“How the Whole World Crashes Into Silence”: Open House Interviews Joseph Massey

Joseph Massey’s To Keep Time (Omnidawn 2015)

Cosmo Spinosa: To me, there is a subtextual exploration of human effects on the environment that runs as a theme throughout your work. These seem like thoughtful and pointed juxtapositions, and not simply an arrangement of “things.” They seem like decisions informed by environmental issues, and in some sense, they seem political to me. As you were writing To Keep Time, was your process motivated by environmental issues, or were they more linguistically and aesthetically motivated, or both? Your work seems to reinforce and play with ideas that are commonly associated with eco-poetics, but your name isn’t usually brought up when people talk about the subject of eco-poetry. Do you think that your work fits under the category of eco-poetry?

Joseph Massey: No, because I’m not interested in formulating an ethical position prior to the composition of the poem — at least not consciously. If there are ethical concerns in the work, and I agree that there are, they’re an afterthought.

I’m fascinated by the seams between the natural and the unnatural, the man-made intrusions, but I’m usually not making any judgments about them. The shining sliver of cellophane litter, for me, bears as much weight, aesthetically, as any flower in bloom.

The interrogation of these seams invites the reader to form her own position, or to take no position at all, and just observe and interact with the dynamics between the various sensorial textures of the poem as a participant in the reenactment of perception.

Housten Donham: I’m interested in the excessive qualities of the language in To Keep Time, which may seem strange since your work is, some would claim, sparse and fragmented. But throughout all of your work, and especially in this book, I see something very fertile, very generative. Nothing is closed off. The poems seem to bring us into a clearing and leave us there. This reminds me of some of Gustaf Sobin’s richest work. Then again, it also reminds me of Philip Lamantia, a poet who doesn’t seem to have a similarly “meditative” or quiet style like your own, to speak for a moment reductively. How do you see this balance in your work, if there is one? Is there a pivot happening between the scarcity or inadequacy of language and the richness of the world, or is the language enough for you, for the poem?

JM: Maybe it’s more of a pivot between the scarcity and inadequacy of the world and the richness of language, but now that I’m thinking about it, it’s interchangeable. I’m not always so sure there’s a difference between language and the world. Can we have one without the other? Would we know the world as it is without the language to hold it together and to separate one thing from another? What else are we holding to — what else is holding us — here, if not words?

As far as the devices in my poetry go: My first love in poetry was Dylan Thomas. I fell for his clanging alliteration and thick layers of assonance. As a teenager I was enchanted by that — it left a deep impression. I wanted to fill the space around me with that kind of sound, deep and incantatory.

Gustaf Sobin! I’m happy my work reminds you of him. He’s one of my favorites. I found his work in the late ’90s and have continued to return to it. His almost baroque sense of sound sculpted into heavily hyphenated instances of vertically-pressured language — I love it. And Lamantia has been a favorite from a very early age (one of the first books I ever bought with my own money was The Portable Beat Reader, and his poems, in particular, the few included in the anthology, grabbed me — an American Rimbaud, romantic and raw).

But to answer your question more directly: I’ve always aimed to make poetry that can sit on the page as a sculpture of sound first and foremost, everything else — whatever meaning is made and/or unmade — follows from that point.

To Keep Time uses repetition in ways that I hadn’t used it in my previous books, in that there’s just more of it. In that sense, I guess, I wanted the poems to sit on the page and on the ear in an even heavier way — to try to bolt down what can’t be bolted down: whatever the process is that transforms a world from the words we use to describe it and to get a grip on — to speak into — to speak through — the place, the actual ground, where we find ourselves. I didn’t try to hide my desperation.

CS: To Keep Time begins with two quotes–one from John Taggart, and one from James Schuyler. One frames language as an unstable but necessary form of communication, a sort of narration of consciousness. The other positions consciousness as a stable, but always changing, entity against time’s “continuity.” These two quotes appear to provide an outline for the book itself. But at the same time, To Keep Time complicates this dialectic. The most stable things in these poems are natural images, and not the observer perceiving them. In turn, the observer takes on the aspect of language, and specifically language’s most abstract qualities. Language is inscribed onto you, and in some sense, you become the conduit for language’s instability. So, throughout the book, we see some inversion of Taggart and Schuyler’s notions of the function of consciousness as it relates to language. These poems find comfort in what is exterior, avoiding or shrouding an interior dialogue, which is unstable. The poems name the external world, but they fail to name their own submerged anxieties. Can you speak more to the anxieties you feel between language and consciousness, and maybe tell us more about the tenuous relationship between concrete language and abstract/personal language that appears throughout To Keep Time?

JM: I was hoping the epigraphs (John Taggart: “The names get us through / the days // which is not enough and too much,” James Schuyler: “…repetition, change: / a continuity, the what / of which you are a part”) would serve that function, a dual hinge for the book to turn with and against.

My sense is that we’re always caught up in language, there’s no escape — the names get us through the days, and nights, for sure — just as there is no real escape from our consciousness as it forms a world around us. But language and consciousness, and, specifically, what we perceive with the senses, are unreliable in that they are always changing, morphing into other meanings and other things. There is no stable ground. I love the charge created when I attempt to describe anything — to find that ground in an actual way: what’s directly beneath, above and around me — and it doesn’t stick, wants to slip and does slip away from me. I try to track that slippage in my work.

Language in my poems that veers from the concrete is more often than not a commentary on that phenomena, how the world — and the language we use to organize and stabilize it — is perpetually shifting and vanishing.

Often I just get carried away by the sound, and I go with it.

HD: You have in the past been grouped, whether willingly or not, within certain literary movements—particularly with the New Sincerity. What are your feelings about contemporary poetic currents in “the poetry community?” How do you feel about poetry groups in general? Are there currently any contemporary figures with whom you see yourself aligned, on the level of poetics?

JM: Critics are essentially cartographers — maps will be made. But the New Sincerity was a joke between a few friends that went too far. I dislike being assosicated with most of the people who’ve been lumped under that brand over the years. We have nothing in common (“Alt-Lit,” whatever).

I share some similar frequencies with more than a few poets writing right now: Pam Rehm, Jacqueline Winter Thomas, Michelle Gil-Montero, Nate Klug, Kate Colby, Emily Wilson, Rae Armantrout. There must be at least a dozen more, but those names are at the top of my head.

CS: My next question is about the process of these poems, and how they come about. Following your Instagram, I’ve noticed that you take a lot of pictures while you’re on walks, and these walks seem to be crucial to your poems. Can you talk us through how you compose your poems?

JM: Walks, yes, are essential to my process. I never leave home without a notebook and multiple pens, but most of the time I don’t get any lines until I sit down after a long walk when all of the sense-impressions settle into some kind of rhythm that grabs after language — that’s when the drafts happen.

I then take those drafts to the computer, move the pieces around, pull them apart. I try to stay loose and let the poem find its own center of gravity.

HD: Each of your three full-length collections are, in part, made up of chapbooks and clearly separate pieces that have been formed into a whole book. Do you see each full-length as a collection of different pieces, as whole works in themselves, or as both? What are your thoughts about the construction of books in general? Do you see each book as its own entity, in sort of the way that Jack Spicer saw his own work? Or are they simply collections of your work up to that point?

JM: My first two “full-length” books, Areas of Fog and At the Point, are divided into sections that were originally chapbooks. I made a lot of changes to certain poems, removed some poems from the original manuscripts and changed the order around slightly, but their architecture was pretty much entirely determined by the chapbooks.

To Keep Time was written as a self-contained book, from beginning to end, as well as the book forthcoming in the fall of this year, Illocality. Instead of using chapbooks to structure those books, I used the seasons themselves: tracking a passage through a whole year.

CS: Correspondence appears to be an important part of your practice–both literal correspondence with other poet, such as Cid Corman, and the Spicerean notion of correspondence–a sort of “speaking with the dead.” Can you speak to how these types of correspondences come up in your work and affect your poetic practice?

JM: Cid Corman’s first letter to me arrived with this poem typed on the envelope:

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.

No better answer to your question than that.

HD: I’ve always been struck by the generous attention paid to sound in your work, in echoing, in rhythm. Which makes me excited to see that you have lately been participating in readings more often than you maybe were accustomed to on the west coast. How do you feel about performing your work? Have you noticed any elements of the work that you perhaps had missed before the words occupied this physical sound-space?

JM: After five years of not giving any readings, I find that I actually like doing it now. I strongly dislike the anticipation and all of the social noise, but once I’m in the work and I’m simply hearing it return to me, my voice, in a quiet (usually quiet) space with people who are listening (usually listening), it’s a particularly intimate experience. Somehow the nervousness of standing before an audience and how it boils off as I read intensifies my ability to listen and to project — all the senses are heightened. I like that.

HD: This may seem like a strange question, but because I’m fascinated with the mystical aspects of your work, I’d like to ask if you could speak to the possible spiritual element of your work? Part of my interest here comes from my relationship to the Oakland poetry scene, where mysticism—primarily in the form of Tarot, astrology, yoga—plays a central part in the construction of that poetry scene, and in several poets’ approaches to their own work. As far as I can tell, no one has yet asked you what role the spiritual/mystical might play in your own work, either in the formation of it or in the content, so I’d be pleased to know.

JM: The last poem I wrote in Humboldt County before moving to New England in the winter of 2013 was written after visiting Walk About Joy, the “spiritually empowered” sanctuary of Avatar Adi Da Samraj in Trinidad, CA. I visited the sanctuary often to meditate, to tap into a state beyond the ordinary confines of an ordinary egoic disposition. The poem was cut from To Keep Time, but I’ll include it here. I think it gives an idea of the sharpening of perception that results from a meditation practice — how the whole world crashes into a silence.


Within their own impressions
searchlights pulse: trails
trail trails I mistook for mist
or fog lobbed from surf
dark as the dark drawing down
but sounding out and
 farther out.

I still meditate daily and study the teachings of various (mostly) Hindu saints, but I don’t know how it informs the work other than drawing me into a more focused relationship with the world, such as it isn’t (it never is!).

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