Drew Scott Swenhaugen, a news contributor to The Volta, interviews poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson. The subject of this interview is The Volta, a multimedia poetry and poetics project that Wilkinson co-founded in 2012.
Walking through the poetry aisle at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne a few years ago, I instantly got the feeling that Joshua Marie Wilkinson was a poetry encyclopedia. His interest in other writers and ambition in his own work make him the perfect ambassador for small press, and poetry in general. The Volta, born on January 1, 2012, has already become a juggernaut website, packed with an array of new poetry, reviews and interviews from both established contemporary poets and the up-and-comers as well. Once you explore the site, you will find a number of embedded sites with their own editors. As a whole, The Volta has a complete feel, but the parts that comprise it work extremely well on their own: it works as a document of contemporary poetry, a promise to make poetry extremely present and relevant.
Drew Swenhaugen: So, what made you create The Volta? What’s the story of its creation? The poetic term “volta” is the turn in a sonnet, correct? Is there a personal reason why you chose it for the title?
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I had been editing the poetics journal Evening Will Come for about a year, and I was getting a steady stream of essays and interviews for it, starting with a terrific piece of prose that C.D. Wright trusted me with. Secretly, I began editing a poetry journal called They Will Sew The Blue Sail, and I’d been writing occasional reviews, conducting interviews for the Denver Quarterly and other journals, and was losing a bit of steam to keep Rabbit Light Movies going—a journal of video and poem-films I’d started in 2007. Anyways, I decided to combine all these poetry-related interests. I thought it would be very cool to have a journal where poems took a back seat to all the other poetry-related things I was interested in. I figured, there are lots of terrific poetry journals; I wasn’t super excited about just doing another one of those. I wanted to add a space for prose on poetry by poets, for video, for roundtables about poetry-related stuff (race, politics, feminism), interviews, questionnaires, etc. When Sara [Marshall] and I were talking about it, somehow it seemed doable. I had no idea what a time suck it would become, but I’m glad we went forward with it. I loved The Volta as a title—the volta of the sonnet, yeah, and also as a turn. It was simple. It was a word I liked and a url was available.
DS: Have you modeled The Volta on any other literary websites or organizations? It’s definitely a hybrid of content: new poetry, poetry news, interviews, videos, reviews, etc. Much like Boston Review or Jacket. Where do you feel The Volta lies in that company? Or is there even a point to compare?
JMW: I am a fan of Jacket and Jacket2, as well as the Boston Review. I’m happy to have The Volta in that camp, sure. I think what’s different is we are less interested in publishing critical writing about poetry (a la Jacket2) or political/literary journalism (Boston Review)—which those venues do really well. We are more interested in unique critical approaches by poets, I’d say. Further, I loved stuff like Kareem Estefan’s Ceptuetics, and I loved Here Comes Everybody, and questionnaires—I wanted to do all that: have audio, video, long poems, interviews, conversations, essays, short reviews, in-depth reviews. That, and everything else you mention. I ripped the design of Evening Will Come off of the Flood Editions website. I love their books and their design-sense. So The Volta was sort of designed out of that.
DS: Do you think there is a void in today’s poetry world in regards to poets taking critical approaches on poetics? Not necessarily in terms of a criticism movement, but do you feel something’s missing today that you want to contribute to?
JMW: It occurred to me—perhaps listening to Elizabeth Willis or Tan Lin or John Yau talk on Charles Bernstein’s radio programs—that we need to document ourselves. Nobody’s going to come do that from the outside. Occasionally folks in the mainstream get interested in what Perloff calls Poetry. Plus, you know, poetry plus fashion, or poetry plus Mad Men or whatever. But it’s up to us to create a record of what we do and about what we do. I mean, we can wait til we’re 85 and somebody comes knocking on our door from PBS or whatever, but what about right now? Looking back at the Eileen Myles and Tim Dlugos and Alice Notley Lost Public Access Poetry tapes (now on YouTube) from the late 70s—they’re priceless. Just the document as such—I guess that’s part of what I’m interested in. But who wouldn’t want to read Hoa Nguyen or Bhanu Kapil or Catherine Wagner or Cedar Sigo write about what they think about what they’re doing. I love the poetics essay, the manifesto, the interview, the audio conversation—all that. I love seeing poets read on video and hearing their voices, you know, hearing Frank O’Hara say, “I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I never actually collapsed”! I could listen to that every morning. We’re about to run this extended conversation between Maggie Nelson and Brian Blanchfield, and it’s just wonderful to overhear these two writers, these two minds—old friends—talk at length about what they do, what they think and care about. I want more of that. Yeah, I guess I wanted to create a forum for that.
DS: Compared to certain sites like HTMLGIANT and Montevidayo, The Volta doesn’t seem to have a specific poetic or aesthetic orientation? Is this on purpose? Do you let the content speak for itself in that way? One great thing The Volta DOESN’T have is advertisements. Is an ad-free space important for you?
JMW: Because we aren’t a blog, we have to formalize our content with respect to what we want to feature. I love the immediacy and improvisatory and conversational aspects of those blogs—even if things in any blog stream can devolve into petty mindlessness very quickly. Harriet and Silliman used to be great that way, but there’s only so much homophobic, racist hate speech, or even just ad hominem type shit you really want to have to endure before you pull the plug on comments. I want The Volta to have a blog too, I just don’t want to live in the comment box or monitor it like a nanny. As far as advertisements, I like that we don’t yet have any. If I could figure out a way to do it somewhat unobtrusively and get my Managing Editor Afton Wilky paid, then I would. She’s the most integral thing that The Volta’s got going right now, and as far as I can tell she puts a lot of time into the journal because she believes in the work. In terms of aesthetics, I have a lot of likes and even more dislikes—probably like any editor. But I try hard to feature lots of different approaches to poetry. I reject a lot of stuff too, but I try to stay open even to stuff that I don’t love but that I think is valuable for the conversation about poetry.
DS: There are a number of editors and collaborators working on each specific column. How do you all work together to create new content?
JMW: Even that is a work in progress. Basically I try to solicit my contributing editors for content and for suggestions about what or whom we should publish. I use them as ears. It’s a very smart group of folks with different predilections and connections to various poetry communities, small and large. I’m also not on FB or Twitter, which I realize are both good to hear about things that are going on—so the various editors alert me to stuff, pitch ideas, tell me about new books to review, or sometimes they write reviews, make movies, etc. There are two exceptions: one is the dynamic duo of Christopher Schmidt and Andy Fitch. The Conversant is their baby, and they run it incredibly well. The other is the shepherding and editing of reviews for our Friday Feature which Noah Eli Gordon is behind. Somehow all the work trickles in and Afton helps me to keep it in the right column and slate it for whatever week or month. Basically, Afton and I have a lot of 8-word emails back and forth. It’s not pretty, but it works. We’ve never met in person; and we’ve only spoken on the phone once—but I knew in that conversation she’d be perfect. She recently put a whole new issue up (September) from her home in Baton Rouge while the floodwaters of Hurricane Isaac were rising over at her neighbors’. I was lucky and grateful to find her through another of our editors, Laura Mullen.
DS: You’re a poet, teacher and editor. How do you find the time to maintain the site? I’m always interested in how poets manage all their “projects.” Would you rather just write and read poems all day?
JMW: No, I figured out sort of early on (maybe being a reader for Sonora Review many years ago when I was an MFA student) that I wanted to work on other people’s poems, essays, voices, movies, etc. There is something balancing for me about editing, and—while it’s time-consuming and pays nothing—working with writers on something they’ve poured themselves into is still a worthy thing for me. I started feeling self-conscious about just sending my own poems out, and I realized that I feel a lot better if I’m adding something else to the conversation, other than my poems: running a press (Letter Machine Editions) with Noah Eli Gordon; running a reading series (which I did in Chicago) or a poem-film series (Arroyo Chico) here in Tucson; writing reviews and interviewing poets—all these catalyze me in a way that just reading and writing poems don’t. I mean, it’s selfish too. I want to curate all this stuff and be behind the scenes of creating it. I know it’s not a selfless act of pure giving; there’s ego involved, but somehow the amount of work and the relatively limited audience keeps it in check. If I can balance the week out between teaching, writing, working on collaborations with Noah Saterstrom in his studio, reading poems, working on anthologies, meeting with students, swimming, working on Letter Machine and The Volta stuff, walking my dog, reading submissions, planning tours, and bowling with Ander Monson at Cactus Bowl in Tucson (tonight!)—then I’m happy.
DS: What else are you excited about that you’ve got planned for upcoming issues?
JMW: There are new guest-edited issues of Evening Will Come: Sara is editing a feminist poetics issue; TC Tolbert is editing a trans poetics issue; Kate Bernheimer is putting together an issue of prose writers on Marchen; and Cristiana Baik is at work gathering essays on erasure as well. New poems from Fanny Howe and Rae Armantrout; the Greenstreets are sending new videos from Ireland, and we have Douglas Kearney, Martha Ronk, Joseph Mains, many others coming up; a new long series from Mathias Svalina; and new essays from Carla Harryman and CM Burroughs. A lot of other stuff slated well into 2013 . . .
DS: We can’t wait!
Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Selenography, featuring Polaroids by Tim Rutili (Sidebrow Books, 2010). He has edited two anthologies: Poets on Teaching (featuring 101 poets’ essays) and, with Christina Mengert, 12×12: Conversations in 21st Century Poetry & Poetics (both from University of Iowa Press). He lives in Tucson, where he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Arizona. Joshua is the founding editor of The Volta and the editor of Arroyo Chico, Heir Apparent, They Will Sew The Blue Sail, & Tremolo.