Barbara Claire Freeman interviews Joshua Marie Wilkinson

Born and raised in Seattle, Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of five books, and the editor of several projects: The Volta, Letter Machine Editions, as well as two anthologies from University of Iowa Press. In 2011, IndiePix Films released his first movie, a feature-length documentary about the band Califone called Made a Machine by Describing the Landscape. His most recent book is Selenography (Sidebrow Books 2010), which is the first work in a five-book sequence called the No Volta pentalogy. Swamp Isthmus (Book 2) and The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal (Book 3) are forthcoming from Black Ocean and Sidebrow Books in 2013 and 2014, respectively. He lives in Tucson, where he teaches at the University of Arizona.

Barbara Claire Freeman is a literary critic and professor of literature who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. Formerly an Associate Professor of English at Harvard, she teaches creative writing in the Rhetoric Department at U.C. Berkeley. Incivilities, her first collection of poems, was published by Counterpath Press in November, 2009; a chapbook, St. Ursula’s Silence, was published by Instance Press in 2010. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Public Space, Agriculture Reader, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Forklift, Ohio, Jacket, Seattle Review, and Volt, among others.

A poem by Joshua Marie Wilkinson follows the interview.

Barbara Claire Freeman: In January you consolidated your myriad online projects (Rabbit Light Movies, Evening Will Come, etc.) into one extraordinary magazine titled The Volta. Its features change weekly and monthly and it includes different sections for poems, news, interviews, videos, articles on poetry and more. What motivated the shift to one format and how do you see the magazine evolving?

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: The Volta is an idea I’ve unsuccessfully tried to sell my friends on for a few years, actually. Finally, I had a bit of time over the winter holiday last year and Sara Renee Marshall and I started to talk about a place—a conglomerate site (Julie Carr jokingly called it a “universe” last night in Denver)—that could feature a poetics journal, poems, interviews (text), conversation (audio), and poemfilms—as well as weekly book reviews and author questionnaires. Rather than write reviews and conduct interviews for other journals (which I hope I’ll still do to some extent), I thought it would be catalyzing to have them in one place and to draw from the efforts of many excellent poets and editors and friends who comprise a fairly big masthead.

I’d like to try and edit The Volta for a decade. I’d like to develop a big archive, special issues, tributes—to broaden out, to get very particular, to run a good course. I don’t know if we can do it for that long. We’ll see. I just started a new little poemfilm series called Arroyo Chico (named after my neighborhood in Tucson), and filmed Dot Devota, Brandon Shimoda, Zach Schomburg, and Phil Cordelli reading below thousands of birds in the middle of the night.

BCF: This is your first year teaching at Univ. of Arizona, Tucson having transitioned from Loyola, Chicago. What are you teaching? Are you working mostly with the MFA students and/or are you teaching any interdisciplinary classes?

JMW: My teaching is split between undergrads and grad students and I like the balance. The demands are unique. Each class’s needs are shifting and sort of unpredictable anyways. I taught a Poets’ Prose class (we read Myles’s Inferno, Giscombe’s Prairie Style, Nelson’s Bluets, Kapil’s Humanimal, Martin’s Discipline, and a number of others) for my first graduate seminar, which was a lot of fun and really amazing to see all these minds grapple mostly with books and authors they’d never heard of before. I love teaching the Ancient Seven to my undergraduates and reading stuff like Keats and Shakespeare with them as well. It’s one job, but it’s totally different brains in a way—and I enjoy the challenges. I learn a lot from both groups, but it’s vastly different moving from one to the other. I still think that reading something like “The Tyger” with students new to poetry is incredible, and I come out of those conversations sort of high and exhausted.

BCF: Any thoughts on the importance of teaching “prosody,” i.e. formal restraints that play with traditional accents/meters, etc.?

JMW: I like teaching formal prosody (I’m a scansion/meter freak), and I taught a graduate forms course based on a syllabus by Boyer Rickel (an excellent teacher of poetry)—and I enjoyed it immensely. And my class developed our own forms and wrote in terza rima, and heroic couplets, and villanelles and that sort of thing. I think I invented a kind of choriambic sonnet, which was very bizarre.

BCF: I cannot not ask you about the “kind of choriambic sonnet,” which sounds wonderfully obscure.

JMW: Well, a choriambic sonnet is a 14-line poem with a Shakespearean Octave and a Petrarchan Sestet. The lines themselves are made up exclusively of choriambic feet (trochee to iamb), three per line, giving the poem a 12-syllable line—with that bonking, spondaic crunch, where the feet meet twice in each line. One thought was to gerrymander the heft of the choriambs a bit by placing an unstressed syllable at the end of the first two choriambs, but this alters the rhythm drastically to iambs and anapests (nice indeed), but not the churning spondees I realized I was in search of.

I came to realize this changed not only the rhythm to a more mellifluous line, but changed the sense as well—suddenly the intensity of the jarred clatter of the poem was altered markedly. What the choriambs, when set back-to-back, want is precisely that crunching, spondaic rhythm that necessarily thwarts the temperance of the iambic/anapestic, watery (however lovely) line.

BCF: Why a sonnet of choriambs?

JMW: Choriambs alone were not enough of an organizing principle I found, as I began to compose them. Adding an end rhyme in a form (bastardized from both dominant sonnets) was the way I composed it before I consulted Shakespeare and Petrarch. In other words, that’s how I did it. So that’s how I left it.

BCF: What are you currently writing and/or working on?

JMW: Since 2006 or so I’ve been working on a five-book sequence of poetry (called the No Volta pentalogy), and I’ve just finished the fourth work (Meadow Slasher) and am on to trying to finish the whole thing off with the final work—book 5—which I’ve tentatively named A Song Called “Kansas City” by the Singer Damien Jurado. I’m also working on new Letter Machine titles with Noah Eli Gordon—which include new books by Edmund Berrigan, Peter Gizzi, Fred Moten, Renee Gladman, and Aaron Kunin. Today I was working on collaborations (little transliterations of lyric weirdness) with Hoa Nguyen for a journal called Likestarlings that kindly asked us to collaborate.

BCF: I look forward to reading it. Is the poem you’ve kindly contributed from this project, and if so from which of its five “works”?

JMW: Yeah, it’s an excerpt from Meadow Slasher—which is book 4 in the pentalogy and nearly complete. It’s a single long poem I wrote between Chicago and Seattle in 2010 and 2011.



What’s that the combination for?

Monster maulers to ganglords to subway

cutters stopping for a soft drink.

So animate the border’s skeining smogtide out here.

Your socks are too long but I like it.

The wind is called Roy in the shortstory & he

draggles up his own set of deranged familiars.

What’s that around your neck?

A crystal in a bullet shell.

How long have you been standing there?

Crepuscular itself is enough

nodding off in the slick

70s seats at the DMV. When this was in style

it was a hundred thousand years ago.

Short orange hammer for cracking you

out of your car should a quake find you

in traffic on the Bay Bridge—some tools

don’t come equipped with a word we’d

fear them for. Steady comes the

phantom chopper up

from downcountry like

the battle’s over & the pilot gets to weep

alone awhile, unwittingly pulling the seat straps

tighter & tighter to his neck.

Not all violence is sad or brutal or funny.

I’m told there are two hundred other kinds & I’ll wait

for you in the fog at Donut World on Judah.

What’s beauty but a little death retracted?

Throwing worksite stones at

passing trains this kid sings the chorus

to the most famous song in human history

by Jay-Z & her rocks plink off train cars

as they slow through Uptown construction at Lawrence.

The bridegroom huffing nitrous in the stall

off the banquet room. Hot ears of corn

with black pepper for a funeral.

As far as I know, there are only two or three ways

for a woman to take off her own dress without tearing it.

A little music, Monsieur Pain:

If I’m gonna imagine the 89 Bay Bridge quake,

Galloping Gertie, the Green River Killer, or

a samurai sword in the guts

you’d better get the soundtrack together & if it doesn’t

start with Red Apples as sung by

Chan Marshall & close with Act Nice and Gentle

then I’m out.

For Death thou art a Mower too.