Joshua Rivkin's poems and essays have appeared in AGNI Online, Blackbird, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review Online, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Verse Daily and Best New Poets. and elsewhere. He has received fellowships and awards from the Inprint-Brown Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Poetry Society of America, as well as a travel fellowship to the Krakow Writer’s Seminar, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry from Stanford University.
July 6, 2011
June 9, 2011
February 19, 2011
Anti- (full text)
The Southern Review
Other fun things I've been reading / listening to recently:
1. I heard Mike Scalise read the first part of this great nonfiction essay a couple of weeks ago, Exactly Where You Want to Be. He knows things. He loves The Roots.
2. Glenn Shaheen reading from his forthcoming book Predatory. Damn.
3. I have a huge crush on Adele's voice. I too have tiny desk concerts, but they're off-key and poorly attended affairs.
4. And it's not too early to order Marc McKee's Fuse. Imagine if your moral compass watched every Joss Whedon show ever made, twice. Imagine if you could save the fire from the burning building. Or, if you prefer the words of famous Polish poets: The jetliner of poetry triumphs over local trains of everyday existence.—Adam Zagajewski
And now a lie -- I'll try to be better about updating this.
November 8, 2010
In this twist on the contributor interview, we’ve invited contributors to enter into conversation with one another. In this first edition, Sarah Barber, author of the newly released The Kissing Party, interviews Joshua Rivkin, whose blog offers more links to his work.
SB: I want to start off by asking you about “The Fingerprint Clerk.” There’s something so lulling about the opening and end of the poem and yet your choice to include Li Po and Bobby Fischer in the poem really pulls us back to earth in a delightful way. So I’m going to ask you to explain despite your “Don’t ask me to explain.” How did this poem germinate for you?
JR: The pleasure in writing a kind of persona poem is that the writer can step back and say, with perhaps a slight smile, oh that’s not me. So unlike the speaker, I’m happy to explain. Though I sort of imagine him as the kind of man who wants to be asked, if only to refuse. This poem started with an actual experience, which I then wanted to transform. I had to have a background check for a teaching job and while I was being fingerprinted (it’s all electronic now) I thought about how few rarely we’re touched by strangers. There was something at once strange and ordinary about this act. With a doctor for example, it’s often an ongoing relationship, and one in which one expects physical contact. But this experience had a kind of resonance: an act both coldly formal and highly intimate at once. What does it mean to touch a stranger? How does a fingerprint offer some kind of proof of one’s self? How do fingerprints mark at once both something individual and communal? As I started writing the character formed around these questions. I knew from the start that I wanted to write this from the point of view of the clerk; it seemed an occasion to move outside of myself, and within that voice, clipped and impersonal, a way to capture and collapse the distance between the intimacy of the action and the reserve he claims. I like how you say those quotes pulled you back to earth, I hoped those would be markers of personality and locate a sensibility for the speaker, a reticence to speak, to interfere, and yet perhaps revealing a kind of knowing and longing within the gestures.
SB: You’re right, of course, how rarely we’re touched by strangers—maybe even how rarely we’re touched by those we know as we spend more and more of our waking lives hooked up to all this equipment—but what really strikes me is the way your response highlights one of the things that drew me to your work in this issue, the combination of the strange and ordinary, as you put it. The domestic—touch, friends, objects—seems blended with the uncanny in your other poem from this issue, “Housewarming,” and I wonder if that’s something you consciously aim for in your work and whether you see it as a significant direction for contemporary poets?
JR: I don’t think I’ve considered it exactly in those terms before, but I’m really taken with your description of how the strange and the ordinary come together in my work, and I think perhaps more generally. Tony Hoagland has a terrific essay about Larry Levis in which he describes the poet’s metaphor making as an act of moving both away and towards at the same time. Even as a metaphor pushes away from what’s there, it returns and illuminates the thing the thing being described. Is the same true of seeing the strange within the everyday? Perhaps I hope that’s the case. That by moving away, either in imagination or metaphor or expectation, somehow the domestic, or really the relationships within that sphere between lovers, friends, family, will be understood in a new way.
Maybe there are two ways of considering it; one is seeing how ordinary the uncanny can be, and the other is to find the strangeness within the everyday. I guess I’m perhaps more interested in the later, and while I don’t think it’s something I aim for intentionally, I think it come from a kind of restlessness. Samuel Johnson said something to the effect of, “The mind is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it.” The desire in my work seems to be one of transformation: to take the given world and see it, and beyond it. I think about poets and poems that I love—that opening of “Birches” where the speaker wants to imagine the boy swinging, or the embodied trees in Levis’s “Two Trees” mocking the man, or that turn towards that dream space in Mark Doty’s “Tiara.” They are all poems and poets who transform the landscapes they’ve been given, turning the mundane (ice storm, tree, funeral) into something extraordinary through acts of intense attention and imagination.
And while I’m not sure I could make a generalization about if this is a direction for contemporary poets, it’s maybe something ingrained in the act of writing. The turning of the world into language seems to be itself an act both strange and ordinary. The poem uses the material of the everyday to say what isn’t, or can’t be said, within the everyday. I feel like I’ve drifted far from your really insightful point, but I think finally I’m interested too in moments of shift or change, when expectations alter and surprise—that move to hang the bottles in “Housewarming” or that kind of faith at the end of “Fingerprint Clerk.” These seem like openings, occasions to be considered, and small windows into the mechanics and mystery of experience. Or at least that’s the hope.
August 24, 2010
“The Man in Bogota”
“The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.
“I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
“I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He wasa a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
“Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
“When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.
“Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.”