For the past four decades, one of New York’s best poets, John Wilson, has delighted audiences with his absurd meditations on modern life.
He met with Nathan Taylor Pemberton, author of the forthcoming book Just Enough Poetry: Selected Works for Beginners, as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of the magazine Just Type, where Wilson has appeared since the beginning.
Long before digital began to gobble up literary revenues, Wilson was writing on the subway with lines like, “A café is the center of the city/Spreading without having to go beyond.”
Wilson, 67, will read from his latest collection, “Tom Square,” at 7 p.m. Thursday at “A League of Gentlemen,” 213 Bowery.
Mr. Pemberton, 34, interviewed Wilson for his upcoming book, which hits shelves on Oct. 30.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Tell me a little bit about your work. What is a poem?
Poetry is really communication in a really immediate form; it’s a report. It has to describe what I’m feeling or imagine what’s on my mind that day. For some poets it’s a warm-up or an introduction to a piece; they will write as if they’re telling a friend about something that happened earlier that day. For me, it’s a focus. It’s a kind of personal vocabulary that allows me to just begin anything in my head that might need that vocabulary.
From some poets it’s a warm-up or an introduction to a piece; they will write as if they’re telling a friend about something that happened earlier that day. For me, it’s a focus. It’s a kind of personal vocabulary that allows me to just begin anything in my head that might need that vocabulary. — John Wilson
What’s the most extraordinary thing you’ve ever done to write a poem?
There are a lot of good answers to that. I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that, one morning last winter, I walked into work — being the co-editor of Just Type — and it happened to be in a hot rain.
And I remember laughing when I finished my first line.
It’s very visceral. I don’t feel like I have to use exactly the right words. I’m writing from the depths of my experience. And it’s like saying, “My eyelid is frozen. What would I say that would sound interesting if I actually use my lips and my voice and all the things that I say for ten minutes right now?”
Often it’s about the spontaneity of language — the bizarre possibilities.
It doesn’t bother me, but it is fascinating. You could get somebody like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who could write, “I would like to live in the city of my dreams,” and a hundred thousand people would think that sounds interesting and wonderful and poetic. But poets in some sense haven’t crossed that threshold.
We’re dealing with sometimes big dreams that have to do with creating worlds. For example, I remember when Phillip K. Dick wrote, “An impenetrable code unlocked by a crack in the sidewalk.”
And later you said the words, “An impenetrable code unlocked by a crack in the sidewalk.”
Right. And I had no way of responding, except laughing. Maybe somebody thought, “Oh!” Maybe. But mostly people laugh at my lines.
But when you began — with poet Alvin Pousette-Dart’s groundbreaking poems that carried poems called Novel letters — do you feel that you fit into the tradition of that style of poetry?
Well, if you looked at everything that I have done there is actually quite a lot of overlap. Like my first introduction to the weird New York world was just the first letter “N.” It was Alvin Pousette-Dart, who coined that term. I was reading something by him and I thought, “Wow, my next book will have ‘N’!”
The Times and Microsoft Corp. are sponsors of “Just Enough Poetry: Selected Works for Beginners.”