Joshua Young’s poem August ’82 appears in RHINO 2014. RHINO Associate Editor Kenyatta Rogers interviewed him in September 2014.
Young is the author of THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE (Plays Inverse Press), 2014); The Diegesis (Gold Wake Press, 2013), co-written with Chas Hoppe; To the Chapel of Light (Mud Luscious Press/Nephew 2012) and When the Wolves Quit: A Play-in-Verse (Gold Wake Press 2012). His latest feature film, Do You See Colors When You Close Your Eyes? was official selection at Seattle International Film Festival, Athens International Film Festival, and Montreal International Black Film Festival (2011). He is Associate Director of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he teaches. He lives in the Wicker Park neighborhood with his family.
KR: First off thanks for interviewing with us Josh, it is a pleasure to have your work in our journal.
JY: Thanks for publishing me then asking me questions! I’ve been a long time admirer of RHINO, so it’s been nice to have work in its pages.
KR: How is it you heard about RHINO?
JY: It was either AWP, while wandering the aisles of the book fair in Denver years back or seeing an issue on the bookcase of a friend. I remember reading a couple issues and really liking the work inside. I’m not sure exactly, but one day RHINO was on my radar. When I moved to Chicago I realized it was a Chicago journal.
KR: When did you realize you wanted to make writing a career? And was anyone else involved? Teacher, relative, friend, poet?
JY: I was playing in bands in Seattle and doing little tours, putting out records and whatnot. It was the late 90s and there were some really cool films coming out—Fight Club, Election, American Beauty, Rushmore—that had this literary quality or something. They felt like different films. Anyway. I remember sitting in the front room of my parents house and telling my dad I wanted to be a writer. He just reached over to his pile of books on the floor and handed me Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Later some folks recommended me a bunch of Generation X minimalism (Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Chuck Palanuik) and that started off my fiction pretty fast.
I didn’t start really writing and reading poetry till later in college. In fact, my only real contact with poetry were the bands Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral lyrics. Yeah, yeah, I know. Lyrics aren’t poetry. On 107.7 The End (Seattle), Sunny Day was doing an interview about their reunion and new record, How It Feels to be Something On, when the interviewer asked, “What’s that title mean?” And Dan Horner (guitar) said, “It’s poetry; figure it out.” So that was my poetry. Even my poetry classes at community college were a bust. We just read the old stuff I had read in high school. Nothing excited me. I was like Yeah, Cummings is cool, Whitman is cool, but I can’t connect to this. I could connect to music. So that was my link to poetry, till I took Oliver de la Paz’s poetry class at Western Washington University. I almost failed it, but he had us read contemporary poets of color: Ruth Ellen Kocher, Victoria Chang, and Arthur Sze. I loved these books; they were nothing like the poetry I had read before.
It’s funny when I think about it, but once I started writing, I was always going to be a fiction writer; I was always going to films. But that started to change when I started reading contemporary poetry. Oliver is to blame for this. I still write fiction and make films, but poetry became my focus for a few years, or I guess poetry led me to start think about hybrid forms, and how to move between genres and modes. Sometime around there I started realizing that I wanted to teach. I went to grad school. I decided my career would be teaching, and that would allow me to write.
KR: Do you have any themes or preoccupations that you keep returning to in your poetry?
JY: For the longest time I’ve been writing about religion/ faith, and my many many many many issues with it. I grew up in the church and planned on spending my entire life hanging loose with Jesus, but questions kept stacking upon themselves, and when the answers (that I gave myself and others gave me) were mere excuses, rationalizations, justifications, hateful utterances, or flat-out flawed logic, I had to leave. Or I was kind nudged out. Basically I walked out, but I don’t think these people wanted me around. I once made my youth group kids listen to Tool for an entire Wednesday night service and talked about why they shouldn’t break their “secular” cds. If you haven’t heard of that, it happens. The funny thing is that these kids started breaking cds of bands that are secular but all their members are cool with Jesus. Anyway. I have been writing about that for the longest time. But after I finished The Holy Ghost People I felt done. Though all this recent shit with Mars Hill and Driscoll have dragged out some “feelings” because I was around Seattle when they were growing and a lot of my friends were enamored by this “leader,” and I think some of them are still at that church. So, yeah, this preoccupation is probably gonna sneak back in. There are also earlier books I haven’t published yet that deal with this, so in many ways I will never stop talking about religion. Sorry.
Another preoccupation I have is the idea of myth, especially in American culture, and the little sub-scenes of certain youth and art movements. My most recent projects tend to be centered on a historical figure who’s a part of some burgeoning movement (I’m being so vague), and the myth surrounding it. Examples: 1980s Hardcore Punk or Independent film.
Currently though, I think I’m writing about academia, poetry, and the lit scene. Probably out of frustration and love. Though, really, I’m trying to write “poem” poems, you know. Not a project or concept, but a poem about a chair or a moment or something. We’ll see how that goes.
KR: I know your most recent book The Holy Ghost People is a play. Can you tell us how that came into fruition?
JY: I’m sure I’ve talked about this before, but I never get the facts straight. So in a way I’m creating my own myth surround this book. After I finished my first book, When the Wolves Quit, I definitely felt that as a hybrid collection it really worked. It was part epistolary fiction, part poetry, and part play. But the play of it was simply there for structure and continuity. It provided a space to couch a narrative in: A stage. I needed a stage because I needed things to happen offstage.
I was writing these little pieces in notebooks and slowly typing them up. They were these little prose blocks about neighborhoods and religion. I didn’t know what they were. I was at the place where I was like, “I don’t know how to write a book anymore.” Which is complete BS. It was me being impatient and forgetful. All of my other books, I wrote extremely fast, but the format and structure came way later, after the books sat. The revision takes a long time and through that process, these books end up becoming something they’re not through that process. So, here were these pieces. I didn’t want to do a play again (even though it felt kind of play-like), and I didn’t want to do the film format either, because my second book, To the Chapel of Light was formatted as a screenplay/film. These pieces needed a structure. They weren’t just prose blocks. They weren’t little fictions. There was an arch, a roof that they needed to be under. They were speaking to each other. Little dialogues. Contradictions. So I emailed them to my friend, Daniel Scott Parker (a wonderful poet and multimedia artist from Chicago), and he was like, “Dude, this is a play.” And so I put it together as a play.
When it finally got to Tyler at Plays Inverse Press, I was just showing him as a peer. He said he wanted to publish it. But the manuscript was with another publisher for consideration. When they passed (no offense to them, but Thank God), I sent it to Tyler. He loved it. He loved it so much he wanted to edit it, and make it better, and bring my ideas out. Clarify. Question. We did maybe 30 revisions. I like to exaggerate, but I’m pretty sure we did something like that. I mean he’d send me a bloodbath of notes, and I’d freak a little, respond, and revise. Then he’ d send me more. Some were huge. Some were small. We had to have a dialogue. The final book is clearly better because of those conversations.
KR: Do you have a writing regimen or do you just kind of squeeze it in when there’s time?
JY: I have a kid at home who’s about to turn 4. I can’t keep a regimen. BUT I will say that when I really need it, Emily (my wife), is really is cool about giving me time. But mostly, I just write when I can. In front of the tv, on the train, while walking I’ll write some notes in my phone or on a receipt or whatever. Lately, I’ve been writing at night while we watch Criminal Minds, or a Ken Burns documentary on Netflix.
I used to get up every morning make a pot of coffee and grab my cigarettes, and read for an hour or two, then write for an hour or two. That was in college. Then I got married, quit smoking, stopped drinking caffeine, stopped eating meat, became a dad, starting running (again). I just don’t have the time/I’m exhausted always. Now, I piece together whatever I can. It works. The idea has to live in my brain for a while before I actually commit it to paper/screen.
JY: People always ask me to join writers groups, but I just don’t have time. I love the idea of them. But my poet friends and friends from graduate school sort of operate as my writing community. We send each other stuff through email. My friends are amazing. I tell my students that you need a couple readers who really know your work. That’s all. I trust them to tell me when something is bad or not working. I think having honest readers has helped me prepare for working with an editor, especially if there are lots of edits forthcoming.
KR: How important are poetry workshops, writing retreats, poetry residencies, etc…?
JY: Workshops are key. But not forever. After you get out of a writing program, I don’t think you need them anymore. You just need your honest friends. Real honest. No bull-shitters. I think workshops aren’t about getting feedback or hearing what others think. They’re about learning how to frame your work, learning how to take criticism, and learning who really knows and cares about your work.
I’ve never been to a retreat outside of work retreats and (back in the day) church retreats, and honestly, I don’t think people want to hear my opinions of them. I guess I don’t like what they represent. It’s this magical place where you’re away from the world and you can just write without distractions, and there’s fellowship with other writers, and blahblahblah. I have friends and colleagues that go to these, so I hope they aren’t mad at me for saying this, but really, I tell my students not to waste their time. I tell them to work on writing and publishing and talking about writing. I’ve noticed that this a lot of this new generation of writers don’t need their retreats and residencies to write, they need to pay the rent and support themselves and their family. Sure they’d be stoked to have this privilege, but that’s not the reality. I tell my students to carve out time to write because that’s what they should do. The idea of needing “a writing space” and a “routine” is dying. This post-employment era makes that impossible. People write when they can. I guess I’m saying I don’t think people need the sunrise flossing the peaks of a mountain, while a mountain streams laps against rocks outside the door, and a deer drinks from a mountain pond in order to type out that great American novel. Maybe it’s sour grapes that I probably won’t ever go to one (unless something drastically changes in my life).
Residencies are great though, especially those paying ones that gives poets and writers a chance to write and teaching. I get stoked about those.
I guess what I’m getting at is that grad school, retreats, and residences are places of privilege. I am complicit in this. I know this part of creative writing education is flawed and yet I support it (well some of it). I think MFA programs are good, but they are not there to help people find careers. To go to get an MFA you have to realize that it is an anti-capitalist decision. There’s not money in it. Probably not a job. Unless you’re lucky. I am lucky. I got a job. You get an MFA because you care about art, not because you need this to get a job. This is about craft and community. Sure, it’s required to get a job, but the market is so fucked right now, it’s just depressing to think about. Thinking of MFAs as trade schools makes them this kind of a conveyer belt to high-expectations that are never met. My students ask me, “What do I do with my degree?” I tell them find a job they don’t hate and work. Write when they can. Send their work out. If they want to teach, well that’s a longer conversation. I think the biggest issue is that this has become an industry and within that industry people take advantage of people. I’ve heard some horror stories about MFA programs, residencies, and retreats. I think those people who take advantage should be ashamed of themselves.
I don’t know. This is complicated. I’m gonna move on.
KR: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a poet?
JY: Read all the poems. Read everything. Go to readings. Write. Don’t think everything you do is gold. Keep pushing yourself. Also good poetry is not just what you think is good. Listen to why other people like the stuff you hate. It will make you a better poet, and honestly, a better human.
KR: Since your most recent work is a play, how do you perform it? If you had the time and resources how would you envision it performed?
JY: With THGP there are two dialogues, so I read one a little calmer, logical; and the other like a preacher might. When the Holy Ghost People are speaking I preach. When the Speakers are speaking I just sort of read it.
If it were staged, I would like to see it on a decent sized stage. Each location built next to each other on the stage, like a tic-tac-toe game, but each location at increasing heights toward the back of the stage, so everyone can see each location as a scene unlocks. The locations are big enough to fit a few people, but small enough that when all the players on are stage it feels overwhelmingly crammed. The stage is dark for most of the show, the scenes work through the use of a spotlight. The players are constantly moving in and out of the darkness.
We need sound effects and the ability to harness and pull a big hunk of metal off the stage in darkness without affecting the other locations.
KR: How do you prepare for your readings/performances? Where do you like to perform? What venues, reading series or Open Mics do you particularly enjoy?
JY: I just read them out loud and at home; it drives Em and Elliot nuts. And then I read it how it needs to be read. I’ve seen pics and videos of me rocking as I read. I don’t even know I’m doing it. Basically I just practice out loud and then read it. I have these punk poems (you published one of them in RHINO) and they need to be read (at least most of them) like a punk singer. Kind of shout it a bit.
I haven’t read at Open Mics in a while. Mostly it’s a time issue. I like reading at bars and house readings. Something about those two crowds that allow for a certain kind of energy.
KR: Do you have any readings scheduled in the near future?
JY: I’m doing a mini tour thing with my friend Kat Finch who’s studying at Michigan’s MFA. She has a chap coming out. I think we’re doing Chicago, Wisconsin, and Ann Arbor. In November. We’re booking it now.
I’m also reading Wed, March 4th at 5:30pm with Craig Santos Perez at Columbia College Chicago.
I’ll be reading at AWP too. And I’m working on a couple other tours (Northeast and Southwest).
KR: Do you have an agent and/or publisher? How important are those relationships to you?
JY: I don’t have an agent. I would like one. For film and writing. So if you know anyone. My fiction friends tell me this is super important, so I’ve been sending my novel out for consideration. SO I can’t yet talk about agents, but I can talk about editors.
In terms of publishers: I worked with Gold Wake Press on my first and third book. Mud Luscious Press for my second book. Now I’ve been working with Tyler Crumrine from Plays Inverse. He’s brilliant. A lovely human and a damn fine editor and publisher. He publishes plays or play-like literature. I wish I had more of that for him.
The Holy Ghost People wouldn’t be what it is without Tyler and his editorial guidance. My ego definitely thought Who the fuck is this guy, telling me to change my work!? But he was right. And when he wasn’t right, he was asking the right questions. My advice to poets and writers: When an editor gives you a comment or suggestion, it is not personal. It is because they care about the work and want it to the best it can be. They are the intermediary between your vision and the reader. A lot times the work exists so much in the writer’s mind that without an editor to guide it, things can get lost. If your editor thinks you should change something, at the very least, you owe them a discussion about it. Usually, I’ve found, they’re so right it’s scary. Tyler really helped reshape The Holy Ghost People into the thing it is. It was good before. It worked, but some of the subtlety or contradiction that I really wanted to be known by the reader was lost or hiding behind these moments of language gymnastics—overwriting. I can’t even measure how valuable his edits and our conversations were. And I’m not just saying that because we are close friends now. I think part of why we became friends was the process of working on this book. I respect the hell out of him. Also he’s always a wizard with puns.
KR: Can you tell us a bit about your press, The Lettered Streets Press, and how it got started?
JY: I’ve been wanting to start a press for years. My dad and I were going to do it back before I started grad school. But that just kept getting put off. I met our prose editor and co-founder Ian Denning while working on my first Masters. We started the press and then I met Abigail in the MFA program at Columbia College, and saw her read, and thought, She’s my poetry editor. I asked her that night. Luckily she agreed. We solicited our first few releases, starting with Nicole Wilson’s Supper & Repair Kit. This book had been a finalist in all these contests, and we got to page three when we knew we had to publish it.
So we publish three books a year, four authors/poets. So far we’ve published Nicole Wilson’s Supper & Repair Kit, and our Split Series Volume I: Aubrey Hirsch’s This Will Be His Legacy w/ Alexis Pope’s Bone Matter. Next up is Ryan Spooner’s Regret, followed by Robert Alan Wendeborn’s The Blank Target, and our Split Series Volume II: Melanie Sweeney’s Birds As Leaves, and Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s Seven Sunsets.
KR: Do you have anything else you’d like to add, or mention?
JY: No man, this covered everything. Thank you!!
For more information about Joshua Young, visit http://thestorythief.tumblr.com.