Goodness gracious, Joe Hall’s second book, The Devotional Poems, is one rip-roaring collection of ditties that grasp/gasp out from the cloudy parts into/for the light. I read this book after moving out of Indiana for the first time and interviewed Joe in the few weeks leading up to shoulder surgery. Read on and you’ll find out why that’s important to know. Read these poems and you’ll learn something about trying to be whole.
Here we go, your second book, The Devotional Poems, has been unleashed, again from that Black Ocean press. I love what that wild/wise man, Blake Butler, said in that blurb of his, he said your book is “[d]evoted, yes, to terror, but true too to the gorgeous black underbelly of how we’re all at once somehow together possessed.” Consistency and trustworthiness are the misconstructed pieces of poetry that often ail me with boredom, assuming wholeness and “real world” logic as their backbones, but no, no, no, the beauty comes in what happens when the spirit that speaks is broken, other, downright wild. And that’s what I loved so much about these poems: they seem apologetically ferocious because they don’t know how to say sorry for being so brutal and fucked up, they just are. Where does this voice rumble from? How did Joe Hall’s poetry get their legs?
I’m with you, Tyler. Poets that do the same thing book over the course of several books lose my interest. They don’t change? The world doesn’t change? Can I live in that bunker? Can I eat that canned food? Some people, on the other hand, perfect what they’re doing. Lara Glenum’s Pop Corpse is that, I think. She commits to the narrative structures that had been lurking in Hounds of No & Maximum Gaga and just utterly kills it.
But I do want my poetry, book to book, poem to poem, to betray you–and me. To falter and rise. And to ride whatever I have access to as fiercely as possible. In my first book I was in love with Cheryl, high modernism, and a New York school that included Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka. Because I was writing it in school, there was the intensity of being in love but also cool seas of libraries, post-colonial theory, and uncluttered days. And that’s what you got, sort of. In The Devotional Poems, I had just turned down a great job with benefits to move to Indiana to be with Cheryl and at the exact same time found out I’d ruined my neck and back as signaled by excruciating nerve pain. I wasn’t sleeping. I was taking pain pills. I was walking around the woods a lot, with its moldering and hatching, working it out. Later, I ended up in a trailer park in a place with no insulation. The heat was at 45 during the winter to keep from going broke. Everything was fucked.
But this is not a story all about my pain. It was in this phase that I became infested with voices that were not mine but had been orbiting around me for a long time. For years I’d written sucky poems about the people I’d worked with in shipping plants, plant nurseries, and industrial printing presses. I never got them right. Having to grind away when everything was fucked, when you’d blown your chances, when you were considered waste, human trash–their voices started pounding away through me. We speaking together and against each other. And with Herbert and Hopkins and Edward Taylor and all the other dead prayers for change in poetry. It’s unstable. That was the moment of those poems.
Now I am a brain again, an intellect in school, writing things I’m studying. Which include incest and beheading. But I am not committing incest or beheading anything. My personal life is running away from these poems, so who knows what will happen.
That right there, the “ride whatever I have access to as fiercely as possible,” should be (is?) the new “write what you know,” the treacherous lull. And working through things, for you these broken times and staggering voices, is exactly why these poems achieve something, their unrelenting battling forth.
Yeah, “write what you know” is a little too simple because it doesn’t ask you to reevaluate what you know and how you know it, which alertness to the present might help you do. Heriberto Yépez says “Wisdom forgets,” so, you know….
One section is called “Two Exorcisms,” though it’s made of three poems, and the final section calls out to the book’s title, as “These Are Devotional Poems.” An exorcism is a way, that old-timey way, of getting rid of the demons, real and imagined, understood and baffling. But so, too, might we say prayers and devotions and even poems are ways to get rid of the demons, or at the very least get them to back off. How do you view these parts in the book–the exorcisms, the devotional poems, the poem poems–as mechanisms to having gotten rid of those voices? Did it work?
It doesn’t work at all, getting rid of voices, totally, to find your voice—insert Derrida. But you can talk them to their limit, I think, as a way to open up by way of exhaustion room for other voices or ways of speaking. This may seem like I’m contradicting myself when I say, “Wisdom forgets.” Perhaps this is as close to forgetting as I can get.
For instance, the poem “I Was Living…” engages with at least two voices. One of pathetic complaint and submission, the child in pain, who needs relief and mastery, who needs to submit. The other of the man who is sorry, who claims to be suffering in that sorry-ness, who wants the other to understand “where he is coming from.”
I’ve hurt some people, that’s for sure, trying
a terrifying love though never mugged, fucked, or called out for it
crying between the rows of my leased garden, my good
arm broken, weeds choking the mustard
Tell me what’s right—the horn in the leaves
the first wildflower of the season
pushing aside party streamers like fingers and tongues, waterfalls
of newspapers, and these words decay too
placed on your stone like a lettuce wreath
asking forgiveness for being stupid and weak
Forgive me for being stupid and weak
I will offer what is healed O Christ! O Beast!
Forgive me for asking to heal
Sarah Fox puts it brilliantly–the limits of the masculine need for forgiveness in her poem–“Transitional Object”:
…It was as if
he could not stop dragging me around, he simply
could not let me out of the cage made of the bones
of my mother, until I had accepted his apology
for hauling me everywhere inside the cage
made of the bones of my mother.
The first poem, “Trailer Park,” comes from the fuck everything anger I’d heard from my father and also from the most down and out people I met working at an industrial printing press and similar places, contending also with an impulse to combine with everything by any means, sexually, violently, etc. & an end of days AM radio far right republican mentality. Basically, I cannot write “cool” poems or poems that calculate among the things they know. I do not possess that kind of firmness and lucidity. But I am also not interested in writing a systems poem that tries to account for everything. There are limits to what one can or should encompass:
All enter me, my little body tells me
It cannot take that you are many
And changing (from “Locating”)
I am instead interested in what happens when the familiar is stretched and distorted, in the moment of its metamorphosis, and when speaking itself points to that which is below speaking, animating it.
That first one you plopped is my favorite poem in the book (whatever that means/is worth), that hefty (both in pow and in title) beast that starts the section “2 Exorcisms,” that “I Was Living in a Boarded-Up House Without Heat. I Was Still Sick and had Unpaid Medical Bills. The Record He Gave Me Was GOOD OLD COUNTRY GOSPEL.” It’s like a hapless journal entry found in a lonely, winter-beaten Midwestern woods, taken home, unfolded, typed back out—the words, but also somehow the musty stench and the hisses and the blistering wind it has brought back too—and here unleashed (and a particularly apt representation of the book as a whole). This poems transacts in that meditative way, talking beyond oneself, beyond the dangerous rubble and treacherous lulls of life and bring forth a new meaning to staggering and a new breath, somehow, to the broken self.
And this, like many other dimensions and parts of this book, borrows (or maybe it is pure adhering to) religious symbols and mechanisms for this exorcism. Even when it’s not religious, these poems use religion as a guide, spiritual symbolism and structure as a brace. How do you see spirituality and religion being needed and played here? Is it the secular sipping the holy? Or is it a broken secularism that’s unable to escape the religious roots?
O boy. This is the music and I’m facing it. A dear friend asked me a version of this question and my answer disappointed her. Echoing back this funny refrain which contains a paradox: “This book is crazy and intense but its actually religious” (wonk wonk).
I am not writing for America because America doesn’t care about poetry. But I am writing from one American place (not the American place) of many, and in it is a half evacuated Christian religiosity, its material rituals–kneel, stand, speak, sing, drink, taste–and its impossible symbols–the sacrifice, the suffering for. Obviously there is something troubled and fundamentally wrong with these structures. But so, also, there is something wrong with a totally free floating and adaptable (and assimilating) secular skepticism that is better at using the most readily available fancy talk to justify DECLAIMING SO & SO STRAWMAN in the name of a particular formation of social justice after the fact than letting an ethical stance guide one (and one’s we) through the weather, to guide one’s (and one’s we) symbolic AND material practices (not that I do much better).
Without structures of ritual (material, symbolic)–however flexible and broad–to go crazy in, we risk being boringly sane or professional confessors of a limited insanity. This book is about the play of casting off, playing in, and surrendering to half rotten structures–one of them being my received Roman Catholicism–as that surrenders to the book, pumping each others’ tissues with mercury and lavender, becoming but not being, becoming but not being amphibian, slime electrified. It’s a first step, a hard first step.
If we find traces of Radical Alterity in the compass of the material world we loop through:
If ritual is defined not as the reproduction of meaning or catechism but a meaning making process which has the capacity to be shaped by each participant (as opposed to being monological):
If our altars are built every time we visit them from what we each carry to them on the way:
Then religion can be progressive and these are sincere poems searching towards the grounds for a vernacular spiritual practice by surrendering one’s claim to know and desire for information i.e. I am stupid and weak; I do not want to be stupid and weak; I should not want to not be stupid and weak. I need to simply attend to the being I am able to and the outward care that can sustain. I need to forget everything except the ritual which creates the space for being and new subjects to announce their coming into being to enter into relationships of care. We give ourselves away too much to stupid, abusive institutions and structures. Why not remystify those habits, relationships, communities, and counter institutions that sustain us and allow for right action? That’s the vector along which this book tries to travel. Obviously it starts in a fucked up place. I’ve been characterizing that place as a trailer park. That’s true.
Oh boy, that answer sure satisfies me! Thank you.
The album mentioned in the title, “Good Old Country Gospel,” is that a real album? What is on it?
“GOOD OLD COUNTRY GOSPEL” is the name of the record and it’s a real record (1975 MCA Records, Inc).
Country as in the country that is honky-tonk. When I lived in that house that was half boarded up in a trailer park in Southern Maryland, I’d play this and James Brown. Memphis and somewhere in the sea is probably where we’ll all meet.
You mention Indiana. What part of Indiana? I grew up in central Indiana, a little hiccup called Elwood, 45 minutes north of Indianapolis, and until five weeks ago, I lived on the edge of my grandpa’s cornfield for most of that time. Indiana, for all its goodness, especially for a new (and debilitated) citizen, can get mundane and too open-ended with the fields and the flatness. Can you talk more about how the physical landscape affected these poems (and in turn, your ridding yourself of these demons/voices)?
Man, well, you can probably speak with more authority to what kind of screw that topos turns in the brain.
As for me, I was fifteen minutes west of West Lafayette, Indiana. We were on a twenty acre property that had a small stream, woods, and a tiny swatch of maybe what prairie looks like. Beyond that it was all corn and soy. On one hand, that property felt miraculous among what you’re describing–fields and fields of feed plants. The woods were a point of fascination that I’d circle around and deeper, more carefully, into. I found mushrooms, burdock, and walnuts and ate them. The bugs ate me. Things were circulating.
It also felt extremely precarious and artificial, as in the woods had been carved into a box called “the property.” Going to its edges at those cornfields was almost like stepping out of the house in Beetlejuice: all you can see is desert, death in the same, a negative vision of eternity. That edge is the place of these poems perhaps. Or the gap between the long, loud, outward poems and the short, quiet, introspective ones.
If there was nowhere to go but a border, there was also no getting rid of these voices, just a sitting down at the table with them.
So here you are, “an intellect in school,” again, life on the upswing, getting better it seems. Where are you going to school now? How has academia affected your recent poems? Has O’Hara and Baraka and high modernism returned?
I’m at SUNY Buffalo. It has an enormous archive of American poetry. Mostly all of it. O’Hara and Baraka and high modernism are still there. So is all this other junk, and I’m compiling more. This past semester I wrote a long paper on representations of waste flows into, through, and among Palestinian settlements. It was basically a paper about shit, excess, and choked circulations. Doing this made me want to make sure the way I made poems wasn’t one in which I was hording fragments, voices, or whatever you want to call them. My big goal right now is to figure out how to make relationships and how I make relationships with others find their way into how poems are made and what those poems deal with. Part of this has been trying to read without accumulating in my book destroying project. It’s been recording interviews with members of my family. It’s been trashing hundreds of pages of material. It’s been looking at how communities work in studying literary and historic Utopias. It’s also been doing things for people not on an exchange but a gift basis (because I love it)–editing journal issues, commenting on manuscripts. And it’s been trying to make my scholarly practice one of talking to people, having conversations. I’m not exactly succeeding, but these are my goals and academia has made these my goals because all it wants you to do is to sit in a room by yourself taking notes while taking breaks to type clever things into social media platforms. I do a lot of that too.
This past summer you went on a big hunk of a reading tour. What did those experiences–seeing those literary communities, having exchanges with new folks, building relationships on the road–teach you about real world relationship building and conversation having?
When I told people I was going on this road trip–20+ readings over 5 weeks, sleeping on couches mostly–people had one of two reactions: “Sounds FUN” or “That sounds horrible. Don’t die.” It was fun and horrible and fun. If I were careful, I would say it was just great all around, everyone was awesome, blah blah blah. The fact is, there were communities that I clicked with immediately, people who, within minutes, I knew I wanted to stay in touch with, to learn with, and do art in correspondence with. There were a lot of points where it broke my heart to leave a city, because what was going on there was good. There were other points where I was exhausted and the pace I’d set pre-empted me from having interesting exchanges with people. There were still other points where I found a scene boring, and, I’m sure, they in turn were bored by me. That just happens. I had a guy walk out of my reading at UC Irvine TWICE. My work isn’t for everyone or every community. That’s fine. To think that it should be is gross. Now I have a better sense of who I want to stay in touch with and where I want to come back to. I guess what I’m saying is, I learned that there’s no point in trying to be “friends” or “liked” by everyone, and no sense in pretending. Anyway, by trying to win everyone over, you’re spreading yourself too thin and missing the opportunity to have deeper relationships, more challenging ones. That’s what I learned. The whole experience left me feeling a little naked and nervy. I’m holing up in Buffalo right now. Slowing down, contracting. Working on picking up just a few of the many loose ends the tour created and figuring out how I can be a responsible, generous member of the local and online communities I’m a part of.
In an old interview with the Paris Review, Anne Carson’s describing her more personal poetry as failing, especially to amend or mend anything in herself, though it might work for others, reminded me of this talk about your voices. If (attempted) exorcising demons impacts readers, but leaves the poet in the same (or worse) spot, is that okay? Necessary? Even, good?
This is a question of who poems can be for. Carson, I think, is avoiding the stink of poems as catharsis or self therapy. This is a false dichotomy. Carson isn’t making it necessarily–she goes on the say her thinking is never settled and that writing doesn’t bring her to closure or solutions. Either way, I think writing a poem can and should be for the writer and that denying this is a product of a puritanical fear of self indulgence in favor of a larger, more universal utility.
What are some of C.A. Conrad’s somatic experiments (sticking something in your butt, jerking off in a museum) other than an effort at widening one’s sensory thresholds to a verge where pleasure and something else–panic? fear? a sense of the absurd?–meet at the thresholds of art in order to revise the ground from which art is produced and received–the grounds on which artistic community resides. This doesn’t necessarily speak to how I wrote TDP, but I think that through attention to the social and material practices of art making, art can be decisively for oneself and one’s readership, community, etc in legible, beyond symbolic ways.
I wrote Pigafetta to both understand the context of love, love, an ethical grounds for it. And for my fiance–a proof of my love she could hold. It was for us. I wrote TDP to think about keeping faith, masculinity, violence, sexuality, and I’ve heard back from people that the book has helped them think about what it can mean to be considered a “man,” to make that condition visible to themselves (and not just an invisible or silent and so immutable given)–to understand desires, as a man, to be mastered and penetrated. Anyway, I’m not as elegant and intentional as I’d like to be in the processes of writing and the relationship of writing processes with community. Here are some people that are: Kaia Sand, Mark Nowak, Laura Elrick, Brandon Shimoda, James Yeary.
So, like Carson, I don’t write to solve or settle, but I think saying that one doesn’t write to “improve” (as loaded and awful as that term is—maybe, simply, “change”?) one’s self in relation to others either denies any link between writing and the pressure it places on the self (how its processes re-inscribe a version of being).
The other day that big-time big thinker Junot Diaz came to Austin to speak and read and the line wrapped around the building an hour before the gig. He said something like WOW and then stood on a bench in the courtyard reading some words and then doing a Q&A for all the folks that couldn’t squeeze into the fancier box. (I applauded extra for this gracious move.)
Anyhow, I’m not particularly in-tune with Diaz’s work and aesthetic and such (of course, the stories in the important anthologies and occasional passing), but he struck me with some brain thumper thoughts that are still following me (not to mention the somehow calming fact he said “motherfucker” often.).
Where is this going? This is going back to your book, no worries. He said this thing that keeps coming up when I approach your book and this interview. He said, loosely retelling it here, that of course feminist writing and writing by/about people of color and other marginalized groups and folks is super necessary, but also, writers of masculinity, writing out of masculinity, is necessary, too, as it’s just how I can’t write from a feminine place or as a racial minority, it’s a mechanism for giving others a particular experience and perspective.
Gracious, I hope I said that right. For some reason, the quote from the fragmented sections that start your book part called The Abyss Has Nine Names And I Have Shown You Three, “building a ghost from/a body.” In that previous answer up there, you mention masculinity, and this section of the book triggers that for me—sports and violence, how to touch another and what to make of the elements, from a masculine perspective.
I want to touch you with the rough tombs of your fathers
with the wild flowering blood and wire
or a pear, rotting fish, almonds, the dock breeze
blown pixilation, thickets the eye eats
Or like later:
I believe in the Cowboys, the Yankees, and the Holy Ghost
I belong to the father, the son
Through this logo I deny the devil in Christ, God
Behind a heavy door, I etch myself in the image
of you on a promontory, a recluse collecting records
of the shape of the world, where we walk hand in hand
in a field of heather, letters scrolling up out
of theater darkness, taking turns on a one hitter
getting loose, kind of stupid
The dealing here, with those voices and the environment, rings of a particular masculine pressure and escape mechanism, to rise out of certain influences, indulge others, and ultimately, walk on “getting loose, kind of stupid” with what one’s let the world feed you. And it ends, this little run of untitled, “How it is the stone dies.”
How do you view the poems in The Devotional Poems as “masculine poems?” What makes a masculine poem? And what’s even the point?
That’s great and gracious, what Junot Diaz did. Anyway.
I’m taken with Erin Moure’s idear or representation of Grosz’ idea that “lability of meaning means sexual organs might be invested in or migrate to any region of the body.” These are ideals—mights—as they propose a situational fluidity and relationality of being, a self that becomes the ideal self to participate in the erotic pleasure of the moment, to be sensitive and organized toward it. Gender, sexuality, momentary conditions in which they multiply.
When someone swings a wrench at my head, this proposes that I am a man. When I am punched in the face it is proposed that I am a man (and punchable in the face). When I was first looking for jobs as a teenager and starting on the string of idiotic working situations—industrial printing presses, portable sawmills, plant nursery hand—that would wreck my neck and back, my mother proposed that I work at a place called The Dutch Plant Farm and they started me not watering flowers but slinging heavy bags of mulch and shit and rocks into cars. A whole series of assumptions and sortings. There was and is a part of me complicit in these arrangements, that desired them, that habitually played and plays with pleasure the role of man-dude.
So that is part of what TDP does—it sets out from a marginal-prophetic-trailer-park-y-fuck-fuck-fuck masculine place: “in the motherfucking sound and mother fucking light / the iterations of thunder, the bass so high / it hurls you into the grass, Beast!”. It’s the inherited grounds of my relationships with others and self—“I want to touch you with the rough tombs of your fathers”—from which the book moves. The book wants blood. It also wants to be tender as a lamb. It wants to care, tenderly, for the lamb. It wants to inhabit wants gently.
“What Makes a Masculine Poem”
I think the ideal ‘masculine’ poem is one which is self-aware of its own masculine position so that it can swim away from and back to this position, infecting it—so it’s not working from a monological place—“I belong to the father, the son.” If a poem is of this social world, it has to see, at points, its own gender or the multiple framework by which gender is seen.
As much as I loved Phil Levine in my dumb jobs phase, his poems represent a kind of witless “masculine” poem. They try to recreate a world of oppressed and exhausted male laborers and find lyricism in those places but can’t bring them into relationship with anything else. It’s tidy and nostalgic. It lets us identify with the condition of “dad,” as if that is the most authentic position.
“Write what you know” is horseshit if you don’t use what you know to drive into your blindness.
“What’s even the Point?”
Right? I don’t write poems to make conclusive statements about gender or masculinity. I engage explicitly with masculine tropes and referents and baggage and anger as a way to open up questions of how we relate to ourselves and others and what the relationship between these two kinds of relating can become. I admire poetry that unsettles categories. I admire poetry that recognizes the in process nature of being and its own being as in progress. This doesn’t mean I don’t like procedural poetry (or conceptual poetry), because procedures and concepts certainly do structure our world and will live like saints forever in things like styrofoam. But they’re still like everything else—still caught up in the weather.
So, we’ve chatted a lot about being broken, about the attempted exorcisms and reconciliations that your poems tussle on. To end this, let’s think a bit more on how these poems got here, these particular ones.
I read your book at the same time I was reading Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon. That hefty chunk of words is preoccupied with the whys and the hows of religion permeating our modern world. Why we fucking care about our god. Why the particular stories trickled down. How we deal with the “truth” we’re told (and in essence have created). How we force our religious will on ourselves and others.
Yet we all fail, break, die, perish. “How it was the stone died” is how the little fragments mentioned before from “The Abyss Has Nine Names And I Have Shown You Three” begins. “How it is the stone dies” is the last of these. The pieces of the world that are supposed to last, be eternal—the wind, the stones, the god, our souls—sometimes they do fail, or do die, or do disappear, are somehow gone.
However, in this absence, still the stories trickle down, the poems run their course. How did these particular stories, these fragments and pieces of your particular gospel, make it here? How do you know when a poem (and further, a book) is done? What does that feel like?
Now that we’re at the end, I should say you’ve given me a lot to think about, Tyler, in these questions, because I share them. So thank you. What do we do about dying? What’s the point of holding onto anything if we’ve received most everything through happenstance? I don’t know. The threads for the book I picked up from enough different places to make listing them not interesting. But here’s one: In 2005 I was in a used bookstore in Wheaton, Maryland getting a bunch of books rung up. I didn’t know what anything was then. I just bought stacks of used poetry. In my stack was copy of Daniel Berrigan’s The World for Wedding Ring. The guy at the register asked me if I knew Daniel. I didn’t. He said he used to hang out with him. He asked me if I’d heard of the Catonsville Nine. I hadn’t. I got Vallejo there, before they closed, and Hernadez, Cha, Edward Taylor, Borges, Auster. It was some kind of book store.
I have a hard time finishing poems. I like to play in them, find different orders, rearrange. I enjoy it, so when should I stop? It’s like when you are drinking and you realize you’ve had enough and you better stop. You are that drunk. You better be careful already.
Finishing a book is altogether different. It’s a process of exhaustion. I think of Chuang Tzu lecturing a skull on the side of the road: “When he finished speaking he dragged the skull over and, using it for a pillow, lay down to sleep.” He sleeps until the skull starts speaking back to him.