Hey, thanks for asking about that. As a matter of fact I did publish my first novel this year: Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy is a kind of mash-up of the domestic drama, the historical novel (focusing on the student rebellions in May ’68 in Paris and also, indirectly, on the Holocaust), and the noir detective story. Laird Hunt said of it that “The push-pull between stunning language and inventive narrative is pure pleasure,” and the critic Daniel Green writes that the novel’s characters “live in language, and to that end the writing in Beautiful Soul, in its scrupulous attention to phrase and image in almost every sentence, could be called an attempt to bring the characters and their milieu to life through the vigor of the words on the page.” It’s available from Spuyten Duyvil Press and SPD and Amazon and it makes an interesting companion piece to The Barons, which is what we’re really here to talk about.
Wait a minute, I’m not ready to let this go. Would you call Beautiful Soul a “poet’s novel”?
One reviewer, R. Alan Clanton of Thursday Review, came out and called it a “369 page long poem,” though I happen to think it has more narrative drive than that statement implies. But I’m fascinated by the poet’s novel, which makes a kind of genre unto itself: Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Eileen Myles’s Inferno are two distinguished and very different examples, but my favorite works of modernist fiction all put the sort of intense pressure on language that I look for from poetry: Woolf’s The Waves, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Proust, Faulkner. Now some poets write novel-novels, often excellent ones—Ben Lerner seems to be reinventing himself as a novelist with Leaving the Atocha Station and his latest, 10:04—while others are so stubbornly poets that even their “novels” are really poetry—I’m thinking of Alice Notley, whose major work is nearly always narrative, but is also always written in verse. Beautiful Soul is definitely prose and definitely narrative, but there’s also a freedom that I felt in writing it that I associate with poetry, and which I hope transmits itself to the reader.
Okay. So what is The Barons about? Can a poetry collection be “about” something?
You use the phrase “poetry collection,” which nowadays is often a misnomer: I don’t know if it’s the pervasive influence of MFA programs or the perceived need to have a marketing “hook,” but the majority of single-author poetry books published today have a unifying theme or subject, making them more like linked short stories or novels or essays than the individual poems that have accumulated over a given period of the poet’s life. Maybe people are afraid to stand on or by the poems of their lives as nakedly as that now. It’s an older model connected to the idea of Bildung, a poetry that registers the pressures and pleasures of life shaping the self in a given historical moment. The Barons is not quite as brave as that—I would say my model is something like that of the prog rock concept album, a la Yes or The Who or Jethro Tull.
Uh-huh. So what’s it about, again?
Well, the apocalypse, of course. Like virtually every other cultural product of our new Age of Anxiety. Not the apocalypse of the future but the apocalypse as it is lived: the rending of the veil of innocence that started with 9/11, continued into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and came home with the financial crash of 2008. All of these poems were written over that period, with the most recent of them dating to 2011 or 2012. Two sections of the book were first published as chapbooks: Composition Marble, which is a kind of love poem to the urban experience, specially that of New York, in the wake of its rediscovered fragility, and Hope & Anchor, a series of prose poems that test my own innocence’s seemingly unconquerable renewability. There’s also a sequence, Little Land Lyrics, that represents my latest turn around the block with the pastoral or postpastoral, and then the closing and opening sections depicting and resisting the psychic actions of the barons and their victims, and also a poem that’s a kind of homage to and critique of the German artist Joseph Beuys.
You seem a little obsessed with Beuys. I noticed that you use a Beuys image on the cover of The Barons and another Beuys image on the cover of Beautiful Soul. What gives?
I’m drawn to Beuys’s intoxicating combination of charisma and fragility and utopianism and implication in evil, all of which he manifests on the level of form and materials (felt and animal fat). It’s become a cliché to describe him as a shaman, but that’s what he is: his art registers or opens experience to incursions from beyond. Concealed in felt on the cover of Beautiful Soul he represents the bemused specter of Europe confronting the hungry American coyote. Transposed and transfigured on the cover of The Barons he transmits a talismanic spectacle that has, it seems to me, innumerable layers of psychic and moral depth.
Your last book, Severance Songs, was a series of deconstructed sonnets. Any similar formal hijinks here?
Severance Songs tried to be a collection in the sense that I mentioned earlier—poetry as index of the ongoing work of Bildung or soul-making while responding to history from inside the tenuous refuge of pastoral. But by working with the sonnet form I enforced a sort of unity on the poems. The Barons is more like my first book, it’s all over the place: there are short lyrics, dramatic monologues, quasi-narratives, modernist psycho-geographies, prose poems, and visionary rants. I’m less concerned than I have ever been with the well-made poem and clearer than I’ve ever been about my desire for poetry to be a charged formal interaction with experience that releases or transforms that experience and makes it available to the reader.
Say more about the title. Why The Barons?
The title poem is a kind of Ginsbergian or Blakean rant against the one percent; although I wrote it before Occupy Wall Street came to public consciousness it could very much be read as a poem in that spirit. I was thinking of the robber barons of our new gilded age, who are increasingly disincarnated or unavailable as mythic objects (the Koch brothers maybe come closest, especially given their uniting of cultural philanthropy with planet-busting anti-progressivism). It’s also a pun on barrens and thus harkens back to The Waste Land, which for better or worse is still the single poem to have had the greatest influence on my sense of what poetry can do, particularly in terms of cadence. That poem is very much the keystone to the book as a whole: I think it interprets and transmits the spirit of the other poems, which mingle affects of despair and resistance.
Who are some of your touchstone poets?
In no particular order: Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Cesar Vallejo, Alice Notley, George Oppen, Charles Olson, Susan Howe, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Percy Shelley, John Keats, George Herbert, Barbara Guest, and Robert Duncan. And there are those friends and companions in poetry who seem to enlarge me by everything they write: Richard Greenfield, Brian Teare, Sarah Gridley, and G.C. Waldrep.
Joshua Corey, you just published a novel and a book of poems in a single year! What are you going to do next?
I’ve got another collection in the works, The Spoils, that’s very much a follow-up or even a sequel to The Barons. Whereas I’d say The Barons mostly moves away from my longstanding preoccupation with pastoral and the utopian, the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the new poems, many of which are inspired by my reading of materialist-realist philosophers like Lucretius, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bruno Latour. There’s always a tension in me between what James called “the tough-minded” and “the tender-minded.” The tough-minded person (or poet) is empirical, materialistic, pluralistic, and pessimistic in her stance toward reality, while the tender-minded person is instinctively a Platonist, an idealist, spiritual-if-not-religious, and optimistic. Call it classical vs. romantic or scientific vs. spiritual or transcendentalist versus immanentist: it’s a split that I feel down to my bones, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. My poetry zigzags constantly between my respect for stubborn facts and my childlike will to make things up. The Barons expresses the divide about equally, I think; The Spoils tries to get tougher.
Also under way is a kind of hybrid book about climate change that mashes up Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, and Philip K. Dick in sort of a weird blender. And I’m working on some stories and maybe another novel or two, because fiction is fun. But I’ll always be a poet first.