Poetry can inspire us, confuse us, and excite neurons in the human brain to produces new thoughts and ideas. Joshua Corey’s newest collection of poems, The Barons, does all of these things and more, addressing the turmoil in America since 9/11: war, fear, and political upheaval both in the United States and abroad. Dark, complex, and unabashed, The Barons seeks truth where there may be none to find.
Corey’s literary journey through this uncertain time takes many forms. John Ashbery writes: “Joshua Corey has reinvented the good old-fashioned American avant-garde epic poem and thrust it, kicking if not screaming, into the early 21st century.” Corey is an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College, where he co-directs Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books. On “a sort of grey, fall day” from his home in Evanston, Illinois, he answered some of my questions about his new book, writing, and the inspiration of curiosity.
I’ll start at the beginning. Why did you choose Robert Duncan’s quote, “I write poems for the fucking stars,” as the opening?
I found that quote in Lisa Jarnot’s biography. I’m a pretty big Duncan fan. He’s a poet I resisted for many years because he’s so mystical. I sometimes call him the “Dungeon Master of American Poetry” but he has grown on me and become irreplaceable. Anyway, that’s something he said when he was giving a reading. I think someone raised the reasonable question “What are you doing this for?”
Duncan was very much a coterie writer. He did have some fame, but poetry has always been a pretty marginal American activity. So, he came out with that and I love the insouciance of it. I love that, on the one hand, it acknowledges the reality of poetry’s audience and it also goes big. It’s very romantic. It echoes, maybe deliberately, maybe not, Emmanuel Kant, one of his famous remarks: “Two things fill me with awe: the moral law within me and the stars above me.” I guess I’m always trying to imagine the connection between cosmology, on the one hand, and everyday life and also the political life on the other. The book is sort of trying to think those worlds simultaneously.
Would you say your book is successful in doing that?
I don’t think that’s for me to say. It definitely represents, for me, a bit of a departure. The other books I had published up to that point were much more unified projects in some ways. They had a kind of a narrative. This book, I think, is more of a multi-pronged attack or negotiation, depending on my mood, with some of the forces I feel overwhelmed by. I think many of us feel overwhelmed by, here, in the early 21st century. Mostly capitalism run amok and environmental degradation.
In The Barons, the poems in the section “Hope and Anchor” struck me as different from poems in the other sections. Other than the change to a more prose form, what makes these poems stand out from the rest?
That’s one of the sections that began its life as a chapbook. There’s another prose section in the book, “Complete Adventures,” where I allow myself to be a little more whimsical and humorous. There is material in those poems that connects to childhood. They’re more inward than other poems. They’re dipping in to this well of interior monologue that prose seems to enable to me. The verse in the book is much more surgical. They’re investigations of things outside the self.
In an interview with Stephen Ross, you called your writing “a re-engagement with traditional forms toward broadly ‘avant’ or innovative ends.” I wonder if you could expand on that idea. Does that still hold true with The Barons?
Yeah. I think that must have been my way of trying to reconcile the fact that I have long been interested in what you might broadly call traditions of innovative writing, innovative narrative, language poetry, and post-language poetry. At the same time, I have this very traditional background. I read a lot of straight-up British classics when I was an undergrad. I can find a lot of value in traditional forms and traditional registers of writing. I seem to be obsessed with mid-century writers and thinkers, some of whom have been very fashionable and some of whom are less fashionable like Delmore Schwartz.
There’s something about the New York ‘30s through 1960 literary imagination that really captivates me for some reason. I think a lot about what a post-modern epic might look like. Certainly the previous book, Severance Song—that was about the sonnet—is very much a traditional form. I guess I’m not even thinking in those terms now. I’m not finding that very useful for me. I find that the poems I’m writing are almost like a monologue. I think that might be a side effect of writing fiction as I’ve gotten more interested in playing with voice and different subtle shadings of persona.
You used the artwork of Joseph Beuys for the covers of both Beautiful Soul and The Barons. What connection his art has with yours?
I’d known about his work for a while, but I was in Berlin in 2011 and I saw an exhibition of his work at a museum there, the Hamburger Bahnhof, I believe. I was really blown away by his use of sculptural elements that are so the opposite of brass or bronze or marble. Felt, animal fat. The organicism of it.
Then, as I began to delve more deeply into him, I discovered his performances, which just struck me as truly remarkably and profound. There are two performances that really struck me and I used images from each of them on the two books’ covers. The novel is from a performance he did in New York called “I like America. America likes me.” He locked himself up in this gallery in New York for six days with a coyote named America and gave it copies of the Wall Street Journal to pee on. The picture that’s on The Barons is from a piece he did called Iphigenia/Titus Andronicus, where he’s on a stage and he’s reading along with pre-recorded excerpts from these two plays, one of which I believe is Goethe’s translation of the Greek drama Iphigenia. Iphigenia, of course, was the daughter who Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods so he could go to war with the Trojans. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s fantastic, bloody mess of a tragedy, which also has a central figure in it: a violated and sacrificed young woman. That was fascinating. I also love what he does with animals. There’s a horse on the cover, just grazing quietly. Some of his statements are very provocative. In one of his artworks, he says “Show your wound.” It sounds confessional, but it connects with the democratic idea about art that he had. “Everyone is an artist,” he liked to say.
So on the one hand I was really engaged by his organicism, his diffidence about America. At the same time he is an interestingly compromised figure. He was a pilot or gunner who flew for the Luftwaffe during World War II and was shot down. There’s a legendary story about how he was rescued by these tribesmen who covered him in animal fat and felt and saved his life. It’s almost certainly not true but it’s part of his legend. The fact that this guy who, for all intents and purposes, a fighter for the Nazis, turned himself into a democratic, artistic shaman/saint with very progressive environmental values just fascinates me. I’m drawn to figures like Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger, whose work opens ground for thought and creativity but who are, themselves, profoundly morally compromised. That makes Beuys a very generative figure. I’m not doing anything with him consciously right now but he’s probably in the back of my mind.
The Barons is kind of a culmination of a lot of work, basically stemming from 9/11 onward. What’s it like to work with such an expansive timeframe of work that you’re working with?
It’s interesting. Two of the book sections first saw the light of day as chapbooks. It’s pretty normal for someone to publish individual poems or even sequences of poems in magazines. I’ve been accumulating this work. In some ways I wanted to stand up for the old-fashioned idea of the collection because I do think it’s out of fashion now. I do think that most younger poets are writing thematically-unified books, like the ones I’ve published before.
I like that. I like the book as a kind of unified gesture, but I also think there should be room for something that is more about investigating different processes, coming at the same subject matter from different angles, using different forms. There’s a pretty playful and self-conscious attempt at epic in this book. Also, very self-conscious lyric poems. Prose poems. It was kind of a smorgasbord but I do think there is a kind of an uneasy tone that’s pretty consistent throughout.
Clearly, your poems have a very diverse range, as you just said. What freedoms do you take and what restrictions do you impose on yourself?
Good question. I went through a period when I was really interested in various kinds of form. More or less closed form. My previous book is a book of sonnets, though many of the individual poems stretch the limits of the sonnet. I really can enjoy those kinds of constraints and rules. But I’ve become less interested in what you might call the “well-made poem.”
I’m less interested in poems that are perfect little artifacts. I used to really enjoy these cunning little toys of language and now, this is something that I’ve really been influenced by my reading of Duncan in, I’m more interested in poems as documents of the process of life, experience, and thought. It’s okay with me if they’re a little more raw, a little more ragged. I’ve moved toward a longer line in many of my poems.
Your previous book, the one before The Barons, was a novel, and your next one is going to be a novel as well, correct?
Well, I had a sabbatical last year and I wrote a lot. I have another novel that I am shopping around. I have another poetry collection which I am not quite ready to send to a press. I have this weird hybrid book that I’m publishing pieces of online and in magazines. I also have a translation of some French prose poetry. So I’ve been very, very busy.
It certainly sounds like it. I was going to ask how it was to transition back from fiction to poetry or from poetry to fiction or if everything just kind of comes out when it comes out.
I like working on multiple projects at once. That seems to suit my mind. I can wake up and if I’m not in a poetry mood, I can work on some fiction. And in this one text, the hybrid one—I don’t really know what to call it—I don’t think I could have written that way if I hadn’t written straight poetry and then straight fiction. I’ve had a lot of academic training, probably too much, so the terrain I have to navigate at this point in my life is I have to unlearn and overcome a lot of rules and ideas that were implanted in me from getting too many degrees, that are not necessarily helpful now.
When you’re writing, either fiction or poetry, do you have a different mindset?
It’s definitely a different process. I’m still, in some ways, teaching myself how to write fiction. I had to give myself permission that was not easy to take to write fiction because we live in these professional castes. I have another fiction project I’m working on that feels like the most straightforward and natural fiction I’ve ever written. It’s the first book I’ve written or tried to write that reads like other books. It reads like the fiction I grew up reading, and that’s partly because it has a little bit of a sci-fi element to it. I feel like it uses a completely different territory than my poetry had, whereas the first novel I wrote is very much a poet’s novel. It’s got that kind of self-reflexive engagement with language that wants to double-back on itself. I’m gradually teaching myself to separate genres. I’m able to explore more. If I’m going to write a poem, I want to do something that only a poem can do.
In a self-interview you did with The Nervous Breakdown, you mention the “pervasive influence of MFA programs.” As someone who has an MFA, could you go into more detail about your feelings about them?
I had a great experience at my MFA. I made poet friends who are my closest and dearest poet friends. What I think we miss is some of the opportunity self-invention and the truly novel. Not so much in writing as in the social forms and the means of production of writing. What I mean by that is, in the early ’90s, when the MFA industry was just getting going, even relatives who had no connection to art or writing were saying “Oh, you want to be a writer. You should go to school for that.”
The very notion of there being a school for becoming a writer is odd. It’s a historically new idea. I just wonder, is it possible that there are other ways writers can come together, discover things, create things, that they simply aren’t doing until after the MFA.
As an Associate Professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois, you teach many different courses, from English 101 Intro to Lit to English 440 Advanced Writing Seminar. What do you try to impart to your students? What would you say is a unifying theme among the courses you teach?
I think those are two separate questions. If there’s one thing I try to impart, it’s something that I think cannot be imparted directly, and that’s curiosity. I really would hope to, if I had the power, to light a flame under my students’ asses and get them reading and investigating and writing on their own. I try to construct assignments that force them to do that.
I’m teaching an Environmental Writing course right now where I’m trying to disable or detour their tendency to write expressively about the self and instead learn how to use the self, including their own body, to investigate other places, other spaces. For example, having them write a poem that has to have some research behind it. Ways to get them out of themselves and out of being a passive receptor or transmitter of media. I find there’s no way to teach that. I can only do my best to model it. There’s a great quote, by someone like John Cage: “The only difference between me and my students is I’m better at not knowing at what I’m doing.” I try to model for my students not knowing what I’m doing, that that’s okay and that it’s a productive place to stand from. Maybe that does answer both questions.
What kind of curiosity or creativity are you trying to explore with The Barons, in yourself or in others? Or what kind of creativity are you trying to inspire?
I feel like writing begets writing. I was fortunate to have at about fifteen years old, an “Aha” moment. I was taking a summer poetry class. The rather insane teacher, God bless him, gave us all the massive Norton Anthology of Poetry. I just read around in that thing. Instead of being intimidated, as by all rights I should have been, I thought it was fantastic. There were so many different kinds of writing and they were all poetry. All these different registers of language.
That made me think that this was something that I want to do. I certainly hope, that at the minimum, if someone reads my book, that they get a little of that feeling for themselves. I hope they think “Here’s a person trying to figure out how to live in a very difficult and confusing time, negotiating with these forces much larger than himself. Maybe I could do that, too.”
Who are you reading now?
In terms of poetry, I’m reading older things. Some French poetry. I mentioned the translation project. I’m translating the first major book of Francis Ponge, “Le parti pris des choses,” which I’m calling “A Partisan of Things.” That’s going to come out from a little press called Kenning next year. Reading him got me interested in that mid-twentieth century. I found myself reading René Char seriously for the first time. I found myself rereading Paul Celan, who was very important to me early in my writing career. He’s somebody who is really testing language and himself in almost impossible conditions and producing haunting, strange, beautiful work.
More contemporary work, there’s a Canadian poet named Ken Babstock, whose work I just love. He can be really vicious and funny and sad. He’s got a new book that is very different from anything he’s done before. In general, I’m a fan of the Canadians. I’m also reading a lot of fiction these days because I’m writing a lot of fiction. I just picked up Rachel Cusk’s book, Outline. The main character spends a lot of time listening to other people talk, so you get this negative space of her. I’m really interested in that.
I could go on. I read a lot.
—interview by Lee Geiselmann