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JT Welsch Interview

June 28, 2011

Where do you write?

There’s a lyric halfway through this pamphlet, ‘The Tiresias Letters’, which presents itself as reeled off some tragic evening in a little writing shed at the back of a garden. I wish it were true – it’s so far from the scattered notes and dozens of bus journey versions of that poem, for example. I do have a bare table at a window, with an old burgundy Royal and a box of paper, but I’m hardly ever resolved enough to work that way.

Tell me about the last poem you wrote?

I’ve been trying to do something with that ‘certain young man’ who shows up in the Gospel of Mark. When the soldiers arresting Jesus grab for him too, he runs off naked, also eluding everyone who’s spent the last two thousand years trying to identify him. I love the logic of these wild goose chases. One popular explanation is that it’s Mark himself, in a Hitchcockian cameo, although that seems a bit too artsy for the hardcore. Frank Kermode draws a brilliant parallel with the man in the mackintosh from Ulysses, another lapse of pure narrative fortuity. Anyway, these concerns with identity, authorial presence, ambiguity, and (possibly) sexuality connect to the longer manuscript I’m working on.

Which poet got you into poetry?

I’ll risk embarrassing myself and say Stephen Crane. I can see how cheesy he is now, but when we’d done his novel, The Red Badge of Courage, alongside some Dickinson or Frost, at school, his poems really shook me up. They seemed brutal but confused in themselves in a way I still admire. And his sense of form is hilarious for the time. Pound liked him for that; and another of my heroes, John Berryman, wrote a biography of Crane as he was starting out.

If you looked outside your window what would you see…answers in haiku only please.

Scholarly squirrels,
briefly lost, then loosed among
the ghosts of summer.

What poets have you discovered in the last year?

There have been some newish people like John McCullough, Amy De’ath, or Jack Underwood, who I was glad to find. Americans I hadn’t read before, like Jon Davis and Atsuro Riley. Or ones I knew of, but only first read carefully this past year, like Carl Phillips, Susan Wheeler, Maureen McLane.

Can you suggest a collection or pamphlet that people should read?

Something recent? John Beer’s ‘The Waste Land and Other Poems’. That’s fun stuff, and you’ll have fun asking your local bookshop to look up the title.

I use ‘the’ far too much in my poetry.  What word do you use too much?

I know I overuse ‘just’, or deictics like ‘this’ and ‘now’ (and, yes, ‘the’), probably in a lazy attempt to close down on some lost lyrical moment. But I recently put a bunch of poems through one of those Word Cloud things online, where it builds a visual representation of word frequencies – I was scandalised to see ‘like’ near the top. I don’t think of myself as the simile type.

How does your style come across in your work? In the performance? Or the layout? Or the language? Or…?

I’m not sure what comes across, but I obsess over layout. By a certain definition, I’m fairly conservative with form, I guess. It’s a control thing, but I need something to work against. So even if it passes for straight-laced (and secretly, I hope it does), I also hope the anxiety comes through. Sorry, I should have said the voice. It’s usually pretty apprehensive as well. Let’s call that a style.

What themes run through your poems?

Glancing over this pamphlet, I realise nearly every poem attaches itself to some name or figure. So, all that stuff about identity and history or cultural echoes I suggested before. Sexuality and gender are usually at stake. I know ‘confessionalism’ has become pejorative (once more), but the production of textual selves, structures of ‘knowledge’ vs. concealment, and all the associated power plays still seem to have much broader implications. Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’ meets a queer ‘personal is political’.

Which poetry magazines do you read?

It varies. Boston Review, PN Review, Poetry (Chicago), The Wolf, 3AM, Jacket, AGNI, Chroma, Blackbox Manifold, The Manchester Review. I realise a few or maybe most of these are online. I end up reading quite a bit on screen, through blogs or various routes, links on Twitter, Facebook. The Page is also dependable for that.

Tell us about your pamphlet.

This is a sequence I’ve been coming back to for ages. I’m not sure what I thought I was protecting it against. The longer poems at either end are obviously crucial, with this ‘Orchid’ protagonist. In some sense, it’s probably her/him taking on those historical disguises throughout – Akhenaton, Raphael, Longinus, Jason, James Dean. But it is playful, I hope. I like the idea of them side by side in the chorus, all desperate for the solo. Maybe the orchestra is made up of their correlative objects then – all the pistillate shivs and frockcoats, imaginary mountains, old socks, stillborns and kidnappees, the Holy Prepuce. There are whiffs of narrative, but filtered through all this junk.

Finally, if your poetry was a drink what drink would it be?

I’ve been a strict teetotaller since before I knew the polite word for it, but I don’t think my poems operate like my usual props of water or orange juice. What about a fine imported root beer?

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