getting to know joshua michael stewart and his new book break every string
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I came to poetry by way of jazz actually. I always wanted to be a writer, or at least a storyteller of some kind. Even before I was in kindergarten I’d sit on my grandmother’s lap and dictate stories to her that she’d write down on a yellow legal pad, and then give to my mother when she came to pick me up after work. Then I had a phase where I wanted to be a puppeteer, but that was just another way to make up stories.
In my teens I became interested in music, specifically into jazz, but again, it was composing I was interested in not so much performing. In fact, when I first went to UMass I entered as a jazz composition major. At the same time my best friend went to UMass Lowell, and of course you don’t live long in Lowell before you catch the Kerouac bug and then pass it along to your friends, and since Kerouac and the other Beats were really into jazz both my friend and I were attracted to them.
Naturally, I then started reading Langston Hughes, and then went on to Walt Whitman via Ginsburg. At some point I progressed to William Mathews, and then one day I was in the local bookstore in Amherst, MA, and I picked up Charles Simic’s “Walking the Black Cat” for the sole reason that the book jacket looked like a cover to a jazz album. I was immediately hooked. I started checking out other surrealists like James Tate and Russell Edson. Then I fell in love with the prose poem, and started to read every prose poem I could find. I’m always exploring.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
My mind works best in the morning so I try to do my writing then. I try to put in at least three to five hours a day, but there are days I can only put in an hour or no time at all. It should be said that much of my “writing” time is spent shaking my fist at a blank page. I’ve trained myself to be able to write wherever I’m at because I’ve had to in order to get my time in. As they say, showing up is half the battle. But my favorite place to write besides at home is the Forbes Library in Northampton, MA.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Most of my poems start with an image—an image that usually comes from my personal history. My book, “Break Every String,” is more or less a memoir written in verse about growing up in Northern Ohio in the 1980s.
What I often do is pick a theme of some kind and write 100 sentences (not lines) on that theme, not worrying about how those sentences connect, and only when I have my 100 sentences do I go back and see how those sentences connect. I cut them, twist them around, smash them together, make a collage of some sort, and then break them into lines where it seems to naturally want to break. I also like mixing found material such as personal letters with verses that derive from the imagination. Many of the poems in my book are strictly narrative.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Charles Simic, William Mathews, James Tate, Russell Edson, Billy Collins, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and so many more. I’m always looking for someone new to read, and I always try to learn something from each writer I come across.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
Where to begin? The original manuscript I’m sad to say, was just a pile of poems. It is thanks to my mentor Ellen Doré Watson and my editor at Hedgerow Books, Diana Gordon, who saw something special within all that mess. There was extensive editing that took place to make the book into what it became. The strange thing is, I had to have a book accepted for publication before I knew ow to write a book.
The title of the book, “Break Every String,” comes from a line in one of the poems, which is about breaking a string on a guitar, but it also symbolizes breaking other kinds of bonds, such as family ties, old ways of thinking, conventional ways of living, and probably a few other things too.
As I mentioned above, my book is about my experiences growing up in the Rust Belt of Ohio in the 1980s—about how the downturn in the region directly affected my family. It is also a homage to art and how art, and music specifically has got me through some really hard times, such as the death of my brother, and bouts of depression. I speak freely of attempts of suicide, and how, quite literally, poetry saved my life.
Read a poem from Joshua's new book:
ONCE AGAIN LAKE ERIE
After Eugénio De Andrade
A ferry chugs across Sandusky Bay.
Its steel deck plates are the red
of a child’s painting. Lake Erie,
its green water and fish carcasses
no longer in my life, but tonight
I’m twelve again, walking down
East Water Street, where shirtless
men in cutoff jeans flirt with other men
as the sun gleams and turns the white bricks
of office buildings into a salmon color
harmonious with the silent crawl of shadows
and the cry of seagulls. I’ll clamber
over boulders of the revetment, where foundry
workers perch themselves to hook channel cat
and walleye after a long day of casting liquid
iron. Ferris-wheel lights on the horizon,
saltwater taffy on my memory’s tongue,
and the strawberry-glossed lips
of a girl in a stonewashed mini skirt
and jelly shoes. So much kissing!
Fear of death and the exhilaration of living
swap saliva at the top of a rollercoaster.