Joseph Rathgeber [photo credit: Ananda Lim] is an author, poet, high school English teacher, and adjunct professor from New Jersey. His story collection is The Abridged Autobiography of Yousef R. and Other Stories (ELJ Publications, 2014). His work of hybrid poetry is MJ (Another New Calligraphy, 2015). His novel is Mixedbloods (Fomite, 2019). He is the recipient of a 2014 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship (Poetry) and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship (Prose).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, a collection called The Abridged Autobiography of Yousef R. and Other Stories (ELJ Editions, 2014) felt validating and legitimizing. Until it didn’t. I found ways to minimize and undermine the accomplishment. The experience (and several others that arrived on its heels) soured me to the publishing industry insofar as publishing is an industry, and there are so many conflicting interests and agendas inherent to it. I resent having to play that game. Still, I’m sort of full of shit, because I rather have that book in the world than not.
Artistically, I feel I’m better at doing what I’ve always set out to do with my writing. Mixedbloods, my upcoming novel, attempts to do some things I’ve never been very interested in; namely, put forward an actual plot and sketch out emotionally rich characters and scenarios. That might sound strange, but my writing (fiction and poetry, both) is so driven by language—by seeking to establish a deep verbal topography, as Gary Lutz puts it—that I’ve sidelined those other qualities in the past. With Mixedbloods, I tried to do it all. Sustaining that language-centric writing style over the course of 80,000 words was no easy task, though.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I came to poetry first because I perceived it to be easier. And it was. When I first started writing poems, I would write them in a matter of minutes and be done with it. Fiction seemed (and, indeed, turned out to be) much more demanding. I could make any excuse for a poem I wrote when I was seventeen. It’s different now, but I still write poetry in short bursts and only make edits months after the fact, once I’m thoroughly estranged from the words.
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?
Mixedbloods—because it’s a novel that concerns an actual native people (the Ramapough Mountain Indians) and a history of colonization, iron mining, and environmental racism in a specific region—required a lot of research and note-compiling. The notes weren’t limited to facts either, though—I also amassed a bevy of words from my reading and research: flora, fauna, jargon, esoteric terminology. I work better like this. Those notes in and of themselves inspire both plot, character, and setting. They dictate and determine those intimidating structural decisions. I comply.
Once I’ve gathered enough material, magpie-like, I begin the assembling. Clauses and sentences are puzzled together, collaged. Sentences are crafted, edited and revised, as I go along. It can be a tedious and plodding process, but I enjoy the approach (I know of no better way to do it), and it’s gratifying in the end.
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?
Poems used to be one-offs, but more and more I find poems emerging in sequences. I embrace this, as the sequence is often well-suited for a chapbook. Though I’ve never done the whole linked stories thing, my short fiction does exist within a particular universe. Though many might balk at the suggestion New Jersey is as mythological, storied, or romantic as Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi (it’s more pronounceable, at least), I prefer to ground my characters in the state. And so my stories, once there are enough, can be painlessly collected.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love the performative aspect of a public reading. Probably the reason I teach, too. I like being out there communicating directly to the people, and I enjoy the challenge of making it interesting. Readings are typically boring affairs, for me at least. The poet-voice kills me. And the “stage” presence is worse. Maybe it’s because I used to battle rap that I expect writers to acknowledge the existence of their audience, interact with them, joke, etc. You know, entertain. I also find it loathsome when a writer treats the reading as some sacrosanct event. It should be casual. I recently saw Michael Lally read, and he had no problem interrupting himself, mid-poem, to share some tangent that came to his mind. It was so honest.
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 suppose I should hesitate to say I’m always writing through an anarcho-communist lens—I should hesitate because that might rub some people in the most abrasive of ways, might alienate others, might simply make the work seem contrived. But with fascists emerging from behind computer screens, I don’t really care to disguise my intents. I’m an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, gender abolitionist who thinks we can develop alternatives to prisons and policing. That said, my poems and stories and novels aren’t instructional manuals on a.) how to rid our world of such ills or b.) how to build a just, nurturing, joyful society. My writing documents the catastrophe as it unfolds and unfurls in flame walls. If I’m on my game, I do that with the prettiest of language.
The work asks more questions than answers them. And I hope they are the same questions Patricia Stuelke cataloged in a recent Post45 piece: How to confront accelerating climate disaster, worsening refugee crises, unbounded global war, mass incarceration, femicides, resurgent white supremacist movements, and the crushing burden of work and debt?
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 don’t think the writer has a role in larger culture. Writers won’t change the world. The role of the writer should be to mask up.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t had any difficult editor experiences. The few people who have been willing to help me in that capacity have made valuable suggestions to improve the quality of the work. If I feel strongly about something with which they disagree, they’ve always relented. Essential, though? I don’t think it would be fair for me to say working with an editor is essential considering so few writers are privileged enough to have one, myself included. Sometimes you just need to lock the poem or paragraph away for six months and come back to it with new eyes.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Never return a wave to somebody from across the street.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
I move between genres pretty damn gracefully, if I do say so myself. I think any effort to dismantle these genres should be encouraged. I think it’s a thing of beauty to not be able to describe what it is you’re doing in such simple terms. I appreciate the freedom of movement between aesthetics.
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?
A typical day for me doesn’t include writing, though I jot notes often enough. I write late at night after everyone else is asleep. That’s not every night, though. Writing nights happen here and there. I write until the morning birds start chirping or until I hear something and scare myself. Then I grab a knife (I usually write in the kitchen), recon the house, and retreat to my bed. And I back up my file because I’m not a fool.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I usually do some manual labor—dig in the dirt or something like that. Pull weeds. Clean the bathroom top-to-bottom until I get a bleach headache. If I’m intent on getting the writing going again, I’ll read some sentences by Lutz. Or open to a random page in Moby Dick. Also artsy films, but Netflix has fewer and fewer of those available to stream. Thanks for nothing, Netflix.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Butter burning in a pan.
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?
For sure. The second Mobb Deep. Audrey Wollens’ Instagram page—I’ll scroll through that from time to time. I like sitting outside and watching the treetops sway in the breeze like Tony Soprano always did. This collage artist named Nicholas Lockyer who I just stumbled upon one night. I know nothing about him, but his shit is dope and immediately puts me in a writing headspace. I peruse the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP). I’m easily inspired. The internet makes it easy. I know how to summon the Muses like a motherfucker.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
It’s surprising to me how my interest in fiction has waned over the years. I’ve become very picky when it comes to a story or a novel. An interest in non-fiction has emerged, though. And I find non-fiction enriching in ways a novel isn’t. The intellectual stimulus, the learning, is probably something I’m seeking to make up for due to the limited knowledge I gained in high school. Things I’ve read recently that have made an impression: Franco Berardi’s Heroes, Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing, Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? I enjoy Sean Bonney’s old blog abandonedbuildings. Zines provide me endless glee. Zines on prison abolition or anti-work or direct action. The ideas contained therein shape my understanding of issues and fuel my creativity. I’ve revisited Anne Boyer’s essay “No” so many times that I brag about it to friends. My writing interests, for better or worse (for better, I’ve decided), are inseparable from my life interests.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit Alaska. Pierce something. Cover my arms, legs, and neck in moderately small tattoos—black ink only. Eat a slice of pizza without puking.
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?
Well, writing isn’t my occupation—teaching is. I didn’t plan to be a teacher, but it’s the best fit for me. Where else but a high school could I talk about literature all day—interrupted by tangential outbursts—and not have the police called on me? I’m able to spend hours trying to get kids to dig reading and writing the same as I do. It also provides those summer vacations where I can pretend writing is my occupation. If I didn’t end up as a teacher, I’d be a wandering hobo, a freighthopper—still would be writing, though.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing always seemed the most manageable. The tools were at my disposal. I’ve made music before, and that requires so much technical know-how. I guess I could paint or draw, but I’m not too good at those mediums. I do make collages—scissors, glue-sticks, and paper. But that’s mostly for myself. The writing process is probably most in line with my neuroses.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (like Phife Dawg—he’s got styles upon styles upon styles), and I finally got around to watching Room. It caused me to stop my complaining about being stuck in the house with my kids during the winter. Temporarily, anyway.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on another novel about a teenager with congenital adrenal hyperplasia who patricides their father. Coming off the dead seriousness of Mixedbloods, it’s been a joy to use humor through a first-person narration.
That’s my fun, but my passion project is currently a nonfiction book about an experimental underground rap collective that formed and flourished at the turn of the millennium. The book juggles race, the role of the primitive internet, subculture, and geographical de-centering. It’s part-music criticism, part-autotheory, part-oral history. It’s the critical evaluation of an overlooked scene. I’m conducting interviews, scouring archives, and structuring and re-structuring the thing. I’ve gotten a little over my head, but I’m comfortable with that. I trust it will eventually take shape as I write.