Lawrence Joseph is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His sixth book of poems is forthcoming from FSG in August 2017. He is also the author of two books of prose, Lawyerland (FSG) and The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose, published by the University of Michigan Press in its Poets on Poetry Series. He is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law and lives in New York City. His poem “Of What We Know Now” can be found here. It appears with another poem in the July/Aug 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Of What We Know Now”?
“Of What We Know Now” is in my recently published book of poems, So Where Are We?, which confronts, among other issues, the destructive effects of “anarcho-capital // circulating at infinite speed, returning to itself even // before taking leave of itself, on its own plane of intelligence” on human life itself. We know now the ugliness capital inflicts on our environment, our ecology. It is now a part of our collective epistemology.
“Of What We Know Now” at once discusses geological fractures and the “social fracture-lines” of human lives in interaction. What do you feel this—the side-by-side coexistence of what’s comprehended to be the natural world, and what’s cast as the human or artificial worlds—does to the reader’s understanding of them both? Is what’s geological capable of being artificial in this poem? Can human violence be understood as an element of nature, or is it solely a mass-produced and created product?
The poem, as you say, discusses geological fractures, but also, simultaneously and importantly, the “violence along social fracture-lines, // warping, dissolving nature.” Manifestations of violence are found in forms of capital, of statist corporatism; the poem reveals how both nature and human nature have been affected by the violent social, ecological realities of anarcho-techno-capital. The poem’s language both mirrors and critiques these realities, which, now, we feel and we know.
This piece acknowledges its own status as language with the line “the poem in its voracities / of contemplation.” Is there an intended result, or understanding, you hope to impart on the reader about the simultaneous existence of the poem as something finished, and as something in the act of being created by the reader themselves in their own contemplation?
Yes, the intent is to bring the reader expressly into the act of the poem being made. The making of a poem is an aesthetic act, an act of language. The line “the poem in its voracities // of contemplation,” and, I might add, the phrase “the poem’s judgment proven, exact” that follows, expressly put the aesthetic act of the making of the poem into the poem. The intent is to make the reader aware of the language of the poem as a critique—its “judgement proven, exact”—that reveals the effects of systemic structures of power and violence.
The poem opens in reflection of a past night, deepening memory by revisiting it, and goes on to predict how “in fifty years these words / will be written fifty years ago.” How does the interaction with time, and the use of thought to alter and understand what’s past and present, interact with the present actions and narrative of your poem? Are there other poets you’ve been reading who are doing especially interesting things with time?
Every poem, at some level, raises issues of time, which I find vital in any poem I read. “Of What We Know Now” exists as a made-object against present-day realities, and will exist, if it survives, against realities fifty years from now (and, a poem made fifty years from now, will, if it survives, be placed against the realities fifty years after it’s made . . . ). This is intended as presenting a way of thinking about the making of a poem and the existence of a poem in time.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you stared out?
I started writing poems fifty years ago—my first book of poems, Shouting at No One, appeared in 1983. I’ve pretty much kept to the same formal and imaginative concerns since, which, over time, in each of my five collections, have expanded to take into account ever-changing personal, historical, and social realities.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life has most influenced your writing?
I suppose the non-writing activity that’s most influenced my writing is law. A lawyer for over forty years, I’ve practiced, mostly taught, written on, lived and made my living in the law, and in the language of law. In the United States, the language of law includes every social and political language—languages, for example, of wealth distribution, labor and capital, crime and punishment, race, environmental ecology, liberty, rights. These types of language, certainly, have made their way—how could they not?—into the rhetorical structures and substance of my work.