When I saw Joey Yearous-Algozin had a book coming out this summer I was surprised and intrigued. I had encountered some of Joey’s poetry through Troll Thread, the publishing collective and press co-founded by him, Holly Melgard, Chris Sylvester, and Divya Victor, embracing the friction between free pdfs and print-on-demand books, and as a politically responsive apparatus (as with their claiming New York City’s Brief Opposing Stay of Eviction of Zuccotti Park as a publication in 2011). Joey’s body of work, like others published on Troll Thread, navigates poetry as a mode for reduplicating discourses and source materials, a relational machine.
Joey’s new book, A Feeling Called Heaven, holds space for the structures guiding attention, this time sifting through what it means to accept species extinction. This project suggests that we cast aside fantasies of the future in favor of embracing one another in the present. The text aggregates and twists, showing the condensation of how we might experience and recognize the end of time.
It makes sense to read A Feeling Called Heaven as an exercise in relational aesthetics. In a recent conversation with my friend and colleague Barrett White, he likened it to a guided meditation or a Pauline Oliveros Deep Listening exercise. While in the text’s suggestive state, the drone of annihilation is more or less audible depending on what else punctuates the soundscape. While I am wary of framing extinction as the immanent affect (rather than concentrating on destroying the mechanisms that cause it), the irony of this defeatism that A Feeling Called Heaven represents is familiar and felt by many, including myself. I appreciate this text for showing the importance of creating and sharing space through language and entertaining the idea that meaning itself is not guaranteed, and I wanted to hear Joey talk about his shift toward writing in this mode. We spoke for almost two hours via Zoom in early August about making poems take longer, walking and talking without a destination in mind.
I. Asparagus Keeps its Own Time
THE BELIEVER: At this point in the pandemic, I just have this idea that if I resist the reality in front of me, everything will feel so much more difficult.
JOEY YEAROUS-ALGOZIN: I took this meditation class in November, and one of the things the woman who was leading the class kept talking about was that pain + resistance = suffering. I think that there’s something to that. The resistance to pain or the inability to acknowledge what is happening in the present will lead to a certain kind of suffering, or a different kind of suffering than one is already experiencing.
BLVR: Yeah I think so, I can’t help but think about how anxiety relates to this, and how it produces suffering because it’s speculative, yet helps us survive. I’m like “I am going to try to think of a future so horrible, make myself feel awful in the present that I’ll somehow be able to withstand the future”—I mean this is stuff I talk to my therapist about. How the way to cope is to cultivate an awareness of the moment, to have an awareness of the velocity of the day. Slowing down moment to moment is of course hard when you’re doing a job and people are rushing you towards some arbitrary deadline.
JYA: There’s something interesting about how Covid accentuates this, the idea of how you feel pace, you feel time move, almost independent of an activity. As you were saying earlier, “Oh, all of a sudden it became three o’clock and I knew I needed to go outside and attend to these things that are growing,” which are moving on a different rate or different scale than I’m moving.
I worked on a farm in Wisconsin, an asparagus farm. You only really had work between May and June. You would go and pick the asparagus in the morning. You would sometimes it was hot enough, you would see it growing fully again by the afternoon. So, by the time you were leaving the farm, you would see that the asparagus was already ready to be picked again. It didn’t match our cycle of the workday.
I remember, I was walking with my wife Holly and she had been teaching in person in Manhattan, so she still kind of had that Manhattan pacing to her. And I remember, we were walking because we would go for walks to deal with Covid, and I asked her “where are you going? We’re not going anywhere, we’re just spending time.” The difference between treating a walk as a way to get somewhere versus treating it as an amount of time.
This cabin in the Wenatchee National Forest up in Washington, I think I probably told you about that, but there’s no running water, no electricity, no cell signal, nothing. I just had Camille Roy’s new book Honey Mine and a journal. But there was a river running behind the cabin. It’s on a salmon river, just doing the same thing, making the same wall of noise constantly. And the day would just slip away. We would look up like again, oh it’s three or four. You’ve just been sitting there watching this river and sort of reading a little, writing a little bit just sort of being present.
BLVR: This makes me think of meditation and the suggestive state that you place the reader in throughout your book, what were you thinking about when you landed on that mode?
JYA: It was a thing that I kind of stumbled on accidentally. A friend of mine, Shiv Kotecha, asked me to do a reading and I felt like none of my old work felt applicable to what was happening at that moment. So I ended up making this guided meditation and the thing about it is you sort of submit to the act of it in the way that you would in any sort of fiction, but it makes it more overt. It allows that fleetingness to be both a technique I can use to get from point A to point B, formally. It also allows what emerges to almost decrease in importance. Because what’s important is the presence that you’re sharing with the articulation that’s happening.
I wanted something that felt as though the second person was actually you. But the second person is never you, the second person is always a third person or it’s actually secretly me. It’s never actually you and I wanted something that was like… I wanted to say something to some people that I knew.
BLVR: You said it didn’t feel right to read other work at this time, what was happening?
JYA: I mean it was what, it was like 2018 when I started. We were in a state where we were all doom scrolling on our phones, watching for what the president’s next tweet was going to be. It was like clenching before an explosion. I felt that we were so distracted and disconnected from each other. I wanted to have something that felt like connection.
My earlier work and my interest in poetry was so heavily mediated by the internet and the internet became something different. The internet in 2010 was still a place to go. You didn’t just go to three sites. It felt like a utopia of free information, then we sold it to like four or five different companies, and now we were sort of trapped in these things that are forcing us to sell ourselves back to each other. Constantly performing and selling and performing and selling…
Also, we stopped reading in the same way. When I was doing stuff with Troll Thread, people read books at work. They would read a pdf at work. And now you just sit on your phone, and you have it here [gestures as if scrolling on phone]. I wanted to create work that overtly connected with people.
Formally though, guided meditations are so tight. I was listening to this woman, her name is Nicki Scully, The Golden Cauldron of Healing—
BLVR: Oh my god—what?!
JYA: I’ll put it in the chat. I think Jerry Garcia did the music for one of them. I know more about New Age music…. Anyway, it’s super orientalist, but in one of her guided meditation she takes you down into the lotus flowers of this bog in Egypt, and she wants you to go into the waters where she says, “In this dimension, you can breathe underwater.” And I realized that she took care of an aesthetic problem because you’re in a suggestive state, in one line. You get from Point A to Point B and that’s it. I was like oh, she can just say it because you’re in that state of being open to what’s coming.
But at the same time, it’s not like fiction where they’re pretending that’s not the case, they’re trying to hide the voice of the person doing it. Instead it’s really overt. And because it’s overt, you can distance yourself from it.
II. To Have and to Hold Attention
BLVR: Wait what were we talking about? Guided meditation, Enya… maybe it’s because I went to the Mei-mei Berssenbrugge reading, either before or after your reading a few months ago on Zoom, something pings with her, maybe it’s the dolphins….
JYA: She was reading with Will Alexander…her work is so good. There’s something about the way she reads. The time on which reading happens…wait, you play music don’t you? You know how when you’re playing with people and you’re really playing with people, it feels as though you could stop playing and the song would continue? That time, all of a sudden, is existing kind of parallel to the actual note itself. Or that the note is taking place on top of a substrate of time as it moves. And in this work, and in Leslie Scalapino’s work and in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s work, I wanted you to feel, as though time was moving almost independent of the utterance.
We forget sometimes that poetry is a time-based medium. It’s words in time.
BLVR: And that language is a thing that comes from the body. When I’m writing I spend a lot of time reading aloud to myself, sort of rehearsing.
JYA: When I was writing A Feeling Called Heaven, I wasn’t thinking anyone was going to publish it, whatever it was. When I was finishing this, I remembered the pianist Cecil Taylor. When no one would let him play anywhere, he’d go up to his attic and do full concerts. To get it out into the airwaves. I started thinking about it in that way. I’d be reading it out loud, and it could exist as a sort of disturbance of the air.
There’s that beautiful Williams poem I wish people knew better called “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” In that poem he has this argument about the ships of Troy—it’s a large catalog of ships, it’s super boring, in The Iliad. Williams’ argument is that it serves as a way to make the poem take longer. You add all these ships and so it takes longer because that’s a pleasure.
The poem is written directly to his wife, and he says this poem is going to go on for a long time because this might be the last time that you sit down and read something from me, and I want to keep you in front of me. And you make the poem take longer because you want to increase the amount of contact.
Really when you get down to it it’s just about relation, that’s it. And creating a relation to another person. One of the things I love about poetry is how simple that relationship is. It’s just a text and a reader, it’s a very simple formula, a machine—to quote Williams again.
BLVR: Wait so you wrote part of this book for that reading, then what happened?
JYA: I wrote that first part and I realized I needed some kind of explanation. Or maybe I had to explain it to myself or something. I needed to find out what was happening because there was a break and something had changed and I couldn’t go back to making the work I had previously made. I wish I had a good aesthetic reason, but it just felt wrong. So I thought, “what would feel right?”
I had to work through what that was. I had gone through a lot of changes. I had quit drinking entirely and was finishing my dissertation. It was 2019 that I finished the project, oddly enough I was diagnosed with cancer right as I was finishing it. So the last couple of pages of the second poem were written while I was getting scans, having a lot of doctor’s visits, getting a lot of blood work done. It was almost as though the work had prepared me for that.
I have a lazy and quiet lymphoma, my doctor told me. We were doing something called “watchful waiting” which is basically just monitoring the body, and if symptoms like tumors reemerge, then we’ll deal with them. Either by cutting them out or radiation, whatever. But right now, because there’s no cure, it’s just my body produced this tumor, we’re going to see if the body produces more. So I have doctor’s visits like every six months. But this idea of watchful waiting is just kind of staying in presence of the body and monitoring this illness.
BLVR: I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “legacy” and, in the context of your book, what that means for writing in the age of extinction. When I’m writing I’m often thinking about lineage, but how does this figure into thinking about the future if we consider we might not be leaving something for future generations? What does it even mean to publish something, why make a book now?
JYA: Yeah, I think that’s a really good question: why make a book now? I think it’s because it’s what we do. We make up these stories, we tell these stories to each other all the time.
I mean there’s two answers, one is that it’s what we do. We’re compelled to do it, we’ve always done it. The thing that sort of sets us apart from other animals is symbolic representation. The ability to represent things to each other. Humans don’t have other skills, we’re not fast, we’re not strong. What we are really good at is communicating and remembering. You know, like that kind of slide and association. The book itself is just an associative exercise.
The other answer is that it’s what I do. I wish it was fancier than that. You know I had a job at Wendy’s when I was 14 because my dad told me I needed to get a job. But that only explains the first day at Wendy’s. And then after that I worked at Wendy’s because I worked at Wendy’s. It was just what I did.
When we think of legacy we think of obligation, or duty, or submission, but there’s also the pleasure of remembrance. There’s a word in Portuguese saudade. The painful memory of that which is not present with you now, that you carry with you. And I think that’s also there.
Something interesting to think about is how we understand our own species’ legacy. One thing that I know I talk about in the book is the kind of lingering trace of the human and that happens on an individual level as well.
BLVR: When I was reading your book it felt like a guided meditation for coping with the end, but also for bearing witness to the mortality of others.
JYA: Grief is so slippery. When I was eighteen my uncle was murdered—also, it’s hard to talk about these things because I see your face when I say it, and it’s ok…
BLVR: I feel the same way when it comes up in conversation that my mom died and just—that mood shift… but it’s fine. I mean it’s obviously not fine, but it is real.
JYA: It’s fine… that was also the most midwestern response to that, “it’s fine.” My therapist, whenever I say it’s fine, she always goes, “Well which fine is that?” I’ll say, “it’s fine,” but what I’m really saying is, I want to move on.
Going back, when my uncle was murdered, I was coming home from high school and I was on my way to play frisbee golf—I wish I was doing something else at that time, but I was 18. I remember I walked in and my dad says, “Jimmy’s been murdered” and I looked at him and I said, “I can’t talk about this right now.” And I went and I played frisbee golf and I didn’t tell anyone, I just blocked it out. Like saying “I’ll feel this later. I’ll deal with this thing that is going on right now later.” I was sort of able to create that space where I didn’t tell the people I spent every day with. I didn’t tell them, I didn’t cry—nothing, until much later. There’s not a coherent trajectory.
There’s that one part of the book, the part in the grocery store, when you realize you haven’t been thinking about someone who died and the sort of guilt that comes with that. When you think “oh, I wasn’t thinking about how much pain that caused me.” And you can’t experience that in the present because the moment you realize it, you’re not feeling that pain.
BLVR: I don’t even have a follow up question, just…yes.
JYA: It’s an experience that makes you feel very alone and isolated. But understanding that as natural. Like that’s the natural state of grief. And like you said, there’s no follow-up question.
I remember going out with my friends. And just driving around afterwards after I told him what happened and just not talking at all, and that being the thing that I remember. Because when you sit with another person, your bodies sync up, your breathing syncs up. There’s a nonverbal communication that’s just as important. That’s just as important as any palliative word, like “that sounds really hard.”
BLVR: It’s interesting to hear you say that—I remember, right after my mom died, anger was a really dominant emotion for me, especially when somebody would say something like “I don’t know what to say.” Anything people would say in that situation sounded canned, but I started thinking of those phrases and looking at them as a way of holding space. You can’t just exist in that new present with another person without first holding space for the one who has passed.
JYA: Simone Weil is someone I’ve been thinking about while we’ve been talking. There’s this essay of hers, “The Right Use of School Studies Towards an Appreciation of God,” and always, the Christian thing is always a little difficult with her—I can’t even remember the full title of the essay. It’s just about how it doesn’t matter what grade you get in your geometry, it’s a practice of prayer. Writing is preparing yourself for prayer. You ask yourself, what is prayer? At the end of the essay, she says prayer is being able to ask your neighbor, “how’s it going with you?” and not to understand your neighbor as just a category of one who’s afflicted. To be open enough to what they’re saying, so that their answer can pierce you. So when you ask someone, “how is it going with you?” that you don’t see them as a category of grieving, but to understand the specificity in the individuality of that. And not necessarily to fix it, but to hold attention. That’s a wild idea I couldn’t get over.