Collapsing the distance

Our editor-in-chief, Rebecca Starks, recently spoke with Josh Booton, our Issue #8 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about his development as a poet, the scope of his poetry, and his quest for intimacy in his reading and writing.


These poems are part of a longer poem, Tectonics. Is it completed? Would you be willing to describe its arc for us? What inspired the form of this poem?

The sequence is almost finished, but I’m trying to write as many pieces as possible before selecting those that work well as a group. The series has less of an arc, in the narrative or temporal sense, and operates more as nodes of exploration. The poems attempt to address domestic relationships from multiple angles, to trace different moods. It reminds me of having a party where you invite different sets of friends, then watch how your co-workers get along with your drinking buddies. The form of the poems was inspired by the idea of two individuals and the third presence that intimacy creates, the tension between the individual and partnership.


What do you hope people take away from reading your work?

I always hope that people feel connected to some element of my writing. I want to create intimacy, to collapse the distance between poet and reader. I want someone to dog ear the page or read it to their best friend over the phone. Mostly I want them to feel that rush that makes them want to read more or sit down and write their own poems.


Your first book, The Union of Geometry and Ash, is made up of individual poems. What has led you toward the long form? 

I’ve always been interested in the cumulative power of the sequence. One of the first poems that really floored me was H.L. Hix’s “The God of Window Screens and Honeysuckle.” I loved how it was so unhurried, how there was room for slow time. I also appreciate how sequences give you the chance to work in a particular form for an extended period. It’s the immersion that sequences create. This poem was definitely driven by the desire to explore both the theme of domesticity and the form itself.


You work as a speech pathologist, and have written a number of poems that grow out of this experience. How do you see your two professions interacting with each other? Which came first?

The writing came first, but has been informed by my career as a speech pathologist. I think the work gave me a greater awareness of the happy accidents that language creates. I’m intrigued by the way meaning has its own mind, how language sometimes slips into freshness. The goal is always to stay ready for those slips and hope that they find their way into the poems.


Could you describe your writing and revising process? How do your longer multi-part poems begin and progress? How do you make time to write?

When I’m working on a sequence, I always try to write twice as many poems as the final sequence will contain. My second manuscript, currently seeking a publisher, is composed of a book-length sequence of poems spoken by an adolescent with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The final book is sixty poems, but I think I wrote almost a hundred. From the pile, I cull for voice and theme, looking for motifs and images that bind the work as a whole. The hope is that different parts of a sequence call to each other. I want early poems to influence later poems. I don’t have a lot of writing time, so sequences help me to keep some momentum week to week.


What is the best advice about writing you’ve ever received?

The best advice I ever received is to read things you don’t think you will like. In every poem, whether it connects with you or not, the reader is looking for an entrance. If you’re reading poems that are difficult or aesthetically opposed to your own style, those entrances may give you new techniques that you can incorporate into your own work. It also reinforces the notion that no matter the school there is something at the heart of poetry that is resonate and vital.


What is the first poem you remember writing?

I remember being a freshman in high school and being obsessed with Elliott Smith. I think I wrote a really sad poem with lots of awful similes about drugs. I borrowed the rhyme scheme from Condor Avenue. I think I still have it in a box of old love notes.


What poets have been important to your development as a poet?

The two most influential poets for me have been Larry Levis and Elizabeth Bishop. Also Hopkins, Berryman and Roethke for their sonic qualities. I have a soft spot for Hart Crane, for those moments when he suddenly becomes clear to me. Simic for the clarity, Zagajewski too. Bruce Bond is a contemporary poet whose work I feel is somewhat kindred to my own poetics. There are so many young poets who are making poetry an exciting place to live.


You attended the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. Could you tell us a little about your experience getting an MFA and whether you found it valuable?

My experience at The Michener Center was phenomenal. Most importantly, it afforded me three years to write. I was surrounded by talented writers in poetry, fiction, play writing and screen writing, and had the opportunity to explore multiple genres. It was amazing.


Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?

The best part of workshops for me is when you meet someone who really gets what you’re trying to do. Maybe you share a similar poetic lineage or personal experience. The important aspect of that connection is that it allows you to see clearly when you’ve missed an opportunity in a poem (or missed the whole thing altogether). There is a rush of recognition that takes place when you connect like that, a kind of solidarity that allows you to judge your own work more clearly. I’ve had that happen in about half of the workshops in which I’ve participated. I think that’s pretty lucky.


What’s your favorite children’s book?

“A Color of His Own” by Leo Lionni


Josh Booton is the author of The Union of Geometry & Ash (Bear Star Press, 2013). He is the recipient of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and the Keene Prize in Literature, as well as three grants from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Missouri Review, Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Raleigh Review, Iron Horse and elsewhere. He works as a pediatric speech therapist in Portland, OR.

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