An Interview with Joseph P. Wood
Joseph P. Wood is the author of two full collections of poetry, the forthcoming Fold of the Map and I & We, as well as five chapbooks, which include Gutter Catholic Love Song and In What I Have Done & What I Have Failed to Do, which won the Elixir Press Chapbook Prize. His poems and reviews have been published widely in journals, which include BOMB, Boston Review, diode, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review, Poetry London, Prairie Schooner, Rain Taxi, Verse, and West Branch. Wood teaches creative writing, English and American literature, and composition at The University of Alabama. In 2009, he co-founded The Slash Pine Projects (formerly Slash Pine Press), an undergraduate internship that focuses on immersion learning and community arts.
In March 2011, Elizabeth Hildreth interviewed Joseph P. Wood about brutality and cruelty, grabbing readers by the throat and not fucking around, being overtrained, stale, and thus completely tanked, writing “funny poems,” writing as a “guppy,” and the scene in The Sopranos where Svetlana and Tony sleep together.
You recently wrote this beautiful post in which you acknowledge that you have “not attended to joy enough” in the past. The poems in I & We are definitely joyful (even playful) at points, but overall (I’d have to agree with the cover copy) the emotional pitch of I & We is one of “casual brutality.”
“Luxor by Luxor” is a good example:
[ . . .]
And the way lions amused the Ancients, those beasts’ pompom tails and go
get ’em attitude.
I’m beginning to see the value of pompoms,
I’m beginning to want a well-manicured field, the goal posts glittering
on the horizon
And the block-head blocker fullback to be raised in praise of his
beautiful, mediocre abilities.
I heard a poet once say that while he’s writing, sometimes he finds himself crying, but when he reads the same poems in public, everybody laughs, and he’s so surprised. How would you characterize your own poems?
In grad school, Jon Anderson once told me, “A writer will always find the differences among his or her creative works, but readers will always notice the similarities.” I use Jon’s observation as a way of prefacing how strange it is to talk about these poems, since many of them were initially composed eight to ten years ago. I want to say “those aren’t really me anymore; see I’m in my mid 30s and ‘wiser.’” Of course, that’s a crock of shit -- I mean work that’s been written in subsequent years might be tighter or have a more global scope, but I think all the work I write comes out of this place of “casual brutality” because my formative experience of the world was one where brutality and cruelty were casual. I grew up in a working poor household, where fists and work carried more currency than intellect. And people I got to know over the years fell prey to addiction, jail, or died. A friend recently told me this experience struck him as “extreme,” but it wasn’t to people I knew. Many friends and neighbors I knew calibrated their morals and experiences by such quotes as “at least we don’t beat our children on the lawn” or “be grateful the welts don’t show.”
For me, poetry comes from a place looking to understand that brutality and to find perhaps its opposite -- grace. I think most people don’t like to think they are capable of both, but they are. And I think I write with that in mind -- that at times, we are diminished, and at other times, however unintentionally, we diminish others. Mother Teresa said something to the effect that she performed her work because she knew she carried a “Hitler in her heart.” I know I possess a Hitler and I see the poem as a place for me to directly take myself and others to task for that and yet also -- perhaps in the same poem -- try to see human good. I believe the most broken and dysfunctional people can work their way to kindness -- they most likely won’t, but they can -- it is possible. That’s the Catholic in me -- I believe we work our way to grace and are compelled to do good things by it. And we also deny our goodness inexplicably.
I & We is an open nod to Martin Buber and I know my work also deals with notions of “I-It” and “I-Thou.” The latter gestures toward more of a place of unknowing -- but paradoxically, I want my poetic naming to lead to that unknowing. Often, when a label was ascribed to me growing up, it was to punish and abuse me. So when I started to write poems, I wanted to understand the dynamics of that abuse and face it. And from that naming, I wanted to find what could be possible -- in other people, other cultures, other worlds. I & We is a book whose prosodies and approaches range all over the map, but its major currency is the move from “I-It” to “I-Thou” -- and “We-It” to “We-Thou.” In short, I want to use the book not merely document or “confess” a broken world, but rather acknowledge the world’s brokenness and look for ways to heal myself as I search for the mysterious kindness of others.
And it’s weird -- by the point of composing the poem, rarely do I cry. Sometimes, when the laughter comes from an audience, it’s a bit of nervous reflex. But I always go back to the scene in The Sopranos where Svetlana and Tony sleep together -- Tony says something to the effect of “look at you -- you came to this country without a pot to piss in and now you’re successful, making it, and beautiful.” Svetlana takes a drag off a cigarette and says, “You Americans, you think nothing bad should ever happen to you.” I believe if I admit my own complicity in this distinctly American attitude, then I want the poem not to fuck around -- to stare our basest behaviors the face. And by admitting my complicity or direct participation in these behaviors, it is the first step toward allowing joy and love into my life.
I like The Sopranos reference. Mark Spitzer actually called you a “photographer of the American word.” You may admit your own complicity in a distinctly American attitude, but do you feel like your poems are made up of the American word? Let’s put it this way. If your poems were translated, what might they lose? Would that loss have to do with Americanness -- or something else entirely?
Yes, absolutely, there’s no getting around it. I came to poetry from a desire to name my own experience -- and to escape from that experience -- and I looked to the American landscape to find unity and community. And often, that search to integrate into the “American fabric” was utterly naďve because I think the book’s speaker never quite resolves what composes that fabric. Thus, the speaker articulates a feeling social disenfranchisement, especially within Philadelphia (my hometown). A good example is the hybrid “From Nowhere to Nowhere” -- it uses my friend as a globalizing mechanism, but ultimately, I have little global experience, so my frame of reference is my city or state. These kinds of poems arrived out of lived life, but also out of an extensive research project I did one summer in Tucson and at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. That said, I think that the city is just a trigger to something more internal and self-centered. I suspect this cornerstone is one of the book’s greatest strengths and one of its greatest limitation -- it wants to find a We, a community, a home, but it never can -- as I never could, especially when this book was written. It can’t because the “I” never can accept itself. Humor and tone are escape mechanisms, not self-reckonings. It was only recently I have begun to truly reckon with myself -- to not fight who I am, but to accept myself boils and all.
The book is also American in its more sarcastic and larger historical poems dealing with what I perceived as my peers and my own attitudes and obsessions with media, symbol, and irony. In short, a received tone from what I perceived as the dominant culture at the turn of the millennium -- a position of whatever man. I think this tone and attitude is utterly untranslatable because it comes from a place of world privilege. I have spent a good deal talking here about my own experience as an outsider or victim, but the truth is that the scale of my own suffering is zilch compared to Haiti or Chad or even Ukraine. I know it’s not fashionable to make a comparative practice of “which country has it worse,” but of course we do -- a Haitian would read my book and could see my self-centeredness and think the book must be written as a parody or that the author really does not understand how lucky he is. And on an experiential level, I don’t know how lucky I am. I have nothing to calibrate against on the experiential level -- theory or media does not even come close to the living.
Despite this county’s political differences, we are lucky in the global scheme of things. And no matter what places each American inhabits rhetorically or culturally, we still seem to engage in basic socially agreed practices: voting, governmental structure, the importance of self (not to be confused with self-importance). And while this may seem a bad thing, I also think there’s something oddly beautiful about this nation. The importance of story. The ability -- granted, often limited -- to self-ascend. DeTocqueville saw this and marveled. And so did Whitman. Hell, even Paterson or Howl both in their moments saw this nation’s cultural and economic limitations but somehow celebrated it. I’m not saying we don’t need to change shit or fight for things we believe in, but I also think that fighting is not exclusive to celebrating or marveling at the vast diversity of people, idea, and geography that composes this land.
One of my favorite poems in your book is “Your Tendermost Feelings Etched in Stone” which begins
--Ad in SkyMall magazine
Finally, my wife doesn’t have to die
in order for my sentiment to live on.
No she goes about her day preparing
tax forms or burping the baby and there it is:
Also, in the bio picture on the back of I & We you’re holding your daughter in front of some body of water [ocean, lake?]. It feels almost too easy to say, “Much of I & We operates within the domestic realm.” On the other hand, would you disagree?
Let me use the situation of the picture as a metaphor of sorts. The picture was taken by my wife on Pensacola Beach in the afternoon. That morning, I had a competed in a 10K race in Mobile, Alabama, which I had been training for months. The problem was that I was so compulsive and so driven on this notion of “train train train” -- I pretty much spent all of my free time running and lifting; hell, the day after my daughter was born, I ran a 15 mile tempo run. The short of it: I was overtrained, stale, and thus completely tanked.
I arrived to my wife as a sulking and petulant child. She had been alone taking care of Daisy, waiting for me to get back -- as she had been doing for months and would continue to do until I injured myself, fell into a highly vicious depression, gained one hundred pounds, and then finally got proper treatment. I was so hard on myself, so self-hating. And then we got to the ocean and I looked at my daughter, held her up for the camera, and hid behind her. And the photo was taken -- the fact it appears on the book cover is rather just luck. But there was that ocean -- and all the connotations good and bad that come with it.
If you asked me two or three years ago, I’d say I wrote about the domestic because it’s part of my life and American life and I wanted to include that in my work. I suppose I would’ve said I was playing with Tony Hoagland or early Dean Young or Jack Myers, etc. It occurs to me now that’s not it. I wrote those poems simply because my wife was my glue -- we struggled but we loved each other tremendously, and my wife had enough kindness, grace, and patience to allow me time for the difficult task of taking ownership of my own life. It has come at a price -- I’m waiting on tests to discuss whether or not I am diabetic or have heart problems -- but finally, finally I explicitly love my wife because I accept and love who I am and therefore can pay dignity to her own distinct existence.
Those poems in this book that operate within the domestic often hover between acknowledging the love of my wife and not knowing how to fully accept it. Love is spectral and conditional -- no matter what we say (I’m stealing this idea from Matt Henriksen). So the love in those poems sometimes is disfigured or conflicted. But that’s life as well. If there’s one thing that has changed from the time these poems were written to now -- I write not with humor or sarcasm as a deflecting mechanism nor do I use the collective as rhetorical “sucking up” of grief. I write with the knowledge that self-reckoning and social acceptance are simultaneous experiences -- we transcend and we are anchored -- I hadn’t realized that about my life until recently, but in these domestic poems you can see me working toward that realization, even if I hadn’t consciously known it.
Speaking of consciously knowing or not knowing, I’ve noticed that your poems vary a lot in terms of accessibility. Some are easy to understand, others not so much so. I’ve always been interested in why this happens, why some people have poems that never vary in terms of their ease of understanding/obscurity. My friend has poems that are really consistent in tone and I asked her how this is possible, and she said, “I write in the only voice I have.” But I’m not sure it’s a conscious some conscious move, this shifting back and forth. I think it’s an unconscious way the mind makes sense information (at least for some people). It puts it into differently shaped or sounding containers. But what you think?
I read for Sarabande recently and my co-reader was the incredibly talented Zach Savich. And he made a point I think that is absolutely true. Being a poet is like going to the YMCA and taking swimming lessons. As a “guppy,” you want to show all your strokes and range. But as you evolve and those moves become more succinct and intuitive, you find yourself wanting to examine what you’re saying and wanting to be more exact in technique. I know some friends would say “the doing in a poem is the meaning” but for me, I think the first book front-loaded poetic/prosodic diversity over consistency and complexity of voice because I was trying out “how to write my poem.” This is not to say these poems are “bad” or “good” or the book is “bad” or “good.” Rather, this is to say this book is a document in my process -- trying to find the limits of what my poems could and could not do.
The accessibility issue comes into this, I believe. I was trying out things from sonnets to language driven prose poems to discursive work to lyricism. Hell, I even think tonally the book evolves, especially in the last section. But my consistent voice -- at least for me -- has less to do with method and more to do with belief and curiosity about other people. I think you’ll notice that the book is always fighting with notions of soul and God (I’d cringe admitting this at the time these poems were written). Sometimes I believe the soul can ascend and sometimes I thought the soul was locked in a kind of earthly hell. And to be honest, those “funny” poems -- they were some of the most depressing, really, in that they located themselves within a fixed tonal convention and never exceeded that. That attitude makes my knees buckle these days.
I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of developing rubrics from poems. If you had to develop a rubric for your own poems, what might it look like?
Another Jon Anderson quote: “You can always tell the gift of a writer by their failed work, not the successful stuff that is polished and finished.” I believe your question asks, in a way, what comes easy to me and what needs to be honed. For me, I think very concrete image and sonic clustering come naturally for me. That’s the baseline. Poems that fail have those as their backbone, but they don’t ever really have something greater pressing up against them -- some poems are just have images and an interesting music, but their stanzaic structure and clarity of ideas feel too broad, not honed or complex enough.
A decent poem for me has that structure I talked about -- it has competing impulses and clear sense of idea or movement, but it’s endings feel a bit too controlled and sterile. I think that -- now this just me speaking -- the poems of easy levity fall into this category. I figured out the movement of the poem -- even if there was a momentum engine. But at the end, over time, I could pin where these poems ended and know their future. And for some people, they like that. But for me, the poem ends and that’s it. The big-heartedness and mystery I want wasn’t there. And that’s okay for me -- people like those poems.
But poems for me that really work: they bring the all the stuff I previously mentioned and go somewhere else with them. A place where the poem ends I’m not quite sure where the future might lie, but the future is there nonetheless. For instance, “A Half-Century Contemplating the Double Helix.” When I wrote that poem a decade ago until this moment know, I don’t know where that world is at the end of the poem -- it’s not good, but it’s open. Sure, that poem borrows the helix’s structure (and that might strike some as obvious), but the moves from image to image, idea to idea -- they’re sharp and they straddle a fine line between location and dislocation. There are poems in I & We that do that, and for me, that is the payoff of the book. Hitting those poems -- let’s face it -- no one writes gold every poem.
Finally, the older I get, the less I want to scaffold or build-up. If I’m going to a dark place, I am going to grab you by the throat and not fuck around. But in that darkness must be a sliver of light -- or reverse the scene -- whatever. Just get there in line one -- don’t make it a set-up. The good thing in I & We is that there are poems -- however they are written -- that go for the throat. And I believe those will be the ones I return to over and over.
Can you talk about what you’re working on right now and how it works with (or against) I & We? And are there any projects you’ve planned to work on and have never found the time, ones that have been sitting on the backburner for years?
Well, Salmon picked up a recent book, Fold of the Map, and this book has more clear trajectory and consistent voice. The book still hurdles a fine line between accessible and non-accessible, but this book feels like it’s taken the creative impulses of I & We and distilled them down.
But there was one poem in Fold of the Map that ran on jet fuel in its voice. It was sprawling and associative and dense. After I finished Fold, I found myself writing these poems where language was absolutely disfigured and the poems voice got to the point quickly -- the imagination went berserk -- it was Whitman, Ginsberg, and Stanford’s fault! Gutter Catholic Love Song (a chap that I think is now out of copies) did this best, but now I’ve gone back to those poems to make a real book. I had a book that tried to start with Gutter Catholic and move into small lyrics or prose poems about the Middle Ages and a distorted America -- didn’t work. Those are two books, and those lyrics and prose poems need to be put on the side. And both books need some time to build.
But after all that sprawling and coming out of a severe depression, I wanted to write a poem that was controlled. So, I’ve written an entire set of bastardized triolets called The Vyvanse Triolets. It’s a sequence but also order by point and counterpoint -- two poems correspond to each other by flipping the final refrain but then the book also marches on chronologically. The tone of these poems are very, very different, and oddly, the form has made this the most experimental book I have… it’s a project and it may never see the light of day. But I wanted to interject notions of science and medicine without any drama -- how less dramatic can you get than a triolet. So I’m shopping that.
Finally, I’m working slowly on essays about notions of “open” and “closed.” Some portions have appeared in Open Letters Monthly and it’s been interesting to write nonfiction. It strangely wears me out less. But mostly, my big goal is to not work 15 hours days between writing and teaching. I have been spending a lot of amazing time with my daughter and my wife and just living -- which part of art as well. That’s process. Amy, for me, has been my support and challenge in my own times of crisis, but her intellect and different sensibility (she’s in rhet comp and deal with immigration rhetoric and oral history) really makes me smarter. And my beautiful Daisy -- what can I say? I made the mistake of playing The Fleet Foxes “Oliver James” while she was in the car and she -- only four -- said, “why did his brother die and why is his mommy sad.” And I had to sit down with her when we got home, and explain death and my love for her and my wife -- things so simple. After all the work and all the reading, that is where my writing is headed. Adult and basic, explaining things that hurt my heart so deeply to reveal to my child but knowing it is, for the first time in my life, the place of real adulthood. I & We began that journey.