Joshua Poteat has published two books of poems, Ornithologies (Anhinga Poetry Prize, 2006), and Illustrating the Machine that Makes the World (University of Georgia Press, 2009), as well as a chapbook, Meditations (Poetry Society of America, 2004). From 2011-2012, he was the Donaldson Writer in Residence at the College of William & Mary. Currently, Joshua is a copy editor/copywriter at The Martin Agency. In collaboration with the designer Roberto Ventura, he creates light- and text-based installations which have appeared in shows at Randolph Macon College, 1708 Gallery, and for Richmond’s InLight, which won Best in Show, 2009. Originally from Hampstead, North Carolina, Joshua lives in Richmond, Virginia with the writer Allison Titus and their four pugs.
What was the first thing you wanted to be when you grew up? When did you decide you wanted to write?
Probably something involving guns…like a police officer. I had a thing for guns and protecting/spying on people. So much for “the pen is mightier”…. I’ve still never shot one, though. (A gun, that is. Or a person.) When I figured out that people actually die when shot with said guns, I got over them quickly. As for writing, I’m not sure I ever decided. It’s just something that happened. Looking back on my childhood, there are “influences” that could have pushed me in the direction of writing/poems… a combination of living in the middle of the woods/marshes of eastern North Carolina (isolation), having a father who knew many things about the natural world (lust for knowledge), writing lyrics for punk bands (angsty/screamy), and a love for reading (mechanics of language). I constantly question my life choices, especially the poems. It feels frivolous at times… useless/pointless/nothingness… but so does everything else. While waiting for the abyss to swallow me, swallow us, I might as well do something that brings joy to me.
Do you remember the first thing you wrote?
In 5th grade I won first place in a Topsail Middle School writing contest. The title of my piece was “Sadness is a Baby Sister,” based of course on Charles Shultz “Happiness is a Warm Puppy.” I’m sure I wrote other things before this, but it was the first time that someone noticed me. Note: I officially love my little sister now. She is amazing.
Not that you asked, but the first word I read out loud was “Sears.” And the first image I remember drawing was a huge family portrait on my bedroom wall in orange pencil in the middle of the night. My parents told me years later that they pretended to be angry with me so I wouldn’t think I was getting away with a misdemeanor/graffiti. I like to imagine them smiling quietly in bed, all those years ago, young, imperfect, in pain, alive.
What was the very first piece you published?
I just found this the other day after my wife made me clean out a desk drawer. It was in Atlantis, UNC-Wilmington’s undergraduate lit/art journal at the time…kind of like an uncool, early 90s version of W&M’s Bullet. It’s still horrible, that poem. It was entitled “Fifteenth Minute” and involved a time-based murder of sorts. I don’t mind that it’s horrible, though. I see previously published work as tattoos… if you get them when you’re young, more than likely your aesthetics haven’t developed enough for time to treat them gently. And then you’re left with a cartoon Tasmanian Devil on the small of your back for life. You can either be embarrassed/haunted by the Tasmanian Devil, or you can embrace it, because it represents a life lived, a mile-marker, a map to the lost self. The ink is the only way back.
You have some wonderful titles: “Illustrating the Theory of Twilight,” “Illustrating How to Catch and Manufacture Ghosts,” “The Angels Continue Turning the Wheels of the Universe Despite Their Ugly Souls (Malvern Hill Battleground),” “Meditation for Everything We Have Loved.” You said once that your titles are often found—like “Drug Department,” which is from a series that takes its titles from a 1900 Sears-Roebuck catalog. How do you choose and write your titles, or know when they’re the right ones?
Why thank you. Four out of the five titles mentioned above are not mine at all. Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.” Not that I’m taking anything anywhere, really. I just enjoy the process of riffing off of found titles. For some reason it works for me. I realize it’s gimmicky and possibly “unwriterly” and I probably wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. In a way, it’s similar to collage/mixed media. By taking other older texts and imposing them onto a “modern” sensibility/poem, it pushes conceptually against time, history and meaning. At least that’s what I’m hoping. And it works with my regular process of writing a poem, which is also collagist in practice. I take notes, lines, phrasings, quotes from films/texts and attempt to compile them into something cohesive. Since my impulse is more narrative, this seems like a bad idea. Yet I keep doing it.
Your second book, Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World, was inspired by J. G. Heck’s 1851 “pictorial archive.” What is it like working so closely with somewhat ekphrastic poetry in a book-length series?
Emphasis on “somewhat ekphrastic.” Only a couple/few of the poems in the book were directly influenced by the actual images. It’s the titles of those etchings that pushed me into making poems for them. Apparatus to show the amount of dew on trees and shrubs, Illustrating the theory of twilight, Illustrating the theory of interference, Illustrating the resistance of the ether, Illustrating that objects on earth can throw shadows into space, Apparatus for determining the specific heat of bodies, Illustrating the manner of communicating vibrations to the air… etc., etc. All of these images are strange little 19th century diagrams of no obvious/particular meaning. It’s the titles that got me. So the book is more of a textual ekphrastic, or textphrastic (patent pending)! Regardless, it was extremely fun to work with the images/titles in a book-length series. “Fun” is not a word I would normally use for poem… or for most things… but by god, I had a good time with them. Included in the appendices of the book are the images the titles come from… and a section of erasures/ruins of poems that appear earlier in book. My editor didn’t think the appendices were necessary and could possibly take away/distract from the book. I appreciated his viewpoint, due to the fact that he was probably right, but it’s a book of poems. Just poems. Based on the readership of poetry in the 21st century, I could have put photographs of my pet squirrel Nutty and 5-year-old Josh in the back of the book and I would have sold the same amount of copies. So the appendices live!
I know you collect old photographs. Do you have any other collections? How do they seep into your writing and art?
Pugs! I collect pugs! Well, not really, but my wife and I do have four pugs. They are hilarious and beautiful. Besides pugs, I collect old things in general. Not really antiques per se, just strange old objects. Like typewriters, wooden boxes, tools, globes. My coolest recent find is a weathered/worn framed needlepoint sampler from 1906 that says “Absent but not forgotten” in Gothic needlepoint with a photograph of two little boys pasted crookedly in the middle. It is the epitome of melancholy. I’d rather find such things in abandoned places, but antique stores are much safer. As for seeping into my work, it has to, right? Maybe it’s just the feeling these objects give me that makes it into the poems. Not quite a “reliance” but an attention to history, to the dead. I live in an old, formerly dangerous neighborhood in Richmond in a house built in 1890, which probably shapes my internal world more than I know.
How do your writing and your light boxes intersect? Does one tend to inform the other?
I’m not quite sure they intersect. Occasionally I may use a line from a poem on a light box (or more recently ink transfers on wood panels), but I’ve never felt like much of an artist. I’m not trained in any way, though I guess I know my art history. It’s just something I like to do. The word “hobby” brings up some odd connotations, but that may describe my “art” perfectly. Not to be overly humble. I know a lot of artists who work quite hard on their respective forms, so compared to them, I’m just a tourist. What it comes down to, really, is if it (“it” could refer to anything here) makes me happy. And it does. When I get around to doing it.
Where do you like most to write?
I admit I have a poor work ethic when it comes to writing. I wish I could write anywhere, and I probably should be able to…I just don’t. I go through phases where I think it poems don’t matter at all, so I watch the entire Friday Night Lights TV series over a couple of months, for example, instead of working on poems. Thus, residencies are quite helpful to me. I can separate myself from my 40+ hour a week job and get down to business, whether it matters or not.
What writer has influenced you the most?
I could go on forever about this…there are so many influences… from The Hill Café’s black bean burger to Dario Robleto… but to keep it short, I will say Larry Levis. His work taught me (still teaches me) to push narrative to the edge of story into meditative landscapes/rooms.
Do you have a favorite poem or poems?
If I was making a mix tape of poems right now, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” would be the opener.
For more information, go to www.joshuapoteat.com.