Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Good Gardening: A Conversation on Joshua McKinney’s Small Sillion

Sep 12, 2019

With Matthew Cooperman, Jess Turner, Margaret Browne, Jordan Osborne, Sarah Green & Susannah Lodge-Rigal

Matthew Cooperman: What tendons us to language? What animal logic resides behind the alphabet? In our breathing respirations and guttural clearings, there’s a ghost language of pure sound. Pure sound, and the animal that makes it. Or pure sound and the material that makes it––wind, trees, dogs, rivers, cars, our rising and falling bodies. In Joshua McKinney’s fourth collection, Small Sillion, it is the small furrow of belief in what we hear, see, taste, touch, and smell that becomes us. The phenomenological fact before the claims of faith, McKinney’s music sings the gap between signifier and signified, looking (and finding) traces of a natural language in the quotidian aftermath of post-Gaia holism. As an ecopoetics and as a lyric practice, McKinney offers evidence of a post-pastoral green that is also tan and blue, and red in tooth and claw. Call it provisional evidence, proprioceptive faith, a clearing of ground, Small Sillion lives:

      in the meantime [where] the earthworm’s tender
                                                                              overthrow unperceived  
                                                in the ground I strode on whose surface                            
                                                      sensitive to touch reflects                                                             
                        the eye’s mute logic the invisible                           
                        shape of smells                                                                                                         
                                          excreted castings––                                                        
                              the gizzard-worked grit-                                                                              
      scoured ochre scored over  
                        the cheeks of men                                                                
                                          themselves become loam   

I had the good fortune of reading Small Sillion with a brilliant cadre of grad students for my Graduate Poetry Seminar, Spring ’19, at Colorado State University, where I teach. The class was framed around alternate realities, altering texts, inviting alterity, and the other books we read––Sam Sax’s Bury It, Evie Shockley’s Semiautomatic, Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of, Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior––variously enacted alterations of form, point of view, generic convention, rhetorical expectation, lyric practice, material manipulation, etc. We ended with Josh’s book as a hopeful turn to the outside world and its vegetal logic. I wanted to read a lyric practice that makes poems by immersion, a fully “fielded” attention. Josh’s book was the ticket. And if there was an alteration that it provided, it was refreshment, the ear quickened again to the living bird. What follows are brief reflections on specific poems in Small Sillion, and questions posed by grad students to Josh, to which he has generously replied.

Jess Turner: I read Joshua McKinney’s Small Sillion on one of the warmer spring days in Colorado. I brought the collection with me to the edge of a pond in the Foxbrook Meadow. As I flipped through the pages, I watched geese and ducks harmoniously swim circles around one another. It felt like the perfect setting for these poems. One goose, however, became angry—a switch flipped and he began chasing every other creature out of the pond, flapping his wings, rising from the water, and skidding full force into the other floating bodies. And still, this setting felt entirely appropriate for the reading of McKinney’s text. I say this for many reasons, one being that Small Sillion’s poems are grounded in the present. They celebrate the everyday through the natural world. Sometimes that means celebrating something so entirely beautiful and serene, and other times, that means celebrating an aggressive goose. Whatever the natural world offers, McKinney honors it with his careful attention to music and owning of the lyric.

How do you approach these seemingly small moments and make them poems? And: Many of your poems read a lot like musical observations or field notes. Is it the case that sometimes you begin a poem right as you are observing something (or immediately after you have observed something)?

Joshua McKinney: At the risk of sounding cliché, finding ways to make poems out of seemingly small moments (by which I take you to mean “ostensibly insignificant”) is a fundamental aspect of poetry. Many poets demonstrate the ability to do this, but in my case, I have drawn happy instruction from William Carlos Williams. Consider, for example, “Between Walls” where those green pieces of glass shine among the cinders. In my experience, if one pays close attention, even the most mundane objects become interesting. Context is one tool the poet has at her disposal: “the back wings / of the / hospital where / nothing / will grow. . . .”

In addition to context, there’s also the way the moment is recounted. If a statement is prosaic, the information it conveys may seem mundane; but if it is stated musically, then the information or image is elevated to the level of poetry. One reason I used “A Mundane” as the title to the second section of Small Sillion was to highlight the lesser-known definition of the word (as noun) and to create tension between that definition and the typical reading of mundane as “lacking interest” or “dull.” For this reason, I like your statement about “musical observations.” To my mind, poetry that does not foreground music risks becoming prose regardless of its graphic form. Therefore, attention to sound is a fundamental element in my compositional process. This is just to say that if I have three words that might suffice in terms of meaning, I will choose the one that sounds “best” when its syllables collide, or rub up against, others within earshot. I try to allow words to take initiative for themselves as, to quote Stéphane Mallarmé, “they meet unequally in collision.”

As for field notes, I don’t take them. Your question, though, makes me think that perhaps I should give it a try. I suppose I’ve felt that taking notes in the field intrudes upon the experience itself. I am an amateur photographer, and I often feel that looking at an osprey or a coyote through a lens is to sacrifice the immediate experience for the sake of being able to look at the photo later. Similarly, taking notes puts me in mind of academic study or scientific investigation (both important to me), but not necessarily in mind of just living, experiencing as directly as possible without meditating upon it that instant as it happens or even immediately after. I tend to store images mentally, recall them later, and then work them into poems. The fact that I recall some images and not others is one indication to me that the remembered images may have some significance—if only of a personal nature. But as I get older and my short-term memory has become a memory, your comment about field notes has made me reconsider.

Margaret Browne: One of the poems that really struck me in this book was “Late Testimony,” part of the last section of the book, “In Paradise,” which follows first “Point of Reference” and “A Mundane.” I only point out where the poem is located in the collection because its location points to a kind of arrival overall that I think manifests in the poem itself. That is, the poems in the book have traveled through the position of the “I” in the natural world, have used the I’s relationship with the natural world as a point of reference for how the speaker engages with his surroundings, and then this is applied to an engagement with “the mundane,” as the space between what is mundane and what is transcendent, or Romantic lyric, is gradually collapsed. It is through this collapse that we arrive at “In Paradise,” and this paradise is not primarily concerned with the I’s engagement with the world or its relationship to the world, but the very nature of how one comes to know and experience the world. The poem becomes an epistemological act in which the nature of knowledge itself is examined.

In “Late Testimony,” language as a mode of knowing is examined. In this poem, simply to be is to speak, and to see is to hear. McKinney writes, “The mountain makes itself seen / its looking back a mode of speech.” Being in the world is a communicative act in which all things—landscape, plants, animals, man—are all equally able to communicate through presence. And through this equalizing reframing of communication, man is no longer given primacy of perception, and boundaries between man and world blur, as when McKinney writes, “and each stone, each tree within / my sight’s reach hid itself in me / making its voice visible.” And yet, the speaker does not project his own mode of perception onto the world, does not assume that the natural world perceives in the way he perceives, as it is still silent and “unlooking,” traveling down from within him.

I can hear a little voice in my head (perhaps yours, Matthew!) saying, That’s a very deft explanation, but how did it make you feel? But for me, this kind of thinking is a kind of feeling, does make me feel. These investigations into the world—how we know it, how it knows us—move me. And on top of this, the language and line breaks here are absolutely stunning. The breaks between “mode of speech / I took my body with me there” and “the waking eye and the broken // book” absolutely kill me. McKinney is such a master of the line break throughout this book—he creates such beautiful surprises and such wonderful bridges between thoughts and lines. And “the mountain within me” as a final arrival? Forget about it.

How did the structure of this book come to be? How did you arrive at these particular sections and their ordering?

McKinney: Thank you for your thoughtful reading of “Late Testimony.” Regarding the structure and the shaping of the book, I confess that this is something I find incredibly difficult. Let me say from the get-go that I think there is always more than one way to organize a given group of poems—even when that group has been selected with thematic and stylistic parameters in mind. Although I have done work with the series and the sequence, I tend to favor the discrete poem. It was discrete poems that initially sparked my love of language, and it is discrete poems that I tend to commit to memory, to carry around inside me. And like all poets, I have my obsessions. Small Sillion contains poems spanning two decades, though most of the work is much more recent. Looking back over the poems I had amassed and thinking about them, I could see my obsessions pretty clearly: the issues Matthew details with such insight in his review.

I think the compositional order of the poems reveal a certain logic, a teleology of imagination. I’m reminded of the Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, the author of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The novel’s protagonist visits various “ghost towns,” in nonsequential order. When asked about the logic behind haphazard order of the towns of the ghosts, Tutuola is reported to have replied, “That is the order in which I came to them.” I appreciate this comment coming from a novelist as it claims a certain primacy for the imagination even within the confines of the narrative. Shouldn’t a poet working in the lyric mode be granted such freedom? Alas, the answer seems to be no, not if you hope to find a publisher. Gone are the days when a poetry collection could be titled Prufrock and Other Observations. These days there has to be what’s called an “arc.” So there’s the issue of the publishing business, not to mention the fact that this country is full of good, even very good, poets. How does one structure a manuscript so that it stands out from the hundreds of others being read by screeners? A friend of mine recently told me he’d received some advice from an editor regarding the necessity of “front-loading” and “back-loading” a manuscript. Oh, and make sure to nail the transitions between sections as well. I’ve even heard people advocate revising finished poems to create a better “fit” with adjacent poems in a manuscript. For a poet like me interested in discrete poems as he comes to them, this is not something I want to deal with.  More often than not, the order in which I think the poems speak best to one another has nothing to do with “loading.” Granted, the ordering might be altered after a manuscript is accepted; but I like to remain true to my Josh-vision whenever possible, so I find shaping a manuscript to be a form of capitulation to the taste of an unknown reader, and therefore, objectionable. It’s only the writing of the poems that interests me.

If I sound stubborn, or pseudo-noble, or just naïve, let me hasten to add that despite my misgivings I play the game as best I can. I chose a three-part structure for Small Sillion that I hoped would suggest a kind of progression—establishing some primary thematic concerns, progressing through a variety of tones and styles, culminating in the suggestion of arrival at. . . .  Mind you, I want to remain suggestive, allowing an openness. I think many books suffer from a thematic and stylistic stagnancy: here are all the love poems, here are all the poems dealing with family, etc. In the case of Small Sillion, I hope the boundaries between sections remain somewhat fuzzy. Obviously, culmination with a section titled “In Paradise” is highly suggestive, but I doubt readers find all the poems there paradisiacal. To force a metaphor, our Eden is getting hotter all the time. As The Persuaders might sing today, there’s a thin line between hope and despair. I leave it to the reader to decide which side tips the scale, how to interpret that saint stepping “out of the ash” in the book’s final poem.

Jordan Osborne: Like the unnamed river in question, “The river was” flows into and away from and alongside itself, eddying into new figurations of situation––new orientations of speaker and world and other, poem and river a road unwinding. That the name was forgotten signals a slip into a world and a being that no longer needs language, a central theme of the book. And no river is the same as any other, and so this one needs no name to stand in for its currents and critters, smells and sounds. Not a forgotten name entirely––more like an unremembered one. And this river, like the You and the I of the poem, is not resistant to change. Where at the start it was “green / except where it is // silver” by the end this is still true, but it is silver ecstatically everywhere. Landscape is as indelibly mutable as the self, the driving eyes, the beloved.

I’m curious about how your poems both approach and withdraw from the natural world, as if the language-ness of them (and potentially something else that I haven’t noticed yet) prevents closeness despite reaching for it. I would consider “The river was” a wholehearted effort to reach toward a sympoeisis of sorts while “A Summoning” is a fully admitted push-away from the call of becoming-with/becoming animal.

How do you see this longing-rejection at play in your writing? How much is deliberate and how much just happens by accident? Is it purely human language that creates a barrier, or do you see any other underpinnings within the tension (ideological, personal, etc.)? 

McKinney: Thank you for your insightful question. I’m glad that you mention “A Summoning” because Canis latrans is fascinating in this regard. Coyotes have adapted very well to human encroachment upon their habitat. I live within a crow’s mile of the American River, and on cooler summer nights, I lie abed with the windows open and listen to their vocalizations down by the river. It often sounds like a half dozen or more yipping and howling. What does it mean? Was there a time when we might have understood? I would love to witness a pack of coyotes doing their thing at night by the river, but the desire to witness or take part is always tempered by the knowledge that I’m not invited to that party. Any attempt to join it would be an intrusion.

I’ve always been fascinated by language as a tool for negotiating the world, the split between things and the words for things, the distinction between symbolic action and symbolic motion—hardly cutting-edge issues, but still quite relevant. The human love for symbol is a, perhaps the, primary distinction between the human and nonhuman animals. So you are correct to note that my poems often wrestle with the attraction and repulsion. As a poet, I cannot escape the symbolic action of my medium. It’s interesting to note a spectrum of sorts within contemporary ecopoetics: those who think some kind of union with the nonhuman is possible to those who think it’s impossible. The ethical implications of human proximity or “merger” with the nonhuman are fascinating.

Sarah Green: I’m partial to poetry about the quotidian and mundane, to speech that’s simultaneously poetic and plain. Which is why I particularly like “7th Displacement,” located appropriately in the section titled “A Mundane.” I appreciate the unapologetic abruptness and bluntness of the first line, “Everyday was death’s anniversary.” It reads as a simple and straightforward statement, yet is surprising and subtly profound. It poses a doubleness—of day (life) and death (night)—of the cause for mourning and celebration as inherently bound up with the other. The first stanza continues this theme, illustrating burial and emergence as a cyclical pattern or response, “The need to bury things before the kids get up.” The recurring images of horizontality and verticality represent death and life in such a vivid, affecting way: the image of the tree trunk juxtaposed with the ground giving way six feet down; the roots contrasted with the forest in “root forest”; the density of the “throng” contrasted with the vertical “stack.”

How do you manage to use so many images of the natural world while simultaneously avoiding having them resort to being pastoral in a way that’s overly Romantic and idealistic?

McKinney: You pose an interesting question, one I spend a good deal of time discussing with my students. I start from an understanding that for the past century, American experimental poetics has concerned itself with deliberately resisting habitual modes of thinking and ordering perception. This concern dovetails nicely with ecopoetic motives if we assume that a refiguring of the human relations to the nonhuman must begin with language itself. In order to avoid the tropes of pastoralism and Romanticism, one needs to recognize what they are and how they have been perpetuated. Anthropocentricism has been central to traditional approaches to what has been called the worship of nature. It’s only a quick step from Wordsworth’s “Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher” to Mary Oliver’s beach with its detritus “like a schoolhouse / of little words. . . .” I value poems in the Romantic tradition, but I question them because they lack linguistic skepticism. Furthermore, the Romantic view of nature has become more or less habitual in our culture. I think this explains, at least in part, the general popularity of a poet like Oliver among people who are neither fans nor readers of poetry.

Susannah Lodge-Rigal: There are so many poems I admire and love in Small Sillion that it’s hard to choose just one. But for the sake of this exercise, I wish to talk about the poem “Lepus.” “Lepus” is one piece in the book that I particularly marveled at. Its images and music are just stunning to me, and I admire how these elements bolster concerns of the animal, the cosmos, and a permeable “I” therein. The last lines of this poem just bowl me over: “and the hare, unmoving forth in its massive stillness / leapt fierce and alone with its ear-light / through me.” In this poem, the speaker is made porous to the celestial and the environmental, both. The “I” here marvels at both the night sky and its starred images, and the animals that dwell among us. Many of your poems feel invested in both the “I” and its position within, and perception of, broader ecological and literary tradition.

What do you think about the ethics of portraying “the animal” in lyric poetry? In what way does the position and permeability of the “I” contribute to overall environmental concerns in your work?

McKinney: I really appreciate the insight behind your question, Susannah. In many ways, the issue you raise is the ethical concern that drives my poetry—at least when I’m writing in the ecopoetic mode, which is most of the time. By “the animal,” I assume you mean the nonhuman. Anthropomorphism tends to be unethical in that it reflects anthropocentric biases. I think it does nonhuman creatures (not to mention nonliving “actants”) a disservice to assume that they experience the world as we do. I’m not alone here. One school of thought maintains that viewing the nonhuman through a human lens leads to, at best, misrepresentation, and at worst, exploitation. We refer to the current geological age as the Anthropocene, and all but the willfully obtuse recognize the significance of that designation. At the same time, there are those who claim that anthropomorphism is based on an attempt to empathize with the nonhuman other; this empathy, they argue, results in a less exploitative relationship with the nonhuman. This is a fascinating debate, one that I won’t delve into here. But I will say that I am very interested in what has been referred to as the grammar of animacy. In many ways, language itself, written language, is the problem. The ecophilosopher David Abram argues convincingly that the invention of the phonetic alphabet has led to a silencing of the nonhuman. So what is a poet to do when her very medium creates a barrier and distances her from the very world she wants to engage?

My approaches are not novel, but they are willful. The permeability of the “I” is one way to enact an intersubjectivity. Then, there is the technique of synesthesia, which in my case is an attempt to approximate the neonatal simultaneity of sensory experience before it is separated into the five distinct senses; might this be a gesture toward a prelinguistic mode of perception? I am interested in questioning and departing from standard modes of perception that are influenced by our very grammar. I cannot claim that my attempts to subvert standard modes of perception are successful, but if language is part of the problem—and I think it is—then it seems imperative to at least acknowledge that fact.

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