We’re continuing with our National Poetry Month interviews, and excited about our next featured poet, the brilliant: Joyelle McSweeney! Stay tuned for more featured poets all month long.
1) Do you think poetry is still important, relevant, and vibrant in today’s culture?
Yes, no, & maybe! I’m not sure what today’s culture is—or if there is ‘a’ culture? Certainly mainstream media–and many independent venues as well– do their best to make poetry completely invisible. It’s hard to feel invisible, but what’s worse is to feel the politics of invisibility replicated within US-based poetry culture. There are the ‘important’ poets and then there is not a word for what the rest of us poets are supposed to be. So invisible we don’t even have an epithet.
2) What makes you want to write poetry?
Rage and exuberance. I can’t get my exuberance under control, it’s more volatile than my rage. My rage then has to express itself with the items my exuberance has purchased at the mall, like a pair of Adidas and a copy of the Aeneid. [NB I cannot actually afford a new pair of Adidas].
It’s this dynamic of rage and exuberance that fuels so many early modernist movements which is probably why my heart always beats a little faster when I’m reading those poems and manifestos—all the Futurisms, and no future. My favorite part of the Futurist manifesto is when they imagine themselves superannuated, i.e., over thirty, huddled under the wing of a crashed airplane and waiting to be eaten by cannibal teens. That about reflects my worldview, too.
3) Tell us about one poet who has greatly influenced you as a writer and thinker.
Virgil’s Aeneid. All poetry is war poetry and involves a trip to the underworld. Poetry is for losers, humiliation, confusing harpies that shit on the tables, and sex in caves. The gods are jerks. Snakes are amazing. Wear your extended metaphors like a big gold chain. The emperor will read history backwards if he needs to crown himself a god. You should read backwards too.
4) Tell us about one lesser-known poet who you’d like more people to know about.
Korean modernist Yi Sang (1910-1937), who was born the year of the Japanese annexation of Korea and died at 27 after internment for thought crimes. He’s not ‘lesser known’ in Korea, where he has a Rimbaud-like status, a poet-seer who flooded the grid with the absolutely modern. Yi Sang was a dandy—wore only white, opened cafes with intentionally uncomfortable furniture (these ventures would fail), relied on a prostitute wife to support him in his illnesses and published poetry of dream-like resolution in the newspaper. Yi Sang’s poetry seemed to deny the prerogatives of the mundane world while being saturated with the alienation and horror of the Occupation. It was the publishing of just such an ambiguous text that led to his internment for thought crimes and subsequent death. His early poem, ‘Flowering Tree’, is considered the first modernist Korean poem. Its beautiful, inflamed imagery embodies the sensation of being gathered into Art’s immolating logic. Here’s a translation by Walter K. Lew:
Dead center of an open field there is a flowering tree. In the neighborhood not even one That flowering tree with as much ardor as it thought about its thought-about tree opened ardently its blossoms and stood It cannot go to the tree it thinks about Wildly I fled For the sake of one flowering tree I really went that far to make such uncommon mimicry.
Yi Sang had one of the top-five literary heads of hair.
5) How do you feel about poetry in the age of social media?
6) Share with us one of your recent poems and tell us a little bit about its context.
I’m linking here to the poem Oocyte which ran in the last issue of Maggy. Adam Fitzgerald, the editor, gave me a prompt word to write a poem with – vortex. At the time we were all in the grip of the polar vortex, its second or third go-round. But I started thinking about the Vorticists, and the Imagists, and the Futurists, and the desire to get picked up and hurled on the prow of the future, to be disemboweled if necessary by the future, and not survive into that future, as was the Fate of so many Modernists. In that sense of exuberance and failure, I started thinking about the Anthropocene, which will deliver no future but further decay, and that admixture of hurling and falling and bursting forth and collapsing provided most of the imagery and spasmodic gait of this poem.
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of recent books, Percussion Grenade (poems; Fence) and Salamandine, 8 Gothics (prose; Tarpaulin Sky Press), both of which also contain plays. Her play Dead Youth, or, The Leaks is forthcoming from Litmus Press next Fall, and a poetics book, The Necropastoral: Poems, Media, Occults is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Poets on Poetry Series next winter. She co-edits Action Books and teaches at the University of Notre Dame.