Joshua Marie Wilkinson grew up in Seattle and lives in Tucson. He’s written a book called Meadow Slasher (Black Ocean 2017) and some others, too. With Lisa Wells,he runs a press called Letter Machine Editions and a journal called The Volta. He teaches creative writing, literature, and film at the University of Arizona. Our Editor-in-Chief, Kristina Marie Darling, recently had a chance to ask Joshua a few questions about his work.
KMD: Your latest collection of poetry, Meadow Slasher, offers the illusion of order, the semblance of a logical structure. We are offered pristine single-line stanzas, and faultless grammatical constructions, but within them, readers will discover a provocative fragmentation of meaning. Could you speak about the relationship between received forms and experimental content in your work? What misconceptions do contemporary poets have about the relationship between form and content?
JMW: I think of the form—eleven lines—as sonnets without a volta. No turn, no offering for a witty reversal, no clever reflective rejoinder, no summing up. There’s a joyless, fucked up sort of bulling through that seemed right for Meadow Slasher and once I found that as a form, it stuck. I’m not sure if that answers your question. I don’t know about the misconceptions that you’re asking about. I think all my conceptions are misconceptions.
I just try to find a form for my poems that lets them breathe. I don’t like a lot of text on a page in my own work. I want the silence to speak. I want to have space to think and speak and take a breath and pause—but it’s probably because I’m an acolyte of Niedecker and Oppen and Myung Mi Kim and lots of others.
I don’t come to poetry for easy, comfortable, friendly “relatability,” whatever that is. But I do come to poetry for a refuge from the shittiness of the world—hopefully a refuge that takes up that shittiness.
But Meadow Slasher is the record of a breakdown, literally. I wrote the bulk of it in a four-day hysteria back in Chicago. How do you find a form for the poem you’re writing when the marbles are falling out of your head? That’s the question. I’m being cute, but only because I wanted to kill myself and walking up to this little café with my legal pad up on Clark street sort of saved me. There was this barista there who played Teen Dream by Beach House every single day. And she’d let me sob in the corner into my coffee and just scribble longhand for hours. It was like I was sixteen or something. She left me alone, though. It was an amazing gift. She told me she was a painter once. I don’t know her name. Anyways, Beach House’s “Silver Soul” would come on and it would crush me every time. And I think that song and that woman playing it over and over again kept me alive. And Beach House. I should write them a letter. So Leadbelly’s “Sillver City Bound” and Marvell’s mower and Beach House sort of kept me breathing for the better part of a week.
KMD: Many poets have argued that there are no new ways to experiment, but rather, the new frontier is integrating experimental forms and the artistic tradition we have inherited. Would you say this hybridity, carving a space for innovation within a formal structure, is more exciting than pure experimentation?
JMW: I don’t know that I understand the premise, but I’ll say there are an infinite number of ways to experiment, to play, to dream, and confabulate, to make forms, to think and talk and relate. To think we’ve somehow exhausted like all new forms is a failure of imagination. I’m interested in the old ones and in the new ones, too. And in the ones I haven’t seen yet, too. I like shit that’s played out and supposedly done. But Meadow Slasher takes its cues from Leadbelly’s old folk-blues spirituals and Andrew Marvell’s slashy little mower, so there’s that. They make perfect sense together to me.
KMD: I enjoyed your collaboration with photographer Tim Rutili, which presents poems alongside Polaroids. I find it fascinating that the poems resist narrative, and eschew the task of creating a story around the images, in much the same way that Rutili’s photographs resist the impulse to illustrate. How did this collaboration begin? What did this co-authored project make possible when returning to your practice as an individual poet working outside of a formal collaborative structure?
JMW: Thanks. Selenography is a strange little book. I went on tour a couple times with Tim’s band Califone in 2004, when I was in film school in Ireland. Tim takes a lot of Polaroids on the road and I’d long been fascinated by what he does. It’s like a secondary sort of quick-and-dirty art for him (since he’s a brilliant songwriter and performer). And his Polaroids are beautiful, and textured by this destructive process he has with them to bring out their flaws in the developing.
So, one day he let me come to the studio, which used to be Clava, on the south side of Chicago. And we sat around smoking and talking and looking through his box of Polaroids from maybe 20 years on the road at that point. And I took home a bunch and tried to arrange a new book with them. He’s my favorite musician. He’s also probably my favorite photographer. So really I just wanted to find an excuse to get under his shadow for a while.
As for your second question, I’m not sure. I think collaborating always makes it a relief to be alone again. And to figure out what you have to say and work through alone. It’s like traveling and coming home—I always love to come home, and it’s lovely and new and fresh and thrilling again. Inevitably it gets stale and you gotta get back out. For me, one won’t do without the other—and they keep ghosting into each other.
KMD: You’ve quite a prolific poet, with books published by a number of wonderful independent presses, like Black Ocean and Sidebrow Books. Your collections that have also won major contests, the Iowa Poetry Prize being one example. What advice would you give poets who are submitting a first book manuscript about choosing a publisher, and sorting through the many submission opportunities that are available to them?
JMW: I don’t know. I’m not sure I have anything to say that people haven’t heard a million times before. But I think rejection (and I’ve gone through a lot lately on a new project) is an opportunity to make the work better. There’s freedom in it. Because if nobody wants it then you can make it that much more your own. But it’s brutal to cut your teeth on that many no’s. Choose presses whose work you love and follow. Support them in other ways. Every day people write to me to submit; rarely do they ask if they can help out. Poetry is virtually a gift economy. Occasionally, the Maggie Nelsons and Claudia Rankines break the fold and really sell an ocean of books, but for the rest it’s pretty modest, I’d say. I try to stick with the presses that I form relationships with. Sidebrow and Black Ocean have been good to me, mostly because they seem genuinely interested in what I’m doing. I think if you find that as a writer, that’s a rare thing. Something to cherish and cultivate. That those folks have become friends makes it even better. But any opportunity to work in public, as C.S. Giscombe says, is a gift. I’m with him on that.
KMD: You’re also a founding editor of The Volta, a publishing project that encompasses literary criticism, book reviews, poems, interviews, and more. What has your curatorial practice opened up within your work as a creative practitioner?
JMW: You know, I don’t know that it has much bearing, honestly. I think I’ve kept myself busy with other people’s work for a long time as a way from staying distracted from shit in my own life I wanted to avoid. An ex pointed this out a long, long time ago—and I wasn’t ready to hear it. Or I refused. I don’t know.
You didn’t ask a particularly personal question, but that’s the answer I have. People who run presses, run journals, edit anthologies (I do all these things) do it at a loss—you become more scattered, shallower, estranged from yourself. I mean, me. I did. I’m sure everybody else has a better sense of balance and like prudence than I do.
Now, I’m just slowing down. The Volta, I don’t know. We lost a good editor last year, and I’m not sure we can sustain it without her. I don’t know if she lost faith or what. But when folks fall away, it gives you a chance to check in with what you’re doing—and see whether you want to keep doing it or not. I haven’t written many poems in a long time. So maybe I’ll get back to that one day.
To be honest, I needed to do a lot of therapy, read a lot of self-help, figure out why I kept making the same self-destructive choices, why the old patterns kept hemming me in like I’d had so little to do with it. Why I surrounded myself with damaging people. That’s probably not the answer you wanted but that’s what I got.
KMD: In addition to editing The Volta, you have also co-founded and curated a small press, Letter Machine Editions. I’d love to hear more about the differences between print and electronic mediums. Are there projects that The Volta has undertaken that would have been impossible in print? When considering your experience editing Letter Machine Editions, what does the printed make possible for poetry?
JMW: I started The Volta because I hate the internet. And I figured, rather than sitting in the armchair of the scoffer as Marianne Moore says somewhere, I’d contribute and try to make a space, something better, my Eden, my two little cents. But Letter Machine was different: it was about (and is) the book—the technology of the codex: of glue, ink, paper, art, typefaces, design. All the nerdy bookish things. I’m in love with books as such. I’m addicted to old bookstores. I’m obsessed with new and used and rare books. I love cruddy little pocket paperbacks and the new, shiny hardcover expensive stuff. I’m finally starting to let go of some books, but it’s painful. When I watch Hoarders I’m not like: what the fuck is wrong with these people, I’m very much like: yes and yes and check and that’s me!
I impulse bought a Harlan Coben book at a supermarket checkout the other day. Like, I have a problem. Letter Machine, which I now run with Lisa Wells, is an extension of that problem. But it’s about having an excuse to work with poets I love: Alice Notley, Brandon Shimoda, Fred Moten, Renee Angle, Sawako Nakayasu. New books by Jess Laser, John Yau, and the 25th Anniversary edition of Debt by Mark Levine are all coming out next year.
KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?
JMW: The final volume of my No Volta pentalogy is coming out from Black Ocean pretty soon. It’s called Shimoda’s Tavern. When I am old I will open up a bar and call it that. Hopefully in some mossy little town in the Northwest, not far from the ocean, where Lisa and I grew up. Not that I drink much anymore. But it’s a bad name for a bookstore. (Or is it?) So that’s in the works. Look for that in 2046. And a novel called The Last Shiver of Evening. It’s about trying to be a writer and about why relationships between people who love each other tend to fall apart anyhow. I’ve done that a lot. Also, it’s about a murder. I’m less familiar with murder though.
A Folio of Poems by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
A Brief History of Animals in the Yard
Not enough for me to say
it cleanly under the red
moon looming in
fabric of stars, bright
ghosts up from
the pond in love here
to haunt a memory to
Who’s that beneath
Oh, that’s nobody—
Just some future
bit of self to
cast lies at.
Alive from the dulled out
sun. Soon-to-be mulch,
twinkle in the orange trees
where the coyotes like
to hover and watch us
make dinner in the kitchen.
Into You and Yours Seep the Dreams of the Dogs
To swim back
into the nocturnal aura
of no place here.
I fell off into the pit.
My friend Abraham singing out
at the ledge, a hand towel sopped
in bourbony Windex at the ready.
There’s another slough of undiscovered
disjected parts of self I’d like to summon
around the fire and pick with a bone at.
Each mistress’s own version of the story as told
in the steam of the bathtub after the window’s
been pushed open to the cool clouds out there.
Show me the person who doesn’t want
a look inside.
Have a seat. Go back.
No, go back a little further. Tell the story
from the very beginning.
First, dogs chewed up the glass.
Oh, so it’s those kinds of dogs.
I picked up after them. Pulled a rotted
orange from the big one’s mouth and rinsed
the rind off and tossed it anyways when they were sleeping.
Come here, please. I have to tell you something.
I’m not yelling. I’m just in awe as they maraud
down the dark street at the slip of the arroyo like butterflies.
And now you’re standing up. And now you’re singing, too.
We could be in love, live forever, fuck all night. Sleep really good
with a glass of water on the nightstand, the ice cubes melting into it.
But that’s not enough for you is it?
And by you I mean us, of course.
Brown, black, bright moonlight dark water of pre-dawn smear’s constancy.
Fuck the noise of the rabble. Their phones are dead and they can’t sit still.
Their limit is long violated.
Let us contact the unconsoled and actually
befriend them by proffering an invitation.
Meaning, I’m not so sure I don’t trust you anymore.
What was the dream?
That I kept crashing my mother’s funeral.
When did she die?
Oh but that’s the thing. She hasn’t.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books, which include JE SUIS L’AUTRE: ESSAYS & INTERROGATIONS (C&R Press, 2017), DARK HORSE (C&R Press, forthcoming), and THE DISAPPOINTMENT ACTS (C&R Press, forthcoming). Within the past few years, her writing has been honored with three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, three residencies at the American Academy in Rome, and a Visiting Researcher Fellowship from the University of Washington’s Helen R. Whiteley Center. She is the recipient of grants from Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund, the Whiting Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Ora Lerman Trust, the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, and the Rockefeller Archive Center. A graduate of NYU’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and the PhD Program in Literature at SUNY-Buffalo, Kristina currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.