Rusty Morrison with Joseph Massey

Joseph Massey
Joseph Massey

Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! –Rusty Morrison 

This interview concerns Joseph Massey’s book, To Keep Time

Rusty Morrison: Can you speak to the title and how it resonates through the poems in this collection?

Joseph Massey: To Keep Time, to seize a moment or a series of moments in motion before they degrade into memory, is an impossible task for the poem — for any work of art. There is no such thing as time, anyway, in the linear sense of the word. Phenomenal experience has no margins; but the poem defies that condition by attempting to say anything at all. I like that tension, that reach — I think, I hope, it’s what holds the book together.

RM: As an avid reader of your previous books, I was delighted that you chose to publish this new work with Omnidawn. I see your deft control of language and the line, which has become a signature of your work. So much has been said in recent criticism about the ways that many poets are inviting readers to a heightened awareness of silence and how it surrounds the language on the page. Yet no poet makes me listen harder to the echo that each word creates. You create sonic pairings that echo, too, of course, but there is a quiet that is called forth in this work that is like no one else’s. Can you speak to this? Of course, it’s probably a paradox to ask you to speak to silence… 

JM: As John Cage put it: “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time…. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” I regard the space around the poem as a kind of acoustics, a means to hear and receive the words. Even a blank page has a sound, a perpetual hum, a pulse.

So, I don’t try to achieve silence but an absence of unnecessary noise, each word given equal weight and volume. I crave the inertia of such economy.

RM: You are a poet who is most limber and alert to the power of sequence. Can you speak to some of the advantages of this practice? and can you speak to how this book’s sequences might be a further development in your craft?

JM: I’m interested in the charge created — if I’m lucky — when several otherwise short, stand-alone poems are paired together. The friction between sections causes an ignition that binds them, simulating a passage through a period of time, of varying duration, and the natural parataxis of consciousness itself.

The sequence “Microclimate(s),” included in To Keep Time, is different from my other sequences in that some of the sections are longer than usual and contain their own sequential movements, and so there are more layers, more things actively at work. It’s a larger scale for me. 

RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?

JM: To Keep Time is my third and final book grounded in the landscape and weather of coastal Humboldt County, California, and contains the last poems I wrote there before moving to the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts in the winter of 2013. Most of the poems were written with the knowledge that I would be leaving the place that was the backdrop and impetus for just about all of the poetry I wrote since the summer of 2001. I think the gravity of that long goodbye permeates the collection, and the question of place — “the geography of our being,” Charles Olson — became more frantic and fraught than usual.

RM: Who are the authors or artists or musicians with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you currently reading, watching, hearing?

JM: The list of poets I return to when I need to recharge my faculties is long, always morphing, but the perennial poets on my radar are Lorine Niedecker, Cid Corman, Frank Samperi, Ronald Johnson, Pam Rehm, Clark Coolidge, Larry Eigner, Emily Wilson, Peter Gizzi, Lily Brown, Jess Mynes, Gustaf Sobin, Rae Armantrout, Emily Dickinson, William Bronk, Karin Lessing, many others.

I love William Basinski’s music, all ambient. There isn’t one album I love more than the others. While working on To Keep Time his music was playing, almost exclusively, in my shack.

RM: You chose the artist who created the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?

JM: Wendy Heldmann ( also provided the artwork for my first two books, Areas of Fog (Shearsman Books, 2009) and At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011). I consider those books, along with To Keep Time, a trilogy. I wanted to maintain a consistency in the cover art.

Wendy’s work is also grounded in California, mostly the Los Angeles area, but she spent time in Humboldt County as well. I love the unsentimental approach to the world around her, whether it’s the so-called natural world or the detritus of the man-made, and not at the expense of — for lack of a better word — an understated lyricism. Her paintings don’t tell me anything, they simply reveal.

And the title of the painting used on the cover of To Keep Time, “Final Lovesong,” echoes my personal relationship with the work within.

Joseph Massey lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and is the author of Areas of Fog(Shearsman Books, 2009) and At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011), as well as a dozen chapbooks. His work has also appeared in various journals and magazines, including The NationAmerican Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American PoetsVerseWestern Humanities ReviewQuarterly West; and in the anthologies Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams (University of Iowa Press, 2011), Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years(W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) and Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation (Viking Penguin, 2015)

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