41.1 Feature: An Interview with Joe Milazzo
Joe Milazzo is the author of the chapbook The Terraces (Das Arquibancadas and Little Red Leaves Textile Series) and the novel Crepuscule W / Nellie (Jaded Ibis Productions). He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing] and is also the proprietor of Imoplex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, Texas; his virtual location is slowstudies.net/jmilazzo.
Interview by BETHANY STARTIN
Black Warrior Review: “THE DREAM IN WHICH EVERY TIME I ASK FOR A PARABLE, A MAN HANDS ME A FISH” is a poem that works to disorient the reader, placing us as onlooker or even ghost to a sharply visceral scene which is at the same time very domestic—there is an apple, a kitchen, a music box. How do you play with the domestic and the surreal elsewhere in your work?
Joe Milazzo: With this poem, and with all the poems that make up The Habiliments (forthcoming from Apostrophe Books), I was particularly concerned with the idiomatic conflation of house and body—or corpus; material existence—in poetic discourse. To take but one example: Tennyson’s “The Deserted House.” To take another: Emily Dickinson’s Tenements of Wonder and tenements of clover (her capitalization, not mine). To take one last: when, in “Some Place,” Creeley writes: “There is nothing I am, / nothing not. A place / between, I am. I am // more than thought, less / than thought. A house / with winds, but a distance // —something loose in the wind, / feeling weather as that life, / walks toward the lights he left.” I describe this conceptual yoking of body to house as idiomatic rather than metaphoric per se because it is a classic case of “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements” whose significations have nevertheless become “obvious” to us from habitual usage. So, in some sense, the surreal / domestic play in this particular “Dream” is a reflection upon the domestication of “the marvelous” via idiomatic expression. All of The Habiliments, in being linguistic constructions, erect a de- or re-rhetoricization of grief. The poems try to provide both ingress to and egress from the rainbow drabness of grief’s lodgings. Grief is so strange, so nearly psychotropic… in grieving, one feels death take up lodgings everywhere, in every entity, and especially in one’s bereft self. But one of the side-effects of this residency is that everything throbs with new life. New life that will ultimately be extinguished, yes, but life nevertheless. To put it another way: grief remakes everything into a talisman, even simple kitchen accoutrements and coat hangers and sofas and doorknobs and lawnmowers and their engines’ rumbly, fake stereo phasings. Or, more properly, especially and precisely those familiar things. That they retain their familiarity even as they shed their innocuousness under the influence of grief only contributes to whatever aura they possess. And so grief touches putatively ameliorative phrases such as “in a better place” and “passed on” and commands those dead (because recorded) images as a necromancer might an army, as terrifying as it is pathetic, of revenants.
BWR: Even though the poem itself deals with serious things, the title is bizarrely, charmingly funny, which I maintain we don’t see enough of in poetry. What are your favorite funny poetic moments?
JM: The current poetic moment has actually seen a great diversification of the comedic mode, but I’m a bit shy to name a contemporary example. What if the poet I named didn’t think they were being funny? (Not that “funny” and “comedic” are synonymous, or that laughter boasts a singular meaning.) That said, I think the comedic impulse in Wallace Stevens’s early work is often too easily disparaged. The idea of Stevens angrily shouting at chickens and indulging in these weird Duchampian antics in the wilds of Tennessee is for me immense with enjoyment and, more importantly, other ideas. That Wallace Stevens isn’t the actuarial Buddha to whom we’ve grown accustomed, if not chummy. That Wallace Stevens is a bit like Groucho Marx playing the role of Nathanael West’s Balso Snell in a film adaptation directed by Jacques Tati. Maybe it would achieve nothing but zero-star un-watchability, but I would still put that movie in my Netflix queue.
BWR: The poem is part of a series, The Habiliments, which consists – as far as I can tell – solely of dream poetry. Where, for you, are the recurring motifs and obsessions of this series? And where would you place your work in relation to that of other dream poets?
JM: Virtually every phenomenon within the universe of The Habiliments is subjected to recurrence: objects handled by the poem’s personae; images or sensory details; but also turns of phrase, entire lines… all the equipment of a self-conscious poetry itself. Maybe it’s most fair, if not accurate, to say that recurrence is itself the recurring motif of the series. (I know; it sounds as if I’m cheating.) In any event, I was very much attentive to the structures and entailments of recurring dreams in these poems, specifically as grief is experienced in the form of a dream survivors have over and over (though unpredictably) in which the deceased returns, or reveals that they never died, demanding to know how it is the survivors could have been carrying on this way: with their lives. (Dream as gateway to conscience? Rather, dream as vision, these dreams specifically as visions of a living death.) Though I would not presume to liken my efforts to his, or even claim him as a poet who went before me, John Berryman’s Dream Songs were fresh in my mind through the writing of The Habiliments. However, at that time, I was less consciously studious of the dream-content of that long sequence and more contemplative of Berryman’s innovations re: persona, address and canonical form (i.e., his creation of a personal canon of deployable forms). John Yau’s “Dream Hospital” I would count as an after-the-fact inspiration, as I only read that sequence after completing The Habiliments, yet remain struck by how much they model what I was trying to accomplish therein. Looking back now, I feel that there’s even a little Piers Plowman in the The Habiliments. But I would issue a caveat as well. These poems are not allegories, as much as their paranoia flirts with the systematic convictions of allegory, and they aren’t exactly dreams, i.e., not even to themselves. Instead, these poems are expressions that only believe they can say what they must say by speaking through the syntax and vocabulary of dreams… if that distinction makes any sense. My hope is that, as readers familiarize themselves with each individual poem within the series, they come to recognize more and more that any apparent dreaminess here is only that, apparent—or that in the poems there is a movement back and forth and between and ultimately into the victory of lucid agency over hypnagogic paralysis.
BWR: You’re clearly very music-aware, given your experiences as music critic and Editor-in-Chief of music-centric publications. Where do you find this awareness of music filtering into your writing?
JM: Sound is of particular importance to me in that, for the reader, sound offers up a direct experience rather that exposits on what it would be like to have experienced possibility X, Y and / or Z. Consequently, sound opens up a kind of paradox I find both appealing and meaning-making. If an expression “sounds good,” the reader’s appreciation for of the expressiveness at work undergoes an enhancement and maybe even an enchantment. Yet this same euphony can also have the effect, as Classically construed, of cacophony, which is to create an impediment to ready understanding. I like the idea of beauty being a kind of distraction, both productive and unproductive, and sonic play opens up opportunities to confuse the visceral and the cerebral. And isn’t language itself a product of that same confusion?
Less pretentiously, the music of language is also its texture, and textural effects help me to work outside of my default voice, something that is essential to my writing practice. I’m not much of a rhythm writer, I’ve learned, but I do think about tempo frequently as I write and revise…and I’m constantly reminding myself to try and not mistake tempo for rhythm in that process. Yet I miss as often as I swing.
BWR: We at BWR are always seeking out new work and new writers, so what’s your favorite recent publication – published, say, in the last year – from somebody we probably haven’t heard of yet?
JM: I’ve not read as much as I’ve needed to this past year, but I have read Pattie McCarthy’s nulls (Horse Less Press). A fantastic book which fashions its own aesthetic out of the lyric impulse, documentary poetics, the gulf between intention and interpretation that codes any communication, and the otherwise invisible lives of those who provide care and those who, like autistic children, are in constant need of it. This is a poetry that gathers us and re-inscribes notions of illness and wellness, of which the intelligible and the unintelligible are both categories, with almost Ayurvedic care… poetry that is humane but completely free of sentimentality.
BWR: What are you working on right now? Can you tell us a little about its germination?
JM: I’m currently revising a novel that has been more-or-less finished for several years. I’m also composing poems for what I anticipate will be another book-length sequence. The novel, In No Strange Land, is about probably too many things, but among them are: the infancy of the age of the “personal electronic device” (the computer); luchador films; LSD proselytization; dyslexia; prog rock; The Silver Surfer; riparian rights in the American West; and surviving adolescence in Dallas, TX during the Sunbelt’s first Golden Age (the 1970s). The poems have the provisional title of King Anecdote, and, as I am presently imagining them, will constitute a contemporary and secularized retelling of the Gospel According to Mark, aka, “the action Gospel,” aka “the ideological Gospel,” aka “the Gospel with the prickly Jesus.”
BWR: I’m intrigued by what little I’ve read about your novel Crepuscule W/Nellie (forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press this fall); like “THE DREAM IN WHICH”, it seems to be preoccupied with re-creation and obsession. What surprised you most about writing it, and how does it fit in with your other work?
JM: I was most surprised by the characters who populate Crepuscule W/ Nellie. While these characters are, in the actual history to which the novel is flimsily tethered, real people (Thelonious Monk; his wife, Nellie; his patron the Baroness Pannonica De Koenigswarter), I knew next to nothing about them when I began writing about them. I also made a conscious decision not to know much about them beyond what Monk’s music disclosed to me about their lives. And so I did not know if these characters (and not these individuals) could become imaginative entities and not simply props in a sort of reenactment. I certainly did not know if they each had a story to tell beyond the story already told by liner notes, discographies, Time magazine profiles, etc.. That these characters did, and that they each had their own passionate reasons for propelling the story in their particular directions, were aspects of the work it took me quite some time to recognize, and even longer to reckon with.
As to Crepuscule W/ Nellie‘s relationship to my work in general: for the longest time, it was my work, i.e., the only “big project” on which I labored. My first ambition was to be a novelist, and my earliest training as a writer was as a novelist. This probably accounts for why every idea I have wants to be stretched out into a book, even if in doing so it is stretched thin. More importantly, however, Nellie has taught me more about my writing self than anything else I’ve worked on. It has revealed to me those aesthetic choices I tend to make unconsciously, held up to me for examination those compulsions and obsessions that are most mine (the maximal; ekphrasis; frames and designs; domesticity; marginality; and on and on), helped me to appreciate the value of failure, and forced me to accept that, while I never really know what I’m writing, I am always writing in order to figure out what it is I’m writing towards.