How did you become a writer?
After brief flirtations with the vocations of astronaut, airline pilot, and “guy in a white coat holding a foaming test tube,” at the age of twelve I decided I wanted to be a writer and I’ve basically never looked back.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
There has been almost nothing I’ve read that hasn’t influenced me, and when I was a kid and a teenager I read with total omnivorousness, from classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Waste Land to crappy Star Trek novelizations to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy and tons of Tolkien. I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that acquainted me with many mysterious and wonderful words: chimera, homunculus, slattern, apothecary. When I later became besotted with the high modernists, I think it was because I recognized in Joyce and Woolf the same impulse toward world-building and the invention of new languages. Here are some other writers that have mattered to me enormously, in no particular order: George Herbert, Wallace Stevens, Whitman and Dickinson, George Oppen, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Jacques Roubaud, Patrick O’Brian, Charles Portis, Alice Notley, D.H. Lawrence, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ashbery, Italo Calvino, Charles Olson, Samuel Beckett, José Saramago, Roberto Bolaño, Julio Cortázar, Barbara Guest, Marcel Proust, Jennifer Moxley.... I know I’ve forgotten someone(s) important, it’s the nature of such lists. I’ve also had many wonderful and supportive teachers, from middle school on up through my grad school advisors.
But the single biggest influence on my writing was my mother, herself a poet, who spoke several languages and was a serious Europhile. Sitting at the kitchen table in our house in suburban New Jersey, reading constantly, a cloud as it seemed of intense thought floating over her head (though it was really the smoke from her Salems), she had something of the aura of an exiled queen. In some ways I am still writing for her, and toward her, though she passed away from cancer more than twenty-five years ago.
When and where do you write?
When it comes to creative work I mostly write by hand into an ever-accumulating series of unruled notebooks. I find the contact of pen and paper to be primal and intoxicating; it’s also the best way I know to get into a truly internal space where I can hear whatever voice or voices I’ve tuned into without the distractions of the Internet. Later on I type everything up, though a part of me is always wondering what would happen if I were to misplace the notebook in which a novel draft has accumulated. That’s my little game with fate, I suppose. As for when: whenever I can! Having a kid turned out to be the best possible thing for my productivity, because it forced me to give up the idea of having whole days in which to write. Required to work with shards and fragments of time—a half-hour here, an hour and a half there—I’ve become far less precious about my writing time, and discovered that having a limited amount of time to write can actually be galvanizing, a means of overcoming resistance. I commute by train to my teaching job, and that’s become a golden half-hour, just enough time to get a small- to medium-sized chunk of writing done. I write either first thing in the morning before I settle down to thinking about work, or on the way home, taking advantage of my own fatigue to write with greater looseness and freedom. If a writing project seems particularly daunting, I can say to myself, “Well, it’s only half an hour—how much damage can I do in half an hour?” And then sometimes I find myself scrambling not to miss my stop, standing on the platform as the train pulls away scribbling down a last few lines. I’ve written entire novels this way.
What are you working on now?
I am performing a last round of edits on the aforementioned novel—a post-apocalyptic thriller of sorts—getting it ready to submit to publishers, while slowly accumulating the pages of a sequel. I’ve also got a couple of poetry manuscripts that I tinker with between rounds of submissions. And I’m in the process of putting the final edits on a collection of my critical prose, The Transcendental Circuit: Otherworlds of Poetry, that will be published by MadHat Press later this year. You might say that the apocalypse and utopia are the two poles of my imagination; the project that approaches that most idiosyncratically is Hannah and the Master, a hybrid text in which Blade Runner-style replicants of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt re-enact their notorious love affair at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Weird, right? Writing for me is always a test of my own imaginative response to the world: am I out there in the blue, or worse, merely derivative? Or have I managed somehow, like a barometer, to respond in a deeply internal way to the conditions of my time? In that sense Hannah, even though it’s mostly a pastiche, feels like some of my most authentic work. Finally, having thoroughly enjoyed the process of translating Francis Ponge, with the aid of my Lake Forest College colleague Jean-Luc Garneau, I am casting about for another French writer to work on. I find translation to be a very stimulating challenge—I don’t have to invent anything, only to select among possibilities, with one ear tuned into the French and the other into English. Maybe I should try some prose next.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I haven’t experienced for a very long time what I think people truly mean by writer’s block, namely a confrontation with the existentially terrifying void of being unable to write anything at all. But I do feel stymied on a regular basis with this project or that. However, as we all know, if you have something that really needs doing, give it to a busy person! If a novel isn’t going well I work on an essay; if prose seems impossible I’ll work on poems; if a poetry manuscript no longer makes sense to me I’ll try a short story. I also really love this exercise from Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany: write “NOT FOR THE NOVEL” (or the whatever) at the top of the page and then just go. Playing hooky on a big project can help me circle around and come back at it with unsuspected reserves of freshness. Another gift I’ve learned to give to myself is to simply accept that there will be times I don’t feel like writing, and to trust that eventually, in a day or an hour or a week, the itch will return. I wish I’d had that self-trust when I was in my twenties; it would have saved me a lot of unnecessary grief.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I haven’t benefited from advice so much as the example of other writers. When I was a grad student at the University of Montana I benefited enormously from the example of the professors there—people like the poet Mark Levine, who was my teacher for a semester. It wasn’t anything he said so much as the way he modeled a way of being, showing us what it meant to live as a poet passionately engaged with his reading and with the world. I vividly remember how he would enter the classroom pacing, prowling and intense, before bursting out with his obsession of the moment: an essay of Walter Benjamin’s, maybe, or a poem by Allen Grossman. He made being a poet and intellectual seem downright sexy. Not that he didn’t say a few useful things; I remember him once remarking to us that, as poets, we were developing muscles that would make prose writing seem easy if we ever cared to try it. I don’t know about easy, but the simple suggestion that we might so use our skills helped me find the necessary confidence years later to leap the fence between poetry and prose.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Trust your instincts. Read everything. Seek out the most adventurous work—typically published by small presses or in translation—with which to challenge yourself. Find your people, in or out of a formal writing workshop—there’s nothing so stimulating or reinforcing as being part of a small group of writers as passionate and ambitious as yourself. If one or two or all of them seem to be more talented and better read than you are, so much the better! And when it comes to the actual writing, put aside your fantasies of fame and invulnerability and write toward what unsettles you the most. I love the principle behind the personal essays in Brian Blanchfield’s book Proxies—not only did he write them without consulting the Internet (a quietly radical move in this day and age), but he wrote each one, as he says, until he had made contact with feelings of “shame, error, and guilt.” I’m not that brave yet, but I someday hope to be.
Joshua Corey is the author of four poetry collections, most recently The Barons (Omnidawn Publishing, 2014); a novel called Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014); and the co-translator, with Jean-Luc Garneau, of Partisan of Things by Francis Ponge (Kenning Editions, 2016). He is also the co-editor, with G.C. Waldrep, of the anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012). A collection of critical essays, The Transcendental Circuit: Otherworlds of Poetry, is forthcoming from MadHat Press. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from Cornell, and was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford. He lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches English at Lake Forest College.