Interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson on Swamp Isthmus —
September 30, 2013
Joshua Marie Wilkinson (b. 1977, Seattle) is the author of Selenography (with Polaroids by Tim Rutili), Swamp Isthmus, The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal, and Meadow Slasher (from Sidebrow Books and Black Ocean, all). He lives in Tucson, works at the University of Arizona, and edits The Volta and Letter Machine Editions.
Christopher Nelson: Your book begins with an epigraph by Hart Crane. Why have you summoned him to accompany the reader on this journey and to preside over these poems?
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Well, Hart Crane is one of those poets whose poems I love but also make me want to write and wish to discover a way to talk to him through his poems. I find his writing so engrossing and strange—especially because (and not in spite) of his formal rhetoric. His figurative language and compaction is trance-inducing to me. Swamp Isthmus is a book about living in history—trying to learn what’s come before us, but also being blown forward, looking back, like Klee’s angel that we know from Walter Benjamin, of course.
Something about Crane’s line (“the resigned factions of the dead preside”) just haunted me, and seemed to hang over my work: the more I studied it, the more that word “preside” took hold.
The old Webster’s in my office gives me this: “To occupy the place of authority, as of president; to direct proceedings as chief officer.” What would it mean for the dead to “direct proceedings”? In some ways, living in a city, the dead are doing exactly that—in a material way, most of the skyline, groundwork, train tracks, asphalt, steel, brick, and glass around us was placed there carefully by those now dead.
I’d just moved to Chicago when I began the bulk of what makes up Swamp Isthmus. And it was impossible not to think daily about urban segregation, the Democratic National Convention violence of 1968 (symbolized for me in the famous photo of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Genet—those lovely, disparate queers—with arms locked in protest there), and of course, the Obama election. I was in Grant Park on election night and it’s estimated that a quarter million people were in attendance. I think Swamp Isthmus begins there too: mass joy, mass weeping, and just a shocking number of people—on cars, climbing the sidewalk lights, pouring through the streets. It was astonishing. As inspiring as it was utterly defamiliarizing.
Yet, it seems like it took about three weeks after inauguration, and it was sort of swallowed up in the ho-hum of nothing much new here to see. Somehow, Obama (like anything else) was swallowed up in the rhetoric of business as usual—and the seething, frenzied, staggering joy was just consigned to a kind of a been-there-done-that status quo. The funny part was that I’d, too, forgotten Huxley’s famous formulation “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And Crane’s “dead presid[ing]” and the way that the actual president had quickly become part of the familial passé gridwork was just eerie to me.
Swamp Isthmus is a book about the sad and wonderful clunkiness of being alive in a body that will soon be so much dust. Whatever we might try to glean from history from the materials available to us, we’re being blasted forward away from deeper understanding. Faulkner’s well-known statement that “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past” also loomed large. And I think the book’s propulsion forward yet backward looking curiosity—fraught with violence, upheaval, desire, etc.—is trying to account for both of those concerns: our lack of understanding history as its preeminent lesson, and that the past’s not passed—its dead are presiding over us.
Nelson: I return often to Crane’s “Voyages.” Its water imagery and Crane’s own watery death seem relevant here.
Wilkinson: It’s hard not to think of Crane without thinking of the way he died. Plath, Stanford, and Woolf, as well, of course, among others whose works we love, no doubt. It’s as though Crane couldn’t escape history, and water was a lure and a reminder it would seem of the force of its dream: “No embrace opens but the stinging sea; / The River lifts itself from its long bed, // Poised wholly on its dream, a mustard glow / Tortured with history, its one will—flow!”
There’s so much in Crane that’s obsessed with the remainder of what surrounds us and our ability to function capably in it, as with his best-known poem:
And I ask myself:
“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As through to her?”
Oddly, the length of one’s fingers wouldn’t matter if the “Old keys” “are but echoes.” I love that the material in Crane is the measure of our inability—or at least our frustration at the desire—to resurrect (and thereby experience anew) what’s gone. I think these ideas are obsessed over in Swamp Isthmus, and this isthmus is a slender little strand or spit or land bridge between islands. Which is to say, between us and what’s past, or between us and the dead, or perhaps between the wilds and the urban. They’re either comprised of swamp or marsh or muskeg, too, or thread watery land together—however precariously. I love the precariousness in Crane, yet how solid and obdurate the materials of his poems seem to me still.
Nelson: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita—and now Sandy—haunt the American mindscape. Did they also find their way into these poems?
Wilkinson: Well, I missed Katrina by a week or so, when I was helping a friend move from Tucson to Atlanta in the middle of August 2005 and we drove through Louisiana, placid and hot. I’d been to New Orleans a number of times prior to Katrina, and like most tourists found it fascinating and wholly unlike the rest of the continent. It’s hard not to be struck—at a safe distance anyway—by the beauty of what’s wild and crushing overcoming the urban. In Chicago, I was still working on the finishing touches of Swamp Isthmus when the blizzard hit in early 2011. It was a stupefying thing to behold, and I was going up on the roof of my building and taking film footage of it coming down on the street, but also becoming more and more afraid that it would literally bury the entire city a cartoon-like dollop of ice and power. The dogs of Katrina, stranded on roofs and porches or swimming around exhaustedly, seemed plucked right from a biblical tale. And those images recur, of course, throughout the book.
The connection to the Klee’s angel of history and the deluge of snow and swamp waters I suppose is the materialized rush overcoming us, to which we are largely helpless, stranded, in our petty materials, the soon-to-be offal that the book jokes about, albeit rather morbidly. Adam Phillips says this wonderful thing: “Because we are nothing special—on par with ants and daffodils—it is the work of culture to make us feel special.”
Nelson: I’m fascinated by what you accomplish with your images; they carry nearly all of the narrative and rhetorical weight of these poems. Tell us about your interest in—and fidelity to—the image.
Wilkinson: I don’t have a good answer for this, other than to say it’s a kind of obsession to see what happens if I can document my imaginative pursuits and longings, pleasures, fears, and what it means to be looking and lurking. I still don’t know what looking means, and I think all my poems are a measure of that propulsion versus what I can’t fathom about it.
It brings me back to Benjamin: “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” For Crane, that would be “and love / A burnt match skating in a urinal—” Only Crane would render “love” like that, I’m afraid, and it’s devastating, funny, banal, sad, odd, and, to my mind, even lovely. That verb “skating”…
Freud says somewhere that looking cannot be separated from desire, that there is no “objective” looking without it being determined by what we want or need, by what we wish for and are desiring, however unconsciously. I think this is part of what the book’s messenger girl is threading for us (why she’s my alter ego, I haven’t a clue), but she’s out in the materials of the forests, the mountains, lakes, cities, trash, woods, roads, swamps, and alleys.
She collapses it all for us, and I want to see what I can learn by following her around on her deliveries. All language is a kind of abstraction, so there’s something about staying close to the materials of world that feels like good, dangerous work to me. Parataxis seems much more haunting (as in Elizabeth Willis’s line: “The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun”) than hypotaxis, where the rhetoric stages all the relationships between our clumsy, indifferent objects and bodies and scapes.
Nelson: I appreciate your willingness to court Romantic imagery: the frequently personified moon and death as a subject—we’re accompanied by pallbearers, graveyards, and the eyes of the dead, yellow or heavy with coins. What draws you to the Romantic style, and why is it still relevant?
Wilkinson: I don’t know if I think of it as a romantic style, but I always admired the writers who wrote about the big things (death, love, aging, sexuality, family, the political, and the radical unseemliness of our emotional lives). If those are romantic concerns, I’m fine with that. (I’m totally bored by all new vapid minutia poetry being written now: here’s a bunch of quirky stuff that may or may not have befallen me, around which I tied a cute little bow.) I want my poems to goad at and fail at and long for something bigger, even if it’s steeped in impossibility. The book opens with Keats’s Urn, so I guess that’s about the most unsubtle I could be about Romantic forebears, but I love the speechlessness of the urn that outlasts us, that it’s still our project to ventriloquize it or to be ventriloquized by it, which seems much more radical and fascinating. His “Cold Pastoral!” may be my favorite two-word combination to date in English prosody.
The book ends with a mash-up of Stevens’s “fire-fangled feathers dangle down” with an ultra-pop culture reference to Reservoir Dogs, where Nice Guy Eddie goes “He was going kill us, take the satchel of diamonds, and scram. I’m right about that, right? That’s correct? That’s your story?” I love his voice, of course, and that this is his way of pinning down the story of what happened—not in the grand throes of History but just—in yesterday’s jewelry heist.
I do think there’s a certain gothic quality in the poems, for sure—a curiosity and a fidelity to the customs of and aversion to death, of mortality, of decay, of ceremony, and of avoidance, of course. But it’s back to Crane’s “presiding” I suppose: that the dead are everywhere breathing around us—and we’re the soon-to-be offal anyways, a mere strand or slip from wherever they’ve gone.
Nelson: Swamp Isthmus is book two in a pentalogy. That’s ambitious. Where will the trajectory take readers next?
Wilkinson: My obsessions with the image took a peculiar turn when I read Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep Interior, and the follow-up to Swamp Isthmus (which is called The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal) falls in love with long, skeining, gothic sentences and abandons the isthmusy threads that Swamp Isthmus evolved from Selenography, the first book in the pentalogy—which is even meaner and more sparsely wending, I’d say.
I love this little bit from Kafka: “They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers.” It’s the epigraph to The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal, and I wanted to get my kit together (the flashlights, a tent, and cameras) to see if I could follow the messenger girl through the spun yarn of a gothic sort of prose poem. Somewhere between Basho’s lovely prose and Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire, one of my favorite movies of all time.
What comes after that is a very dark, perplexing (to me, anyways) book called Meadow Slasher, that I wrote over a couple days in Chicago after I—what’s the phrase?—lost my marbles a little. The fifth and final piece is called Shimoda’s Tavern and it’s the Tucson chapter, in a way. After you strip the lyric poem all the way back to its bitty-bits and grind it through the muskeg, the courier’s archive and her songbook, then raze the meadow we thought we were permitted to return to—where do you go? I guess you end up at an imaginary wooden public house I’ve been dreaming about over in Dunbar Spring, Tucson, where the poet, my friend Brandon Shimoda, keeps his journals about his grandfather Midori’s life, internment in Montana (where my family is from too), and photographs on the shelves above the liquor. Which, maybe someday, right?
Nelson: I mentioned ambition: in addition to writing and teaching poetry, you also co-created and co-edit a vast online poetry site called The Volta, and you co-created and co-edit a press, Letter Machine Editions. What are the intentions of these projects? And what exciting things should we anticipate from them in the future?
Wilkinson: The Volta is a selfish endeavor, really. It’s just a journal that I run with the poet Afton Wilky, which houses prose on poetry, reviews, interviews, videos, and poems that I want to read and see and overhear. Putting it all online provides me with the petty illusion that I’m contributing to something larger. Really, I just like writing to poets I admire, to pester them to see what they’ve been up to, to see if I can persuade them to send me some of it. I’m impatient, so the journal’s a kind of alibi to that active impatience. Or a vessel, I suppose, to stage my curiosity. We have new issues on reviewing and anthologies and visual art by poets and music coming. And poems from Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Mary Ruefle, Abraham Smith, and many others.
Letter Machine Editions is a collaboration with my good friend Noah Eli Gordon, and it’s a way of turning our ongoing conversations and arguments and enthusiasms, really, about poetry (and other peculiar writing) into objects for others to get moved by or lost in. We have a new book coming out by Fred Moten called the feel trio, which is perhaps my favorite book that a living poet has made.