Joseph Massey is the author of Areas of Fog (Shearsman Books, 2009), At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011), To Keep Time (Omnidawn, 2014), and Illocality (Wave Books, 2015). He lives in Easthampton, Massachusetts.
His poem “Garden Level” appears in Issue Six. Read the poem in the sample PDF of Issue Six here.
TCR: What was the last book you abandoned, and why?
Joseph Massey: I abandon novels left and right. The one novel I routinely abandon (it’s an annual tradition) is Moby Dick, and that is the one abandonment that shames me the most. I live in New England, a relatively short distance away from where Melville lived and wrote the book — I should be an amateur Moby Dick scholar by now, but my ambition to plow through the entire thing always evaporates a quarter of the way through. The language is so dense — so caloric — it makes me sick.
TCR: This is the first prose poem you’ve published. In what ways is it a departure from your body of work, composition – or otherwise?
JM: In the past I attempted to write prose poems but it never felt like I was writing sentences and paragraphs, it felt like I was writing lines that really wanted to be broken into stanzas. So I tossed those efforts. In “Garden Level” I relied on syntax for the pressure — the vertical pressure — afforded by broken lines and stanzas. The syntax alone provides the torque I would otherwise try to generate with enjambment and other effects of lineation.
TCR: Describe how your writing habits have changed over the years, if they have changed at all.
JM: They haven’t changed much at all. I start in notebooks, by hand, and then I take those drafts to the computer, and I make another draft. I go through many versions of a poem, usually in rapid succession, before landing on what sounds right. My process depends on the momentum of constant revision — and frustration!
TCR: Your poetry seems acutely and uniquely positional. Do you write and observe with this dimensional quality in mind?
JM: I try to render location, a sense of place, with an almost three-dimensional quality in the poem — through hard-driven sound and a lack of sentimentality. The poem inevitably fails to pull this off, but I continue to try nevertheless. I want the poem to be open enough, and textured enough, for a reader to be able to enter into it and get a grip.
TCR: What are your strategies for revision?
JM: There must be a willingness to make a mess. My work isn’t messy, but the process of making it always is. No draft is too precious to be obliterated.
TCR: Who has had the biggest influence on you as a writer? What authors do you re-read?
JM: I was mentored for several years by the poet and editor Cid Corman. His entire life was poetry — centered, grounded, completely hinged (and unhinged) upon it. I learned how to apply pressure to every syllable thanks to his insistence on economy. Cid didn’t compromise. He taught me that it’s OK to be stubborn.
There are so many poets I return to on a regular basis. Today I might randomly read around in The Collected Poems of Gustaf Sobin, or reread Emily Wilson’s latest (and greatest) collection, The Great Medieval Yellows. Dickinson is a constant companion. I only keep the books I’d want to reread; I have a lot of books.
TCR: Name a poet more people should read.
JM: Kate Colby. She’s a powerhouse poet. Everyone should own a copy of I Mean.