When I Finish Praying: A Conversation with Joe Hall

By David Blomenberg

devotional_poems_web_coverJoe Hall’s second book of poetry, The Devotional Poems, is recently out from Black Ocean.  While he was in the beginning stages of his book tour, I got a chance to ask him a few questions about it.

David Blomenberg:  Congratulations on the second book!  Tell me about the tour you’ve got going.

Joe Hall:  I really wanted to make sure I could get the book out there and read to as many people as possible.  I’ll be on the road for about five weeks, doing a reading just about every other day.  I have over the course of the summer about 30 readings scheduled. I’m visiting Fayetteville Arkansas, and other places; I’m trying to get to all of those corners of America.

DB:  That’s a lot more than you did with your last book

JH:  I’m a bit nervous. There’ll be days where I’ll be driving for ten hours, waking up, and then reading.  One thing I’ll have to remember is not to drink too much beer after the readings.

DB:  I was interested in the genesis of this project.  It’s a good deal different than Pigafetta is My Wife, which was a series of love poems.  What got this project going?

JH:  Pigafetta is a love poem and it tries to tackle love from a lot of different angles, to communicate the pleasures of love as well as its viscosities.  This one came from a far different place.  Adam Robinson, who published part of the book [Post Nativity] as a chapbook, wanted to look at it as a Howl kind of poem. I was surprised he said that, but I think it’s right in that it’s more a poem of alienation and pain—as boring as those things can be sometimes—but I tried to put a certain texture on it. It comes from bouncing around after graduation, when I was working some really bad jobs, living in different places like trailer parks, as well as the fact that my body was breaking down; I was having back pain and nerve pain issues. At the same time I was channeling a lot of weird things.  For example, at the National Basilica where I wrote part of the poems—it was close to my house and had a great cafeteria—they had something like fifty Virgin Marys in a crypt in the basement: this sort of multiplicity of icons of devotion and access—nodes through which people are mediating their suffering and desires and aspirations.  My roommate at the time was a counselor.  He would tell me about the patients who needed to get their lives back together because they’d spend all day playing Call of Duty with their kids while they were on pain medication. I listened to the radio and I’d hear these extremely insane conservative/religious talk-show streams of crazy stuff.  It’s strange how the brain brings these things together—both my legacy as an uber-liberal and these weird conservative apocalyptic visions. The project got started this way, as well as from reading a lot of devotional poetry.

DB:  It’s interesting—the pieces here don’t look or work like some of John Berryman’s poems—but in reading this book, something kept calling me to Berryman’s pieces in Delusions such as “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”.  At times there’s a sort of “de Profundis” tone to these pieces.

JH:  I think that in that legacy of Confessionalism of Berryman and Lowell there’s a kind of hyper-pinched religiosity that has trouble escaping its own self-consciousness at times.  I was trying to get past that, to go back through sources which were a little bit more sincere, and to not be as self conscious as someone like Berryman, or to use form in a way that was debilitating to the expression of the poem.  I wanted to have longer lines and draw on the tradition of Ginsberg or Whitman, also Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was somebody who was trying to marshal every sonic power that he could and to make the expression of sound and stress as intense as possible as a way of transcending the semantic content of language, even though that is impossible.

DB:  With Berryman—being here at the library, I went to pull the book of the shelf—he’s calling on a god in this desperate situation, but sees God as an element only of good.  The voice in the poems of your new book seems more desperate in his calls: “O Beast! O Christ!” –it’s as if he doesn’t care who the hell can get him out of this bullshit, he’ll go with anyone who will answer.

JH:  I think that, regarding Berryman, who had aspirations that were impossible, because he was an inveterate lapser, as we all are…I think that is the legacy of religious thinking that I didn’t want to fall into. I wanted to think about conceptions of divinity that are sludgier in which  you can’t separate the beast from the Christ. I don’t believe in the transcendent forms of religion, but I do believe in those that are rooted in space and place and everything that’s around one, even if they are things that are disgusting or polluted.

DB:  Confessionalism is a bit of a thorny issue, especially when working on poems where there is the assumption that you are speaking from your own personal standpoint…Here you’re actually hitting two thorny issues at the same time: dealing with religion—god of some sort—and Confessionalism.  How did you work that out for yourself?

JH:  I think in one sense, a Confessionalist is very much staked  to an authentic “I” speaking to a “Thou” that is locatable.  Not locatable, but is a subject, the infinite subject—it assumes two relatively stable subjectivities in conversation with each other.  I’d like to open that up more.  I’d like to think that the poem can have an I and a Thou–that you and I–and to move away from that I in a way that is clearly not autobiographical, and then to bring it back to the moment of the address between an I and a Thou which does seem plausible and believable. Maybe it’s a way of cheating and having things both ways.

 DB:  It seems like this would be a difficult book to write.

JH:  The last book was very careful and a lot of the poems in that collection strove to be chiseled and economical.  With this book, writing some of the long poems, I didn’t know at the beginning that they would end up being long poems.  But in starting them, it was like ripping a scab off—they just kept going and bleeding and I would say to myself, “wow this is getting really dark, what do I do?” and I just had to keep telling myself to just keep following it, keep getting it down on the page, and eventually I had some 150 pages of stuff, much of which was wretched which I cut and cut and cut, but what was surprising was just how much there was when I opened up that door and tried to enter that space.

DB:  When I’m teaching, I talk about the need to have something at stake in one’s writing.  There is a lot at stake in these poems—the Exorcisms are particularly harrowing.  What sort of surprises did you run into in writing these poems? There’s a lot of heavy stuff going on in here…

JH:  It’s funny: at readings someone will laugh at one of the [painful] lines or someone will track it as being lampoonish or ridiculous.  I think in a lot of ways, to have something at stake in these poems, in a lot of ways was to push them to a limit regarding image, regarding crisis, which borders on the unreal, the surreal, or the cartoonish, but then to narrow the poem down and stake it to something which feels real, which feels right.  I think in a lot of ways it’s in moving back and forth between how pain might appear and how crisis might appear to someone else as the unknowable while to you when something is a problem or something is painful it is the only knowable thing, that it is a code of reality.

DB:  There’s a level of desperation in these poems.  With the back and nerve issues you’d mentioned earlier, there are some pretty scary moments you draw from. In “Grief” you pull from Puritan writing.  I looked it up and I had to smile, in that there is quoted text drawn from a Puritan piece titled “On Insufficiency to Praise God for his Mercy.” I was sitting there thinking of the great level of bitterness that can be seen in that quote,  or desperation, or hope—or a heartbreaking combination of all three.

JH:  These are poems of desperation in a lot of ways, and it isn’t just back pain, its people in your life dying. There were two deaths in my family that are really close to this. I think in a lot of ways what I was trying to get at first was how to express limits and how do you represent one running up against those limits on which the other side is an abyss, the kind of terror you realize when everything becomes finite, and there are certain things that will never get better, there are certain things that will never improve, and you’ve done the best you can and that’s it.  I think that’s what drew me to some of the very early Puritan writings, particularly Edward Taylor and people like that, who were writing in early Colonial America, in a mileu of terror, being very self conscious of one’s own limitations. To me that’s always fascinated me; it’s when you face up to those limitations, and you experience that terror, what’s interesting is what comes after.  That’s the kind of movement I wanted to enact in my book.  I think that the problem with the Puritans is that they imagine you can always “corkscrew upwards” closer and closer [to salvation], and so that desperation never ends.

DB:  On top of all that, The RZA is in here too…

JH:  My editor wanted me to take that out, in that it might date these pieces, but I wanted to keep it in. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is waste and trash, and what our relationship to it should be.  There’s a documentary that interviews a bunch of philosophers.  One of them is Slavoj Zizek and he’s standing in front of a big pile of trash and he’s saying that our goal right now is to love our trash, to love our shit.  I’ve been thinking about that in a sort of ecological sense,  in terms of material trash, but then also one’s own waste—those things which come out of you which you want to ignore, which are less than pleasant, and then also the idea of people, of how we view certain people as “wasted” because I think at the period of time in which I was writing these poems, when I was working really bad jobs, living in bad places—people would come visit me when I was living in that trailer park and say “What the hell are you doing?” And so you get the sense that even though I wasn’t trying to be trailer trash, in their eyes I was becoming trailer trash, I was disposable, I was wasting my life.

DB:  There have been news stories in the last two years that report how, in the current market, people who have lost their jobs who are never going to get employment again, depending on their age and field—that the conditions have made the determination that these people are disposable.  You’re moving into this idea that now, in our current culture, we have not only disposable things but disposable people

JH:  Yes: there are these narratives which we set up for ourselves, which culture sets up for us, in which your relationship to those narratives certainly determines whether or not you are to be seen as disposable. Coming back to the pop culture question, I wanted to have those things in the poems, things that were kind of moldy, references that gave a sense of “ha, that won’t stand the test of time.” That stuff that can be seen as disposable.   In a lot of these ways these poems are written toward those people who have that sense, where people look at them and see them as wasted.

Joe Hall’s Devotional Poems is available from Black Ocean, here.