Those Small Moments: An Interview with Poet Josiah Nelson

Josiah Nelson

I caught up with Josiah Nelson, who contributed two outstanding poems to the inaugural issue of Arboreal, for a wide-ranging interview.

We cover his influences, process, views on the impact of social media on creative writing, and more.

Chad M. Crabtree: Let’s start with the basics: tell us a bit about who you are, who you were, and who you hope to become.

Josiah Nelson: I’m currently an MFA student at the University of Saskatchewan and a writer of mostly poetry and fiction. As a little boy, I was very shy and sensitive. My biggest dream was to operate heavy machinery. Now, I think I might want to teach. I taught a course this fall and had lots of fun doing it. I found it really generative for my own writing practice, but I know the prospects are rough, even as sessional. If not that, I’m thinking I might want to be a mail carrier. Whatever I do, I’ll be writing. I mostly hope to be kind, attentive, and curious.

CMC: What first drew you to poetry, and what inspires you to continue writing?

JN: I’d taken a few poetry courses in college and had written a bit of poetry then, but it wasn’t until my MFA that I really fell for it. My professor, Sheri Benning (an amazing poet herself), introduced me to a lot of poets—Philip Levine, Karen Solie, Patrick Lane—who really resonated with me. They worked in a style that I found appealing: strong images, subtle insight, and narrative-forward poems. Perhaps I’m diverging from that style a bit now, but that’s what drew me in.

I’m trying to pay attention to those small moments.

Once I knew the formal ropes of poetry a bit, I realized I’d been having observations that were suited to poetry but either ignored them or channeled them into fiction. Now I’m trying to pay attention to those small moments: noticing the way the light meets that spot on the carpet, how the torn clouds look like a wound the light is pouring through, how the winter sun sometimes looks like the moon. Or whatever.

At the risk of sounding precious, I keep writing poems because I experience those moments as gifts, and I think there’s something about honoring that gift by paying attention to it, rendering it with clarity, and trying to share it with someone else so they can experience it too.

CMC: Which poets have influenced your work the most, and why?

JN: That’s a hard question. I think Marie Howe has influenced me the most. She often observes and renders images without metaphor, and the results are piercing. I also admire her sense of the line, her balance between image and abstraction, and her knack for articulating the unsayable with such elegance. I strive for all those things.

CMC: How do you approach the writing process? Do you have any particular rituals or techniques?

JN: I do, I do. For fiction, it’s pretty particular. I’ll put in earplugs, take off my glasses, and write with a pen and paper for an hour or so.

For poetry, my process is a bit more dynamic. Ideas often occur to me when I’m riding the bus or going for a walk. I’ll jot the line down on my phone and go for a walk with that line in my head. Slowly, as I’m walking, the poem seems to unfurl, line after line. Once it feels like I’ve reached an ending, I’ll type it out and pick at it for days, weeks, months…

CMC: Do you prefer to write in a specific form or style, or do you experiment with different approaches?

JN: I definitely have certain preferences. I’m drawn to couplets, tercets, and short, lyric poems. I like shorter lines and often prioritize visual symmetry over lines that run the length of the sentence; I enjamb a lot. Lately, I’ve been trying to write poems with a very slight sense of narrative scaffolding—poems that leap from image to image. I’ve also been experimenting with poems that begin with borrowed lines.

Many of my poems try to get human emotions in conversation with the rhythms of the world, and I guess touch is a natural point of convergence.

CMC: Both of your poems featured in our debut issue are preoccupied with the body, contact, and physicality—in particular, my favorite lines from these two poems: “I am stuck in the middle / of all this touch.” While I won’t ask you to commit the artistic sin of explaining what your work “means,” I am curious: what drew you to focus on these embodied themes?

JN: Thanks for saying that! I think I’m drawn to touch because it applies to human and non-human encounters. Many of my poems try to get human emotions in conversation with the rhythms of the world, and I guess touch is a natural point of convergence. I like thinking that fingers, hands, wind, and water aren’t so different when they meet your skin—just different iterations of embrace.

Tom Clark has a great poem called “Poem” in his Stones collection that lines up two humans touching with air touching the sky. In that poem, the speaker considers giving up touch, but the poem suggests it’s impossible; they can’t avoid the touch of light, the touch of air. That sort of observation really resonated with me, and I guess I’m carrying it forward.

CMC: How do you know when a poem is finished? Do you revise your work extensively?

JN: I don’t think I ever really know. I think of an analogy by the nonfiction writer John McPhee, who suggests that immersing yourself in a writing project is a bit like slipping into a cave and trying to find a way out. I guess McPhee knows he’s done when he sees the light.

I don’t think the analogy fully tracks with poetry, but I do think a poem is a welcome predicament: my main motivation is to render the poem properly so I can free myself from it. I know when it’s not done, when the poem still agitates me. I’ll pick at it day after day until it bothers me less and less. In time, the poem usually stops agitating me, and I stop thinking about it. I don’t know if this means the poem is “done,” but it feels like I’ve done what I can.

Also, this seems like a particularly apt question given that I almost withdrew “Current” to get its ending right! Even after weeks and months, I couldn’t get it, and to be honest, I wasn’t completely sure about the final copy I sent you. I’ve come to like those last five lines, in part because readers have found some resonance in them. I guess time is important, too: to consider improvements, but also to see something with new eyes and entertain the possibility that it’s already done.

CMC: I’ve noticed you’re quite active on Twitter, often retweeting other poets’ work. How do you think technology and social media have impacted the way we consume and create poetry?

JN: What a question! I’m not fully sure. I think it has something to do with the rate of consumption. I like using Twitter to find poetry and share work that moves me, but something about its interface makes it really easy to read a poem once and then move on to something else. Media is the message…

At the same time, it’s been a useful tool for me in discovering new poems and poets. Most of the poets’ works I’ve checked out from the library or purchased—Marie Howe, Mark Strand, William Stafford, A.R. Ammons, Rita Dove, Tom Clark—I first encountered on Twitter.

I’m not quite sure how social media is affecting the way we make poetry. Writing poetry is something I do while I’m out in the world—walking the river, riding the bus, grocery shopping—and the sorts of poems I’m drawn to require close attention, slowing down, and savoring the words. Maybe that’s the tension of poetry in our world: it’s telling us to slow down while something like social media is telling us to speed up.

CMC: Wrapping up, can you tell us about any current or upcoming projects you’re working on?

JN: Yeah! As part of my MFA, I’m working on a collection of fabulist short stories. At this point, the stories are written—I’m just tidying them up for my thesis defense and then hopefully publication. I’m also very slowly working on a poetry manuscript centered around air, light, bodies, and touch.