students, buying chapbooks, bringing poets as visitors into my classes, sewing chapbooks while watching The Wire with Lily, supporting little bookshops, etc. In this sense, “affiliation” is crucial. Not by name, but by practice and engagement. Though, as with Antin and deconstruction, when I hear the word “community” I usually reach for my pillow.
I confess, however, that I find most poetry these days pretty dull. I notice people mention this frequently in passing, but I don’t want to bluff, so I’ll say a little about it. There are at least two or three types of poetry out there that weary me: on the one hand, what I call “synonym poetry”: A poem whose world is an ordinary one, but its diction is replete with “writerly,” pithy—often heightened—alternate words in order (apparently) to become “poetic.” These poems are balanced, “tasteful,” well-behaved, unsurprising in their “surprises.” They tend to draw praise (if occasional “tweaks”) in traditional workshops. These poems have little at stake formally, and their voices and speakers are polite variations on Frost or Bishop, as though other modernists never picked up a pen. “Craft” is the key word for this poetics; I don’t mean that “craft” is somehow inherently evil, like “community”—only that these words can get used as though they reflect some self-evident world of “well-executed” poetry. As with the rhetoric of excellence in Bill Readings’s work, or the discourse of “community” in Miranda Joseph’s work. On the other hand, I notice a lot of poems that are vague and bland abstracted “postmodern” experiments. They use white space; they’re gestural. Their guts seem vacuumed out, and we’re left with a sort of lifeless—and quickly forgotten—“fog.” I call this poetry “foggerel.” It’s empty, unmusical, and thrives under the auspices of first appearing grave or even “philosophical.” So long as it looks a bit like projective verse, has an erudite epigraph, and often uses heavy puns, dramatic verbs, and dull juxtaposition. Like watered-down Olson, H.D. without the mythology or combat, O’Hara without the antsy leaps and sardonic blade—or even like a Duncan poem devoid of its mysticism or radical romanticism. I like Levertov’s sense that “We need a poetry not of direct statement but of direct evocation.” Foggerel, I suppose, is “indirect evocation.” I guess a third kind is “soft-surrealist cotton candy” (in Jon Woodward’s phrase). It’s not Breton or Artaud; it’s Stevens’s parody of surrealism, (paraphrasing here) that anybody can have an avocado play a harmonica. I think young poets might learn something from folks like Andrew Joron, Wen Yiduo, Francis Ponge, Desnos, Rankine, Michaux, Giscombe, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Joseph Donahue, and Sawako Nakayasu.
YM: Finding/developing a voice is an issue for a lot of writers. Is it for you? How does writing in a minimal form, eg fragments, bear on the issue? I'm thinking of someone like Lance Phillips, where the minimalism is so extreme that voice seems to have been eradicated. But is this the objective?
JMW: I’m trying to find lots of voices. All the poems in The Book of Whispering… have disparate voices to me, even if they seem to overlap. I’m sure there are writers who bank on finding their one “voice”—are beginning writers still told to go in search of this?—and some (Kafka and Dickinson, two favorites spring to mind) seem to me sort of “unified” in tone throughout their work, to the point that it’s uncanny (facile as this sounds, now that I’m typing it). Dorothea Lasky’s poetry is like this, too, to me; the tone and sensibility, diction and cadences seem “unified” in a striking way. In terms of fragments, I think voices do come across—the effect of human utterance, a ghostly verisimilitude of what’s spoken. Even in Sappho (translated over how many millennia?) there seems to be a voice, or voices…Maybe I’m just suspicious of “voice” if it means stable, recognizable, knowable subjectivity. Nevertheless—and I’m acknowledging my contradictions here, very well then—I love when there seems to be an absolute, living personality speaking through the letters: I’m thinking here of Jennifer Moxley’s The Middle Room, Basho’s travel sketches, and even some of Creeley’s later poems: “Look at / that mother-fucking smoke stack // pointing / straight up.” Probably Blaser’s Moth Poem is what splits the difference for me in the most compelling way: the voice is as uncannily “there” as it is a sort of ghostly presence. I wish somebody would write a book about this on the aforementioned with Ceravalo, Wieners, Kaufman, and Guest.
YM: Do you have any long range plans or goals, forms you want to try, subjects you want to write about?
JMW: I’ve been writing a single long poem divided into five books for the last several years. I’d like to complete that, as I’m just now finished with a working draft of book three, which is haibun. The first is a small collaboration with the Polaroids of Tim Rutili that’s nearly complete—it’s called Selenography. I’m excited for that.
REVIEW. . . The Book of Whispering . . .
The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (Tupelo Press, 2009) is, among other things, a fascinating, energy-giving dance with the notion of constraint, how it plays out in both physical and psychological realms.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson composed Whispering under the following self-imposed constraints: complete a first draft in no more than five days (subsequent editing/revising permitted and actually lasting several years); and compose it of alternating prose poems and lyric fragments, the object being a rhetorical role reversal, where each form takes on characteristics of the other. This topic, as well as others bearing on the creation of Whispering, are considered in an excellent Reader’s Companion, downloadable from the Tupelo website, http://www.tupelopress.org/.
In his introduction to Whispering, which is included in the Companion, Wilkinson notes, “Perhaps my exploration of an obsession, as with my obsession with nouns and images, is only an articulation of that obsession.” Yes, and it is especially the images that relate to constraint that are most significant, obsessing the poet and soon enough the reader.
In a feat of creative alchemy, external regulation becomes subject matter, and the general concept of constraint explodes into an array of wonderfully evocative particulars. There is, for example, an exploration of constraint in the sense of physically holding still, where the act of holding still evinces a range of emotional values, as in the macabre “A boy holds so/still in the wax/museum//his skin takes/on the ceiling’s/perfume,” and in the sublime “. . . You can unlearn the earth’s/spinning//if you//lie down on your back/in the goatfield” (both quotations from the Whispering’s second section, also titled “The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth”).
And, from the prose poem “a brief history of the developer,” this gorgeous specimen: “. . . This happened before the fire took the trees to charcoal, before the white fish were locked in the ice of the fountain.” Interesting to note here is the white/back visual duality, which running as an image stream is significant throughout. Finally, many of the prose poems are titled still lives, for example, “still life with satellite, radish garden, mailboxes & deer.”
If one side of constraint is enforced stillness, the other involves impulsive escape, release, rupture. This aspect is explored as well. Things are broken or breached, as material as rabbit flesh (“Another snared rabbit speaks through a cut in its neck,” from “light blew open the hutch & a boy saw it”) or as sheer as the membrane of vision (“How memory or loss bores holes into your eyes, but backwards like projectorlight,” from “memory does a few more unpardonable things to you”).
The importance of the breach of constraint is discussed by Wilkinson in his introduction. There the context is a film, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, where the camera captures an unscripted, undirected—and therefore authentic—reaction of a little girl, the film’s best moment.
Wilkinson emphasizes the point –the importance of the constraint to what is allowed to escape it—in “poem,” a brief prose work, “How long/did the wooden/horse last after/the boys/carved out/its belly?” Here the idea seems to be the oneness of the constraint and its breach, their symbiosis, and perhaps it isn’t stretching the point to suggest that ultimately in Whispering constraint equals ego, with this psychological sense of organic benign constraint serving as the book’s overall structuring metaphor.
Indeed, the sequence of poems seems readable as an imagistic bildungsroman. There are early suggestions of a difficult threatening world (suicide, lynching) in which a boy must hold still in every sense in order to survive, and then in the later sections a sense of freedom and animation. Consider the self-knowledge implicit in “Even though there are sixty-five people inside of you, each of them is listening for the hinge to whine when you drift off in the rowboat” (from “on certainty & perfumes”). And the sense of parental relation in “Will you/fall//out of my footsteps?” (from “The Book of the Umbrella”).
Not to push the issue—this is just one vein of value in an extremely valuable book.