Trey Moody: I know you’ve framed your recent collections, Unwanted Invention / Vargtimmen, as a tête-bêche artifact, but I’m curious: you must have a preference, however slight, for where you’d like your ideal reader to begin, right? On the spine, for instance, you had to make some layout decisions. Plus, knowing this work personally, there’s a clear chronological gap between these two collections (i.e. they weren’t written simultaneously).
Joshua Ware: Well, to answer your question in the most pedantic manner possible, the two halves of this artifact follow a loose chronology. The narrative, if we choose to call it that, begins with Unwanted Invention, then concludes with Vargtimmen. So, I suppose, that progression would provide the reader with the most continuity vis-à-vis a storyline.
The first book, Unwanted Invention, begins with pomes that are, primarily, ecstatic in nature. They revel, rather joyously, in love and the art of poetry. As the collection progresses, it enters The Darknesses and the edifice of passion and poetic fulfillment begins to crumble, so to speak.
The title of the final pome in Unwanted Invention, just like the collection that follows it, is “Vargtimmen.” Vargtimmen, the Swedish word for The Hour of the Wolf, is the deepest hour of the night: when ghosts haunt most fervently, dreams are most vivid, witches cast the most spells, and most births and deaths occur. The pome, I guess, is the speaker’s first acknowledgment of his own unraveling, which is about to occur during this haunted hour. As such, the pome functions as a hinge between the two collections.
But returning to your original question in order to interrogate its fundamental premise: what is an “ideal reader”? I’m not entirely sure; or, frankly, I have no idea what that means. The further I’ve distanced myself from academia, the less time I invest in these types of theoretical questions. Perhaps such a stance sounds anti-intellectual. If so, that’s all right with me. I’d rather consider myself a sensualist, in a literal sense: one indebted to the senses, immersed in the sensory, beholden to the physical nature of our beings.
This, actually, reminds me of an email I received from Graham Foust earlier this morning. He mentions that “many people don’t want to be brought to tears by art anymore.” Ignoring the context from which I extracted this quote, I appreciate the fact that tears are a physical response to a feeling: emotions producing sensations (although emotions, I suppose, are sensations themselves). The Visceral. Maybe that’s my “ideal reader”? One who cries at beauty. At sadness. At awe. At the sublime. At the mundane. In that case, it probably doesn’t really matter at what location/page the reader begins or ends. My “ideal reader” simply feels. Or, more accurately stated, my “ideal reader” merely feels intensely.
TM: You’ve always been such a pedant. I’m glad you seem to realize this, though I’m also happy that you’re able to easily dispel such circular, theoretical premises. You seem to comment on this in “Deglet Nour,” from Unwanted Invention, when you write, “A jar of pitted dates upon a coffee table / may signify the death of the author, if you read / too much theory while writing poetry / but if you jump into a lake and forget how to swim / they signify nothing.” (It’s worth noting that, in grad school, whenever I needed to bone up on my Deleuze and Guattari, you were my go-to guy.) On the other hand, your thinking through your ideal reader as someone who “feels intensely,” and regarding your self as “a sensualist,” I find appealing, and may be why I’ve always been drawn to your work. I certainly “feel intensely” statements of yours such as “You know how you will die on the day that you are born,” from “I Will Probably Always Be Dramatic.” However, another occasional characteristic of your poems seems to be more unattached, more distanced. I’m thinking of moments like in the poem “Vargtimmen” when you write, “I just want to be Rickrolled,” and even the choice to use “pomes” instead of “poems” on the cover. I don’t know that I’d called these moments “ironic” (that debate has left me tired and thinking almost everything is ironic), but they’re certainly more layered than a purely visceral, sensual experience of our existence. How do you reconcile, or sift through, these two ways of experiencing the world in Unwanted Invention / Vargtimmen?
JW: Yes, the lines that you quote from “Deglet Nour” certainly speak toward a desire for the reader to feel intensely. When I wrote that pome, I recently had left Nebraska (where I was pursuing my doctorate) and had begun the process of extricating myself from academia. So, to this extent, these lines articulate a certain disenfranchisement I felt (and would continue to feel) with overly intellectual and institutionalized poetry.
More specifically, I wrote that pome after watching the film Bright Star while eating a container of pitted dates. Granted, it’s a dramatized motion picture (Bright Star, not the dates) that undoubtedly fictionalizes events, but the portrait that the film creates of Keats is one of an intensely passionate individual acutely aware of the sensitivity engendered by feeling through the world.
Although a product of an antiquated, patronage system, the manner in which the Keats character engaged, created, and lived poetry functions in stark contrast to the staid and oftentimes Puritanical nature of contemporary poetry fostered in academia. And, to be clear, when I say “academic poetry,” I mean poetry taught, created, and promoted within academic institutions. I am not referring to a particular aesthetic, but, rather, to its mode of production and gestational space.
To address the lines more specifically, though, you can theorize or attempt to think your way through any text, life, or moment; but that’s not going to help you if, let’s say, an approaching grizzly bear wants to rip off your face, a cop is bashing your head open with a truncheon, or, as the pome mentions, you’re drowning in a lake. Better yet, how did Roland Barthes theorize the semiotic significance of laundry vans on 26 February 1980? I’m guessing he wasn’t able to think his way through that collision.
As far as references to RickRolling or my use of “pomes” instead of “poems,” I don’t consider these ironic gestures, distancing maneuvers, or methods of detachment. In fact, I believe they’re employing exactly the opposite strategies. I mean, have you ever been RickRolled? Well, I love being RickRolled. “Never Gonna Give You Up” activates a pleasure center in my brain that brings me immense joy, especially during a chance encounter. I wouldn’t be surprised if this reaction is common to most people, at very least, in the Western World. The line about RickRolling in the pome “Vargtimmen” simply articulates this pleasure. Of course, I do comprehend the sheer ridiculousness of the video and subsequent rolling process; but to revel in the ridiculousness of an event or thing is categorically different than championing those events or things as ironic gestures.
In addition to any pleasure I may derive from RickRolling, though, I believe that integrating influences which are contemporaneous with the creation of a pome enlivens the text with an immediacy and relevance that universal or stock tropes cannot muster. I know many critics, scholars, and poets have argued that pomes risk a more rapid rate of obsolescence if they employ contemporary, pop culture references; but I believe the opposite is true. Such references, to my mind, develop a historical milieu that more accurately conveys a moment or subjectivity within an era.
Finally, to touch on your last point of inquiry, my use of the alternate spelling “pomes” functions as an affront to “poems,” poetry culture, and those jerks who take Poetry so seriously. I could offer more theoretical explanations, but I think that would defeat the purpose of its use. Could the gesture be interpreted as juvenile? Sure. But people who consider it a puerile move are just the type of people with whom I’d rather not associate. Moving onward, though, I plan to veer away from pomes so as to more thoroughly explore pombs. To my mind, such an exploration is a worthwhile endeavor.
TM: No, I’ve never been RickRolled, which leaves an open invitation to you, or to anyone else, for that matter. But I like what you say about grafting the materiality of your immediacy into your poems, which, to my mind, gives them a human anchor and reflects a life lived, not just thought. This helps make manifest a sentence of yours from “Weird Hurricane Territory”: “If you zoom in close enough / even the everyday looks alien.” Anyway, I’ll be happy to see how your exploration of pombs goes, as I’ve enjoyed your recent focus on your collages. I don’t want to talk about the differences between your processes of writing and collaging, as you’ve done that elsewhere (which makes me think of a moment in “Instructions for Flowers” when you write, “Generally speaking, my exile from the Internet has left me small”). I know much of Unwanted Invention was written in Lincoln, Nebraska, and much of Vargtimmen in Cleveland. Since you’ve returned to Denver, it seems like you’ve been collaging much more frequently. I’m curious about how place may affect your preference for certain mediums, or if place has nothing to do with it, but rather other circumstances such as emotional or economic factors. I’d also like to know more about how it felt writing many of the poems in Vargtimmen while back in Cleveland, your hometown.
JW: You know, sadly, just hours before I received this question from you in my electronic-mailbox, I heard a story on a news program that Ted Cruz RickRolled his staff for April Fool’s Day. If that weasel-faced motherfucker has started RickRolling people, then it’s obviously jumped the shark, so to speak. More unfortunately, though, he ruined something so pure and beautiful by associating himself with it. Frowny emoticon.
The question of place, I think, is interesting, insofar as I don’t believe I actively work on pomes or art with the intention of creating “place-based” projects. But, inevitably, place does affect my art rather markedly. I mean, the pomes in Unwanted Invention certainly contain images which are inherently Nebraskan and Coloradan or, at very least, rooted in the Western Plains and the Heartland. Likewise, the images populating Vargtimmen are born from the industrial decay of Cleveland, Ohio. On the one hand you have cornfields, on the other hand a toxic river.
But more than just ornamental trappings that attempt to make a pome look pretty or set a scene, these images contain, to my mind, an energy that imbues the texts with something ineffable: some abstract quality delivered by or through the concrete, allowing a reader to feel intensely and particularly about the pomes. No doubt, the frozen Lake of Erie or the flaming Cuyahoga River or any number of images within Vargtimmen activate something intangible. Maybe, even, something magical.
But the magical is the essence of Vargtimmen. In the hour before the first rays of sunlight break over the horizon, witches, ghost, births, deaths, dreams, and magic all coalesce into some strange psychological, spiritual, emotional, and supernatural nexus. Have you ever inhabited that hour? A dark magic consumes those who lie awake, waiting for dawn to arrive.
Ingmar Bergman, actually, wrote and directed a film titled Vargtimmen. It’s a terrific, weird little movie about an artist living on a Scandinavian island who completely loses his shit. Most critics, I believe, consider the film to be “minor Bergman”; but I loved it. Not surprisingly, then, there are many parallels between Joshua Ware’s Vargtimmen and Ingmar Bergman’s Vargtimmen; and, to my mind, they share a particular psychological resonance.
I first learned of the term Vargtimme (not Vargtimmen), though, from Bergman’s Sarabande. The film, which is both his final movie and an epilogue to his Scenes from a Marriage, contains three movements. Bergman titled the final movement “Vargtimme.” It’s a powerful scene in which the geriatric Johan and Marianne stand naked before one another in his guest bedroom. It’s the moment at which Johan finally realizes his tragic follies and experiences a breakdown. Mostly, I think, he unravels because he realizes that his epiphany arrives too late. Redemption will elude him. The moment provides him with recognition, but a recognition tempered by absent salvation. In the twilight of his life, he lacks the necessary time to make amends. All that remains is suffering.
Some people might have difficulty empathizing with (or sympathizing for) Johan in that moment. He is a petty and bitter man, so I can understand the impetus for audience members to view him in an unsympathetic manner. In that moment, though, he genuinely appears to understand how irrevocably he’s fucked up his life and, by extension, the life of those around him. And, of course, the masterful Erland Josephson captures this realization in a frighteningly accurate and heartbreaking portrayal (just as he did in Tarkovsky’s swan song, The Sacrifice).
Have I answered the question about writing pomes in my hometown? Perhaps I have, perhaps I haven’t. For me, there are so many ghosts haunting Cleveland. I wanted to believe that I had exorcised them long ago; upon returning in 2012, though, I quickly realized that I had not. Even after writing Vargtimmen, they endure; they always endure.
TM: The moon plays a large role in your collection. Vargtimmen begins with “Moon Cult Manifesto” and threads throughout poems that share the title “What Does It Mean To Write the Moon?” And you mention the moon on many occasions in Unwanted Invention, two of my favorites occurring in the “Impossible Motel” sequence: “In motel light, you tell me about the moon” and “The moon is an invention always.” I admire the moon just as much as the next guy or gal, but even more I admire how much you seem to admire it. Is the moon still a big deal for you? Do you think about the moon in the same ways, whether you’re writing or collaging or eating yogurt?
JW: While writing Unwanted Invention and Vargitmmen during 2011-2014, much of my poetic practice centered on the moon. In the former of these two collections, Jack Spicer’s concept of the “real moon” of poetry informed my generative strategies to a great extent. In After Lorca, he writes:
I would like the moon in my poems to be a real moon, one which could be suddenly covered with a cloud that has nothing to do with the poem—a moon utterly independent of images. The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the point of a finger.
Without parsing this quote and sounding like a pretentious asshole, I’ll just say that the moon in Unwanted Invention functions (as do the pomes, generally speaking) as a hinge between real and imagined experience, as well as “real” and poetic/literary images. Whether or not Unwanted Invention succeeds in transforming literary images into real images, I suppose, is for the reader to decide. But, certainly, that was my intention.
In Vargtimmen, the moon, as I’ve stated elsewhere, serves as both an object of obsession and an image that is emblematic of obsession, in order to articulate and prevent psychological collapse. In this sense, my use of the moon shifts from an exploration of aesthetic-ontological paradoxes in Unwanted Invention, to therapeutic (for lack of a better word) uses in Vargtimmen.
Explaining my use of the moon in these collections, though, reminds me of Carl Sagan’s recollection of the televised broadcast of the first lunar landing. During his reminiscence, he says:
You strain to understand what you’re seeing. Two ghostly white figures in coveralls and helmets are softly dancing. They make strange little skipping motions, which propel them upwards and leave barely perceptible piles of dust. But something is wrong; they take too long to come down. Encumbered as they are, they seem to be flying a little. You rub your eyes, but the dreamlike tableaux persists. Of all the events surrounding Apollo 11’s landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, my most vivid recollection is its unreal quality.
In many respects, this quote reflects how I feel, in retrospect, about Unwanted Invention / Vargtimmen. Because, at their core, these books trace the path of two lovers underneath the moon’s glow. And, just like Sagan’s memory of the lunar landing, these two figures, barely perceptible, dance softly through a dreamlike tableaux. But something goes wrong; something strange occurs. As an audience, we strain to understand what’s amiss. The more we strain, though, the more the visions within the pomes become unreal. Perhaps, these lovers take too long to come down from their ecstatic high and become untethered from what grounds them. They are at once encumbered and flying uncontrollably through the atmosphere that surrounds.
Curiously, Spicer fashioned the unreal into the real; and, conversely, Sagan witnessed the real as an event that appeared unreal. The boundaries between real and imagined experience, it would seem, are just as porous in life as they are in the pome.
Having stated all this, the moon, for me, has waned. Nowadays, I feel less affected by its pull. Perhaps it still does pull me; but if so, the pull is imperceptible.
TM: I want to address something you say in “I Will Probably Always Be Dramatic”: “I am trying to be more honest.” I’m interested in the concept of honesty in art, on the one hand, because it’s arguably just as artificial as any other tonal choice, and, on the other hand, because part of its purpose, it seems to me, is to try to evade that artifice, which is impossible, but nonetheless commendable. Here are several lines in your two collections that strike me as speaking to this notion of honesty: “Sometimes poems are lines of trivial information / sometimes poems steal lines from other poems”; “I will / never buy a house”; “But an apple tree is an apple tree // a picture of an apple tree is a picture of an apple tree // and a poem about an apple tree is a portrait // of inside made new by remembering”; “I am also a repetition of words that came // before me.” So, would you talk about your conception of honesty in art, and where you stand these days? And I’m particularly curious about how this overlaps—or doesn’t—into your world of making collages and visual art.
JW: I wrote “I Will Probably Always Be Dramatic” while visiting Northampton, MA in November 2012. Much of the pome relates to the circumstances surrounding a reading I gave with Phil Cordelli and Wendy Xu at Brian Foley’s house during my stay. I suppose, in a sense, the “honesty” I speak of refers, in some manner, to mining my “real life” for the content of an “artificial” object. I don’t know if that’s exactly what I meant when I wrote that line, but, in retrospect, it seems to be a logical assumption.
Perhaps, for other writers, leveraging one’s personal life into poetic content appears self-evident. But I arrived at “serious” poetry (as opposed to the emo-scribbles in my high school and undergraduate notebooks) through the Continental avant-garde, particularly the Dada and Surrealist movements. So much of their artistic and procedural credos predicated themselves upon collage and chance, which I immediately gravitated toward. While one could easily argue that there are personal stakes in collage-based writing-practices, they are at a remove, relative to other writing practices and generative forms.
As I became institutionalized via grad school, much of my poetry transformed from collage-based writing into meta-critiques of the medium, historic/canonical excavations, and meditations on structural form. My first collection, Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley, embodied these tendencies quite well. Such concerns serve wonderful pedagogical ends, but they leave the pome (and the poet), to my mind, emotionally barren and less “alive.”
In February 2011, I met the poet Tina Brown Celona. Through a rather intense correspondence, she transformed my views on poetry rather markedly. She advocated for a poetry suffused with the passions, desires, and events of one’s own life. Of course, this doesn’t mean simply documenting one’s material reality, but fusing those events with one’s dreams, imaginations, and emotions. A pome conceived of as such articulates one’s life in a more “honest” fashion, at least to the degree that its source is lived experience.
As a caveat, though, it should be mentioned that one’s interior life oftentimes contradicts exterior events. That shouldn’t act as an impediment to (or produce anxiety within) the poet, though. To explain: the epigraph to my pome “Portrait,” borrows a line from Wallace Stevens’s Adagia; it reads: “In poetry at least the imagination must not detach itself from reality.” The muddling of interior and exterior lives, or the fusion of imagination and reality, works in service of The Supreme Fiction. To this end, a pome composed in such a manner might not be a “truthful” or empirically accurate history; but it does “honestly” project something more important and, perhaps, ephemeral: the poet stripped bare. Unwanted Invention / Vargtimmen, if nothing else, offer to their readers pomes that are naked in the knowledge of themselves.
I would be remiss, though, if I did not mention that “honest” poetry or art is not an evaluative term; it’s, merely, descriptive. There is nothing inherently good or better about a pome derived from lived experience, as opposed to collage, chance, or procedural methods. In fact, we should allow ourselves the ability to create art or poetry through any and all means available. An inclusive attitude toward invention affords creators the opportunity to access different types of thoughts/processes that will result in a more expansive spectrum of end products and experiences. To this end, I love and revel in “dishonest” work just as readily as “honest” work.
TM: Do you think at all about honesty or dishonesty when working with visual art? You’ve previously mentioned to me something about being drawn to collaging, in particular, because it involves a lot less intellectualizing than writing does (though I may be butchering what you said). Browsing through part of your catalogue on your Instagram, I’d say your collages definitely create that visceral, sensory experience you mentioned earlier. It seems you perhaps at one time viewed your practice in visual art as an escape from writing, though I know you’ve been intensely focusing on your visual art for, what, a couple of years now? What role does writing occupy in your current life?
JW: I don’t really think about “honesty” or “dishonesty” in any sense, per se. I mean, I engaged those terms in the previous question because, maybe, that’s an idea which concerned me in 2012 while writing “I Will Probably Always Be Dramatic.” Hell, I don’t even know if I thought too much about (dis)honesty in art practice back then either. Maybe I was just talking/writing some shit in that pome. Who can say.
As for my collage practice, yes, you’re correct: the fact that cutting and pasting does not require, necessarily, a critical apparatus is one reason I enjoy it. Does an image catch my attention? Do certain cuts, color combinations, or patterns that other collage artists use inspire me? How can I include elements from other artistic modes of production into my generative process? Those types of inquiries are about as critical as my thought process gets when working on visual art.
To answer the second half of your question: for the last year, I’ve worked as a car blogger. So, more or less, the duties for the position have comprised the entirety of my writing life. I’ve actually enjoyed the experience quite a bit. Writing online for automotive and marketing contexts has allowed me to reconfigure how I conceive a text, as well as how I visualize an audience. Similarly, I’ve learned a lot about cars, particularly the Porsche and Audi brands. For anyone toiling away in adjunct-, instructor-, or VAP-land, know that a world exists outside of Institutionalized Thought which enables you to live comfortably as a professional writer.
Otherwise, I’ve composed a few pomes here and there. But, I think, I’ve only churned out seven or eight of them over the course of the past two years. Recently, I’ve been exploring the confluence of poetry and collage. Whatever I’m working on, I suppose, could be lumped under the rather broad moniker of VisPo. But we’ll see where that takes me or how long it will sustain my creative interests. Tentatively, though, I’ve titled the manuscript papier collé / lingua franca.
Joshua Ware was born in Cleveland, OH. He is the author of Unwanted Invention / Vargtimmen, as well as Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley; both were released by Furniture Press Books. He currently lives in Denver, CO where he sells cars.
Trey Moody is the author of Thought That Nature (Sarabande Books, 2014). He lives in Omaha, NE, and teaches at Creighton University.