Just over six months ago, a book refreshed my consistent need to electro-shock great Emersonian ideals, be it a squirrel trying its hand at evolution in Prospect Park or a cardinal singing at dawn in Alaska. Joshua Poteat’s Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World (2009, VQR Series, University of Georgia Press) does precisely that. Its pastoral qualities somehow awaken and enliven a spiritual fiber but not an evangelical abhorrence or a treehugger-boredom (and this, in an era of poetry where “pastoral” or “agrarian” are dirty words). The book sings a necessary tone in a world that speeds up transactions with inconvenient truths. I decided to (electronically) sit down with Mr. Poteat and ask him a bundle of questions.
— Ken L. Walker
Do you draw, sketch, paint or make use of any artistic medium other than poetry?
Not exactly. I don’t quite have the talent…but I do make light boxes, which are mostly just any sort of box (metal/wood/etc.) that I hinge on a glass panel with a collaged image and backlight it with a bulb. I’ve sold a few on Etsy, at a few shows around Richmond, a few are in “private collections” (which means “sitting on my grandfather’s sideboard”), nothing fancy. However, last year my good friend Roberto Ventura and I concocted an installation proposal for a light-based art show called InLight here in Richmond. Rob is a designer/architect and we both know a couple of things about light/art/text, so we thought we could collaborate and make something reasonably viewable. We didn’t realize the show attracted a lot of national video/installation/light-based artists of great talent (we’re not trained artists), but we got in.
Our goal, beyond anything else, was to bring attention to the unmarked slave cemetery that lies under a downtown Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot by honoring those interred there, including Gabriel, the man who led the failed Richmond slave rebellion in 1800 and who was executed and buried along with 26 other slaves. So, in a huge, vacant, crumbling building, we built a temporary memorial with 13 concrete columns that contained two illuminated images each; 3 huge screens of burlap onto which we projected text from my poems about Gabriel/Richmond; various bird-oriented images of historic weight; a lovely, abstract video by Elizabeth Reinkordt of light through trees; and a large, spot-lit bird’s nest of sorts made from metal and sticks at the far end of the room. All of this was self-contained within a crumbling store. No one was allowed to enter. It was viewable only through the glass windows of the storefront. Outside, we set up speakers that played a loop of ambient, crackling voices from slave narratives recorded in the 1920s. The recordings were made on wax cylinders that had been digitized, so the voices themselves were crumbling and could not be understood. For a one-night-only show, it was tons of work, but we pulled it off. The main juror of the show, a curator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, awarded us Best in Show.
Forgive the long explanation! This was so outside my normal process of creating, that it doesn’t feel like a part of me…thus I can ramble on and brag about it. All for Gabriel. Two white dudes coming together in the former capital of the slave trade and making a place for ghosts to relax.
Here are some photographs of our piece, taken by the wonderful Heidi Hess.
Tell me at least five of your favorite films . . .
Here are five randoms that I love:
George Washington/David Gordon Green
My Winnipeg/Guy Maddin
After Life/Hirokazu Kore-eda
My Life to Live/Godard
Days of Heaven/Terrance Malick
And likewise for musicians, bands, performers . . .
I played drums in assorted punk/hardcore bands over the years, then gradually as I got older was influenced by mellower and quieter folks, so quiet, in fact, that I have completely stopped playing drums. Bands I like range from Rites of Spring to The Smiths to Dananananaykroyd to Fionn Regan to Land of Talk to Jawbreaker to Maps and Atlases to Laura Gibson.
Where is your ideal place to live?
I’m extremely attracted to bleak landscapes…so probably Iceland (not as cold as you think) which contains many different versions of bleakness…or somewhere outside of Tucson…Bisbee, maybe (the cutest little town in Arizona). Or in any lighthouse.
I saw you read in Louisville, Kentucky as part of the Sarabande series and you read a poem about an abolitionist which I remember being very moved by. The man you wrote away from, about, evinced a feeling of John Brown.
I think you’re talking about my Gabriel poems. No John Brown poems for me, but they do share many characteristics. John Brown was born in 1800, the year that Gabriel attempted the slave rebellion in Richmond. Not sure if everyone knows Gabriel’s story, but if he and his group would have succeeded, it would have changed everything for the south…60 years sooner. He was planning to take the governor’s mansion, then the city, then the state. A huge storm came in the night of the rebellion and washed away roads and bridges, which slowed their progress, then some got cold feet, started to talk, told their “masters” and that was it.
I’ve always thought that Gabriel’s spirit was somehow passed to Brown. If not, Brown surely was inspired by Gabriel, due to his similar rebellion in 1859. These guys were not fucking around. Brown reportedly said, when referring to the pacifist movement against slavery at the time, “These men are all talk. What we need is action — action!” Some people still think of him as a terrorist. WWJBD? is a good question to ask yourself every now and then.
Not that you asked, but I wanted to mention Gabriel and how unbelievable it is to me that there is a parking lot a mere 8 blocks from where I type this…actual bodies underneath the asphalt…med school students driving their Mini Coopers over the graves…prescription pain medication spilling from their pockets…and no one with any power is doing anything about making this right. Richmond is full of endless layers of pain and history and blood and rage. The South is still not dead here. Drive down Monument Avenue and you’ll see it. Robert E. Lee is on his horse, facing south, along with J.E.B. Stuart, Jackson, and the rest of them. On Martin Luther King Day, which is called Lee-Jackson-King Day in Virginia, a group of Civil War re-enactors “guard” the Lee monument in honor of him. One day I will rent some Union uniforms and attack them and send them back to whatever time machine brought them here.
My next manuscript attempts to deal with all of this. Gabriel, the city, my own family’s history of slave ownership. Have I mentioned that one yet? It’s a sad road to travel, believe me. How do I write about the horrific nature of slavery from the “oppressor’s” point of view without stripping the dead of the dignity they deserve and without valorizing the crime itself…about history without merely using it for the sake of a poem…about suffering without simply using it as a subject for art…and attempt to treat suffering, and ultimately death, in a way that presents it honestly and with proper respect, while moving toward an understanding, a statement of what that death means, of why we should remember it? I have no idea.
You’re obviously influenced (and I hope inspired) by Larry Levis (as am I). How did you meet his work and why did you take so much away with you?
Larry is my guy. He always has been, even now. I had the chance to work with him at VCU. He’s the reason I came to Richmond, and maybe he’s the reason I’ve stayed. I think I was too young to really know what I was doing in grad school. I was 23, a little shy, from a small southern town, and mostly nervous, especially around Larry, who was brilliant and hilarious and beyond anything I could ever be as a poet. Now that I know he was working on the poems that became Elegy, I feel guilty for taking up his time.
He died my second year of school. A few of my classmates and I helped to clean out his house. It was strange for all of us. I wore a pair of his jeans for a few years. I still have his framed Albers poster…from a show at the Guggenheim in ‘88, and an old snare drum that had knife slits stabbed through the head. I was going through a box of random papers of his that day and found a checkbook. On the back of it, Larry had written, “the more you are, the cheaper death seems.” We took most of his stuff in my truck down the street to a Salvation Army. There are people all over Richmond that have Larry’s pants, shirts, pots, chairs. Who are those people?
I also had the chance to help put together Elegy. Well, by help I mean I photocopied his handwritten drafts to send to Phil Levine and David St. John. I stood over the English department copier weeping and reading those poems, trying to see through his horrible handwriting, because there was nothing else I could do.
Around the same time Larry died, both my father and my grandfather died. It wasn’t a good time for me. I graduated and didn’t write for a few years. Why should I? I worked extremely lame temp jobs…one at Philip Morris, the cigarette company (during Richmond summers, if we get a nice wind from the south, we can smell the sickly sweetness of tobacco being processed). I worked for a horrible man who had Crohn’s disease and loved model trains. Or maybe it was that he loved Crohn’s and had a model train disease. I forget. I created endless PowerPoint presentations for him. There is a small circle of hell waiting for me as I speak. After a few years of this, I picked up Larry’s The Dollmaker’s Ghost, then Winter Stars, then Elegy, and they brought me back to poems. Larry saved me.
And Mary Ruefle.
Mary Ruefle is a mostly new influence compared to Larry. My wife, Allison Titus (who is a better poet than I), got to work with Mary at Vermont College. She would send Allison wonderful letters and envelopes filled with dried flowers and acorns and seeds. I never met her, but found her work incredible. She pushes through to a new kind of lyric, irreverent and otherworldly. Her book of erasures, A Little White Shadow, suddenly brought me back to surrealist tricks at their best, and I used the same technique in my new book (in the first appendix). It’s nothing new, but it’s enjoyable, you know? At least for me. I need more joy in my life.
What are some of your rules for these three different forms (staggered line breaks, prose blocks, sparse spacing)?
I started working with a four-line stanza with certain indentations while finishing up Ornithologies, and it carried through to the new book. There’s no other explanation than aesthetics, how the lines look on the page. It just felt right. The placement. The space to breathe. The degeneration.
The prose blocks in Illustrating the Machine… are for my wife. She was getting tired of all the indents in the other poems, and thought I should switch it up a little. I’m not exactly happy with them. They don’t feel quite right to me, but the wife likes them.
As for the sparse spacing, those are the erasure poems! Surprise! They’re what I like to call the ruins of poems that appear earlier in the book. As if the poems had aged many years and this is what is left of them. A shell of sorts. Some may call it “editing,” but I ignore those people. The sparseness comes from cutting away parts of text to get at the text beneath it. Ted Genoways, the editor of the series, wanted me to lose that section, as does a lady in Tampa Bay who left a review of the book on Amazon. For the record, I don’t mean for these erasures to be seen as the final section of the book. It’s an appendix, similar to ones found in old science books. An addendum of sorts, set apart from the rest of the poems. As are the plates in the second appendix. They exist for reference only. The plates have nothing to do with the poems, really. It’s kind of nice that people care (well, two people), but what does it matter, when it comes down to it, that there’s a weirdo appendix with erasure poems in my silly little book? It can’t matter that much in the scheme of things. I mean, how many people are actually going to read this thing?! So it was nice of Ted to let me have my way. It’s how the book formed itself, and I wanted to stay true to it. Sorry, lady in Tampa Bay. Take heart, though, my dear, because we all lose in the end.
Did you have a particular audience in mind as you were compiling and sequencing Illustrating the Machine?
I’m not sure I ever think in terms of audience, at least not for this book. I had a feeling that some folks may take this as my “experimental” book (whatever that means), due to it veering away from the straight narratives of Ornithologies. It’s not, really. It’s stranger and maybe not as accessible, but it still has hints of my Levis fascination, and Charles Wright rip-offs. I see it as one long poem, but don’t tell anyone else that. What happened was…I found this book of scientific engravings, assembled by a German man named J.G. Heck in 1851, who died a few years after assembling the book. The engravings themselves are fine accomplishments, but the titles of the engravings are what got me, and this became my project. Writing poems to go with the titles. And imagining a voice for this anonymous J.G. Heck, who I could find out literally nothing about, and combining that imagined voice with my own. So the audience was me, is what I’m trying to say. And a lady in Tampa Bay.
Do you honestly think a machine “makes the world”?
Nah, ain’t no machine gonna make this place. But if you’ve seen the sculpture that the title is based on, The Machine That Makes The World, by Alice Aycock, you would think it could be true. She is absolutely wonderful.
Aycock is wonderful. Her work at the Storm King outdoor sculpture museum is pretty breath-taking. Her sculptures somehow remind me that the universe and/or cosmos is interconnected in the sense that nature, human beings, god, and whatever, are entwined in one entire system. But, is that true, or are all these things separate entities?
Oh boy. I have no freaking idea. I believe in very little, despite all the mentions of God in that book of mine. It would be nice if it was all connected, but I seriously doubt it. We’ve just invented lots of things to keep us occupied while we’re here, so we don’t notice that we’re not connected to anything at all. Like writing poems, for example. And sports. Soccer is my favorite distraction. It should be for everyone, as it is obviously the superior sport.
Would you (Facebook-wise) BECOME A FAN of American Transcendentalism if, in fact, you’re not already?
I’m not a current fan, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t be. The forced spiritualness of it all throws me off a little, but I like Thoreau. “To be awake is to be alive.” He’s hard not to like. Emerson, too.
I always feel unsure (which is what makes it such a transcendental notion) exactly what the term twilight means or refers to, aside from terribly-played vampires? What do you personally think of as twilight?
There are scientific explanations for everything, including twilight. There’s a strange little diagram/engraving in Heck’s book, entitled Illustrating the Theory of Twilight. Believe me, the title is better than the engraving. For me, it is the most beautiful time of day. I could live inside that color blue. That’s all I need to know.
You’re at a café with J.G. Heck . . . what the heck do you ask him?
First I would need to take German lessons. After that, I would ask him my favorite question to ask people: “How dare you?!” Actually, I’ve never really pictured him as anything human. I like to think of him as just a voice, behind the years and the machines and the bones and the bread.