Ed. Note: This fall, GGP Co-Editor Siwar Masannat interviewed Joe Hall about his latest publication, the chapbook Post Nativity (Publishing Genius, 2012). Hall is the author of Pigafetta is my Wife (Black Ocean, 2010), The Cathedral Tent (forthcoming Black Ocean, 2013) as well as co-author with Chad Hardy of The Container Story (Vols I & II) from Spring Gun Press, 2012. Hall holds an MFA from George Mason University, where he was the 2007-2008 thesis fellow. Visit Joe Hall here.
SM: Do you see a progression in your books? Other than a similarity of poetics, perhaps, would you consider yourself a socially/politically conscious writer if not necessarily a political writer? What do you think about these labels?
JH: I worked with Lucille Clifton as an undergraduate, and she was fond of the phrase “The personal is political.” It is easy to trouble this phrase when we see it as an assertion of truth. From Lucille, it felt more like an imperative: “Make the personal political.”
Pigafetta, through the lens of The Container Store, is, among other things, concerned with how space—the globe—is created via a circumnavigation and also begins to be inscribed through colonial processes. The Container Store exists at the other end of these processes of inscription, in a world fully mapped and partitioned at macro and micro levels. In the world of Pigafetta, it is possible for an autobiographical voice to speak passionately and directly to the other even though this discourse may destroy both speakers. In the world of TCS, there is no unifying voice, only wisps of voices conditioned by the various overlapping, increasingly cramped spaces they negotiate. It is an unhappy situation which I also salt with autobiography. I miss Lucille. I’ve tried to situate the personal in a political way.
SM: Epic poetry is generally defined as a long narrative poem that is concerned with historic events, historic or mythic characters, war and conquests, as well as a historical, cultural, and religious heritage (Princeton Encyclopedia). Do you think there might be an ironic sense of epic poetry at play in Post Nativity?
JH: Siwar! I like this idea. I never thought of Post Nativity as in dialogue with the epic until now. I suppose the poem’s structures, its descents and ascents, are informed by my readings of Grail Quests and historical pilgrimages to places that didn’t exist. In the latter, people leave the known and enter an unknown which they are overlaying with fantastical expectations. The resulting accounts render for the reader something which exists between reality and total fantasy. Post Nativity turns this inside out. The wailing “I” moves in a cyclical way between landscapes saturated with the surreal and unreal deeper into a wilderness studded with “historical, cultural, and religious” referents. There is no homecoming or quitting of the quest or reception of a whole via revelation, just an image of bifurcation that grows deeper with every movement toward resolving it.
Maybe the ubiquitous “systems” poem (and there’s lots of great ones) has largely replaced the epic, which made me think of PN as not having a genre. The critical distinction between the two might be the former’s engagement with myth and religion and the latter’s abstention from these subjects.
SM: As an extension of thinking about the epic, I can’t help but also think of Pound's cantos when I read Post Nativity: fragmented, witness-like, disjunctive narrative organized around a stream of consciousness quality, attempting an all-encompassing sensibility. Your work seems to be recognizing that sensibility and resisting it, in the sense that there is an ironic and/or humorous quality to it. Would you agree?
JH: This is interesting because Adam Robinson compared this poem to “Howl,” which is, for me, a great compliment. I think it is somewhere between and far below either work. I don’t know.
As for Pound, I once heard his work described as being a galaxy whose arms reach into infinity. This is a compelling metaphor, but inaccurate. Galaxies have an elegance in their relative symmetry. Pound’s work is out of proportion, a distended, grotesque freakazoid and beautiful in that way. I try to play on this idea: that as something of human invention becomes larger and comes to encompass more it becomes painfully asymmetrical. Hence, huge crippling genitals in Post Nativity.
In this sense I’d like to think of the poem less as subsuming its subjects into a crystalline structure and more subsumed by the process of trying to hold so much together. More Akira, less The Blob.
SM: Your work is consistently conscious of the politics of cultural representation, war, social dynamics, as well as an American poetic heritage of writing a poem that borrows from culture and its commentary, and comments on that culture and its commentary. The book opens with, “It’s true I took courage following the new star, passing visored old women.” The book also has other “I” moments wrapped in varying degrees of literality, surrealism, and horror. Would you consider the humane aspect of the “I” a reminder to the reader of the human implicated in the “field of chest-high yarrow with Florida blondes/ In wet t-shirts and thong and dudes with stomachs/ Like six lacquered doorknobs—”, or the “..., the IED/ Detonated, my brain slammed against my skull—O Beast, O Christ”?
Or, how does the “I” function in this poem?
JH: It is an “I” that is passing through wildernesses, an “I” who follows whatever there is that offers itself to be followed, irradiated and mutating, alone in that this “I” has no clear image of itself even in society, no one to commune with—just the whirling nova of wind and fire that becomes divinity. This “I” reminds us, I hope, of the amplitude of the human situation and, again, hopefully, invites the reader to, across the poem, consider the pathways between the pastoral orgy and a field planted with explosives.
I would like to share a just awful short poem I wrote several years ago which performs the same kind of “I” in miniature:
I would live in the country, I would live in the city I pray to Jesus in a duck blind with my rifle I pray to Jesus at dinner with friends with a 3rd Kind of genital, I live in a condo on a Farm for republican rage, I update my blog In a coffee shop in a civil war prison staffed By green confederate skeletons There are tall pines and sand pouring from the windows Of tall buildings, there are necks blowing out cones Of blood at the table at Applebees There are beautiful heads with flowers on their lips Drifting down the Susquehanna—
I think being highly conscious of the politics of cultural representation is what gives me the courage (foolishness/hubris?) to enter the minefields of writing about love, war, colonialism, etc. Sure, people have written awful and or, in hindsight, retrograde poems about these things, but I don’t see those failures as discouraging. I see them as helpfully marking the way. Even though some would argue that as a white dude I do not have the authorizing experience, it is a cop-out to not try to write about things past the self. That this attempt will always fail in some ways and succeed in others is something my poems try to be self-conscious about by situating themselves in an “I.” Dorothea Lasky does a really good job of using a self-consciously sincere “I.” I think about her boldness often.
SM: You have a lovely penchant for repetition and language interruption. Considering that repetition often functions within a reconstruction or re-contextualisation purpose (whether that is literary, poetic, political, etc) how might you explain your general interest in repetition as a poetic tool—especially in terms of intertextuality and writing the political poem, if I may label your poetry as such? Why "O Beast, O Christ"?
JH: I don’t think there is poetry without repetition, because repetition does more than amplify, it destabilizes, it allows the repeated phrase to carry more and more connotational weight until it breaks open into a field of understanding beyond the rational. That is a way of saying divinity again maybe, or just the subconscious or pre-linguistic. I am turned off by people assuming Christ or whoever wants us to do anything and then explaining the logic of that. Let’s say there is a Christ; he/she/it is more animal than man. He/she/it doesn’t want you to do anything. He/she/it doesn’t have reasons. He/she/it is, and it’s your job to deal with that. I’ve gotten pretty far away from the political here but let me just say that in some ways, extended repetition reminds the reader that there is crisis and no progress. It can ask that someone give the whole situation a shove.
SM: The notion of combining ancient/religious history with current events (or maybe the allusion to them) creates a surreal/paranoid/ humorous landscape. Do you think of it in this way? Is this the creation of a world based off knowledge a speaker has received and can only reorganise, recontextualise, or recreate as such? Is this the imagination of the world and the situation based on a limited, or removed, reception of it?
JH: Yes, I hope this slurring of old and new, this constant anachronism, creates a spectrum of tonal possibilities that includes the surreal, paranoid, and humorous, and that, above all, creates new, if only provisional, frameworks to engage with the present moment and that which follows.
I was reading a lot about Prester John when I wrote this, about how technologies of navigation were inspired by the myth of a fabulously wealthy, powerful, and Christian King tucked away in the Far East, how the desire to make contact with an unreal kingdom shaped the age of discovery. In many ways it was a desire to travel through confusion and at the end to meet one’s own likeness. It seems that we have a lot of trouble seeing the myths which direct our labors because they have become as total and unobtrusive as contact lenses. If the contemporary myth is secular humanism, people have been knocking humanism around like a piñata but are still somewhat squeamish about tackling secularism. I wondered if like an inoculation I could inject the secular contemporary with the mythic, with spirit—old myths of Christianity and the older ones of animism. In this, there are moments where in composing, “re-organizing,” my boat rocks into zones that seem immediate and real. I enter the integration of materials through struggle and, being a painfully obsessive doubter, immediately turn back. But I hope I am, like a good American Puritan, corkscrewing upward into a lasting Byzantine Jesus Ghost Tree Chuang Tze-style field of twisting static. Lately I’ve felt an imperturbability settling around me, but it hardly feel enlightened.
SM: What does it mean for the roots of horror (of this project) to reside in nativity? Or is this not the root of horror, but rather the facade of it?
JH: There’s a lot of smart people writing about horror and the grotesque and I am not one of them. Though I recently have been turning in my reading more toward the taboo, things we could call horrible—head hunting, eating human parts, infanticide, and incest. Horror may have to be the other side of Kant’s sense of beauty—that which evades immediate recognition and presents itself in an unnameable form outside the realm of utility. Beauty and horror contend with each other in the encounter with the unnameable. Along these lines, perhaps I’m asserting more that horror resides in nativity. But what do we call the acceptance of a newly born horror?
Notes & Links  Or should I say the masculine condition? The “I” is positioned as a male. The poem deals with the schizo-disgustingness of this position and tries to reformulate this condition by, at points, travestying it.