Photograph by Marcos Munoz
JOE WEIL hails from the New Jersey/New York poetry circuit, where bar readings and micropresses are king. He is a regular reader at the Dodge Festival, tagged as the largest poetry festival in the Eastern hemisphere. He read with Allen Ginsberg. Once he was even upstaged by Kurt Cobain before Nirvana hit it big. But Weil’s brushes with “greatness” only highlight the fact that he is probably one of the greatest writers you’ve never heard of. Before Painting the Christmas Trees (Texas A&M University Press) and his other (very) recent publication of What Remains (Nightshade Press), Weil has never had a nationally published book. He has published several books on a regional level with local presses. One of these micropress releases, The Pursuit of Happiness, has somewhere around five thousand. (To give some perspective, a bestseller in the poetry world sells two or three thousand copies.)
Now a creative writing professor at State College of New York (SUNY) Binghamton, Weil talks with Patrol about his new books and his perspectives on art.
Patrol: Your latest books are your first national releases. Has that been a good experience for you so far?
Joe Weil: I began as a young poet doing readings in bars, art centers, and lofts in Jersey and New York. A friend of mine put my first chap book together (Ode To Elizabeth and Other Poems) for my reading with Allen Ginsberg at the Walt Whitman Art Center in 1995. After that, the publisher Dave Roskos put out two chap books of my stuff: A Portable Winter and The Pursuit of Happiness. I saw these books as great carrying cases for the poems I read most frequently on the poetry scene. They were compilations rather than unified texts. This was also the case for my book In Praise We Enter. Again, it was occasioned by a reading I had with Phillip Levine. My books were meant to be reading texts. With the publication of Painting the Christmas Trees and What Remains, I realized I could no longer just throw poems into the “bag” of the book and carry it forth. I’m pleased of course to be published by a university press, but I’m hoping to get another shot at it considering many of the poems had already appeared in other chap books, albeit, only locally. I saw these books in the same way a musician might see his set lists—what I might read during a feature. I think I am writing better poems these days, and I’m excited by the prospect of storing them in a much more unified box—not just throwing them in so that I can retrieve them for readings. I want to see a book now as its own performance, not as a set list for my readings.
Patrol: You come from the Jersey poetry circuit. Tell us about your roots in that scene.
Weil: My first official reading as a feature was in 1983, at the Franklin Township library. It was a rainy night, and the audience consisted of people who wanted to hear short lyrical nature poems. I thought: “I’m in trouble now,” so I made up some “nature” poems on the spot, read my most tame material, sang a Lucy Poem by Wordsworth, and got away with it. The true and lively scene was at bars in Hoboken, New Brunswick, and Passaic and Newark. If they didn’t like you, they booed. Call it instant literary analysis. It helped me learn how to put together a reading. It also kept me scrambling to write new poems because I would read in the opens every week, and the same nomadic hordes of poets would travel from city to city. You had to have something new. It was trial by fire, and a valuable incentive to write. It also made me reader/listener oriented, rather than self indulgent.
Patrol: You said “trial by fire.” I’ve always favored some sort of “overcoming” in the creation of art, even if it is artificial to some degree. To me necessity is itself a necessity. Poetry started as a way to remember when/how to rotate crops and pass down knowledge generally. Art has always had the job of remembrance, at least— even Homer talked about his incentive in writing is the preservation of heroes. He implies there were heroes before we will never know because there was no poet. Even something as simple and seemingly useless as cave paintings are about remembring the hunt, to some degree. Now that remembrance is done by other things like the news and history book, what do you think of as good incentive to create these days? Where is the line between desire/need to create and self-indulgence?
Weil: Art is self-indulgence that, if done well, with a good grasp of the craft, and with a sense of constructive dread, ends up serving others. Of course, you can’t predict how it will serve them. A poet might write nothing but poems on flowers, with no intention other than to serve his interest in flowers. If they are good flower poems, thirty years later, they might end up being a rallying cry for an eco-minded school of poets. The intention was to write about flowers, but the result of that self-indulgent practice was to give significance and vitality to a political belief system or movement. This is the latent political content in all art: that weak force of addition that ends up being the more enduring force.
A poet must be faithful to his or her obsessions– to follow the scent of what concerns them. As Blake said, “Those who persist in their folly shall be proven wise.” Of course, art can also be used to justify stupidities and outrages for which it was never intended: Wagner’s operas became theme music for the Nazis. Woody Guthrie’s songs became whores for politicians wanting to look like “just folks.’ We need to stick to the good of the poem. Surface becomes interior, if it is done surpassingly well. A poet needs to care about the poem first. The wrong kind of self indulgence is that which puts the artist or his cause ahead of the work. Poets must be both supremely arrogant and humble. Arrogant enough to commit an act of creation. Humble enough to get out of the way of their own work, and let it be whatever it really is.
Patrol: Random question: what is your favorite fish stick brand?
Weil: Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks which as a little kid, I thought were made by St. Paul’s wife.
Patrol: Speaking of St. Paul, where does your faith enter into your art? Obviously it comes up topically, but I’m wondering how it affects your approach to art, in terms of how you approach the subject, how you write about things. Is it simply a perspective? Or something more practical?
Weil: I am saturated with the stories of the Bible, and with my sense of failure to be Christ. I don’t need to access this belief in my work. It’s there like an annoying grandmother who I can’t put away in a home. I once described faith as something I got on my shoe and can’t kick or wash off. I’m stuck with it. My poems are the trespasses and blasphemies of a malpracticing Christian, one who can’t stop ogling an attractive leg, or wanting to be first, who is venial, foolish, seldom at peace, horny and lonely, and so far from the kingdom of God that his whole life becomes the theme of that distance, someone knowing he is in deep shit. It’s the perfect place to be, where you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’re on the right track.
I write about loss in the dimension of a troubled believer. I love God, not the idea of God. I hate the idea of God. Ideas are pretty, and neat, and well-formed, and my poems insist that I love God only by my pratfalls and mistakes. The only thing I have to offer God is my sins. I am interested in mercy when it appears in places where you would never expect it. I am interested in love that shovels shit against the tide. I am interested in grace.
My poems are not overtly religious. Some of them are downright sacrilegious. I am wrestling with God because I consider God a worthy opponent. Poetry is often that disobedience that obeys. Once, in the middle of a very solemn Easter vigil, the poor priest let forth with an unintended fart. It was real squeaker, and few of us could contain our laughter because it transpired during a lengthy silence. We have to remember God has the gravitas. God is the dignity. We’re the comic relief. Piety must be challenged. Purity must be tested, or it becomes smugness, and we start to think we have it all figured out. It’s like a marriage where you know exactly how the weekly sex is going to start. It both comforts and kills love in the worst way. My faith informs my confusions. My confusions lead to discoveries in poems my certainties could never find. Faith is not certainty. Certainty is the death of thought. Keats was right, not only in terms of aesthetics, but spirit: “Lord I believe. Help thou, my unbelief.”
Patrol: I’m reminded of the poem where you are sort of challenging god to a street fight of sorts. You’re calling him out. But then in the end, you call his fist “merciful.” There are a lot of echoes of Donne’s poem “Batter My Heart,” where he says the only way we will accept God’s love is if he forces it on us, in some sense. In Donne’s poem, God must literally rip us out of the hands of Satan. In your poem, though, God has to break you down. Is this what you mean by testing the purity of faith?
Weil: I do spend a lot of time calling God out. It is better to be annihilated and crushed by God, if you are in love with God, then it is to have no relationship at all. Better God smite you then merely be absent. God does not “tolerate” me. God loves me. If a nut on the street calls me bad names, I feel superior enough to indulge and ignore the nut. But, if the person I love calls me bad names, I am all ears and pain and at war with my own pained and confused heart. The opposite of love is indifference. A child who does bad things may be seeking attention. A man may call God out and test all purity because it is better than the ultimate hell of complete disengagement.
I cannot forget God, and I do my best to make sure God is not forgetting me. God allows us to kick and scream in our tantrums and pains until we fall exhausted at the foot of our cross. And then God picks us up and we realize this was all we wanted to begin with, to be held by, and bound fast to him: “Bind me Lord, lest I resist. We resist because we are bound. Our resistance becomes the first sign of our birth pain. My relationship to God is the same as my relationship to poetry: I try not to have an idea of God, but, rather, an experience, a direct and often painful experience of grace. The Bible says it: heaven is taken by storm. The peace of a Christian must be a sort of ongoing ferocity—a refusal to let go until the birthright has been truly won, until the blessing has been given. Brokeness is the first condition for receiving grace. Light can’t penetrate an unbroken surface. God enters through the broken heart, not the smug one.
Patrol: You have managed to succeed in the poetry world by a sort of back-door means. Do you recommend this for other artists?
Weil: Hell, no! Yes I had fun. I never tried to succeed or fail. I just wanted to write poems and read them to audiences, and I wasn’t too picky on who those audiences were. I was also not picky on what magazines published my work. Usually, someone with a zine would be in the audience or hosting the reading and they’d ask me for work, and I’d give them my reading copies—no cover letter, no perfect version of the poem. Unwittingly I embraced the idea that a poet must always be among his local tribe—running series, publishing and supporting magazines, reading in opens. I never attended a work shop or M.F.A. program. I worked the night shift in a factory. This enabled me to attend readings, then quickly head for work. My ambitions were to write poems that people would remember.
You can be in a leading literary journal, but the poem, once it is published, is only good for your resume. What has it done for a community of local poets? I remember being in a mall in Jersey and some young kid comes running up to me and tells me he saw me read three years before in a New Brunswick Bar. He said, “I woke up today and I started thinking about your poem, ‘Fists,’ that one about your father… it was great! Could you send me a copy?” So I get his address and I sent him my original copy. Magazines are great, but that’s the sort of impact I want to have. I want a poem I wrote to start being recreated in someone else’s mind three years after they heard it.
Patrol: What was the first poem you truly loved? What is the most recent poem that you love?
Weil: My mother recited Robert Louis Stevenson by heart to me as a kid, so I suppose it was “Where Go The Boats”—a poem I’ve set to music. Lately, I enjoyed a poem by Mark Halliday called “Chicken Salad.” I’ve also been reading Holderin’s poems for the night, and I never read him before. Rilke really ripped him off! Thank God. I’m re-reading Roethke, and also Jan Beatty. I read Williams and Wallace Stevens every day. I never miss.
Patrol: Most people are not interested in poetry these days. Why not?
Weil: Poetry isn’t the language of people’s daily life. If there ever was a time when poetry was popular, it was when there was no competition from other forms of media and people got their entertainment by listening to great orators and preachers. All poetry was spoken word at one time. In the 19th century, narrative poems, longer works were popular—again because there weren’t so many competing forms of media. People read for entertainment and certain poets became best sellers. Poetry is local. It’s the original niche market. It is popular and vital in many small pockets. it will remain so. The least poetic person on earth probably writes at least one poem during his or her life. Poetry is a participant’s art form. This means that many poems are awful. Many of the good poems written in M.F.A. programs and for literary journals are not written with a true audience in mind. Poetry broke free of song. Songs which are verse are wildly popular. I am happy if 100 people know and truly listen to my poems. I’m aiming for a tribe, not a mass market.
Patrol: In many of your poems, you seem to speak about the necessity of poetry (e.g., “unless grief grows a hand and writes a poem”). Yet in others you seem to say you wish you had been born a plumber. Why this tension?
Weil: Poetry is as necessary as plumbing but not as site-specific. No joke—we are ambushed by poetry. It comes in and out of conversations, appears when we least expect it. Also I am not above using wishing I was a plumber as a conceit to get at a poetic truth. The poem you refer to, “The Plumber’s Apprentice,” is a comic ars poetica. In the middle of the poem, the poet admits that what he truly likes is the language of plumbing—its words. Plumbing is also a metaphor for precision, for the longed-for poem that suffices, that has all the exactitude of a job well done. Most people consider plumbing the most unpoetic of jobs, but I use the fact that plumbing is hidden in our walls, and allows us to make the “shit” flow more readily as an extended metaphor for the hidden work of poetry, and its ability to clear the air of falsehoods. Plumbing is more obviously useful than poetry. When a toilet breaks, we don’t reach for a sonnet, but poetry’s usefulness is hidden in the landscape, in the consciousness of a people. In the poem where I say ‘Unless grief grows a hand and writes this poem,” I am speaking of poetry in terms of witness—spiritual witness to the way we treat the broken and the failed in this country. I am ambivalent about poetry. I believe a poet should always love at least ten things more than poetry. Where does he get his subject matter from if this is not so?
Patrol: It’s interesting you mention ars poetica. (Editor’s note: a work that addresses the nature of poetry.) In one sense (and I said this in my review of your book), all your poetry is an ars poetica. You could probably say that about any poem, but i think almost every one of your poems carries out that action. As if you don’t expect the reader to give you the time of day otherwise.
Weil: Each of my poems reenacts the courtship of language, the difficulty of finding the right ceremony for an act of language, and so an apologetics, both in the sense of a defense, and a confession of inadequacy prevails—the poem must discount itself as a poem in order to escape being a “poem.” Great pressures are exerted on the life to make due with a language that seeks to have a life of its own. Poetry is thought temporarily freed from an “idea” in order to live as a liquid rather than a solid. As liquid, it has a fighting chance to move beyond the mere paraphrase of an idea—not much of a chance, but some. A poem that can be reduced to its ideas is probably not a very good poem. It must be uttered fully. It must be lived on its own terms, the language must be forgiven for being language, then it must be language with all its might. Meaning, content are not the aim but the reward, the grace of a poem being faithful to its own organic process.
In a sense, all acts of faith are essays on faith, and all acts of language imply a sense of what language should do or be. So that’s the ars poetica. And yes, why should anyone listen to a poem that merely conveys an idea, and does not convey itself—its own process in unity with the idea? I write my poems with no idea initially. I have a line or a couple lines, and, sometimes, an idea is formed out of that initial start. Whenever I have had an “idea” for a poem, I liked the idea so much I forgot to write the poem. The idea became a competing poem.
Patrol: If you end up in poetry purgatory and your penance is reciting one poem over and over, what poem would that be?
Weil: “The Hound of Heaven!”
Micah Towery is the founder and co-editor of The Cartographer Electric!
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