Joe Milazzo is a writer, editor, educator, and designer. He is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and two collections of poetry: The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books) and Of All Places In This Place OfAll Places (Spuyten Duyvil). His writings have appeared in Black Clock, Black Warrior Review, BOMB, The Collagist, Prelude, Tammy, Texas Review, and elsewhere. He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy, and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, where he was born and raised.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Publishing Crepuscule W/ Nellie got me over that hump that casts a long shadow over many a writer. I dare say it was validating, but mostly in the sense that publishing that first book provided the strongest conviction that, yes, I could finish a project of that scope. Beyond that, my life has not been greatly — materially — altered because of my authorship. My writing since then has been more likely to turn toward poetics. The novel is a big thing that can hold a lot, and there's a distinct pleasure to be found in saving things up for the sake of finding them a permanent home in a capacious narrative structure. Although I now tend to write poem to poem, and to take satisfaction in smaller bites, every poem I write seems to want to connect with likeminded language to collaborate in a larger project. That is, I find that poetry is, for me, much more sequential; it thrills with more cliffhangers, so to speak. (I'm positing novel-writing here as a mode more lyric and reflective, I suppose.)
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually started my career as a fiction writer. A novelist specifically, as I am a terrible short story writer and have a stunted appreciation for that form. (With exceptions made for writers like Felisberto Hernandez, Mary Robison, William Goyen, Stuart Dybek, Nikolai Leskov and a few others). I don't believe I really had a mind or heart that was prepared to encounter poetry in an authentic way until I hit my early 30s. I recall just saying to myself one day, "I need to read more poetry." And to be both a better writer and a better person. (My other had just passed away, and my grief took many forms, one of which was a desire not to waste myself.) And so I started reading poetry. I think the first book I picked up as part of this endeavor was Charles Simic's Selected. I don't recall why.. Maybe because I knew he'd written about Joseph Cornell's work? In other words, my reasoning was trivial. Its outcomes less so, I hope.
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?
Years. I am a slow writer, in part because I am naturally peripatetic and in part because I make myself too busy with other things (like jobs). That said, often premises arrive rather quickly and lead to an initial burst of writing, which is followed by a long period of evaluation. I write in order to figure out what it is I'm writing about. Getting there takes a great deal of generative work. To accomplish that, I tend to rely on constraints which, in turn, inevitably transcend the category of "inspiration" and become constitutive of meaning within the work. E.g., in Crepuscule W/ Nellie, I established from the start that the narration would never gain direct access to Thelonious Monk's point of view; in The Habiliments, the anaphoric titles. I rarely take notes, then. I revise and revise, tracking consequences all along the way.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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 training as a novelist means I can't help but think in terms of books and book-like experiences. I'm actually trying to break myself go this pattern and become more OK with short, standalone pieces. To limit my possibilities — better, to not exhaust them with elaboration. But this is a struggle for me. I want to send the end before the beginning has been established. That's not always a healthy desire.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes and no. I find attending readings to be inspiring, but I am less interested in holding open such spaces for my work, unless that work has been conceptualized specifically with oral presentation in mind. I do like organizing events, and one of the things I'm most happy to have been a part of recently was Other People's Poetry. This was a "repertory poetry reading series" I organized. Each reading concentrated on one classic book of poems and featured about 20 readers from the Dallas-Fort Worth literary community reading that book in its entirety. Together, we read Rilke, Adrienne Rich, Bob Kaufman, Sylvia Plath and Frank O'Hara. The kind of deep poetic saturation each of those readings provided definitely helped sustain my own writing for weeks afterwards. I learned so much — about form and rhythm and stress and connecting with an audience — from hearing my colleagues voice these poems aloud.
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?
I like to think of my writing practice as expansive yet particular. Even though I write across multiple genres (fiction, largely long-form; poetry; hybrid forms that incorporate elements of personal essay, philosophical inquiry, and satire), and even though I do rely upon my chosen medium to help me crack the problem of about-ness, certain concerns seem never to slip outside my writing's scope. I.e., maximalism and notions of the excessive; the manic porousness of consciousness; the function of the imaginative faculties, and the consequences of their exercise; frames, boundaries and "set-ups"; language as that both private refuge and public domain. With whatever writing endeavor to which I commit, I task myself with identifying and nurturing the unique voice through which that endeavor would speak. That is, my writing practice is one in which I work to disencumber myself of that voice I may be said to have found for myself, and to explore that vast and coterminous, if not precisely contiguous, territory of "other" vocabularies, grammars, and, I hope, realms of experience. In other words, theories of consciousness are vital to my writing.
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 I side with Ursula K LeGuin here: writers should be advocates of possibility. Our world suffers from a paucity of imagination. The problems we face as a species cannot be addressed without the imagination making a contribution to the solutions to those problems, not least because those solutions will always be contingent. Literature is social practice. Even the alt-right understands as much, c.f. Timothy McVeigh and The Turner Diaries and the Brietbart constituency's fondness for The Camp of the Saints.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I welcome all forms of collaboration, and have been fortunate enough to have very creatively rewarding relationships with my editors. Only with their creative input have I been able to translate some of my more hare-brained ideas into legible texts. For example, the "layouts" that determine the appearance of the poems in The Habiliments. The manuscript had been completed within an 8.5 X 11 frame that simple was not workable in book form. Yet the coordination — and I mean quite the literally the X/Y plotting of each poem — is constitutive of the book's overall meaning. Better: vital to its its attempts to make meaningfully. Mark Tursi and Richard Greenfield of Apostrophe Books, however, saw something I'd missed in my obsessive returning, tabbing and margin-fiddling, which was the inevitable palimpsest effect that had resulted from my efforts. Having them show me what I'd done, and what my own intentions could never have prompted me to accomplish, allowed me to do even more with notions of position within (and around) the text.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"The victories are in the revisions." (I first heard — and subsequently stole — this from Joseph McElroy.)
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Honestly, I feel very uncomfortable calling myself a poet. I prefer to think of myself as a kind of karaoke singer, one who has imitated his way into making convincing gestures at poetry but probably couldn't really carry a tune (or remember the lyrics) if he were fronting a real band. Yet I find writing fiction such a lugubrious thing these days. Poetry provides me relief from the burdens of fiction's continuities. My hope is that each practice — inasmuch as each is separate — sustains the other. My education in the interdisciplinary incubator that is CalArts has a great deal to do with that hope. We were not "tracked" in our MFA program, and were given the freedom to explore generic conventions so that we'd know exactly what we were ignoring when it was time to pay them no mind. So maybe I really work in an unnamed, even anonymous, third space. Or may that space is just called "writing" or "language-based practice." I'm not sure. I like that genre constrains (see above) and provides both a medium and raw material. That genres are discourses. And I am always looking for new discourses to mine for interesting expressions and conceptualizations.
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?
Since March of last year, I've been working in a fairly demoing profession that has me in the office at 8 a.m. editing other people's content (yep, I'll go there). So my writing routine has recently had to make some adaptations. It's actually become more routine in the sense that I'm now more attuned to the preciousness of time available to me. I don't necessarily write every day, but I do make something every day. Maybe I add another pitch to my year-long serial composition, or take a photo on my terribly outdated iPhone 4 while looking up, or post a pseudo-image macro to Instagram. I also have a notebook at my desk which is reserved only for my personal notes. My waste book, if you will. There, I write things and forget about them for a time, periodically flipping back through it and reviewing what I've squirreled away there for the purposes of starting something new and "serious" — but only in the sense of being something I know I am going to spend some real time playing with. Analogy! Each wastebook entry is, at the the moment of its recording, a fidget spinner; later, upon rereading, each one becomes a Lego brick.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I walk. If I am not walking, I am probably not writing.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Wild onions, as cut by a runaway lawnmower.
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?
Music is incredibly important to my writing. I don't think I could have ever attained an understanding of how narratives manipulate time without the more abstract examples provided by music. Moreover, I'm fascinated by the subject of improvisation and committed to exploring the role of improvisation in literary practice. Also, I've written critically about music, fiction about musicians, and my poetic practice is very much concerned with sonority, prosody, all that jazz. I also maintain my own experimental sound practice. I've not yet figured out how my tinkering around with modular synthesis fits in (connects) with my writing, but I am working on getting there.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So, so many, some of whom I've already mentioned. Nathanael West, Joseph McElroy, Clarice Lispector, Gertrude Stein, George Oppen, Aaron Kunin, Bob Kaufman, Michel Butor, Italo Calvino, Sesshu Foster, Eugenio Montale, Diane Wakoski, Susan Straight (a very underrated world-builder), Christian Hawkey, Renee Gladman, Cesar Aira, Dara Wier, Rosmarie Waldrop, Clark Coolidge — to name but a few — all routinely restore my faith in what both writing and reading can accomplish
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit every Anasazi site in North America.
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?
My grandfather was a surveyor. I worked for him one summer in high school, walking since-doomed suburban developments and the muddy banks of the Red River for the purposes of taking elevations. My grandfather continued doing this work until he passed away at the age of 95. As I get older, many are the days when I wonder if his might not have been a calling I missed.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I didn't think I was good at anything else. I feel like the first fifteen years of my life were all about trying to find a creative outlet, only to be frustrated by my lack of talent and.or the intractability of the media in which I thought I wanted to work. Once I discovered doodling with words due to chronic high school boredom, it all seemed to come together — that is, I realized that language could be an artistic medium, too. In fact, that I'd been treating as such all along, even — or especially — when cracking bad jokes or making up fictional band names (it was the 80s).
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Ark by Ronald Johnson, a symphonic work of experimental science-fiction whose (relative) optimism re: the future of the human imagination feels incredibly poignant given our species' present circumstances. I mean, Johnson wrote a poem that's also a blueprint from a spaceship. Also: I'll never look at poetic meter or scansion the same way again.
The last great film I watched was probably Billy Wilder's The Apartment. My wife and I watch it nearly every holiday season, and it still hold up. The script balances cynicism and sentimentality, decency and smuttiness, in ways I find endlessly fascinating. And corporate culture, while it may be slightly less every in its misogyny, hasn't really changed all that much.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently at work on three discrete poetic sequences and a novel. The novel (title still TBD) is set in Dallas in the 1970s and is something of a coming of age story. But it is also very much concerned with the history of the region, a history which many outside of Texas know nothing about and yet which is quintessentially American. If Crepuscule W/ Nellie is a "jazz novel," this new one is a "prog rock novel."
Field Recordings is the first of these three evolving poetic sequences. The field in question is contemporary and largely rhetorical. If these poems offer resistance — as I hope they might — they do so by way of appropriating, repurposing and recontextualizing (via various discursive strategies; that is, I have endeavored here to preserve a thematic unity without relying on a univocality) small portions of what is most awful about the current political regime's discourse.
My concern in the so called “name poems” of Acrostic Aspic is with the conditions of celebrity as they are lived by non-celebrities, i.e., “you” and “me.” Or: I suppose these poems are all about minor celebrity, as these titles borrowed from the outer limits of fame suggest. Our subjectivities so often cohere in the back and forth between narratives intensely our own and those widespread narratives with which we cannot help but make contact, or which are in constant contact with us. But the latter narratives are so much more easily represented, not to mention “relatable,” while the former remain largely untranslatable. So this self-exchange can never be equal. Still, people live as they live, and their names mean something to them.
Finally, the numbered poems that constitute homeopathy for the singularity represent my attempts to undertake a slow study of online existence as it stands in 2017/2018.