Or: A Hollow Little Nimbus of Grime: How I Made Certain of My Poems

The artist R. Crumb has talked about how he got a friend to drive him around Berkeley one day so that he could make sketches of telephone lines and electrical, industrial background-type stuff that we tend to overlook, day to day. All that unsightly ephemera of modernized living that we’re so at home with we don’t even notice it. Crumb uses this repository of sketches to fit it into the backgrounds of his comics, for authenticity’s sake, I guess. And I seem to remember, from Terry Zwigoff’s movie about him, Crumb discussing what a relief it is to have finally collected all these wires and signs and poles and other bits of urban background—that calling them up in any detail from memory is next to impossible, because we spend our lives overlooking them.

In The Paris Review, Anne Carson is discussing her book Nox (about ten years before it came out) when she says: “I found that the fronts of most of our family photos look completely banal, but the backgrounds were dreadful, terrifying, and full of content. So I cut out the backgrounds, especially the parts where the shadows from the people in the front fell into the back in mysterious ways. The backgrounds are full of truth.”

I love the idea that the setting, the backdrop, the scape against which we think we’re living, is full of vitality for these two—either to induce veracity otherwise tricky to fake or to reveal some other kind of truth in the shadows. And I’ve begun to think that all my writing is a method for conjuring up the background, to bring it to the fore, to put it in the light, and let its seeming innocuousness reveal the vitality of what the feel of life is like. I’m fascinated by what otherwise seems to lurk just under the surface, just out of frame, just off camera, as extra-diegetic noise.

This past year, I’ve been working on collaborative pieces with my friend Noah Saterstrom. He has drawers of old half-worked scraps in the cabinets of his Tucson studio: drawings, sketches, oils, diagrams, attempts, gestures, and collages. I ride my bike up to Noah’s place, and we chat for a few minutes as I pull a bunch of these out, spread them over the floor, and begin to stencil words onto them. It’s pretty engrossing. And because I’m slowing way down—etching with a stylus or China marker or a pencil or something—the unit of composition becomes the letter instead of the word. As such, the work of writing regresses backward a notch. If I think to put the letter “y” down, I begin to sound it out, stuttering through what other possibilities it might like to say or become.

The physicality of drawing (and scribbling, scratching, shading, and coloring) is married here to the weird sonic work of sounding (and I’m thinking of saying, mumbling, muttering, singing, prattling, and stammering, too). It feels like regressing to childhood in the best sense. Hanging out with my nephews and my friends’ babies has also helped with this: getting familiar with the ways infants sound out as they begin to talk their way into the world, verbalizing their babble, or babbling their phonemes to get your attention. In stenciling these words on the drafting table at Noah’s, I’m lost somewhere in the satisfying overlaps between babbling and making, coloring and talking, ventriloquizing and being spoken through. It’s pleasing if peculiar work to learn to be used by what I’m using.

In writing, I want to cut directly into what I had assumed I could say or think, what I thought I understood or believed or wanted. And I learn quickly just how little I know of myself, or of anything for that matter. Not that it’s all introspection: I don’t see writing as expressing something that’s already inside me. Instead, maybe it’s to find words for what’s unwordable and thereby feel out the textures of that gap.

Writing is scored by a contradictory desire to make something careful, thought out, and crazed, in that old sense, versus the work of sounding out, whether spastic, unrehearsed, or playful. In other words, there’s tension in any attempt to get hold of what’s fundamentally out of control.

Music, of course, is pretty astonishing at manifesting this tension between calm and squall, noise and meticulousness. I listen to certain songs on repeat when I work at my own desk: Black Prairie’s “Red Rocking Chair” and “Handpainted Halo/Ceiling” by Califone come to mind. Tindersticks’ score to Claire Denis’s White Material was on a loop for months when I wrote my most recent book, Shimoda’s Tavern. I guess I’ve gone from why I write into how I write, but they’re sort of inextricable for me. Apparently, the how is embedded in the why, in some way I can’t parse.

Maybe I want to listen to what I can overhear from myself. I’m kind of bored with the trope of discovery, but there is some admixture of revealing tied to making for me: uncovering through curiosity and focus, and performing the unrepeatable work of disclosing what was right there all along.

But in the moments of composition, it feels more like a physical need: to talk through the written words, to speak them aloud, to hear it quaver awkwardly in the voice, to scribble them out with a ballpoint pen. To inscribe and cross out; to converse and wonder; to find a name for something resistant to language; to connect and slash; to make up and lie and alter; and to sing an awkward song with a pen in your hand, muttering it out, pretending you know who you are while you’re saying what you’re finding words for, while what’s eluding you is also resurfacing anew.

And it makes me think of those studies of readers’ eyeballs. We assume that we read from left to right, top to bottom. But apparently our eyes are going back and forth all over the page or screen, assembling as they shift over the surfaces, pulling the light in. Writing is like that too: there’s nothing linear about composition to me. I always want to return to the beginning, reword, fight and thwart it, talk it back open, and then make it work to say something less usual, more pleasing.

In my book Selenography, I tried to see how far I could strip a lyric poem back to minimal elements, but still retain character and setting and get glimpses of story churning hard. Tim Rutili’s beautiful polaroids helped me to locate the world of the poem, but also gave me a set of metonyms away from which I could push and they helped me to build up the tension of resistance, of counterpoint, of dissonance.

I cut it all up into strips, laid it out over my big table, and rearranged the scraps with Tim’s pictures. It probably didn’t look much like writing; it might’ve looked more like collaging or watching or arranging or just waiting. With coffee and music on, mumbling and pacing around it, learning the texture of its speech, getting to know its ghosts.

With Swamp Isthmus, I worked to tease some lyric utterances back through whatever I’d polished out of Selenography. And looking back at it (how would I have known then, really?), I was working to expand those landscapes through apostrophe, circuit of address, leaps, and questions.

I love a kind of broken, alive syntax. I love grammar haunted with multiple levels of speech, whose context leaves us uncertain but whose force seems immediate. I love it when the dead speak, and I love talking right back to them, with them. Maybe a poem is a conjuring. And if it’s any good, it frightens us through recognition or just awe. I like it when a poem has the residue of other lives, other failings, other mysteries and plumbed encounters from without.

The prose sentence—and the prose fragment as well—were the units of composition in The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal. I wanted to see if I could write in the shadow of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep Interior (as many before me have done), but to deploy this skeining, gothic, overly descriptive syntax. I missed punctuation (Swamp Isthmus left it behind), so I brought that back, too.

I think I was hoping to overhear these long kinds of uttered sentences and questions, descriptions and tales. There are endless setting details throughout Courier’s that just confound me, but I get drawn in to the overblown half-world it unfolds, while the messenger girl threads the landscapes, making her deliveries. So, that book begins with a morphing of Diogenes’s “I have come to debase the coinage” and sort of takes it from there into the weird woods, through Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire, and back out of the pre-apocalyptic Chicago, Ankara, and Trabzon of my dream life.

The break for me was with a book called Meadow Slasher. I’d begun to write through what I would have otherwise arrived at later, from a more comfortable or safer distance. I needed another compositional practice to steady me, even to locate me, because I was coming apart after a really hard break up. I wrote the bulk of that book in a couple of days, and then worked and reworked it between Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. I charted a spectrum of feeling previously unavailable to me in my writing life, namely: shame, dread, rage, perplexity, humiliation, and loss—but also vindictiveness and taunting invective juxtaposing playfulness and exuberance, right alongside curiosity and unknowing—and so on.

Not that I knew it then. It just came out in the voices of stark interrogatives. Andrew Marvell’s extraordinary Mower Poems helped guide me (lines from each of them appear throughout), and I obsessed over the violence in Leadbelly’s own life versus the beauty and playful gravity of his songs. (Catullus helped also.) Meadow Slasher marked a chasm between what I’d written before it.

So, with Shimoda’s Tavern, the final book in the pentalogy, the question was, how do you come home when all your compositional practices have been obliterated? When he arrived in Tucson, shortly after I did, I kept asking my friend, the poet Brandon Shimoda, how should it end? And he’d say this way or that way or out to the ocean or into the belly of the mountain, and so on; so, No Volta just ends in his tavern instead. Which seemed like a fine enough place to close out a long poem.

I’m more and more skeptical of what’s gettable and knowable and broadly accessible. And I’m increasingly moved by what eludes and enchants and frustrates and divulges itself differently, in unseen methods and flashes. A poem’s singularity and its otherness remain intact. Like any piece of art, a poem that moves us retains its inassimilability.

Anyways, all this is connected for me: the making of poesis and the elaboration of that apparent gap between language and the world adumbrated by the wish to ask and to wonder aloud, or to disclose, or even to speak something asunder with words.

Scouring and eavesdropping are good metaphors for the writing process for me. Transcribing and listening and waiting for the echo, with its hollow little nimbus of grime, to come back—however oddly now.

Maybe I don’t know exactly what I’m doing.

I’m ok with not knowing.

But it’s nice to have been given an opportunity to tell myself some lies about what I wanted to believe I’d been up to.

Joshua Wilkinson
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