Lee Smith and Claire Trevien interview JT Welsch (Salt Modern Voices Tour)
Salt Modern Voices are a series of poetry and fiction pamphlets published by Salt Publishing. This Autumn, several of its authors will be touring the UK and reading in various venues. More info on this can be found on the website. In the lead up to the tour, SMV authors will be interviewing each other and posting the results on their personal websites. To kick this off, Lee Smith and Claire Trévien interview JT Welsch on form, masculinity, and his American heritage.
J.T. Welsch grew up in a small farm town near St. Louis, Missouri, but lives and teaches in Manchester, UK, where he completed a PhD this past year. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbox Manifold, Stand, Boston Review and Manchester Review. Orchids (Salt, 2010) is his first book of poetry. Another pamphlet, Orchestra & Chorus, will be published by Holdfire Press in September 2011.
One thing that I’ve noticed, or an impression that I get in any case, is that your poems are tight, tense, bundles of nerves – in the sense that they’re rather compact, with lots of enjambments & not much rhyme. How important is form to you?
I’m glad you think they’re tense and nervy, and that their compactness works on the level of sight and sound, through line-endings and rhyme (or lack thereof, which is a kind of rhyme). I’m quite narrative, but there’s also an impulse towards concretism. So meaning vs. material (both visual and aural) translates to voice vs. body, subject vs. object. Like all good binaries, they collapse into each other with the least scrutiny. For the poem, that means churning until the speech congeals into something as irrefutably thingy as the page, but still retains a sense of human self for the reader to meet. So, yes, a necessarily nervous, anxious self, there but for the grace of form.
The blurb says that Orchids ‘springs from the margins of contemporary masculinity’ which is a lovely phrase in itself (reflecting on the title nicely), I was wondering how you would define masculinity today – how does it differ from say, a decade ago?
Well, that’s where orchids come from, right? I look at masculinity, like any identity, for its ironic lack of definition. “Margins” really isn’t the right word, if it’s only understood in opposition to a relatively stable centre. In Sexuality Studies, there’s always a danger of pitting marginalised identities against a dominant norm. You can end up reinforcing that opposition, or else normalizing “queer”, when really, there’s nothing so queer and tenuous as the supposedly typical man. You’ve seen them, hiding in suits or in perverse athletic bodies, clustering together on the weekend. They’re absolutely terrified of being found out. That’s not to deny an imbalance of cultural power, but the strategy of these poems is to expose the general tenuousness, the fragile orchids. Rather than venerate or pin down queer masculinities like Cary Grant’s or James Dean’s, for example, I’m just looking for what it takes to get through the day, endlessly negotiating a combination of roles, all of which are marginal, and none of which you ever completely live up to.
Quite a few of the poems are ekphrastic – how intertwined are the visual and verbal arts would you say?
It’s probably a crutch, but I like to have something to work against. There’s only one translation in the book, but I do a lot of that too. Or I’m almost always playing against other texts or stories. Making a poem out of someone else’s painting feels the same, and as with translation, where I don’t really speak anything but English, it probably helps that I’ve never painted. I guess it’s vicarious. Does that sound glib? It’s the same thing about defining yourself in relation to someone else’s story. The Magritte, Caravaggio, and Monet in the book are doing very different things, but they’re all concerned with the artistic process, I think. As I say, I don’t know from experience, but the visual and verbal arts must be connected in terms of what it means to make something so impractical as “art”. In terms of the objectivity I was talking about, the visual arts have a more obvious thingyness to them. I’m probably latching onto that too.
Would you consider yourself a British or an American poet? Which feels more like literary home?
Transatlanticism comes up a few times in the pamphlet, whether with the Pilgrims or my TS Eliot fetish. Never mind his epoch-making poetry – I’m so narcissistic, and much more interested in the fact that he’s from St. Louis and studied in Boston before moving to London, like me. There’s my bad joke that Cary Grant’s accent is like Eliot’s in reverse. But the point is the in-betweenness, or duplicity. I can change my spellings depending on where I’m submitting stuff, but it’s the tenuousness of identity again. Sorry, that’s dodging your practical question, and I’m being disingenuous, since there’s really so little exchange between contemporary British and American poetry. I grew up with the latter, of course, and the sense of experimentation and political engagement still excites me on a gut level. But I’m addicted to the lyricism and formal precision of British and Irish poetry as well. Yes, I’m being incredibly reductive.
Following on from that, who are your greatest influences?
I don’t know about influence, by my quickest route through the twentieth century goes from W.C. Williams and Eliot, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane and Stevens, through the confessionalists, especially Berryman and Lowell, up through James Merrill and Ashbery, C.K. Williams. Yikes, all American. And these are just poets. I’m at least as derivative of Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Edward Albee, Nabokov, Paul Simon, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
How do the poems in Orchids benefit from being published in a pamphlet rather than in a full collection?
The obvious thing is the unity and discipline of shorter forms. A pamphlet is more likely to be read in one sitting. I like the way poems nudge or undermine each other in a confined space, and there’s a definite shape to this sequence, although that also threatens to undermine itself. The first poem is called ‘Orchids’, but as a pamphlet, they’re a tidier bouquet of them, I hope.
Can you provide one line from the collection that you think best identifies your style (if one line is impossible, then one stanza).
I feel no duty toward these dishes, even if
I’ll be the last to read them, or their splotches,
and quickly, till each re-surfaces,
more complete than I ever hope to be.
(from ‘Meditations on Washing Up’)
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