Contributors: featured writer Khaty Xiong, Matthew DeMarco, Mary Ann Honaker, Ricky Garni, B.A. O’Connell, Kirby Wright, Catherine Keller, and Shamar English
Joe Milazzo is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie and two collections of poetry: The Habiliments and Of All Places In This Place Of All Places. His writings have appeared in Black Clock, Black Warrior Review, BOMB, Prelude, Tammy, and elsewhere. He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy, and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.joe-milazzo.com.
Why do you write? How do you begin, how does your process unfold, and who or what influences your work?
At the risk of coming off as clever or flippant, I’d like to say that I write in order to figure out what it is I’m writing about. Writing, for me, is an act of perception—the first step in my journey towards understanding. This is another way of saying that, for me, writing is about discovery, digestion (or distillation), orienting (and reorienting), remembering and projecting into the possible. My process is to approach the words as Pascal did the river, treating them as the substance (surface and depth; motion and matter) of a road that takes me where I want to go. This also means that I try and approach everything as potentially inspirational or influential. In terms of subjects or interests, chief among them are consciousness, language, narrative (historical and imaginative, assuming there’s much difference between the two), and the various ways in which all these phenomena collaborate to create our sense of the real.
If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, what would it be?
I would hope that book would be a book I’ve not yet read. And not necessarily one I’ve been meaning to read. If not, I’d settle for a collected works: maybe Cortázar, maybe Le Guin, or Zukofsky; Bob Kaufman perhaps, or Gertrude Stein. A companion-book.
What books do you have on your shelf right now? Anything or anyone you’re excited about?
I am currently reading Clark Coolidge’s Now It’s Jazz, his book about Kerouac and, well, jazz. A fascinating read thus far, in part because Coolidge the essayist is not all that different from Coolidge the poet. But also because I find I don’t have much of an appreciation for Kerouac anymore—if I ever did (I don’t believe I’ve ever finished On the Road). Then again, I may find that I only really like Coolidge’s Kerouac and not the genuine article. Or, that Coolidge’s idea of Kerouac is more compelling than even the best Kerouac that Kerouac could muster. That said, I am most looking forward to the second half of the book, in which Coolidge recounts his personal experience (dare I call it “fandom”?) of jazz. I’ve read excerpts from this portion of the book before and am eager to dig into the whole of its casually (coolly?) haunting ekphrastics.
To read afterward? I’ll be browsing the following:
- Susan Lewis, Zoom
- Sesshu Foster, City of the Future
- Gisèle Prassinos, The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories
- David Sudnow, Pilgrim in the Microworld
- Bilge Karasu, The Garden of Departed Cats
- Jena Osman, Public Figures
- Adriana Widdoes, Allison Conner, Emma Kemp, Johanna Hedva, Mady Schutzman, Orenda Fink, and Suzanne Scanlon, Rockhaven: A History of Interiors
What space does/should writing occupy, especially in this present moment?
Literature is, always has been, and always will be social practice. Even the most hackneyed “creative writing” manipulates language against the grain, “the functional”… although maybe only in America do we instrumentalize language to such an extreme degree (and our overly workshopped notions of literary excellence reflect as much). As such, the space writing primarily occupies is its own; literally, what it marks out; the parameters it establishes for itself. But only the best writing is able to acknowledge the ways in which it is ideologically compromised (in the manner of all utterances, whatever the intentions that have channeled them from mind to tongue) while simultaneously freeing itself from what my friend and sometimes-teacher Joseph McElroy likes to call “the tyranny of the anecdote”—the notion that what has been strictly requires what will be.
What was the first piece you ever had published? Are you the same person/writer who wrote it, and if not, how have you changed?
I’ve had several writing careers: “music critic,” book reviewer, for-hire content producer. But I date my career as a writer as beginning with the appearance of this story in an issue of In Posse Review. A decade has since passed, and I am definitely a changed person. For one thing, I’m not sure I have another short story in me. Less facetiously, I’d like to think I’ve broadened my range and my notions of what “the experimental” can encompass. (I am, however, still in thrall to guitar solos. I can’t rub that generational disposition out of myself.)
Which do you find the most challenging and/or rewarding and why: fiction, poetry, or prose?
If the writing requires that I write about or with direct reference to myself—not a body, occupied and occupying, but a personality or set of exegetic atmospheric conditions—I find that difficult. The much more comfortable position for me is one in which I’m cupping the shards of my subjectivity in my hands, knowing that the next choice I have to make involves selecting and fitting another handful of those pieces into the puzzle of a new persona. With the novel, this salvage-cum-invention takes a great deal of time; the relationships that bind author and character are more monogamous, if that makes sense. And plot, or at least drama: its tautness is not the outcome of efficiencies, at least in my practice. Which is not to say that novel-writing is drudgery. It’s just that its pleasures, like Kafka’s Great Emperor, are often more anticipated than received. (Until you can make yourself a relatively disinterested reader of your own novel, I’ve found, those pleasures don’t fully arrive.) Poetry I find more convivial and quicker, its forms improvisations on everyday saying. It can take me weeks to write a finished poem (whatever that is), but the end is almost always in sight, and the horizon never looks like a deadline. That scope agrees with me very much these days, which are lived mostly from 9 to 5.
What are some of the challenges you face as an editor? What do you enjoy about it?
Time is a challenge. I want to give everything I read as much of my attention as possible. But I can’t. So I try not to be too arbitrary in granting authority to my tastes and interests. That is, I try to read as much outside of my proclivities as possible. Just as I am skeptical of the edict to “write what you know,” I am suspicious of the notion that “good writing” reveals itself as soon as it’s read. The apparent aesthetic neutrality of “good writing” to me seems like a form of self-deception, inasmuch as it denies the choices that codify preferences into default positions. But reading in this way—parallel to myself—takes a good deal of vigilance. Thankfully, it’s a skill I was taught in workshop, and one I continue to relearn every time I’m fortunate enough to spend time with unfamiliar authors’ unpublished writing. To immerse yourself in the work without submerging your critical sensibilities… moreover, to not idolize craft among all of the demiurges in that critical pantheon… that’s tricky. But I’ve found the effort more than worthwhile. Doing so has kept my world from growing small around me.
What projects do you have going on right now? What are your concerns/obsessions? Anything we can look forward to?
I am currently at work on three discrete poetic sequences and a novel. The novel (title still TBD) is set in Dallas in the 1970s and is something of a coming-of-age story. But it is also very much concerned with the history of the region, a history which many outside of Texas know nothing about even as it remains quintessentially American. If Crepuscule W/ Nellie (my first book) is a “jazz novel,” this new one is a “prog rock novel.”
Field Recordings is the first of these three evolving poetic sequences. The field in question is contemporary and largely rhetorical. If these poems offer resistance—as I hope they might—they do so by way of appropriating, repurposing and recontextualizing (via various discursive strategies; that is, I have endeavored in them to preserve a thematic unity without relying on a univocality) small portions of what is most awful about the current political regime’s discourse.
My concern in the so-called “name poems” of Acrostic Aspic is with the conditions of celebrity as they are lived by non-celebrities, i.e., “you” and “me.” Or: I suppose these poems are all about minor celebrity, as their titles, borrowed from the outer limits of fame, suggest. Our subjectivities so often cohere in the back and forth between narratives intensely our own and those widespread narratives with which we cannot help but make contact, or which are in constant contact with us. But the latter narratives are so much more easily represented, not to mention “relatable,” while the former remain largely untranslatable. So this self-exchange can never be equal. Still, people live as they live, and their names mean something to them.
Finally, the numbered poems that constitute homeopathy for the singularity represent my attempts to undertake a slow study of online existence as it stands in 2017/2018.
What advice would you give to a writer just starting out?
Rejection letters are paychecks. They certify your labors. They’re promissory. They’re also bankable—that is, dependable. Keep saving them up. Keep showing up for work.
You can read Joe Milazzo’s work in the third issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released June 27.
Anne F. Walker completed an MFA at Mills College and a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. She taught at the University of California, Merced, for six years and has been directing the graduate writing program at Holy Names University since 2014. Her full-length published poetry books include Six Months Rent, Pregnant Poems, Into the Peculiar Dark, and The Exit Show. when the light of any action ceases is her recent poetry chapbook.
Why do you write? What pulls you into the page, and who inspires you?
I have written since I was little. When I was six my family moved from Berkeley to Toronto, Canada. We crossed the continent and national border in the old Ford van that had the engine between the driver and passenger seat. The beige van where the beige vinyl back seats left imprints like train tracks on bared skin. I drew pictures of places we passed, the lakes and farms and the Great Canadian Shield. My mom put the pictures into a book and wrote brief narratives I dictated for each. She created the blue-purple lined stencil reproductions. We folded them and sent them to family members. Something about the break from one life, from one country, to another, propelled me to writing. It became a safe space for me, a way of connecting to my more inner self.
After that I know I wrote poetry. When my oldest sister, Juanita, passed to cancer in 1994 she had a poem of mine on the cork board in her room. My mom sent it to me. I had written it at about seven to nine years old and it was about wolves. It end-rhymed. The only time I have not been writing was when I failed out of high school at 15 and hitchhiked around North America for about a year and a half. I was so disconnected from myself I had no words, or perhaps no way inside, no safe space. I found my way into York University just before turning 18, and I started writing again, taking classes with bpNichol, Frank Davey, Eli Mandel and Susan Swan. Often poems come to me when I am in motion, biking, walking. Sometimes I need to move around to jog an idea or word sequence into place.
bpNichol was my first poetry teacher, and he inspired me. I studied with him at York University 1982-86, and he continued to mentor my work before his passing. He had already been winning national and international awards with his concrete poetry. Once I asked him what a concrete poem on his office door meant. It had the words “frog,” “pond,” and “glop” interacting, and it really didn’t seem to be what I understood poetry to be. He said that when one writes in perfect syntax, with correct punctuation, one is working with the established power norms. He said “fucking with language is fucking with power.” I understood this. His teaching remains impressive to me. Even though he was a rock star in the poetry world he never tried to form replicas of himself. Rather, he had a capacity to deepen individuals’ understanding of their own works and capabilities. He reached into a student’s capability for understanding, in my case knowing that the idea of fucking with power through language would speak to this 17-year-old girl. He was a rock star.
If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, what do you hope it would be?
It would be the book by Pablo Neruda that has “Naked You Are As Simple As One Of Your Hands.”
What space does/should writing occupy in today’s climate?
In answering this I pull words from W.S. Merwin and from Audre Lorde. I pull from them because they have started to articulate something I feel and barely know how to say.
I interviewed W.S. Merwin in March of this year, asking: “if you were speaking to poets coming up now, poets emerging right now, what would you say? In this world, in this crazy, crazy place that we’re in.” He answered, “Well, don’t think of poetry as being something else from what, from what you’re doing. What you’re reading about is just this [thumps chest] all the time, it’s just exactly this. It’s about the real world. The real world actually isn’t what we’re looking at. Do you think having that guy in the White House is the real world? It’s a lot of mistakes tumbled together, you know?”
In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Audre Lorde writes: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless—about to be birthed, but already felt.”
Especially now, it seems to me essential to write, to encourage others to write, to recognize that writing is not “something else,” that it is not only about the real world but part of creating how to understand this world. It gets to something inside, something that is the world and is part of its song. Creative works are crucial in today’s climate. And it is crucial that we support each other in writing, narrating, singing, that which we are going through.
What was the first piece you ever had published? Are you the same person who wrote it, and if not, how have you changed?
Again, this story leads back to bpNichol. He had suggested that I start sending my work out saying it was as good as anything out there being published. I appreciated that he gave me that worker among workers, poet among poets, vision. I decided to send work to Contemporary Verse 2, put together some poems, a cover letter, and put it in a Toronto red post box. This was back when everything was snail mail. I remember the rush of putting it in that box. Shortly afterward I remember seeing bpNichol walking from the Fine Arts building over toward the Ross building, the central campus structure at that time. I hid behind a small tree and jumped out as he came by. I’m not sure why I did that, but I remember him laughing and we walked together. I remember telling him about the adrenaline rush of sending off that package. He said, “And someday there will be the rush of acceptance, and then of people asking you for your work.” I loved that man. Contemporary Verse 2 published “Mother Love” and “Knife Dance” in Summer 1985 (Volume 9, Number 1).
I seldom jump out at professors from behind shrubs these days, and I am a much happier person generally. My work is more open in terms of voice. Then I was still intent on a poem being something of small animal prints left on the page. Imagistic, symbolic, or minimalist poetry felt perhaps more secure to that me who was used to feeling unsafe. I believe it was a way to get a lot on the page and still feel protected. I found that when I moved back to California my voice changed. When I heard a colleague at Mills College, Andrea Adolph, read her poetry I could hear the central valley in it. In her words and intonations. I started to let a longer line emerge, a longer thought, longer sounds…the only way I can describe it is like a metal brush being played over a taut drum. There was a slide and a let-out to the language that started a new direction of growth. I still love to experiment with form, to learn new models and new integrations of poetic shape.
Do you find poetry more challenging to write or prose? What inspired the shift from poetry to prose for your manuscript if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward, and what was your writing process like?
if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward was the hardest writing experience I have had. Where my job as a writer is usually to stay open to the muse and stop to record when she sings, if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward involved so much staying with pain. I did not have the anesthetic quality a lyric creates for me. Instead I had to pull myself to the page day after day, to make it discernible to readers.
if a book is a map started as a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project. At the end of October a friend told me she was going to write into NaNoWriMo and I stepped into it too. The first day was two days after my fiftieth birthday. I fished around for where it might go, pulling images from around me and from imagination, writing seventeen hundred words. The second writing day I did the same in the morning. Then I got the news that my dad died. Like the film technique where sound goes down to nothing in an explosion, his death hijacked the writing into memories of him, recovery and hurtling forward, while articulating my process of grief. Seventeen hundred words a day came in through the first twenty-eight days of grieving. I used to turn to my dad when something big was up. His death was something big, and I kept wanting to turn to him, and he was gone. It was a kind of human animal loss that really went deeper than what I had felt before.
My dad had been writing short memoir vignettes for a few years. He took a class at Ryerson in Toronto, enjoying the writing and the camaraderie of it. It occurred to me that woven in and out of if a book is a map I wanted to see if I could use some of my dad’s recollections from his memoir class.
I had been in collaboration with my father’s stories, as a way of understanding the world, since I was little. When my oldest sister, Juanita, had been dying in Toronto twenty years before, my mother had taken care of her. My father was support for my mother and I listened to my father in long distance phone calls. I was getting an MFA in creative writing at Mills College, and my son was only two.
My father would tell me things, like the doctors were: irradiating the top of the brain pan to alleviate horrible headaches from the tumors. But radiation makes the brain swell, she’s had one of five — she’s in hospital through emergency from not eating and barely drinking five days.
He would say: Between Sunday and Tuesday she lost cognitive ability. Ione’s in tears because Nita can’t remember. Talking to her. She wants to die at home. Not caught in the fucking machine. And I would write it down. I couldn’t hold what he was saying, but I could write it down. I would integrate it with my poetry. The poems became a book. They integrated into Into the Peculiar Dark.
May 24, almost six months after he passed, twenty five years after my son was conceived, my brother-in-law emails me that he is sending me some of the ashes and all documents, photos, writings from all computers. May 28 the box arrived. I rearranged the house around it. Cleaned dust from under every piece of furniture I moved, but could not open the box.
At first I thought that I would be telling Papa’s story, or perhaps a story of my family, but as I edited, it quickly became clear that I was telling my own story of mourning. I was telling my story of skimming over surfaces of life, of some of the deep pockets I fell into, telling some part of the story of my recovery, telling a story of myself as an artist and of myself as a becoming being. I hope it reaches out and is of service and hope to someone who reads it.
I found I had an insecurity writing the book that I had never had before in writing. Maybe all the insecurities I have about me came up. I would be workshopping it and barely want to read the words, they kept curling back, wanting to curl back, but I did push forward. I got it through to the fifth draft before I felt like I could send it out. Now I’m looking for a publisher, which is a whole different animal of fear of rejection, and actual rejection, that I have to pass through.
What books do you have on your shelf right now? Who are you reading? Anything or anyone you’re excited about?
On the digital shelf I have Carl Philips and David Tomas Martinez. I love the lyric evocative qualities in Philips’ work. Martinez grabs my attention with his use of space on the page and varied pockets of micro narratives. Lorna Cervantes “Freeway 280,” always a favorite. Her freeway as “a raised scar” knocks me out every time. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “the mother” from A Street in Bronzeville was published in 1945. It begins “Abortions will not let you forget” and goes on “I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children. / I have contracted. I have eased…” It seems to me an incredibly brave moment in women’s writing. She just stared it all straight in the face and didn’t blink while writing. She is my hero. Incarnadine by Mary Szybist and Garden Time by W.S. Merwin are on my nightstand.
What advice do or would you give to a writer just starting out?
Write. Keep writing. Let the process of publishing be a whole different animal. Let all the weight of rejection be on the rejecter, none on you. Learn and push forward. Keep writing. It is resistance. It is staying to the core of who you are. It can be truth and beauty; however ugly it is. And however ugly it is, it can still be beauty. Keep writing.
You can read Anne F. Walker’s work in the second issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released May 15.
nick johnson is the featured writer for the first issue of Night Music Journal. nick was born and raised near the brackish Chesapeake Bay but now calls the Bay Area waters home. He received his MFA from the California College of the Arts. His work has been featured on KPFA’s Rude Awakening, and has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Black Renaissance Noire, Eleven Eleven, Metazen and other fine journals. His first book of poems, music for mussolini, was recently released by Nomadic Press. Additionally, he wants you to know, he enjoys telling long-winded stories, Instagraming, making spicy curries, and drinking whiskey; typically in that order, but not always. Learn more at his website, www.nickjohnsonpoetry.com.
Why poetry? What pulled you in, and who was the very first poet you read/heard?
I started writing short stories as a kid. That was my jam for a long time. I think my initial impetus to write sprang from the fact that I couldn’t find anything I really, really enjoyed reading; so I started writing the stories I wanted to read. I look back now and know that I just hadn’t been exposed to the right stuff, which really shaped who I am today… and I guess what I mean by that is that I might not be writing today if I had fallen in love with books at an early age. Who knows…But why poetry was the question. I had a teacher in middle school, Ms. Castle, who had us write poems for an assignment one day. It was the first time I remember writing a poem. Anyway, she really liked mine and asked me to read it to the class. I was terrified. After class she pulled me aside and told me how much she enjoyed my poem and my reading of it. She encouraged me to keep writing and speaking in front of people. It took a long time to get comfortable with the public speaking and reading, but I am so thankful that she gave me that push. And I guess what pulled me in with poetry was how elusive it is, how ephemeral; and I love the instant gratification of finishing a poem…fiction takes FOREVER. lol.
If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, what do you hope it would be? Why?
Wow. That’s such a beautiful question and so hard to answer. Of the books that I can think of off the top of my head, it would have to be Kafka on the Shore. I really love Murakami. His books are like warm blankets, intricately woven with magical realism, poetry, mystery, unique and captivating characters and sentences that ebb and flow like the tide; you’re wrapped in and unsure whether you’re dreaming or awake, witnessing the magic or a part of it. He’s really, really good. Thus far Kafka on the Shore is my favorite book; it’s a thriller, it’s poetic; it’s…yeah, I’m pulling that from the ash for sure.
What space does/should poetry occupy in today’s society?
I think art, no matter what the genre or medium, should hold a bright light up to society and allow us a new way to view ourselves and our surroundings. I think it should challenge, shape, and show us who we are at our core, show us what we believe in and what we hold sacred.
What was the first piece you ever had published? Are you the same person who wrote it, and if not, how have you changed?
I had a few things published while I was an undergrad, but I don’t remember what those poems were…my first major publication was in Black Renaissance Noir. They published three of my poems when I was in grad school. I would say, I’m not the same person who wrote those poems. That poet was a little more direct and more willing to show his readers he knew something he could impart to them. I think now I’m a bit more exploratory, my writing now is a search.
Nomadic Press published your first book, music for mussolini, earlier this year. What was the experience like? How do you feel now that you have your first book on your shelf?
Yes; my first book of poems, music for mussolini, was published by Nomadic Press in March of this year. And it feels amazing! I can’t even tell you how good it feels to see my book on my shelf, let alone at City Lights or Alley Cat Books, or in countries I haven’t been to like Belgium or Japan. All thanks to Nomadic Press, and the help of my friends all over the world who’ve supported me…it’s a wonderful feeling. But more directly to your question, working with Nomadic has been amazing! They really care about every detail and they’re so willing to work with you and hear your vision for your book. My editor Michaela Mullin spent many evenings with me, on the phone, talking about not only what was and wasn’t working but why it was or wasn’t working, and the juxtaposition of sections…she was an absolute gem and my book is so much better because she had her hands on it. I could go on and on but, in short, J.K. and the folks are an absolute pleasure to work with.
Are you working on a second book? What’s your work’s center right now?
I might be…time will tell. I guess right now I am working on my “outdoor poems,” which center on nature along with past and current romantic relationships…at least that is what I think I am writing about…one never really knows.
Name some poets you’re really excited about right now. Who do you have on your shelf/in your ear/on your mind?
Let’s see…Ilya Kaminsky, MK Chavez’s Mothermorphosis; I’m rereading Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis; and I am super excited for Fisayo Adeyeye’s forthcoming book from Nomadic Press…that’s what comes to mind at the moment.
What is the biggest adventure you’ve had? What adventures do you hope to have soon?
Ah, well I guess my biggest adventure to date was probably spending five weeks in Thailand, with my (then) girlfriend…we actually just got married ;-)…which was also a pretty big adventure. But spending five weeks exploring Thailand was absolutely amazing, and this December we’re heading to India for three weeks for our honeymoon…it should be pretty epic and we’re super stoked about it.
If you could go back and say anything to your teenage self, what would it be?
I wouldn’t say anything to my teenage self. I think my teenage self needs to go through the same things I did without any interference from me in order to end up where I am now. The journey I took to arrive at this very moment was not easy but I love where I am and I might not be here if something were altered, if I lived life with a different perspective.
What advice would you give a poet just starting out?
When I was a young poet I thought I could only learn from the poets I admired…I eventually came to find out that wasn’t true…read as much as you can…and learn from everything you read…except for the stuff you hate, totally ignore that shit. lol.