Michael T. Young: Thank you, Joe, for agreeing to an interview.
Your most recent collection is called A Plumber’s Apprentice. Unlike many collections out there, the title doesn’t have a title poem from which it comes. The phrase doesn’t even appear in the collection. I wondered if you could comment on it: why you chose it, what it’s meant to draw our attention to as we enter the collection and read through it.
Joe Weil: Well, there was a poem, “The Plumber's Apprentice,” published in Lips Magazine. The story is rather involved but the friend who chose the poems for The Plumber's Apprentice decided “Plumber's Apprentice” the poem should not be in the manuscript. It will be appearing in my New and Selected due out soon. I never argue with editors. I look at it this way: if they're wrong, they'll look wrong in retrospect and poor innocent me will look terrific. If they're right, they just saved me a world of hurt.
Michael T. Young: If you don’t mind my saying, I feel the descriptor on the back of the book doesn’t do it justice. It reduces the voice to that of one that tells the hard truths as a mere bargaining ploy but it seems to be much more profound than that, more genuine. That is, without a governing purpose for the honesty, collections that tell hard truths are themselves a kind of false stance like any other. This collection seems to suggest poetry and beauty really have the power to redeem and save us. As one poem early on says, “each beautiful thing is reprieve,/and stay of execution.” The final section reasserts this, especially the final poem, “Filthy River,” which concludes “Sing in the river/until only the song remains”—certainly a kind of redemption. Could you comment on this theme within the collection, i.e. the redeeming power of beauty and poetry?
Joe Weil: I was homeless for a while. I was young and healthy and not rip-roaringly mentally ill (I was depressed as you might suppose). No one talks about the sense of endless drudgery involved in poverty. In my case, I was taking long walks to nowhere—just walking for miles. One day, I found a ten dollar bill on the ground which in 1978 was worth far more than it is now. Cigs were 75 cents. I could get pork fried rice. I could eat well that day, and I sat in thickets by the railroad tracks, smoking a cig, and seeing this bird I didn't know climbing down the trunk of a tree. It bothered me that I didn't know the bird, so I went to the library and looked it up: Nut Hatch! And then I started looking up birds, and trees, and weeds, and my long walks became a sort of ongoing urban nature lesson plan. One day, I'm sitting there and I think: “Does anyone know I am a guy who knows the names of the weeds?” And I cried. I couldn't stop crying. I thought only God knows me, and a few other nobodies. I thought the real God is a nobody and the one people think they worship is just their social world. When you leave that place where you know and are known, that social God disappears. The weeds have names and nothing is without its history, but the world is all about pretending most things don't exist. All you have is that God I think Emily Dickinson addressed when she said: “I'm nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody, too?” I felt I had this God as my companion—this God of weeds, of things that are considered ugly, of no consequence. It became a persistent theme of my work: not the beauty that is agreed upon and mass produced—but the beauty that ambushes us, that shows up in unlikely circumstances. When my poems are good, they are exactly someone who is smoking a cig and sees a bird, and goes to find out its name. Everything proceeds from there. That's the seeking, the quest we deny exists in some horrible conditions. This is why the communal sin of how we treat the poor is so egregious. We are not just shunning people. We are destroying consciousness itself. The most revolutionary thing I ever did was cling to my right to look up a bird.
Michael T. Young: There is a very complex view of lies and falsehood within the collection. There are lies we need against the horrid fact of death, all “the loving falsity Cordelia could not manage,” but then there are those “bogus spiritual comforts” that make one grateful to those who don’t mind appearing callous when trying to avoid touch. Do you feel there are certain lies that are helpful or justified and others that are not? What distinguishes them?
Joe Weil: It is arrogant to think we are capable of the truth. We are capable of seeking it, hoping for it, and welcoming it as a possibility in our lives, but an old Persian saying submits that truth told without compassion and without fully understanding its consequences is not truth at all. Compassion and the wisdom to know how to “tell it slant” are important. Cordelia loved her father, and, in the end, reconciles with him, but her lack of tact and guile sets a shit storm into motion. If Cordelia had had just a dose of her sisters’ poison—just a touch of the illness they suffered—enough to inoculate her against their worst tendencies—she may have been capable of realizing her father was old and wanted to make a grand gesture and hear, “well done,” before he died. This is a play written during the Elizabethan era in which virtue in its pure form, its most extreme form, is considered a form of madness (See Henry the 6th). To Elizabethan thinking, the saint is as much a cause of calamity as Satan. That play, that wonderful play, should warn us that the extremes make civil life impossible, but then, there are times when civil life ought to be made impossible: storms clear the air. When the civility of mere seeming, of fake goodness has grown too all pervasive, the saint, the mystic, the poet, the great comic, must expose such lies. It is a balancing act, and my Grandmother was right: Life is a king sized bed with twin sized sheets. You'll never cover it all—with lies or truths.
Michael T. Young: There is an amazing layering of desire, want and lust within the collection. I was especially interested in the couplet that closes “Clap Out Love’s Syllables.”
Stocks fall, leaves fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise
the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.
It is such an unusual stance to take with lust. I wondered where you place lust as a manifestation of our basic needs or how you relate it to spiritual needs, if at all.
Joe Weil: That poem was written right after the economic crisis of 2008. I wanted to take some of the words of banking and trading and apply them to desire—to lust, not as a moral precautionary tale, but to find some meaningful coordinate for how different terminologies (banking, trading, lusting/loving) could share a new dynamic. It was an experiment with the metaphor and with what I suppose is called “the trans-valuation” of values. We don't see lust as sacred, but it is. It drives the life force. What I was saying was that desire in its sacred context trumps the market—transcends stocks, and bonds and all that. Every complicated thing we do is done very often just to win some moments of abandon. I also am interested in the courtly poets, and in word play. That poem had a lot of word play since both the courtship of lust and that of the market is learning the art of play—of smoke and mirrors.
Michael T. Young: The poem “Dead Things” says “perhaps misremembering/is a form of prayer.” Another poem in the collection is called “I Am What I Remember” and includes the line “Memory lies.” I’m curious: what do you see as the relationship between who we are and the weave of false and accurate memories? Additionally, since the tradition is that memory is the mother of the Muses, what do you see as the relationship of false memories to poetry and its creation?
Joe Weil: I tell my students that their day begins with a selection from existence (what they give their attention to) and then the part of the brain that puts these perceptions into a coherent pattern of being is activated. In dream states, that part of the brain that gives coherence is shut down. The memories of the waking mind and the sleeping mind are privileged by different structuring strategies. These different strategies do not live in isolation one from the other but meet, and merge, or almost merge, or almost resist each other. That dynamic is part of our being, and so memory is never truly loyal to our selected narrative of what actually happened or to our un-selected narratives. The snow you did not notice melting into your Navy blue coat might become a former lover melting into the oblivion of a blue landscape, or you might dream you melt like a snow flake on her tongue. But memory, waking memory, might exclude all these possibilities, and all you remember is that you went to the store and bought a six pack of beer. The procedural: just the facts sort of writing we consider closest to the plain truth of things, is little more than a series of lies by omission. As Kafka said, the minute you write that she opened a window, you have already begun to lie. Miss-remembering is a form of prayer. It is supplicant prayer. It represents our desire and our “Way” of wanting things to be—being towards a hoped for meaning to our lives. “Memory lies” is also true, but the lies carry their own emotional truths. You can learn a lot about a person by knowing what they lie about—and not just intentional lies, but what I call the lies of the adamant—that which they would swear is the truth upon pain of death, but which is really only a resolving of their cognitive dissonance. People lie to stay in their comfort zones.
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The Plumber's Apprentice
Michael T. Young: In such lines as “I obey//only to annihilate you” or “a newness/in the east!/a vermillioned somethingness/of which we are too/distantly a part/in 'I quit,' 'That’s it,'/'fuck you!'” there is a startling meld of amor fati and carpe diem, ways of refusing and embracing simultaneously to assert the self in a hostile situation. Do you relate this stance to anything philosophical or do you see it as purely a psychological reaction to an oppressive situation? Do you see this stance in any relation to the questions of memory and failures of memory which the collection addresses?
Joe Weil: First, I was having fun with Wallace Stevens in that poem. Instead of vermillioned nothingness of which we are too distantly a part, I changed it up. Second, to me all philosophy helps make life more portable—to be carried in this or that conjecture, in this or that situation. In so far as it is situational, true philosophy is not consistent, but it speaks in emphatic ways toward the moment of a verity with the hope that something in it is eternal, or universal, or final. If one truly obeys, the system is no longer necessary for one has embodied the whole of the law; so true obedience destroys the law. We are incapable of true obedience. In that poem the speaker seeks to “annihilate” God by absolute obedience. There's a term for that in psychology where one sublimates and expresses aggression by being extremely compliant and even slavish. In this poem though, I believe this is the high and mysterious hurt of the true lover. In the most extreme situations of being, the contradictions are unavoidable. To be in such cognitive dissonance and to not resolve it is the true advent, the true faith. It is agon, birth pain: I will not solve, I will wait in this place where waiting is impossible. I can't go on and so I will go on. This is not a space that is easy for human beings to accept. It is absurd. We resolve the cognitive dissonance—almost always with a lie, a compromise. In that poem, the speaker is telling God he will absolutely not resolve the dissonance. His love and hatred for God are both unstable, both absolute in their instability, and the greatest integrity is to remain in that awful state until God speaks from the maelstrom or the speaker of the poem dies. It is someone saying that even his no is a yes, and even his resistance is an act of obedience. It is absurd, and contradictory. Memory can either reconcile contradictions (lie) or it can hold them steadfast (suffering towards truth). Keats’ negative capability gets at it, except I don't believe one remains serene in that negative capability (except with writing) as Keats himself showed in his life.
Michael T. Young: In the first section there is the poem “When I Was Twelve,” and in the closing section there is the poem “Poet as a Young Voyeur.” What do you see as the significance of your younger self in the collection?
Joe Weil: A lot of my younger “self” in these poems watches—witnesses, getting it wrong and right at the same time. “Poet as a Young Voyeur” is all about noticing what the world might consider pedestrian (a bald man watering his lawn at dusk) and making the pedestrian into a thing of wonder. What I call the wonder-making “sympathy of the detached.” It is a comical, almost cartoon rendering of how we are never or seldom in our lives. We are always above or below them, but seldom in them—for a brief moment the 8 year old notices Venus, the evening star, and it seems the man he has been watching notices it, too. He thinks the man looks up at the sky as if his real life were there where the dark “swallows them whole.” “When I was 12,” is about the narrator's first crush and how it expands his sense of the significance of all that surrounds him. The girl, rather than being the focal point, is more the catalyst in the speaker experiencing an intuition of the enormity of life. Both poems represent an expansion of being. This is important in the book.
Michael T. Young: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? Which one is it and what is significant about it for you?
Joe Weil: “Poem for Advent” is my favorite. When the speaker insists he is both “Con and evangelist” that pretty much sums up the strategies of contradiction these poems are fascinated with. Con means “with” in Latin and Spanish, but in English and American English it connotes a situation in which you are conjuring someone, creating a false expectation with someone to your advantage. The confidence man is a great figure in the American mythos: he sells hope of riches. He gains your confidence. We don't consider him a creature of grace, but he can be. I am playing with how close true spiritual belief is to the con. The angel says “fear not.” The angel draws us in. It's a sales pitch. Grace is getting something for nothing, gratis, and the greatest cons, including one who shares my name, Joseph yellow kid Weil, say all cons are perpetrated on someone thinking they are going to get something for nothing (usually money). This poem “For Advent” is my most complex poem in terms of meaning. In it we “despair” more deeply into joy, this dark thing that comes to save us from our “truths,” meaning those that are grounded in false epiphanies, in their own self-deceit.
Michael T. Young: You are very conscious of social and political issues and inequalities. I’m curious, what do you see as the poet’s role in society? How should our poets rise to that role and take part in shaping our culture both socially and politically?
Joe Weil: The role of the poet is to write well. That is, his mitsvah (love of neighbor), his shema (love of God or ontological truth) is to somehow believe that writing well has worth beyond what he can deliberately institute or know. I don't think political issues are at the heart of my poems, but the sermon on the mount, the reversal of values, and the idea of Eucharistic reality in which the king and the beggar are one certainly is at the heart of my poetry. When you insist there is infinite value in what is sacred and what is Grace under the appearance of the thrown away and the broken, this makes your poems political without trying. Ferocity is too often avoided in our spiritual poems. I hate that. The poets of serenity are too often selling a noxious brand of “feel good.” Serenity junkies mistake serenity for God. They seek the understood peace of nice things, and happy silences, rather than the peace that surpasses all understanding—peace in the maelstrom and without rejecting those who have no peace. They refuse to admit their serenity and spirituality is built on the exploitation, starving, and oppression of millions. It is a spirituality privileged by affluence. It costs a lot of money to be serene like that. How many slaves did it take so that we could sit in the garden at evening listening to the fountain, drinking good wine, having lofty thoughts, and talking about how awful slavery is? How often do we make our heaven from someone's Misery? I am political in the way Simone Weil was political: one should choose to give one's will freely and without reservation to God and to surrender the self into God, but that is not a free choice for the poor. The poor are compelled by affliction. They suffer most by having necessity become so overwhelming. A monk makes a choice to be impoverished, and that is a world of difference from someone who is forced into slavery or prostitution or injustice at an early age and is robbed of the right to choose the poverty to which they are condemned. A poet must return or give true value where it has been taken away. This the poet must do by writing well. Bad writing kills truth deader than a lie. The poet must write well. That's the imperative—the whole of his or her mission. That is the first and last. Then, the shemah of a writer is the hope that good writing has an effect and a usefulness he or she will never be able to manipulate or foresee.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?
Joe Weil: My favorite form is the short story. “Gimple the Fool,” “For Esme with Love and Squalor,”—just about every story by Flannery O’Connor. All the stories of Chekhov, and Gogal. Nabokov's “That in Allepo Once,” Joyce's “The Dead,” The Death of Ivan Illyich, Williams Carlos Williams' zany and wonderful, In the American Grain, the stories in the Bible, Bernard Malamud's amazing and forgotten collection The Magic Barrel. Winesburg, Ohio. You Know me, Al, by Lardner; The Great Gatsby; Day of the Locust—Eudora Welty's stories. Grace Paley, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Buber, Kenneth Burke, Susan Sontag. All of these works or writers have reflected a sense of hard earned empathy and compassion, but best of all, a mastery of style and enchantment—a sense of humor and double-consciousness. George Bernanos had a profound effect on me. I am a comic poet. My music is broken to a purpose of comic consciousness—what my dear Kenneth Burke called perspectives by incongruity. I never worried about categories too much. I found paragraph structure limiting, and so I put stories into lines, but I don't think having prosaic elements in a poetic context is an aesthetic blight. I hate purist sensibilities. These works have given me a strong sense of a speaking voice, and of using different registers of speech.
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Joe Weil: I like to play the piano. I like to google things like the history of White Castle, or the life of Jack Benny. I love youtube, and fishing. I enjoy digging, and carting as long as I don't have to do it for a living and a foreman isn't standing over me. Love walks, eating oysters—but, hey, everything has to do with writing. I like to misuse face book. Love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Love to sit around a kitchen table and yack until I am sleepy with good talk and I have to go to bed, leaving the conversation to continue somewhere else in the world.
Michael T. Young: Thank you, Joe, for such an amazing wonderful interview. Let’s close with your favorite poem from The Plumber’s Apprentice.
Poem for Advent
The world takes us at its leisure
slowly, by increments of infamy
and beyond that taking
we wager freedom
against our corpses,
trick ourselves into living
fully—whatever fully means.
I am writing this in the dust
of an old Chrysler,
its lascivious grill, its chrome
freckled with rust,
its front end grinning
like Burt Lancaster
in Elmer Gantry.
What do you mean?
A million dollar grin,
the atavistic power of healthy teeth
might convert a nation (see Joel Osteen),
might make us believe
in the power of “abundance.”
But suppose I write:
“Lack is the necessity of being.”
The nation will turn against me.
The sun is a used car salesman.
To get something for almost nothing
is the pitch of grifters and of angels.
And I have been both
con and evangelist.
“Fear not” says Gabriel,
the usual line
(See Britannica, 1962: how an angel gets one foot in the door)
“For the Lord of Lords has chosen you.”
And the little girl inside us nods her head.
The birds cheep.
Bird twitter and angelic hosts are all around us.
I am postponing the inevitable
until further notice.
Pregnant with God,
I write in the dust of an old Chrysler,
all the sins of the ones with stones.
Slowly they turn away,
and I am left with the woman
taken in adultery,
and I am left with my own
trembling girl, who kneels
in the deepest part of my sarcasm,
beyond all cons, who cries
Maranatha! Who waits
that the spirit might shadow her,
that the womb might not be empty,
that, even in despair, the soul might
feel its worth, and, feeling it,
despair more deeply into joy—this dark thing
that comes to save us from our “truths”
this dark season where poverty is blessed.