An Interview with Lawrence Joseph

Portrait of our Time
This story is included in these collections

“The intent is to make a large, serious / portrait of my time.” These lines come from Lawrence Joseph’s poem “The Game Changed,” and they distill Joseph’s essential and rare contribution to contemporary poetry. The poems in his new collection, So Where Are We? (several of which have been published in Commonweal), are large. They are characterized by enormous shifts in time and space, moving from Peck Slip to the outer reaches of the cosmos, from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq, from the big bang to midcentury Detroit to our own world of technocapital.

Joseph’s poems also are serious. They ask the kinds of questions that great poets ask: what do we mean when we say “I”? How is the “I” we use in poetry different from the “I” we use in conversation different from the “I” we use in a courtroom? (This last question is particularly relevant to Joseph, who is the Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law.) How is this “I” shaped by the pressures of history, and how does it push back against such pressures? Joseph explores these questions through the most exacting formal means. The compositional control—the varied and flexible syntax; the masterful control of line and stanza breaks, music and imagery, sound and sense—gives the poems their surplus of energy; their formed nature inspires their passionate, felt life.

Finally, Joseph’s poems offer a portrait of our time. They are self-reflexive: quoting Wallace Stevens, Joseph has said, “Poetry is the subject of the poem.” But they are just as concerned with thinking about our current moment—its politics, its economics, its nightmares, and its beauties. So Where Are We? fiercely investigates our location in “spacetime,” moving through different social spaces by moving through different kinds of language: the philosophical, the legal, the religious, the colloquial. The book combines formal excellence with an acute and prophetic moral vision. It’s that rare collection of poetry that terrifies and sustains, one of the best any contemporary American poet has written.

I spoke with Joseph recently by e-mail.

Anthony Domestico:   So Where Are We? is clearly a shaped collection, with a balance and order to the book as a whole. Any number of echoes and patterns could be mentioned, but here’s one: the final lines of the penultimate poem, “Back to That”—“you can say what you like / to that”—are then picked up in the title of the final poem, “What More Is There to Say?” What were some of the compositional decisions you had to make about the way the poems in this book fit together?

Lawrence Joseph:  My sense of the poet is classical—the poet is one who makes poems. In each book,  I develop and repeat certain general themes—time, place, memory, God, history, class, race, beauty, love, poetry, identity. The core identity is the poet making the poems, but others—the poet who is Catholic, who is an Arab American, who is a lawyer, who’s lived most his life in Detroit and New York City—are continuously in play. “An Ancient Clarity Overlaid,” which appears about a third of the way into So Where Are We?, begins with an ars poetica: “What is thought and felt, believed and dreamed, // reflected on, the plot worked out in constant depth, what isn’t, for the time being, being written, is being worked on—how long will it be, the one long poem?” “Back to That” not only refers back the poems in this book, but to those in other books as well. “What More is There to Say?” echoes a rhetorical motif—what, in a poem, is and isn’t spoken—that runs through my work.

I’ve always believed that poetry must speak of realities as least as complicated as those spoken of in prose. I’ve read books of poems, even single poems, which are, for me, at least the equivalent of a short story or a novel. Martin Amis, in an interview with Saul Bellow in the early eighties, quotes Bellow asking, “Why not address ‘the mysterious circumstance of being’, say what it’s like to be alive at this time, on this planet?” This has been and still is my ambition.    

I’ve always believed that poetry must speak of realities as least as complicated as those spoken of in prose.

AD:  At times, this book suggests, to quote Wallace Stevens, that “Poetry is the subject of the poem”—or, as you put it, “the poem / measure[es] out its own circle.” But alongside this assertion is a consistently outward-looking gaze, an engagement with political economy and the War on Terror and technology. Are these twin commitments—the commitment to poetry as the subject matter of poetry, and the commitment to, as you’ve written elsewhere, “make a large, serious / portrait of my time”—in tension? Or are they in some way working in concert?

LJ:   “Poetry is the subject of the poem”—it’s the opening line of Part XXII of Stevens’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” written during the economic depths of the Great Depression.  Every poem is, first of all, about poetry. In a 1942 talk, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”—the United States had declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy just months before—Stevens describes the tension between the making of a poem and the reality of the worlds we live in. He speaks of a poet capable of resisting the pressure of reality in a state of violence, knowing that the violence of the future may be even deadlier than the violence of today. The realities of the times in which the poet lives and writes constantly transform a poem’s aesthetic space. The poet resists the pressures of reality, including the pressures of violence, in making, in forming, the poem. The tension is in the resistance—the poem is an act of resistance.   

AD:  So much of this book is about “epical, systemic violence.” Yet this systemic violence is balanced by particular acts and images of love. After describing the world’s “ravenous // cruelty,” for instance, you ask, “But is there a more beautiful city—parts / of it, anyway?” To which you answer, yes, and it can be found in two bodies “light / with love, // heavy with sleep,” or in the “voice of love.” In the collection as a whole, or even more expansively in your vision of the world, how do you see the relation between love and violence?

LJ:  The violence inherent in our systems and structures of power is a part of who we are—our thoughts, sensibilities, imaginations, language. We live in manifestations of it— permanent war, environmental destrucution, poverty, racism, misogyny, the assault on labor, torture in our prisons, capital punishment—a corporate capitalist state controlled by oligarchical interests for their own private profit and gain. Against this, I place images of love, beauty, a sensuous language highly attentive to color and light. It’s an aesthetic strategy, but, of course, it’s also more than that. In the poem “On Nature” I write, “I, too, see God adumbrations, I, too, write // a book on love.” My books are books on love. The poet casts an eye on what is horrendous, but his truest life is in what sustains, restores, heals. Love, the act of loving, beauty, are first, fundamental truths.    

AD:  In the poem “So Where Are We?” you talk about the Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street, saying that “there is a God, a God who fits the drama / in a very particular sense.” I love that idea: that there’s a fit, even an aesthetic fit, between God and the world. To what extent do you see yourself as a religious poet—or, even more specifically, as a Catholic poet? I’m thinking less about your personal beliefs than in how you marshal the resources of the Catholic tradition—negative theology, for instance, which you echo in these lines: “What we felt— / something taken from us / we’ll never get back—disarticulated, / no language for it, inwardly unstrung.”

LJ:  If by religious you mean do I address issues of the spirit, of the soul, in my work? Yes, definitely. As for being a Catholic poet, I was born in, and into, Catholicism—Eastern Rite Maronite and Melkite Catholicism. Not being Catholic has never been a choice for me—it’s in my family, my ancestry, going back centuries. Catholicism, for me, is always here.

My parents, children of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, were born in Detroit and attended Catholic grade and high schools. I did, too. I attended the University of Detroit Jesuit High School—my years at UD Jesuit corresponded almost exactly with those of Vatican II. A Jesuit hold on my Catholicism has lasted to this day. In grade school, I was aware of the Social Encyclicals, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. In high school, we studied John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris. In the late sixties and early seventies—while studying literature at Michigan and at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and while writing poetry—I read Thomas Merton. Not so much the contemplative books or the poetry—though his poetry translations are among the best of his generation—but, mostly, his journal, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and Faith and Violence, which addresses issues of systemic racism, violence, and war. The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton remains a book as vital as ever for me—Merton’s essays on Blake, Joyce, Pasternak, Faulkner, O’Connor, Louis Zukofsky, Simone Weil, Roland Barthes, the poets Fernando Pessoa, Cesar Vallejo, Rafael Alberti, the seven essays on Albert Camus. Daniel Berrigan’s witness at the time—his calling out American warmaking as criminal and as grievous social sin, his call for a moral revolution grounded on the Catholic faith—was powerfully felt. I read The Catholic Worker, the work of Dorothy Day.  

Is there an aesthetic “fit” in my work between God and the world? The “I’ in my poems has from the beginning identified himself as Catholic, and my books certainly can be read as presenting a Catholic theology “in a very particular sense.” Catholicism is a faith morally identified with the human struggle for human dignity and justice. It is a vision of the world incarnationally rooted in the senses, a faith of and in spoken and written words—Scripture, “the Word of God,” the Logos. It’s also a communal faith—“the Communion of Saints.” William Carlos Williams, in a chapter from In the American Grain on the Jesuit Père Sebastian Rasles, wrote that to be Catholic is to be moral, to be positive, to be peculiar, to be sure, to be generous, to marry, to touch, to give because one has, “where tenderness may move, love may awaken.” Catholicism confronts the all-too-human questions of the existence of evil, the experience of transcendence, the mysteries of grace. The lines you quote—are they an expression of negative theology? Yes. The experience of an unbearable grief just may have something to do with God.

The experience of an unbearable grief just may have something to do with God.

AD:  These poems are constantly thinking about abstraction and violence—more specifically, about how turning the particular into the abstract enables economic cruelty (think of bundled mortgages) and actual bloodshed (think of the label “enemy combatant”). What are some of the languages you find most useful for thinking about abstraction? Marxist theory is clearly one. Is theology another? I’m reminded again of that line about God fitting the world “in a very particular sense.”

LJ:  The sort of abstraction and abstract language that you speak of—a reified language that separates thoughts and ideas from their factual content—is hideous and destructive. The languages I place beside and against it are languages of perception and critique, fact and detail—types of langage certainly found in theology and in Marxist theory—and a language, “in a very particular sense,” of “facts of feeling,” sensuality, intimacy.

Then there’s law, the language of law I’ve lived and worked in for nearly forty-five years. Legal language is rooted in realpolitik, in power. It includes distributive languages of labor and finance capital, languages of race and gender, war, crime and punishment, bodily injury, contractual transactions, individual rights. It maps our entire social space. It’s a language of facts, abstract rules and doctrines, rhetorical tropes, analysis, argument. It’s a language I know and have practiced, taught and written on, and I know how to use it for my purposes when I write.

Also important to me is a language of intensely focused moral witness and judgment, a “moralist language”—found, for example, in the writings of Albert Camus and Simone Weil, and in the work of one of the greatest American moralists, if not the greatest, James Baldwin. The truth of a poem is in its language, what its language tells us about the truths of life itself. Put that truth—put the language of poetry—against Andrew Bacevich's recent description of the language of "the powerful," who, as Bacevich forcefully says, "reveal truth only to the extent that it suits them," because the "exercise of power necessarily involves manipulation and is antithetical to candor." Poetry's language—as I say in my prior book of poems Into It—resists and is against  "the turgid language of pseudo-erudition," the language of "false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks" who "think not at all about what they bring down."

AD:  In the title poem of So Where Are We?, you describe a feeling that many of us will recognize: “Too much consciousness / of too much at once, a tangle of tenses // and parallel thoughts.” And, as you’ve said, you imagine all of your books as forming one long poem. So I’m wondering: how has the experience of consciousness changed from your first collection, published in 1983, to now? And how has your own poetry changed, either formally or thematically, in response to this?

LJ:  My first book, Shouting at No One, is set in Detroit in the seventies, and, among other things, tracks the breakdown of the Fordist paradigm of industrial capitalism. “In That City, In Those Circles,” a poem in So Where Are We?, re-visions that time, and another, “Here in a State of Tectonic Tension,” presents physical landscapes and metaphorical geographies of industrial and post-industrial Detroit. The techno-political economy of Fordism—Antonio Gramsci’s word—changed the world. Born in Detroit shortly after World War II, I inherited the city’s histories of labor and capital, class and race, violence and civil conflict. My father’s and uncle’s small grocery-liquor store in Detroit was looted and burned in the July ’67 insurrection, fifty years ago. I was nineteen years old. I’d just finished my first year at Michigan, and worked the afternoon shift that summer at Pontiac Truck and Coach, dry-sanding paint-primered bodies of Chevrolet vans. When I came to New York City from Detroit in eighty-one, my practice as a lawyer included direct experience with the workings of finance capital. This coincided with the United States’s escalating military involvement in the Middle East.

These histories have been and continue to be an integral part of my work. For almost thirty-five years, my wife Nancy and I have lived in downtown Manhattan. After the bombing of the World Trade Center, we were evacuated from our apartment, located a block from Ground Zero. We returned to it after six weeks, and we still live there. This and the United States’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 are present throughout Into It. So Where Are We?’s title poem begins with the question, “So where were we?”,  going back then to where Into It left off. The book takes on our continuous wars and warmaking, the economic collapse, racist hatred and violence, the oligarchic state’s redistributions of wealth, the acceleration of cyberspace—digitalized time, digitalized space—by technocapital, which, as I say in  “A Fable,” the first poem in the new book, is now “permanently, digitally, // semioticized, virtually unlimited // in freedom and power, taking // billions of bodies on the planet // with it.”  For me, the challenge is as it’s always been—to make poems that resist the pressures of  reality. In times such as ours, the challenges are greater, the stakes higher than ever.   

AD:  This book, like your others, is interested in scale, in thinking about how the local (all those NYC landmarks, all those NYC streets) connects, or doesn’t, to the global (“Ramadi, Mosul, Falluja, Tel Afar, Raqqa”) and to the cosmic (“solar masses / spiraling into spacetime”). How do you think about the relationship between scale and poetic form?

LJ:  The relationship between scale and form is a matter of composition, and composition is the act of making, of forming a poem through its combination of images, thoughts, voices, and sound patterns. The local, global, cosmic are imaginatively connected in what I think, see, feel. But, in a poem, what is presented as large or small, abstract or detailed, depends on the poet’s perspective, how a poem’s thoughts, themes, motifs, languages, are juxtaposed, associatively sequenced. Each poem presents its own issues of rhythm, meter, lineation, rhyme, syntax, its own world of formed language and thought. Poems written in stanzas allow for shifting perspectives in different ways than poems written in parts or in single blocks of metrically lineated language. So Where Are We?’s final words are, “Thickening, the mists,

this early morning; repeated, sounds
of foghorns we hear from afar.”

The book ends with a visual image, a thought, sounds, repeated.       

AD:  Melville provides the epigraph to this book: “Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, … and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul.” Why Melville? What is it that attracts you to him? Is it his metaphysical imagination? His grounding in New York City?

LJ:   It’s from the first chapter of Moby Dick—the ellipses mark several pages between the first and second parts of the quotation. It seemed to me an apt introduction to the book. The “I” in the poems doesn’t ignore what’s good, is quick to perceive a horror, and, in making the poems, is swayed to his purpose by “wild conceits”—“two and two there” floating into his “inmost soul.” In the inmost soul! Melville’s Confidence Man and Bartelby the Scrivener also make an appearance in my book of prose, Lawyerland. Melville lays down an American template. The lust for power, violence, hatred—slavery, imperial expansion, the destruction of nature, murderous aggression, injustice, greed, corruption—he absorbs it all and finds the language and forms of language he needs to fulfill his vision. Also, Melville was born a few blocks from where Nancy and I live, so he and I share more than metaphysical, and metaphorical, territory.

AD:  The book ends with a poem titled “What More Is There to Say?” So let me conclude by asking: what more is there to say? What do you plan to work on next? Any plans to return, as in Lawyerland, to the novel form?

LJ:  If you try to write about what’s going on, you always have more to say. I’m always working on the next books of poems. To paraphrase Octavio Paz, a poet can’t help writing poems, and knows it. I’m driven to write poems. I also write prose—essays, criticism, journal, diary, notebook entries, legal scholarship. I have one collection of essays and assorted prose pieces, and am putting together another.  Lawyerland is a poet’s prose book—what I needed to say I needed to say in prose. I’m not sure what generic category it is—in composing it, I found myself inventing my own prose form. Philip Roth defined a novel as “a piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits.” Lawyerland fits within that definition. I’m presently working on a book of prose that also fits within that definition, and have another one much in mind.    

Published in the September 22, 2017 issue: 
Also by this author
An Interview with Peter Cole
This story is included in these collections:

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