An Interview with Joshua Poteat
from Dislocate, a literary journal founded and operated
by Creative Writing MFA students at the University of Minnesota
Ornithologies, winner of the 2004 Anhinga Prize
for Poetry, is hands-down one of the best books of 2006. Just ask the folks at Blackbird, who say some pretty swell things.
And why shouldn't they? Joshua Poteat's work deserves all sorts of kind words. Some that I would use are twilit, gently close
to perfect, dearest whisper, a gathering. Ornitholigies is truly, truly a beautiful catalogue of that which is close
and o so real.
you working on these days? Any work coming out in the near or semi-near future?
Right now, I'm working on a whole manuscript of appropriated titles, all taken from J. G. Heck's 1851 Pictorial Archive
of Nature and Science. Some I made up, but for the most part, I took them from Herr Heck's scientific steel engravings. Titles
such as: "Apparatus to show the amount of dew on trees and shrubs," "Illustrating the theory of twilight,"
"Illustrating the echo in arched rooms," "Apparatus for determining the specific heat of bodies," that
kind of thing. The poems are not ekphrastics...they're just riffing off of the titles, in an antiquated, PBS sort of way.
Some of them have appeared/will appear in Virginia Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, Hunger Mountain, American
Letters & Commentary, Copper Nickel, and perhaps other places. I should also have work appearing in millions of mailboxes
across the country, i.e., I edit junk mail for a large credit card company.
What sorts of things have you been reading?
Oh, all kinds of great things. I just finished Karen Russell's book of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised
by Wolves, and despite all the hype she's been getting because she is so young and cute, it's a damn good book. The best version
of magic realism I've seen in quite a while. And in a similar vein, Samantha Hunt's The Seas, a beautifully strange and short
Coincidentally, from the U of M press:
The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects, by Peter Schwenger. It's a bit over my head, but I need to be challenged.
David Wojahn's selected poems Interrogation Palace. Richmond
can now claim him, as he is teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University. He's great.
And another member of VCU's writing faculty, Susann Cokal. I read both her novels recently: Mirabilis and Breath
& Bones. Both are lovely, historically based crazinesses. (I should say that I do not teach at VCU, or anywhere else.)
Also, there's a magazine/journal that I love called Cabinet,
filled with the randomness of the world. Each issue has a theme. I highly recommend it.
Regarding your own work, do you have a favorite and/or most-representative
Nope. They all pretty much
sound the same. I'm like the triangle player in the marching band.
Which writer would you say has had the biggest influence on your writing style?
Larry Levis was/is a big influence, especially on the longer pieces in Ornithologies.
I had the chance to study with him for two years at VCU before he died. For a long time, he has been my main source. After
several years of floundering around after grad school, working lame jobs, and writing nothing, reading his poems was the reason
I started writing again. I think I am finally growing away from his influence, which saddens me in a way.
How important is the specificity of place in your work?
Important and not important. In my newer work, place
is not so important. There's more of a blur. In Ornithologies, there seemed to be a concentration on landscape, mostly a southern
one. I enjoy writing about/including landscape, and what is contained in landscapes, and what I know best is a southern landscape,
the landscape of my childhood.
your work were to be made into a film, who would direct it?
I would say...David Gordon Green, in the style of his George Washington...or even All the Real Girls.
Editor's note: I would say, too. And it would be awesome.
What contemporary writer would make the best
If you were a character from Shakespeare, which
one would you be?
the bear that chases Antigonus offstage in Winter's Tale. "This is the chase: I am gone for ever." Or a prop of
some sort. A broom. A skull. A handful of sand. In kindergarten, I was asked to be the emperor in The Emperor's New Clothes,
but I refused, as I would have had to wear only my underwear (the long thermal kind). I was quite Victorian back then. I just
wanted to be one of the palace guards, because there were guns involved.
Are there any "words of wisdom" that linger in your head when you're writing? Any advice that has stayed
Someone once told me
to write as if a train was bearing down upon me, i.e., with urgency. That seems like good advice.
What word do never tire of seeing in poem? What word could you live without
ever seeing again? (Billy Collins said he hates poems with the word "locust"...what a joker. Locusts are always
Oh, dear sweet innocent
Billy. What were you thinking? Locusts are definitely cool. Most insects are. The Locust is also the name of a crazy band
from San Diego. They sound just like a locust would if a locust could play electric instruments very fast. I think people
in general are tired of seeing "heron(s)" everywhere, but I don't mind herons at all. There are a few phrases I
could do without, mainly office-speak, like "cool beans," "T.G.I.F.," "LOL," and "Adding
more complexity into this particular strategic initiative would put too much pressure on the various points of leverage, and
our goals would be unattainable in an accelerated time horizon."
You meet someone for the first time and they ask you the proverbial, "So, Joshua, what is it that you do?"
What do you tell them?
to say "I edit junk mail," because it's funny and true. Saying you're a poet takes a lot of guts. Those are fightin'
words in some parts of certain towns. Occasionally I'll say "I edit junk mail so I can write poems," but that's
not as funny.
What does the phrase
"Southern poetry" mean to you, if anything?
I can only speak for myself on this, but I'm not so sure it applies anymore, at least to the generation I belong
to. I mean, on the surface, I'm mostly a poet, who happens to have poems about/set in the south and who happens at the moment
to live in the former capital of the Confederacy. Still, I'm not sure I subscribe to such genre-based grouping by region.
Perhaps I'm uncomfortable speaking for a whole region. It does have a nice ring to it, though, doesn't it? If I don't have
to pay any fees, I wouldn't mind being in the club.
Favorite poetic form?
Wallace Stevens said, "In
poetry at least the imagination must not detach itself from reality." What does that mean to you?
I'm sure he doesn't mean what it sounds like he means,
because he sure didn't follow his own advice, eh?
What is the "Great American Poem"?
The Great American Poem is being written right now, in another country, by a non-American.
Poetry of the Instance, Poetry of the Instant: A Conversation with Rodney Jones
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the 1989 National
Book Critics Circle Award, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Peter I.B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets,
the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award,
and a Harper Lee Award, you are a poet familiar with success. But 2007 was a particularly good to you.
Your recent collection, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005 was short listed for the International
Griffin Poetry Prize and, of course, received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for 2007.
It’s hard to imagine being in such a
position in contemporary American poetry. What’s it like?
I’m getting old, laminated, bronzed and
stuffed. Neruda, possibly the most romantic poet of the twentieth century, wanted to see his poetry as
a work like plumbing or carpentry, less a profession than a job that he felt fortunate to do. I keep that
in mind when I receive rejections or awards. Not to say that rejections don’t depress me or that
I am immune to the ego-jacking side-effects of awards, but the work itself is the thing, the transformations and the discoveries—the
little bonuses, William Stafford used to say.
Someone, a philosopher, perhaps it was Kierkegaard, had it that
artists were miserable people who were doomed to a cycle in which they attempted to create perfect selves in their art only
to be thrown back on their imperfect lives. My life is not perfect, but it is a very good one as lives
Chiasson's review of Salvation Blues (Poetry September 2006) says that “Unless you think that new
poetry cannot be narrative (in the old-fashioned, spell-casting, consecutive way) and cannot be accessible (its action intelligible
at first or second reading), Jones is a poet worth taking very seriously indeed.” Chiasson
(and others who deem your work praiseworthy) seems to have hit the nail on the head now that you’ve reached such high
I’m wondering, where does Rodney Jones go from here? You’ve published
eight collections of poetry and seem to be in the prime of your career. What’s next?
have never been able to conceive of an entire book until it arrives, line by line, poem by poem, and each book has come to
me differently. The Unborn was exploration, pure and simple accommodation to wonder and the sensuality
of language. Transparent Gestures challenged me. I wrote it one poem
at a time, so nothing overlapped, an act of will. Then I got tired of working that way.
Apocalyptic Narrative began as automatic writing, wild drafts, easy on the front side, much harder to revise.
Things That Happen Once is mostly poetic translations of journal entries that were intended to be loose drafts
of poems--I wrote the journal entries with a very conscious emphasis on rhythm, image, and the need to make original language—I
had thought to make prose poems, but when I went to revise—and there were several hundred pages of journal entries—the
rhythms seemed to dictate lines.
In Elegy for The Southern Drawl, I worked in two modes: one
very formal, and the other loose and conversational. I wish that I had spent another year with Kingdom of The Instant.
Of all the books that I have published, that one disappoints me the most.
The new poems in Salvation Blues were
tough to write because I felt that I was defining a period of work. When a book is finished, I feel that
I am finished with that way of working, tired of it, exhausted. Strains go from book to book because I
continue to work on poems for years if they remain provocative, but, essentially, I prefer the fresh project, the experiment.
My mother-in-law, Urania Zepeda, described a politician she disliked by saying, “Son-of-a-bitch talks like he
doesn’t know the next word that he’s going to say.” For me, that seems the necessary first step, and perhaps
another way of expressing what Stevens was after when he commended, “the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.”
interesting that you mention politics. Poetry, like politics, always seems to exist in this realm of extremely
high expectations. I think this may have something to do with its “usefulness” or with the
question of it’s usefulness, that is.
Many of your poems address this issue of the value of poetry.
“A Defense Of Poetry” reconciles the differences between you— moved to poetry by “a semi loaded
with bridge girders,” the academics— governed by “abstract identity…authorless, quoted/and italicized,”
and to the working-class you grew up with and to whom you seem to apologize to for being a poet in earlier poems like "Mental
Sorrows" and "Not See Again."
"A Defense" seems comfortable with verse and the nature
of its “La-la oblivion” which makes “a little dent like a dart.” Do you feel as
if you owe something to "working-class" America? Have you, in some ways, grown out of this guilt?
I am a number of years away from having done hard physical work for a living, but as a boy and young man, I worked constantly,
on farms, in factories, and on construction crews. As a consequence, I see poetry in the realpolitik light
of the people who do that kind of work. The connection is both deep and conflicted.
diminish as I age, but they continue and function as scales, as one of the ways that I weigh poetry, my own and others.
As for questioning the art, why should we not be doing that? Plato is dead, and someone has to carry
on. People who look closely at the American poetry of our time closely find a supple and diverse art, not
just an educational commodity.
What I find particularly striking about your work is that even though
your later poems (like "A Defense") display a more advanced reflective quality than earlier poems, your voice has
never quavered; that metered, musical, observant narration is present throughout. Sure, you shift back
and forth. You have a wide range of gears and velocities in which you work. But, if
you look at the first poem of the collection and the last poem of the collection, it’s pretty clear you haven’t
sacrificed much of your original vision.
Would you agree with this reading of your work? If
so, how have you managed to do so consistently and over such a long period of time?
After my first book, The Story They Told
Us of Light, was published, I was not happy with the book or, for that matter, with the poems that I was writing at the
Then Leon Stokesbury, who was in town giving a reading, told me that publishing a second book was much
more difficult than a first. For some reason, this struck me as a liberation. Suddenly
it was clear to me that none of the poetry mattered unless I approached it as something that I would not take back.
Whether it took twenty years or a few months did not matter.
I do not imagine that I am a better poet than
I was in 1982, only a different one. Ultimately, luck plays a part in the making of poetry, but I hold
to two notions that do not have to do with luck: first, that craft should never be cheated on; secondly,
that poetry should reflect character.
That notion seems pretty accurate to me. Would
you agree with people like Chiasson who describe your work as “accessible”? While I agree with
this characterization, when I think of accessible poetry I don’t think, “Oh yeah, Rodney Jones.”
It’s hard for me to read a poem like “Contempt” or “The Bridge” and think "accessible."
Maybe this is because your poetry often works on two distinct narrative levels: the narrative of the instance and the
narrative of the instant. Meaning, we have a narrative of some sort, and we have an inner voice that seemingly
waits for no command or order to appear; it is simply there, screaming in the background. I’m thinking
of poems like “The First Birth,” “Doing Laundry,” and “On Pickiness” to name a few.
agree with your point. The narratives tend to be double-narratives, which not only involve a story, but
also an idea of the story, or a philosophical counterpoint that sort of tags along and pipes up now and then, and yes, this
does occur of a natural compulsion as opposed to a deductive poetics. Perhaps the faith that abides in
such a narrative sense is that the story exists without the poem and that the poem only touches it at tangents.
a sense the object of many of my poems is less to tell a story than to give shape to a philosophical meditation.
I do not think that there are many purely narrative poems working in our language.
In the last few
years, Ann Carson has written a couple that I think are brilliant: one, a book length work, Autobiography in Red;
and another wonderful poem, “The Glass Essay,” which is sort of a novella. My old teacher and
friend, Fred Chappell’s four-book narrative sequence, Midquest, is no less than a masterpiece.
for the most part, the signal narratives of our time have been narratives of consciousness—a number of poems by C.K.
Williams come to mind, and I would also include the finest work by Jorie Graham, who is not usually seen as a narrative poet,
but who is surely at her best when writing about the consciousness that flickers from instant to instant.
I read your work, I’m oftentimes reminded of an interview with Phillip Levine who, when asked, said one of his great
influences was Chaucer because he incorporated real, everyday people into verse. This is another consistency
in your work. Poems like “Pussy,” “Romance of The Poor” and “Whisper Fight
at the Peck Funeral Home” are separated by 20 years of poetry and, yet, address American life with the same love, compassion
and, perhaps, envy.
Is this where your poetry comes from? From this compassion; this
envy? Do you consider it an honor, a duty to extol these figures from your past and present?
The source is not
necessarily or purely literary. I grew up four miles outside of a town of 600, and by the time I was thirteen,
I knew most of those people. My father knew all of them and others for miles around, men and women, black
and white, and when he met someone that he did not know, it was not long before he made a connection with someone that they
both knew. In fact, most of the talk in the country was about people, and not just the living or the recently
dead. There was a kind of web, a legending and a curiosity that enclosed us. I take
that with me, and I imagine that the longer cultural habit does go back to Chaucer, but not just through books and not just
The cultural habit, which, anthropologists tell us, passes from one generation to
another and survives the journey from one language another, and the reading come together, I think, in very interesting ways.
Derek Walcott’s fondness for combining extraordinary high-register diction comes as much from Africa as it does
from his reading of English literature. Marquez’s supernatural imagery attaches to both the oral
tradition of the Columbian countryside and the poetry of Andre Breton. But all of these influences, conscious
or unconscious, are socialbehavior and less valuable than the writer’s individual presence on the page.
I love about your poems is how you inflate a small (local) subject, instance, or idea. Like the pigs of
“For The Eating of Swine” transformed into the “dolphins of the backyard” or yourself
as a baby in “Beautiful Child” becoming “a satellite in the orbit of their affections.”
Do you write poetry like this with a smile on your face?
Several years ago, after I gave a reading at a college in Georgia,
a student asked, “Does a poet have to be his own biggest fan?” At first, I was taken aback,
but it is at least in the territory of a great question.
A poet’s love of poetry is everything. Roland
Barthes calls it “joissance,” which relates, in my mind at least, to both play and sexual eroticism.
It does not relate to subject matter. It is visceral, palpable, essentially ineffable.
Surely, Gerald Stern’s “Soap,” moves me as much as any poem that I know of that relates to the holocaust.
It is a deeply heartbreaking poem, and yet what a great sad joy one feels in the making of the poem, in its realization
of rhythm and vision.
sense of the poet’s pleasure in the work carries across languages and seems a creaturely relish. I
think of how happy Basho must have been as he wrote The Narrow Road to The Interior, of Neruda in “Ode to Socks,”
and Transtromer in “Schubertiana,” of Roethke in “Meditations of an Old Woman,” of Plath in “The
Tulips, of ”Hass in “Meditation at Lagunitas,” of Pinsky in “The Shirt,” or Hirsch in “Wild
Gratitude,” Heaney in nearly every word. Joy.
My answer to the student in Georgia would be this:
a poet does not have to be his biggest fan, but a poet must be utterly convinced, delighted by, and absorbed in the
language of the poem, whether that poem take the form of an elegy or a joke.
We’ve talked a lot so far about the language
of your poetry. But a lot of the work you do is with the image.
that you oftentimes eschew the expected image or the typical way of constructing an image. Many of your
poems make an attempt to describe something visually but become almost immediately distracted by some minute quality which
shifts the subject of the poem to some other locale. If we think of the image as the construction of a
visual, this constant shift could be considered a failure. But, then again, we’d have to define that
word: image. How would you define it?
Image. Let’s see. Evidence?
Isomorphs? Fillers for pentimento and palimpsest?
The image on the page, the verbal icon, is different from the image in a painting
or a cinematic image, or the thing in the field, or even the image in the brain. An image that has great
power in stand-up comedy may fall flat in a poem. Description in writing is not just a servant of sensory
impression, but a mode of characterization and a sometimes unwitting agent of metaphor. Ezra Pound said
so many things about images that one can wonder about for a lifetime. “An emotional and an intellectual
complex in an instant of time,” he wrote and, “The natural image is always the adequate symbol.”
verbal image, I believe, points toward that gap between the things that we know and can bring into language and the stuff
the deeper autonomous brain knows but does not share with the language making part of the brain. And in
a much more abstract way, the poem itself is an image of language.
I have a special connection with “Refusing
To Baptize A Son.” I wasn’t baptized, but my sister, born five years earlier than myself before
my parents solidified their agnosticism, was. This separation between us has always bothered me a
lot like the undercurrent of regret the father expresses to the unbaptized son in this poem.
A religious vein runs throughout Salvation
Blues in poems like “Refusing,” “Life Of Sundays,” and “Decadence,” to name a few.
Obviously, you were raised up around Christianity, particularly of the Protestant variety, but I wouldn’t say
that religion is an overt presence in your work.
Do you find yourself thinking of religion/spirituality
as a subject of poetry or does it emerge via the writing process?
When I was five, I remember asking my mother
where God came from? As you know that’s a big question for southerners, where someone comes from.
My mother told me that no one knew. She said that as long as I lived in her house, I would go to
church twice on Sundays and also attend Wednesday night prayer meetings, and that I should listen, but it was important not
just to go along with other people, that I would have to determine what I thought about God on my own.
She said that
I should trust what I knew in my heart, and make up my own mind as an adult. Perhaps that is a freer attitude
than most parents want to give their children, but I consider that freedom one of the greatest gifts of my life.
seems neither a subject nor an element that arises as a part of the writing process, but a transcendent question.
One of my favorite writers who deals with religion is Mark Twain. My baptism was probably reading
his Letters from Earth as a teenager. Another wonderful religious thinker is Wallace Stevens. “We
say that God and the imagination are one,” he writes in “The Final Soliloquy of The Interior Paramour,”
“How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
Many poets, it seems, find that the act of writing poetry brings
them closer to faith. Does religion work this way for you as well?
I am not one of those poets. Certainly, some
religious positions strike me as more illuminating than others as regards, for instance, the likely origins of our cosmos
and our mortality. The less enlightened positions are characterized by pronouncements of faith, often in
a story that depends upon aberrations of natural principles. The more enlightened positions respect both
what can be known through scientific inquiry and observation and what cannot be known.
If you hold a gun to
my head, I will agree with the less enlightened positions. If you offer me a drink, I will agree with some
of the more enlightened positions. Otherwise, I would prefer to remain unbound, a free thinker.
Religion is one area where it seems to me that the other living creatures on our planet have it over the humans.
At the same time, I admire much poetry by people of more conventional faith—T.S. Eliot, Les Murray, Franz Wright,
Andrew Hudgins, and I would add Neruda to that list because his Marxism must qualify as religion, and Adrienne Rich, whose
feminism is a kind of faith—on and on.
That I like the dish that the Buddhist chef serves has nothing
to do with my feeling about the Buddha.
You are a contemporary of my father. He turned 60 last year and
was the first draftee in the state of Alabama granted COship on the basis of religious belief. Politics,
particularly of war, (like religion) is an unavoidable subject/subtext of your work. But it’s not
until the new poems of Salvation Blues that religion and politics overtly overlap in “Vision of the End of
the World In The Valdosta Holiday Inn,” “The Language of Love” and “Postmodern Christianity.”
Politics and religion actually share the same line in “Thanksgiving In The Late 50’s.”
Sometimes it occurs
to me that, if I were a spy and wanted to send a message, a poem might be a good place to do that, so cold is this beloved
media, so few its readers. At best, out of the seven billion people on the planet, a few thousand will
read a poetry book, so I would not think poetry the wisest vehicle for dispensing political opinion.
And sometimes I
look at political poetry, others and my own, and see it as a kind of pornography that arouses conviction in the already convinced.
And I am guilty at times of that light empathy, that righteousness that I feel in watching news footage from a country
whose name I cannot even spell and imagining that just watching is helping to rectify a horror. Yet I see
the unwarranted deaths of 150,000 Iraqis and nearly 4,000 Americans and the maiming of thousands of others, all for political
goals that have either never been articulated or that were ill conceived from the outset.
So many actions of our government have sickened
me: the renditions, the tortures, the failure to protect the environment, the routine demonizations of foreigners. I have
written several poems out of this outrage, not with any political outcome in mind, but because of the weight of those feelings,
Should we expect more political poetry from you in the future?
write from those feelings again? Perhaps.
I was sitting with a group of poets this summer, and Robert Hass
said, “What would have happened, if after the 9-11 bombings, President Bush had gone on
television and said, ‘We forgive you.’?” While that might be a naive political
question—If a candidate for president asked it, surely it would end the campaign—it seems essential that
poets ask it. Thank