Image from Flickr via bobtravis

I visited Joseph a few years ago at his rented house north of Boston, shortly after his Ruth Lilly prize and before his MacDowell Fellowship. On the bus, I’d brushed up on my Dickinson, whose poetry he and my wife had fought about in a bar once. Meeting me at the bus station, Joseph towered above me at 6’5”. His head shaved with a one guard, he looks less like a poet than a wide receiver for the Pats, his favorite team. He had a bandage on his head he was oddly unwilling to talk about. I asked to see it, and he bowed at 90 degrees revealing a gnarly scar. The doctor had told him it was unusual, something called proud flesh, unusual because it’s usually only seen in horses, when the skin refuses to heal.

I remembered a line from one of Joseph’ poems I’d seen in a workshop a year earlier: “Abide as wreckage, that’s my duty and darling vengeance.” The speaker in the poem is a Greek statue—not a centaur, but the Nike of Samothrace. To Spece, the statue wears the abuse it’s been given vindictively, as a testament to the cruel ignorance of a world that failed to appreciate her.

After he sets me up in his guestroom, and after more prodding, Joseph tells me the origins of the scar—a barfight—and tries to change the subject to our plans for dinner. When I change it back, he explains being within earshot of some men in hunting regalia boasting about their exploits over beers. A vehement vegan, Joseph sidled up to ask about their victory over the doe in question. It didn’t take the hunters long to see they were being mocked. “I was being stupid. Four was too many to take on,” he explained. In the scrum, one of them—the one too many—stabbed him in the crown with a half bottle.

He’s anxious to steer the conversation elsewhere. To our recent book swap. He’d had me read Wuthering Heights and I had him read Moby-Dick. And we talked about a series of poems he was writing, many in the voice of the protagonist Heathcliff, the unlikely heir whose passions were inhuman. Like Ahab, I thought. While he talked, Joseph played the video game Resident Evil, whose avatars he spoke of as characters. For me they were too undeveloped to think of as characters, existing just for one purpose. Joseph seemed to believe their single-mindedness made them more than real, rather than less—comparable to obsessive Heathcliff, monomaniacal Ahab, or unbending Achilles. I only saw flatness, but Spece saw determination that made them especially human.

What seemed like inconsistency—Joseph’s love for high and low art, Dickinson and Resident Evil, Brontë and bar fights—might have indicated a concealed consistency I had to look for. Since that weekend, I hadn’t connected with Joseph again until I asked him for this interview on the occasion of his first book Roads, whose many contradictions, I wonder as I dial, may be arguments for some strange harmony.

Alexander Landfair for Guernica

Guernica: In Roads, you expect your readers to know Resident Evil 5—or look it up—the way T.S. Eliot expected his readers to know The Faerie Queene.

Joseph Spece: Well. You know, I think that I expect the poem to be interesting enough to cause them to either want to look to find who these names belong to. Or, if they don’t want to do that, they think, Well, whatever the hell this guy’s talking about, it’s interesting enough for me to follow. Right? So, I don’t think that the onus is on the reader. I think that it’s my job to make a poem that is interesting enough, and compelling enough to move the reader either into examinations of the subject matter that I mention or to be pulled along by the pure art of the work.

Guernica: So what draws you to take up the voices of these game characters, of Sheva Alomar and Chris Redfield?

Joseph Spece: The book has a lot of these moments. I’ve always felt that a part of my particular poetic project—that I’m interested in speaking for, or trying to inhabit a voice of, individuals that I feel have been silenced or in some way, or have had their particular complexity as a character cut short. In the case of Redfield and Sheva Alomar, I think Resident Evil 5 deals with the latent attraction that exists between these two strong, duty-based characters in a very gainful way. There are never those cheesy moments of looking into the eyes—those moments that could lead to a Hollywood kiss or something like that. They are very disciplined, and that kind of love interests me in a way. I’m interested in a love that is potentially gated or cut-off from expression by duty. They spoke to me very strongly, so I had to follow my gut.

I also think personally that video games or graphic novels—these kinds of things—are generally thought of as trivial or unimportant or can only have so much depth. And my experience with certain video games or graphic novels—while it may not equal my experience with Coriolanus or my experience with Moby-Dick—it does touch my heart, to risk sounding cliché. It does touch me in a way that I absolutely feel is worthy of exploration.

Guernica: Right. You also take up those “high-culture” voices—of the Nike of Samothrace and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, for example.

Joseph Spece: Can I compare them? I can compare them in saying that the voice that I imagine for Sheva Alomar and Chris Redfield and their relations with one another are the same, for me, as the vision I have of the Nike of Samothrace or for Doris Kilman [of Mrs. Dalloway] or for Heathcliff or for Pygmalion. Because there’s something about their narrative that strikes me as deserving further examination. I almost think it’s easier to inhabit a character like Sheva Alomar or Chris Redfield because their narrative has a relatively narrow trajectory. You know, it’s not expected in a video game like Resident Evil 5, even for a character like Chris Redfield who has been around since Resident Evil 1—it’s not really expected that you as a player, or someone who cares about Chris Redfield as a character, are going to find out a lot about his emotional history. So, when I’m dealing with Doris Kilman, for example, I feel as though I owe a specific debt to Virginia Woolf for creating that character. And so when I try to limn her interior, it involves a kind of study that it didn’t for “Alomar decries” or “Meeting at Night” or “Wetlands.” I have to do a character study before I can enter that existence.

The things that should be discussed are not merely pabulum, right? They don’t come from the well of recycled emotions.

Guernica: I’m going to take only a slight turn. It hasn’t been since Robert Frost that poetry has existed in popular culture—that people who meet on a subway could assume familiarity with a poet the way we might assume familiarity with Tom Brady or the Mario Brothers. Do you think poetry can exist as popular culture—the way that film or video games do—or is there something about poetry that makes it necessarily exclusive (or marginal, some would say).

Joseph Spece: I think that there’s something about poetry that makes it exclusive. I think that if people were meeting and could talk about Robert Frost on a train as someone who did an inaugural address or was on Johnny Carson—and this is the manner in which they spoke of him—then he wasn’t being spoken of as a poet. He was being spoken about as a personality in popular culture… You know, it’s funny, I just saw [the documentary movie] Grey Gardens the other day—you know which is a vérité style film. And out of no where, this woman, named Little Edie Bouvier Beale, was on the patio, and just started saying incorrect lines from “The Road Not Taken.” But she was just struck by the beauty. Came out of nowhere. No one was asking anything about poetry. She was just on the patio with her mother. And she just started speaking these lines. So I think that had to do with the power of what Frost produced and a receptiveness of the culture to his work. And receptiveness to the idea that the things that should be discussed are not merely pabulum. Right? That they aren’t immediately accessible. They don’t come from the well of recycled emotions.

I do think that there is something about the meditation required of good invested poetry that is opposed to the desire for pabulum in everyday life today, the desire not to read a 1,500 word article but to read a 15-word summary. I think you see that a lot in contemporary poetry. I think that is why there is so much irony in contemporary poetry. Because it is sort of something that we can wink off, that we don’t have to seriously evaluate. Right? Poetry is something that requires meditations which is going to mean it’s work. I do think that we suffer today—there is a real problem with critical reading and meditation on concepts.

The internet is a medium, right? And there’s no reason why fantastic digital art can’t be created within the confines that the internet provides—or instead of “confines,” the sort of “boundlessness” it provides.

Guernica: Is it more difficult within a digital culture—more difficult to translate events to literary experiences?

Joseph Spece: I think that social media and the internet are demonized more than they need to be as the culprit for certain issues in modern culture. The internet is a medium, right? And there’s no reason why fantastic digital art can’t be created within the confines that the internet provides—or instead of “confines,” the sort of “boundlessness” it provides.

If what is happening is that critical reading is taking a hit or that meditativeness is taking a hit, then certainly; it’s a difficult time to be writing work of substance or work that asks a reader, Give me a couple minutes. Imagine that this could change your day, perhaps your existence going forward. Because there’s no shorthand for poems. That was the funny thing I always thought about “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I mean, there’s the poem, and then Coleridge seems to feel what he needs to do is footnote the poem on the side, right, I mean, to say what’s really happening in this, as if the verse needed a translation. And I think in general poetry doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of summary. There’s something about the experience of the language that is completely necessary for the experience of the poem and for the message and the philosophy of the poem to hit home.

Guernica: You might have a problem with very premise of my next question. Who makes the best case for what poetry can look like in the 21st century?

Joseph Spece: I wish I could answer this question more thoroughly in terms of critical voices. Who do I look to to hearten my sensibility and to increase the breadth of my vision of what verse can be today. I still believe strongly in the critical eye of Helen Vendler. I think that the discussion that she had of the Rita Dove anthology—the Penguin Anthology—was very cogent and made a lot of sense to me. I find myself liking the critical work of [William] Logan a lot, but I fear from him that there is a lightness to his touch. I feel that there are these brilliant exposes and discussions and then parts of the criticisms that are not so rigorous.

And then in terms of writers—I mean, besides me, right?—of course, it’s impossible to overlook Heaney. I mean Heaney seems to be constantly coming up with thing that are staggering. That’s what makes me want to look at more contemporary poetry even though my tendency is to look backward. Just because that’s when I say to myself there was a time when North [1975] just came out. Right? And even more recently there was a time when District and Circle [2006] just came out. Other peers? I really like the work of Amy Beeder, the work of Malachi Black, of Stephanie Adams. I really find her work to be rewarding and metaphysical. It demands the mind of work to move beyond its moment of stasis.

Can I tell you something else? “Internet” as a word doesn’t really excite me—sonorously it’s not my sort of word.

Guernica: With Heaney—and I sense its still true with these other younger poets—terms like internet, Facebook, iPhone, these main features of our culture, are strangely absent. Especially if the internet is just a medium, why does it seem that poets are loathe to draw upon these features of the digital landscape?

Joseph Spece: Do you mean that Heaney will probably never have a poem called “Chat Room on AOL”?

Guernica: Yeah, for example.

Joseph Spece: Well, I think that right now while there are fantastic opportunities for the medium of the internet to be important artistically, that it may not be that yet. I think that many people have fled from the digital medium because it seems to be swallowed up by popular culture, advertisement, low-brow humor, or work. I can only speak for me. I have personally never read a poem that adequately or substantively used the word internet, chat room, AOL, LOL, OMG, anything like this. There was a time before I read “Cassandra,” by Heaney, that I thought to myself, I’ve never read a poem that adequately used an expletive to important effect. That poem changed my mind.

Can I tell you something else? I just don’t find the words very attractive. Internet as a word doesn’t really excite me. And maybe that is because it’s attached to something that I don’t like, but sonorously it’s not my sort of word.

Guernica: But there are words central to the digital age that are more sonorous but still largely absent from poetry—we scroll, we work with domains, links, toolbars, desktops, windows. I notice when I read contemporary journals, I read about nature, about experiences that don’t seem true to a generation that spends four hours a day on Facebook and zero hours a day in a meadow.

Joseph Spece: I can’t disagree, but since we we’re talking about it, I think what this may speak to is the fact that there is a lingering suspicion that our involvement with the Internet is rarely a moving or transformative interaction.

In the same sense, I don’t think you see the same excellent poems about interstates or about movie theaters, because those places don’t seem to be rarified enough, or outside of our general purview enough to move us into a method of thinking that is truly transformative. I mean, let’s think even about the things we do everyday—forget the Internet. Everyone, for example, eats everyday, and for many years have watched TV everyday and for many years has used the latrine. The fact that its something that we fill our day with doesn’t mean we feel the need to reflect on it substantively. Maybe because it doesn’t seem as though those actions deserve substantive reflection. Of course there are notable exceptions, but I think that there’s always been a sense that the real matter of existence—and of poetry—is beyond the trifles of our everyday motions.

Guernica: Are you saying that poetry disregards 99 percent of our experience, and that’s the point?

Joseph Spece: Yeah, I’ll buy stock in that.


Dear Kenneth, do you find me sadistic.

No groom rides the trials
I’ve borne and saddles twice.

World at the Kirk: yours
are the keens
of a slim figure
cut in orange glass.

With what gall do you look, and how
shall I convey
the tenth fathom of loss
and her love
to a galley of clerks?

It’s a pack of curs in pursuit.

It’s like gripping a live
wire in water.

Joseph Spece’s first book of poetry, Roads, was published in February by Cherry Grove Collections. His poems have recently appeared in Poetry, Orion, TriQuarterly, Diagram and elsewhere.

Alexander Landfair teaches writing at Columbia University in New York City.

Check out the rest of our National Poetry Month interview series:
Allison Benis White: The Luminous, Grieving Mind

Brett Fletcher Lauer: Poetry (Society of America) in Motion

Mary Jo Bang and Lynn Melnick: The Poetic Confession


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