Poets Online Talking About Coffee: Joseph Spece

Your poem “A Letter” begins with a steaming cup of coffee. Isn’t that how all poems should begin?

No. Overuse of foodstuffs in poems in generally a marker of the official poetaster, however; he’s dying for the chummy elbow-to-ribs ‘connection’ he can get by mention of the simple appetites. Sex is among these. Give him back to his diaries. I want you to stop lionizing foodstuffs, Bennetts. Outside of poetry, I’ve got a bent towards black coffee, true. I recently bought a small metal ’stovetop espresso’ unit by Bialetti (‘l’Unica e l’Originale’) that percolates a few cups—it’s changed the Morning Everything. After ten minutes on the range, a rich red-black liquid drips down the wand, then expiring to a gold créme foam. A nearly chewy texture; jammy; nutty; lingering. It wants a vegan lemon biscuit. I’ll give you a short anecdote just for fun. At 25 I sat with my father at a local bar in Pennsylvania. We hadn’t played table shuffleboard that afternoon, but were trading IDs for the quoits. The bartender said: ‘What’ll it be.’ I replied ‘Black coffee and a Rusty Nail.’ My father looked up blankly and held out his hand to the man, saying ‘While you’re back there, grab him an application for AARP.’ The obsolescent never ends up being quite obsolete, and one reason is: the simple appetite for coffee can neither stimulate nor deaden it.

What’ll it be.

Let’s not play games.

How about shopping?

I do still require a vegan lemon biscuit, yes. And a copy of Dorothea Lasky’s Rome sits on my counter. It will be the first book I’ve ever returned for a refund. So: market, bookstore.

How do you decide which books to review in SHARKPACK?

We’re mostly concerned with reviewing poems as stand-alone art-objects, as you know, but have come across some exciting full-length books in the last few months. In an editorial sense, I’m very open: I simply ask a contributor to send me a link to the work she is thinking of examining, and a general (50-word) critical trajectory. If I think a poem in question lacks ambition, I’ll say so, but I haven’t yet vetoed a selection. In terms of examination and extrapolation of poems I thought were unworkable, contributors have ended up teaching me a great deal. We’ve got quite a sharp crew. Everything is in the writers’ hands.

And how does your editorial approach differ when it comes to the SPR Annual?

I’ve thought about this, and yes, had a coffee. I can’t improve on the statement previously written for the Annual: “We believe strongly in the duties of high art; the “intimate revolt”; the simultaneously inscrutable and substantive spirit of the avant-garde; and the Sublime that exceeds us.” When coming across a piece we’d like to publish, I want to feel as Beckett did reckoning with Joyce; that, roughly, the author is not writing about something, but writing Something.

As an aside, to what extent was Beckett’s bleak writing style an effort to distance himself from Joyce?

I can’t speak with any intelligence here, Bennetts, because I’m not well-acquainted with the lives of Joyce and Beckett; the lives outside their works. Also, my loyalties are not equal. My feelings on Joyce are mixed; I think Ulysses, for example, bartered real content for stylistic ambition (Joyce’s own statement about wanting to “keep professors busy” is a clear indication of said predilection, I think) and I don’t respect it much as literature. My feelings about Beckett really soar with The Unnameable and Waiting for Godot. Remember that leveling bit from Vladimir in the latter: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.” But, more to your point: bleak writers are not made by anything but acquaintance with the world. I find it difficult to believe Beckett could’ve steered a different course, and even less likely that Joyce’s moments of appetite could’ve been the wheel to point Beckett’s rudders.

Well then, let’s disagree to agree. Which living writers do you admire?

Hm. ‘Admiration’ is a profound word for me: it demands, in practical terms, familiarity with a decent-sized cross-section of work; then, it demands something wholly opposite of the practical in experience of that work, what Otto would call mysterium tremendum. For living writers, it’s a very short list: Stephanie Adams-Santos; Richard Wilbur; J.M. Coetzee as Elizabeth Costello.

Joseph Spece is editor at SHARKPACK Poetry Review. His honors in verse include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, artist fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Corrente Prize in Poetry from Columbia University. His first book of poems, Roads (Cherry Grove), appeared in 2013.

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