Joe Hall [photo credit: Patrick Cray] is a Buffalo-based writer and reading series curator. His five books of poetry include Fugue & Strike (2023) and Someone’s Utopia (2018). He has performed and delivered talks nationally at universities, living rooms, squats, and rivers. His writing has appeared in places like Postcolonial Studies, Poetry Daily, Best Buds! Collective, terrain.org, Peach Mag, PEN America Blog, dollar bills, and an NFTA bus shelter. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center. Get in touch with Joe: Twitter, Instagram, website.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
2008: I’m sitting at a desk in a sub-basement in Indiana. In front of me is a candy jar. Behind me is a particle accelerator. My official job title is Secretary. I get an email from Black Ocean. They’re going to publish Pigafetta Is My Wife. I get the hell out of there, and I am still getting the hell out of there: my poetry leading me out of the big abyss of bad jobs to the frail extent art can, which is only ever to contribute to a constellation of moments of momentary escape.
Like my first book, Pigafetta Is My Wife, my fifth book, Fugue & Strike, grows from historical research. PIMW drew from primary and secondary sources surrounding Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe and attempt to claim the Philippines; it attempts to turn these sources inside-out into a self-implicating, anti-imperialist sequence. Fugue & Strike draws on research surrounding sanitation strikes and the uses of waste in militant political action. Fugue & Strike departs from the mysticism that animates stretches of PIMW, embracing absurdity, humor, and the polemic. It’s tonally rangier and includes prose.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry through song, and I came to song through the rhythmic boredoms of work, singing while I was mowing strip after strip of lawn. Rapture in repetition. Soundgarden melodies mutated into my own.
And I came to poetry through evening prayer. Performing a nightly self-inquiry before an omniscient being transformed into the devotion to getting some thing right on paper. I wrote my first book in bed—at night until I fell sleep then immediately when I woke up, notebook and pen sometimes tangled in the sheets.
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?
The process is a two-minded mess. I often toggle between a patient, research-based poetics, building up notes, slowly secreting a theoretical framework—and just going for it: freewheeling, intuitive, ecstatic attempts to translate a whole emotional-intellection moment into the world.
So I write multiple projects at a high volume and get lost in and between these modes, often. I have to hit the brakes in order to figure out what I’m actually doing and if these different modes make sense together. Sometimes they really do not.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
It’s almost always a book. The poem iterates from some energy that has a coherence beyond the poem and wants to animate and bind more poems—each poem a variegation of the larger distinct wave that is the book and the book itself an expression of the smaller patterns it contains. That said, whatever Robert Duncan referred to as Life-Melodies, well, usually I mistake the beginning of a year or two of this iterating energy as a life-poem. So I most often feel continuity more than difference when I first draft then must find difference and silence in retrospect.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Ideally, I think about the context that a reading is then reshuffle and sometimes rewrite my poems for that context; sometimes that rewriting sticks and becomes the printed version. Readings are creation, what the score each written poem represents has been waiting for. I owe it to those pieces to perform them in a way that demonstrates this.
But because of the investments I have in readings, they are also a big outflows of energy. That can be dangerous and not enjoyable. And I wish there were more expansive formats for readings. 10-15 minutes just doesn’t fit much work or many readers. There are so many poets I would listen read for an hour who will never get the chance to read for that hour.
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?
1. From Marxist ecology: what is a poetics, in this long moment of climate crisis, that can account for (not landscapes but) ecologies as open-ended, dynamic systems of human and non-human actors involved in the circulation (and extraction and hoarding and etc.) of energy? What is a poetics that can account for the dynamic, open-ended co-evolutionary and thickly contextualized relations between natures and cultures?
2. How might post-2020 theories of racial capitalism speak to a white writer (Joe Hall) living in a mid-size city (Buffalo) in the imperial core (the United States) to inform municipal political action and the production, distribution, and reception of art within that context?
3. What are the answers when we ask these questions together?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Current? Outside of the big prize-winning Iowa and Ivy-League
circle-jerk club and all the people outside these
networks bending their best energy toward the delusional goal that they’ll be
able to join that club, I think there are a lot more poets than we might think
who have, in the last ten years, hooked up with social movements, grass roots
groups, unions, etc. They’re organizing, being organized in the crosswinds of a
profound post-2020 backlash and proposing through that activity relations
between writers and culture. But how to exactly define that relation between
artists and culture, what’s going to come out of it, part of that is always
going to be subterranean and part of that, in this moment, is still germinal.
That’s cool. We’ll see. But we may not see without more literary journalism
genuinely curious about the full scope of writers lives and the
interconnections between poetry scenes and social movements. So I guess what
I’m saying is that cultural production and political practice should inform
each other and we should represent that in non-naïve terms. We should do that
while also being skeptical of universalist claims of the politics of any aesthetics
outside of considerations the specific networks a given work circulates within.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential and desired.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I was tempted to quote one of my first teachers of poetry, Lucille Clifton on the necessity of bringing one’s whole self, including their hatred, especially their hatred, into a poem. But since I’ve been seriously ill lately, here’s part of a parable of Chuang-Tzu in the translation I first received it in 2001. In it Master Yu is dying and is attended by his friend:
All at once Master Yu fell ill. Master Ssu went to ask how he was. "Amazing" said Master Yu. "The Creator is making me all crookedy like this! My back sticks up like a hunchback and my vital organs are on top of me. My chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are up above my head, and my pigtail points at the sky. It must be some dislocation of the yin and yang!"
Yet he seemed calm at heart and unconcerned. Dragging himself haltingly to the well, he looked at his reflection and said, "My, my! So the Creator is making me all crookedy like this!"
"Do you resent it?" asked Master Ssu.
"Why no, what would I resent? If the process continues, perhaps in time he'll transform my left arm into a rooster. In that case I'll keep watch on the night. Or perhaps in time he'll transform my right arm into a crossbow pellet and I'll shoot down an owl for roasting. Or perhaps in time he'll transform my buttocks into cartwheels. Then, with my spirit for a horse, I'll climb up and go for a ride. What need will I ever have for a carriage again?
Recognize everything is change (Epicurus, Lucretius, Marx). Approach that change with delight and curiosity as to its possibilities. Then ride your butt-bike into the darkness.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays to music)? What do you see as the appeal?
At first poetry and song where the same polysemous ball of stuff. Now that the boundaries between poetry and essay can be thin when I’m writing something I’ve learned a lot about. A long piece in Fugue & Strike, “Garbage Strike / 🗑️🔥,” crosshatches poems striving for a garbage-compacted density of materials (to create an unpredictable connotative leachate) with essay—sometimes, elliptical, sometimes not—on histories and futures of waste and militant actions with waste or by waste workers. An essay I’m writing now on the implication of canonical sonneteers in the early formation of English settler-colonialism and racial-capitalism actually grew from footnotes on an anti-sonnet a friend suggested I grow into something larger.
The relation between poetry and essay is easy when the subject is the same. The appeal there is that essays can provide a rich contextual framework to inform a poem’s play.
Okay, halfway through. Take a breather, reader.
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?
Age, entropy: no words arrive without an hour of body work after I wake up. Exercise, stretch the damaged bits, prepare a breakfast that fits my chronic illness. A bit of reading. Then I write. But C.A. Conrad argues writing shouldn’t be like working in a factory (or as an on-demand worker for a task app company). I’ve been there. It sucks. So my writing routine only works when I also carry that writing beyond the boundaries of that routine and am receptive to how the messages of the larger world unfolding around me must shape that writing. This is why I’m most productive when I go to sleep in the cross-currents of thinking about my days in the world and what I’m going to write in the morning.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t know how to answer this question. Sometimes I avoid inspiration and embrace being stalled. There are crucial times I need to avoid other poetry, especially poetry I love, and sink into my life. I wait for friction with the world to intervene—the social ecologies of my house, my block, my neighborhood, growing outward. Or sometimes a friend lovingly kicks me in the ass. That’s probably what I need—someone to keep me from revising my best work into particles.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
Forms: I can’t help but think of Bernadette Mayer’s exercise to walk through a city and, on each new block, write a single line of a sonnet. Or Mei Mei Berssenbrugge’s idea that the line is generated by the body’s sense of extension, or periphery in a particular environment. I have the sneaking suspicion that pandemic-era long aimless walks through Buffalo’s empty, pot-holed roads and uneven sidewalks may be expressing themselves in the long lines of many of the poems I’ve written in the last year. As did a bike path in Buffalo alongside the Niagara River. In stereo: the river flowing and the 190’s whip-sawing traffic.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Samuel Delany: The Mad Man, The Motion of Light on Water, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand; John Milton’s Paradise Lost and The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates; a whole world of documentary poetry from Rukeyser and Reznikoff to Susan Tichy, Mark Nowak, and Craig Santos Perez to Janice Lobo Sapigao.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a book while not worrying about money or time, but, hey, who doesn’t want that?
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?
When I was in middle school in Western Maryland I was asked to write about a future self I hope to be, and I said I hoped to be working in and office and living in an apartment in Ohio. I fucked up. Work sucks. I hate it. Get me cultivating a big, big food and flower garden and doing some bio-remediation in a city with a new, more functional body. I’ll do it with friends. I’d love that. Is that a job?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Where to start? A deeply felt incompatibility with the social world. A huge gap between I and thou. In the words of Karen Brodine: "All my life, the urgency to speak, the pull toward silence." I came up in a disciplinary environment and my parents giving each other loudly and at length the wounds that would cause them to split. I had weird dreams—a whale corpse, its moldering eye looking into my bedroom window, a planet made of condensed, heavy static, bearing down through a void that couldn’t be more complete.
And a lot of time alone as a kid, to roam in the woods we lived beside.
And an infinitely patient grandfather who lived next door, through these woods, who I could interrupt, say, while he was splitting wood, to sit down at the kitchen table and talk while he smoked.
Who can say if this explains it? For a long time it did. How about I was painfully shy? If I could be alone with language and that would still connect with other people? That would be nice.
Other things happened to change the reasons I wrote, thankfully. Then, a sort of momentum kicks in.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Samuel Delany’s 872 page door-stop about the lives of partners Eric and Shit in a black, queer commune on Georgia’s Gulf Coast. A lot of labels have been applied to this novel (like a pornotopia) but the point of Delany is that none of them quite stick. It’s a novel as ferocious, unsettling, gently, steady, and terrifying as the ocean that is it’s backdrop.
Film: Congratulations, you’ve made it this far, so you get to learn a secret. For over a decade, my partner Cheryl and I have been recording a hardly ever advertised podcast about movies. We watch a movie. We talk about it. We like the excuse it provides for us to talk at length and with intention about something. Through the podcast, I’ve found myself thinking more and more lately about Bi Gan’s 2018 Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It’s a mysterious, trance inducing poem in a noir shell. And a great piece of Chinese cinema that slipped by before as the boundaries erected by the U.S. against U.S.-Chinese cultural exchange grow harder and harder. Try watching The Battle at Lake Changjin in the U.S. It’s the highest grossing Chinese film of all time. You can’t watch it. Also, Bacurau rips.
20 - What are you currently working on?
The sequel Fugue & Strike. It’s provision and likely to change title: Fugue & Fugue & Fugue. It’s shaping up to be a big book of poems. It goes full Buffalo, inspired by Samuel Delany’s sentences, radical municipalism, and the knot of rage and despair that was and followed the people of Buffalo trying to topple the dangerous, centrist Democratic machine here—and losing, for now. The poem, I think, is, in its way, about most small and mid-size, post-industrial cities. Not New York or San Francisco: most cities. Help me if I don’t finish it this summer.