In The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal, Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s most recent volume of poetry, the author biography states simply that he “lives in Tucson, Arizona.” “Living,” for Wilkinson, encompasses a great many things: he teaches at the University of Arizona and is the author of five other books of poetry and also of a collaborative book with Noah Eli Gordon. He is the director of a documentary film and a founding editor of both the journal The Volta and of the press Letter Machine Editions, which last year published the National Book Award finalist The Feel Trio by Fred Moten, becoming the smallest press to have published a finalist for that award.
Wilkinson was in Pittsburgh twice during our Spring semester, once for the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series and once for the Pretty Owl Poetry Spotlight Series.
Hot Metal Bridge: Could you give us a sense of your feelings towards giving a poetry reading? As in, what do you get out of or hope to convey at a reading?
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I love to read. I get antsy and weird for it. I don’t like to plan in advance what I’m going to read. I like to bring a bunch of stuff with me and decide at the last possible moment what to share. I like to feel out the space—if there are people, if there’s a microphone and a stage, if it’s early or late, if I’m reading with others, and in what order, and if my friends are there. I don’t know what I’m trying to pinpoint exactly, but I know that if I feel better about it then people tend to respond a bit more and seem to want to talk to me after. Sometimes anyways. Sometimes I just freak everybody out—my new work has a lot of humiliated and sorrowful voices in it and it’s a bit schizophrenic in its bantering, stammering. But it’s my favorite work to read. But the voice is critical and I love a warm small room—I had a few of those, like at Lisa Wells’s apartment in Iowa City and the Dollhouse Series in Chicago—on this last tour where I could go more quiet and I like that. I don’t know if it worked, but I’m always a little dead afterwards, wrung out.
HMB: How do you prepare for a reading?
JMW: I like to have two drinks to prepare, honestly. Just so my nerves don’t dismantle me. I don’t like to be sloshed or falling down. But I want to see what I can bring out of the poems for whatever space I’m in, and that’s easy if my nerves aren’t bickering, bargaining with me, distracting me—tripping me up.
HMB: What relationship does reading your work aloud (at a reading or otherwise) have to your writing practice?
JMW: I read everything aloud when I’m writing, revising. The voice—the body and the vocal chords and the mouth and teeth and tongue and lips and ears, it’s all critical to me. It’s what makes it bodily, haunted, induces the self’s otherness and keeps me from bad redundancy or monotony, hopefully. I want it to sound perfect aloud. It’s as vital to me there as any place else.
HMB: You’ve collaborated with Noah Eli Gordon before, who you’re now on a reading tour with (and I believe, writing some new collaborative work). You’ve also edited or co-edited three books that came out just recently around the beginning of the new year (The Volta Book of Poets, Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre, and The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde, with Lily Hoang). Amidst all of these very different voices and extensive conversation, how do you maintain your own voice as a poet?
JMW: I guess I don’t want one voice. I have a hunch—I don’t know if it’s true—but that when we try to stay the same, we do a violence to the imagination somehow. But when we allow other voices, landscapes, memories, ideas, emotions, and experience to come in, then the sounds change and the meanings change. And if that changes the voice, then I like that. I’m ok if there’s not some clearly voiced through line in my work. I love contradiction and juxtaposition. I love conflict and difference and negotiation. I’m not worried about my integrity as an author in that. And if there’s no clear path or pattern between all the collaborations and editorial projects and books then I’m fine with that. That’s for somebody else to come up with from without, I guess.
HMB: Your second book, Lug Your Careless Body Out of the Careful Dusk, is subtitled “a poem in fragments.” Would you share your personal definition of a fragment with us?
JMW: The fragment, to me, is that little paradox. It’s on its own, but it implies a great context from which it’s apparently been removed. It wants to be alone and it wants to be understood also as having been from something greater now gone. And that tension—the conflict of that presence/absence and vanished context—I love that. It ghosts both ways to me, in a kind of haunted circuit.
HMB: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that your writing process often consists of crafting poems out of prose pieces, which seems like a kind of fragmentary work. Your books no longer have a subtitle suggesting that they’re fragments, however—in fact, you’re currently working on a sequence (The No Volta Pentalogy), and at both of your Pittsburgh readings you read without stopping to delineate individual “fragments” or poems. Could you talk about the relationship of the fragment to your current work?
JMW: I think I started out much more fragmentary—or fragment-obsessed, perhaps. Now I like the voice to be threaded through a greater maze of the poem. I’m still fascinated by the discrete image—the lone animal out on the roof in the flood—but I love the force of any set of voices trying to manage all that unmanageable dross out there. Wind it together—not towards some totalizing, gettable set of effects. I’m not after tidiness or planed off edges. But there’s a continuity I’m after, ever since Selenography probably—whatever tension there is between the discrepant image and the subjectivity back there, wanting, choosing, positing, asking, making, escaping, and desiring.