10+ QUESTIONS! WITH josh cook

by Laurin Macios | August 2016

Josh Cook was featured at Mass Poetry's U35 reading in September 2014. // 10+ Questions! is a new series in which we catch up with poets who have been featured in our programming.

It's been two years. What's new in life?
The biggest thing is that my debut book, a weird detective novel called An Exaggerated Murder was published last march by Melville House.

What are you working on these days?
I’m a big fan of side projects so I’ve always got a lot of different things in the air. The main project is what I hope to be my second novel. In my head I think of it as a funnier, post-post-modern humanist and feminist version of On the Road, with a dash of The Decameron and a whole lot of rock’n’roll but, even though that’s the best elevator pitch I’ve come up with thus far for the piece, it still isn’t really satisfying. I’ve got another longer term novel going that isn’t even close to an elevator pitch, as well as a couple of short stories I hope to wrap up soon and I’m about to start editing another batch of poems. That’s on top of the blogging that I still do, the occasional book review, and the monthly advice column I’ve been writing for Melville House, What Would Leopold Bloom Do?, which is just like every other advice column in the world, except I draw my “words of wisdom,” from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Is your poetry different now than it was then, and if so, in what ways?
If it is, I won’t notice it for a while. Most of the time, the poems that I’m working on to bring up to publication quality I originally wrote months or even years ago. I like to forget, as much as I can, my personal emotions and experiences that drove or inspired a particular poem and approach it as someone who doesn’t assume any emotional content. That initial moment of inspiration or composition is for me, important for my emotional or philosophical health, but in order for whatever it is to truly be a poem and not just a draft of understanding, it has to have significance to those who did not share in the original moment. So, my published poems will always lag a bit behind my progress as a writer. I would say that I hope my poetry is changing—changing with the world, through the work of other poets and writers and artists and through my own growth. If nothing else, I hope my poetry is better.

Who/what are you reading lately?
I’m sure this will be out of date by the time this runs, but at time of writing; Homegoing by Ya’a Gyasi, Jerusalem by Alan Moore, Blackacre by Monica Youn, The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luisseli, Moby-Dick, The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way by John Edward Huth, and The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert Gordon.

Any major publications, readings, etc. we should know about?
I’ve got a short story in a very cool anthology put together by Papercuts, JP, a relatively new indie bookstore in Jamaica Plain. Last year was their first full year of events and they asked the authors who visited them to contribute something to an anthology. There are some amazing authors in the anthology. And they (very graciously and very patiently) accepted a very weird, short story of mine with all sorts of stylistic idiosyncrasies that I’m really excited to see in print. I’ve also got a poetry manuscript on submission at a couple of places.


Rain or sun?
This is something of a challenging question. On the one hand, the sun burns my skin and hurts my eyes. On the other hand it’s hard to read in the rain without wrecking your book. On the one hand, I sweat a lot and so the heat from the sun can make any kind of outdoor activity uncomfortable. On the other hand, the rain, especially above certain levels of intensity, can also make any kind of outdoor activity uncomfortable. What is perhaps oddest about this question is that these opposite forces can both be solved by the same solution: an umbrella, parasol, awning, or some similar barrier between them and me. So the true answer to this question has far more to do with my particular goals and the resources I have on hand in the moment to deal with the elements and achieve those goals. Obviously, the point of either/or questions like this is not to produce nuanced non-answers, but to force the answerer to choose, so, on balance, there are few simple joys more beautiful than watching a downpour from a covered porch, so rain it is.  

What are your current top five favorite books of any genre?
Let’s do poetry anthologies.

1. Conductors of the Pit edited by Clayton Eschelman
This anthology changed my poetry life because it introduced me to the work of Cesar Vallejo. I’d never read anything by Vallejo before, but once I did, I needed everything he ever wrote.  No other poet that I’ve read except for Emily Dickinson is capable of bifurcating a poem the way Vallejo can. To me, reading his poetry feels like having my train of thought split on to several tracks with one of those tracks suddenly turning into a roller coaster. This anthology also introduced me to Aimee Cesair, the darker side of Neruda and Vladimir Holan, whose “A Night with Hamlet” is an absolute monster of a poem. I love this anthology so much, I have two editions of it.

2. Poems for the Millennium
This two-volume anthology seems to make a fairly simple argument—one that, to some readers, would seem apparent: poetry is a constantly evolving, persistently dynamic method of communication stretched and pulled and distorted by experimentation. Unfortunately, if you only read the anthologies assigned in school it is easy to imagine poetry as one straight line from the British Romantics to our contemporary pastoralists. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, in presenting modernist, postmodernist, and all the various cultural, regional, and aesthetic variations, argue that poetry is a vibrant, philosophical, experimental, and ever-evolving form of art.

3. City Lights’ Pocket Poets Anthology
It kinda feels like City Lights has always been here. But it had to start somewhere and it started with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his Pocket Poets series. This anthology is a definitive retrospective on one of American culture’s most important cultural institutions. Ferlinghetti himself selected poems from each of the sixty volumes of the series, including works by Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, Cortazar, Levertov, and more.

4. Outlaw Bible of American Poetry
Much like the other anthologies in this list, this one is trying to preserve and present currents in poetry that don’t get as much mainstream attention or are not taught in school. The Beats. Spoken word. Meat poets. The big names you would expect in an anthology of this nature like Allen Ginsberg, Eileen Myles, and Amiri Baraka, as well as artists that you don’t necessarily think of as poets that fit perfectly, like Woodie Guthrie and Tupak Shakur, as well as great poets you might have never heard of like d.a. levy and Luis J. Rodriguez. Or, to put this another way, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry does everything a great anthology should do.

5. The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry: Timeless “Poems” by Snooki, John Boehner, Kanye West and Other Well-Versed Celebrities
Yes, this anthology is utterly ridiculous, but it is ridiculous in fun and interesting ways. And poetry should be, among other things, fun and interesting.

What’s a habit you’re proud of breaking?
Over a couple of years after college I pretty much stopped drinking soda. It was partially a health thing and partially a penury thing. There might not be an easier way to lose five or ten pounds than just cutting out soda. There really isn’t much to be proud of there, but I did make something that was thoughtless thoughtful, at least until new, better habits were established that became thoughtless.

What do you use more often, the dictionary or thesaurus?
Most of the time I start with a thesaurus, but I always look up whatever word seems like it will work for what I want it to in the dictionary before I commit to it. A thesaurus includes synonyms for all the different nuances and shades of the words so there is always the chance you could pick something that you think matches, only to discover it means something completely different and throws off the entire meaning of the sentence or line that you’re working on.

Is there a poetic form you feel strongly about? Love, hate?
I have come to despise the short-line tercet. Maybe it's time has finally passed, but for a few years it seemed like every poet who wanted to prove they "explored the depth of the mundane," or "plumbed the beauty of the banal," or whatever would break up what would otherwise be an utterly pedestrian sentence into a poem of short-line tercets with the seeming assumption that line breaks—any line breaks—were all that was required to turn an unoriginal thought into an original poem. To me, this form was able to be both lazy writing and an embodiment of everything people who lazily hate poetry accuse poetry of being. This is not to say that short-line poems can’t be successful (the work of Kevin Young springs immediately to mind) but that, for a while at least, it was the go-to form for people who didn’t seem to put the effort in.

You’re stranded on a desert island but luckily you have these three things with you…
A lighter, a substantial knife, and a copy of Ulysses. (We’re just going to assume I’m already wearing my reading glasses.)


The Artistic Life in Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the People v3

The artistic life died in a medical tent;
Civil War. When young Walt Whitman clasped a palm meant
for the Reaper. A soldier for Union and slave
had been shot, had been pierced, had been torn, had been rent,
and should die. And the dark. He will end. In the grave.
There were words for young Walt, who could begin to reign,
as if words had the moxie for ending the reign
of our war. As Walt Whitman was catching his breath,
with shut eyes and ears shut and hands clasped in joint pain,
he prepared to rewrite our new beautiful death.
The soldier pulled through.

Sensitive intellectuals may not be much to look at, given how much time is spent away from the sun
     and the gym, how rarely the suggested number of hours of sleep are acquired, how eyes are
     affixed to screens and books,

but the body always goes before the mind goes,
and modern medicine ensures the body persists after it goes for decades and you'll have to talk
     about something once you've eroded to just sitting around.

My god! The simmering hell of old people who don't read! Gone bodies staring at each other waiting
     to die.

The artistic life died in a capsule of time
in the fifties. We assumed it would be a crime
if nuclear war did erase from the Earth
the American state (sent by God) in its prime.
But the capsule was excavated, yanked from its berth,
to make way for the first Montessori-based school
in the state;—which was built in the Usonia school—
the artistic life crushed by the footballer's sled.
We ignited the trove and got barely a joule.
The few contents with fire resistance the Marines had to shred.
Except for the sexy parts, which were retained for “research” by top men.

Sensitive intellectuals aren't the dates you bring to show off at class reunions except for the very
     small number who reach a level of fame—assuming there are people in your graduating class
     who pay attention to the modes of society in which sensitive intellectuals reach a level of
     fame—but they are fantastic kissers

and they drink the kind of booze that provides stamina instead of lethargy and conjure their
     whiskey demons as busquers at pedestrian shopping malls playing for wine money and they
     know the definition of “mixto” so go through the notes for their critical re-reading of the Peter
     Sellers episode of The Muppet Show through their hangovers

while you clutch your skull and curse god for giving your head feelings.

The artistic life died when Ray Chandler replaced
Dashiell Hammett. Americans chose, with pale haste,
the prosaic contentment of stabilized crime
where murder is death. That's all. Simple and chaste.
Just the prose worth exactly one story per dime.
Both concede it is probably fine should you club
a crook dead, but it's Hammett who knows “The Just Club”

is still empty; a myth at best, likely a lie.
Much like fact, but unlike the red blood on the club,
and regardless of every attempt we may try,
the lead Falcon is real.

Sensitive intellectuals are a lot like Catholics because the font of their massive effort is shame.
Shame when faced with the accomplishments of past geniuses and contemporary rivals,
shame in their inability to reclaim a role in contemporary governance,

shame from the moments of weakness when solace is taken from the exploitative products foisted
     on the masses by greedy and indifferent corporations,

and yes,
shame at the fuzzy lines drawn by their figures, the impossibility of getting a slick haircut, at how
     awkwardly they stand at wedding receptions, at how we can explore the de-agenting of evil
     through Marx's historical materialism (the way we make and buy shit matters), Foucault's
     systems of power (soldiers follow orders), Baudrilliard's precession (LOGIC IS  A VOID) as
     reflected in Zizek's Gonzo (journalists are people and so are (mostly) philosophers) pop culture
     phenomenology as expressed by “the zombie,” a perfectly passive actor as a symbol for evil in
     works such as Dawn of the Dead, the Left 4 Dead video game series, and Colson Whitehead's
     Zone One, but can't put together the sentences

“Hi, my name is Josh. What are you reading?”

It's difficult to concurrently court people and significance.
It's not unheard of to succeed with both.
It's not impossible to talk your way into someone's
right back out again

and it is not impossible to carve enough time away from reading dynamic stylistically challenging
     early 21
st century Hungarian novelists
to work out four or five days a week
so you don't get slapped with the disappointment stick every time you pass a mirror.

sometimes disappointment is the point.
Our society constantly prescribes
cures for disappointment.
There is always something to buy
when we get passed over for the promotion
left off the honor roll
un-cast in the school play
not included in the final round of interviews.

We prepared
we cultivated
we trained
and eventually
after years
and years
of effort
we are rewarded with an absence from the podium.
In that moment of disappointment
denial proves value.
We will be provers.
And from the proving
all will follow.

Artistic, intellectual, alive
and sensitive, yet somehow Byron scored.
Is there a fact new Byrons can derive
about what women want or will reward,
or why persistence sometimes reaches certain goals?
Alas, our random heavens live
beyond attempt. Chance weekends. Spiked punch bowls.
Whatever, man. Let's drink, get laid, forgive.
Art wrestled every big old angry bull
from park in town to pen in circus tent
in part because it might exert a pull

on people made inclined to—Yes!--consent.

Shit. This pick-up line
should have been a villanelle.