Joshua Corey [photo credit: Joanna Kramer] is the author most recently of The Barons (Omindawn Publishing, 2014), a poetry collection, and Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), a novel. With G.C. Waldrep he edited The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012). He lives in Evanston, Illinois and is an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Selah came out in 2003, emerging from the volatile mixture of my addiction to sheer language with acute grief and nostalgia. Twelve years later, I’m still throwing words into the black hole of irretrievable losses. But I’m conscious now of a more organized and experienced approach to fundamental questions about how to resist inhumanity, how to live with others and myself, and the temptations of the vertical in a thoroughly horizontal world.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My mother wrote poems, and made poetry seem like a natural thing to have as part of one’s life. I showed my earliest poems to her, and she praised them—simple as that! I was hooked on her love and her love for language became mine. I wrote and continue to write other kinds of things—criticism, essays, and lately fiction. But poetry remains home base.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I work like a crab: while my eyes are fixed on what looks on some unreachable horizon, I sidle up to accomplishment. I’m always working on multiple projects and get my best work done when I’m procrastinating one of them. Poems especially tend to come when I’m focused on other things like a novel or a critical essay or teaching or the round of domestic life. So there will be a great deal of circling, mentally, and the accretion of urgent and illegible notes in my notebook, and when the writing actually happens it happens suddenly. It comes in a gush or it doesn’t come at all. I do much less revision than I once did—or rather, the revision process is happening before the poem is actually written, if that makes sense.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My most recent book, The Barons, is more of a “collection” than any of my other books—it doesn’t have a single theme or through-line, or if it does (disaster capitalism?) it’s something that emerges from how I arranged the poems instead of any plan. My first novel, Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy, also accreted from independent sections that grew together. I love the idea of a book that’s just one continuous rush—the “flight forward” technique of the Argentine writer César Aira, who claims not to revise his works, fascinates me. But that doesn’t seem to be how I operate; like Joyce, I’m a scissors and paste man.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Like many poets I’m used to hearing people who don’t normally read poetry exclaim that they “got it” only after hearing me read poems aloud. I’m not entirely sure what that’s about but sometimes I myself “get” my work differently after presenting it to an audience. There’s something about the act of offering a poem or story to an audience, live, that changes my sense of what that writing is about, or has the potential to be about. It can bring something that felt dead to life, or it can confirm for me that something that felt particularly strange and out there when I wrote it feels that way because it’s touching something real, something in the unconscious. Audiences will respond to that if you give it to them.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Political theory, ecopoetics, vital materialism, speculative ontology—broadly speaking, my writing engages with and is engaged by thinkers and writers in these areas. Some names: Lucretius, Spinoza, Emerson, Thoreau, Darwin, Whitman, Nietzsche, William and Henry James, Proust, Bergson, Whitehead, Heidegger, Ponge (I’m working on a new translation of Le parti pris des choses), Merleau-Ponty, Perec, Deleuze, Olson, Duncan, Arendt, Burroughs, Beckett, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett. I’m interested in the liveliness of materialist approaches to writing and thought—materialist in the dialectical-historical sense and also the “new” (really very old) “vitalist” materialism. And I’m interested in overcoming what I see as the dead-end of received postmodernist practice and into contact with a poetics that revives the power of the voice and of myth.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think the role of writers—that is, the artists whose medium is language and not the “storytellers” who represent capital—is to operate from the margins, working both to conserve culture (that is, quite simply, to remember—since memory, both cultural and personal, has been all but obliterated by the twenty-four-hour news cycle and universal access to Google) and to oppose it (in the forms in which it is given to us and reproduced by us and for us by all of these machines with human bodies and minds for moving parts). Disrupt the machine, throw pop bottles from the bleachers, stand up for Apollo (light, beauty, harmony) AND Dionysus (energy, feeling, ecstasy), and do it all with words words words. So many forms of connection have, paradoxically, been lost in our connected age. I think there’s something potentially radical in reading: one mind to another, from solitude to solitude. As writers, we need to fight for that radical possibility, which could very easily vanish without our vigilance.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Most of the editors I’ve worked with, for better or worse, have brought a very light hand to the task. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have an old-fashioned Maxwell Perkins-style editor to work with, who could help me shape a mess of pages into something deathless. Or a Gordon Lish-type who might radically and painfully transform my writing into something unrecognizably great. I’d probably hate it, but it would be worth maybe sacrificing one book to such a process, just for the experience.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Friendly advice is rarely useful, and vice-versa.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
For years I felt a kind of disgust for fiction, an almost physical nausea at the subservience of every other pleasure writing can offer—sonic pleasure, image pleasure, the dynamic tension between generals and particulars that we might name “the virtual”—to the demands of either plot (in genre fiction) or psychology (in “literary” fiction). It wasn’t until I discovered Roberto Bolaño’s work that fiction began to seem possible for me: there a kind of derangement of genre (in Bolaño most frequently this takes the form of the detective story or noir) becomes a kind of grid upon which those other, poetic pleasures can be arranged. There’s also not a lot of psychology in Bolaño’s work: his characters’ motivations are a kind of void or pressure point that make significant social and natural forces manifest. If a Bolaño character commits an act of violence, for example, it’s never explained away by his individual psychology: some complex of exterior and interior forces has operated upon that character and forced him to act in that way—call it fate if you like. That seems to me like a poetic way of understanding the world. Bolaño also practices a kind of transformed winking autobiography—he’s a character or observer in many of his fictions—and I’m fascinated with the blurred line between fiction and nonfiction in many of the most compelling and vital writers of the past thirty years or so—W.G. Sebald, Ali Smith, J.M. Coetzee, Enrique Vila-Matas, Rachel Cusk, and Karl Ove Knausgaard are just the first names that come to mind. Their work straddles fiction and nonfiction and the infrathin border between them is poetry.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
At the moment I’m on sabbatical, so I am fortunate indeed to be able to maintain a writing routine! After seeing my daughter off to school, I typically head to my neighborhood coffee shop with my laptop and a few carefully or randomly selected books in my bag. I work all morning, sometimes on whatever I conceive to be the big project of the moment (at the moment it’s a new novel), sometimes on a side project which can at any moment mutate into the big project. After lunch I mostly read, and then it’s family time, and in the evening I’ll probably read some more and maybe work on something that’s even farther to the side of my main projects. Like this interview.
When I’m teaching, it’s entirely a different affair: writing becomes a catch-as-catch can affair. I write poems when they come to me, on the train to or from work, or during office hours when I’m supposed to be grading papers. More sustained work has to happen in the evenings, or in the summer. But somehow the writing gets done. It’s like they say: if you want something done, ask a busy person.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I am overcome by staleness and horror at my own lack of talent on a regular basis, and when that happens, and I’m conscious enough to recognize that it’s happening, I try to give myself permission to stop writing altogether and to go do something else. Watch movies or old detective shows, ride the El to a random Chicago neighborhood and walk around, visit an art museum, browse bookstores, study French, read biographies or letters or Proust.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Onions frying in olive oil.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I am a deeply literary creature so I couldn’t agree with McFadden more. But I do get a lot out of visual art—I’m not especially knowledgeable about it but the freedom that painters and sculptors and some filmmakers seem to enjoy from the constraints of narrative and language can be enormously inspiring. Or galling, it’s the same thing—“Goddamn it! Why can’t I do that??” I read a fair amount of philosophy and that can similarly feel liberating, though the language concepts can seduce me away from the earthly particulars that my work needs to thrive. Nature and science are increasingly important to how I approach writing as well, though again it can be hard to overcome a certain tendency toward Platonism.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I seem to be especially fascinated by writers with a rage for order, who say with Blake, “I must Create a System. or be enslav’d by another Mans / I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.” Writers walking the knife-edge of the Apollo-Dionysus dyad: analytic shamans, Cartesian drug-addicts, Lutheran lushes, Marxian mystics. Living the life by perfecting the work. George Oppen, Charles Olson. Woolf, Joyce. Beckett, Burroughs. Stevens.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Make a film, write an opera, travel in Asia, live in France, create a TV series, become fully bilingual, learn to sail.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Filmmaker. DJ. Curator.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I never felt like there was any choice in the matter. My mother opened the door and I walked through it. I’m a pretty cerebral person, and if it wasn’t for writing, I’d be in danger of disappearing entirely into my mind.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m going to veer closer to the last than to the great. I had a hell of a lot of fun with Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice—in his sheer inventiveness, paranoid displacements, and sly humanism he’s the closest fiction comes to John Ashbery. In a funny way he’s the flip side of Henry James—another deeply elusive writer—whose The Ambassadors I finished recently and which uses utterly sui generis sentences to explore psychosocial phenomena that resist interpretation even as they invite it. The P.T. Anderson film version of Inherent Vice isn’t maybe “great,” but it does do a good job of capturing that effort of interpretation, mostly in close-ups on the incomparably puzzled face of Joaquin Phoenix. (The Master is great. Punch-Drunk Love is great. If we’re talking greatness.)
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve got three manuscripts in progress. One is poetry, an attempt to fulfill the promise of what I once called “visionary materialism” (http://joshcorey.blogspot.com/2011/02/theses-on-visionary-materialism.html); the next is a kind of SF riff on the love affair between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, reimagined as replicants in the age of global climate disruption. It’s a hybrid of poetry and prose. The third is a novel, a mélange of personal history, travel writing, essays, and anything else I can plausibly or implausibly cram into it. Translating Ponge. A scholarly article or two. What time is it, anyway? I’d better get back to work.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;