A CONVERSATION WITH JUSTIN BOENING
BY ELOISA AMEZCUA
Justin Boening is the winner of the National Poetry Series for his debut collection, Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last. He is also a recipient of a Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize, a Bucknell University Stadler Fellowship, and a Poetry Society of America National Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook, Self-Portrait as Missing Person. Boening’s poems have appeared in Boston Review, Copper Nickel, Kenyon Review Online, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, and Narrative Magazine, among others. He’s a co-founding editor of Horsethief Books.
To begin, how did Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last form, and how did you know when it was done?
JB: To remember how this book found its form, I have to recall when it bumped up against its own limits, I think. It’s difficult to retrace the steps, but I believe I wrote the book’s oldest poem on the day I handed in my graduate thesis. It felt like such a fruitless and embarrassing surrender, handing over whatever pages I’d stumbled into during my time at Poem School, summoning the nerve to call it my thesis. And strangely, I felt a pang of abandonment, too, as if the poems had left *me*—those brats—before I was ready to fend for myself. In any case, I remember writing “To Be a God” that day, just a couple hours after I’d gotten back to my apartment, after I’d handed in the final draft of my mistakes. None of the work I included in the thesis lives on in Not on the Last Day…. “To Be a God” was certainly the bang that set into motion all the dust, so to speak. And “How I Came to Rule the World,” a later poem, stands in deranged symmetry to “To Be a God.” Those two poems, and the book’s title, are what allowed me to see the shape of the book.
Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last, the title I mean, comes from a Kafka parable called “The Coming of the Messiah.” The parable ends: “The messiah will come on the day after he is no longer necessary, he will come on the day after his arrival, he will come not on the last day, but on the very last.” In order to negotiate a paradox, to understand it, you have to assign a new value to one of the variables, of course. You might alter the semantic value of “last day” or “very last,” for example. “Last day” might refer to the day we’d only assumed was the last, maybe. Or “Very last” might refer to a moment beyond our conception of time. I’m getting into the weeds, here. For me, the possibility that’s most spiritually relevant is that our messiah might be a god that returns to save us by not returning at all, that in not liberating us, he empowers us to liberate ourselves.
As far as when the book was done, I’m not sure that it is. The book was *done* when I wasn’t allowed to change it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I have no overwhelming desire to re-work the poems, not on most days at least. But the whole Paul Valery quip—“A poem is never finished only abandoned”—is real to me. I’m terrible at letting go.
What was the biggest surprise (or, perhaps, two) that you encountered during the process of writing, revising, and touring, and what was the biggest challenge you encountered along the way?
JB: That a person ever finds anyone else, especially through a book of poems, remains a miracle to me. So that’s got to be the biggest surprise of this whole house party. On the other hand, the biggest challenge undeniably was finding time and space to be alive enough to do the work. I’d write during my breaks at a retail job, but it never felt vitalizing. Investing in myself, taking risks with my time, believing if I gave myself permission to write (and only write) was absolutely necessary for me.
The book as a whole makes great use of form, particularly of dropped lines. Was that something you had in mind while writing poems individually, that that form would be a thread throughout the book?
JB: Often, I’ve heard poets give the advice that you have to find a way to show growth within a book, to enact change. And I think that’s good advice. But for me—and I suspect this might be the case for many poets, particularly those who like to try on a lot of hats—one of the biggest challenges was finding a way to remain, from poem to poem, recognizable to myself. Finding myself in the language came when I entered a music—which was created in part by the dropped lines, the annotated thinking—a music I could recognize even when it was playing on low, in a crowded room.
That said, I also believe the music of a poem is too quiet to be heard until it is too strange to be forgotten. Which is to say, no, I didn’t create the form to be a handrail through the collection so much as I needed a self I could return to, one I could immediately recognize as myself, but also one that could remain sufficiently distant, new, unreachable.
Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last has many characters that feel both uniquely familiar and wildly strange: the mother, the father, the opera singer, the surgeons. Can you tell me a bit about how these characters came to be?
JB: Sorry to disappoint, but I can’t say for sure why I landed on those characters. I guess I looked for figures that were talented, but not necessarily skilled (or, maybe, it was the other way around), figures that may have, even for a moment, attained power, or a kind of power, and were made nervous about that attainment. As far as the mother and father go, I think in poetry (for me anyway) there’s a deep desire to know ones origins? essence? “Every word was once a poem,” as Emerson said, after all. When I’m looking for poetry, I think I often start, or try to, at the end.
Many of our readers are young writers in high school and college. What advice might you have for them? What do you think they should hear?
JB: Here are two nuggets that go hand-in-hand:
1) Art doesn’t need to be useful to be necessary.
2) Despite what it might sound like the world is saying to you, a life in service to art can be one worth living, if we need art. And we need art.
What’s next for Justin Boening?
JB: Right now, I’m most focussed on Horsethief Books, which is a wobbly-new press and monthly magazine Devon Walker-Figueroa and I are trying to keep feral and bucking. We just released our first two full-length hardcover collections, *Lonesome Gnosis*, which is Elizabeth Scanlon’s debut, and *Our Lands Are Not So Different*, which is Michael Bazzett’s second collection. Also, I’ve been writing some new poems, of course, but who cares.
What and who have you been reading lately? If you had to recommend three poets to our readers, who would they be and why?
JB: Here are three poets I read all the time who are due for a resurgence in popularity:
Mark Strand, because—to riff off of something Linda Gregerson once said—it’s important to know, maybe especially now, what will rush into a poem to fill the void left by removing the world from it. Strand’s poems are expansive because they’re hungry, and few writers wrote so exquisitely from beginning to end.
Frederick Seidel, because—again to riff, only this time off of Cal Bedient—his ghoulishness is painfully (and at times uproariously) what we deserve. He’s a real eel—devious, toothy, menacing. If you ever feel exhausted by the sincerity of the contemporary idiom, Seidel might be your cure.
“Be melting snow. / Wash yourself of yourself.” The Sufi mystic Rumi is someone who seems to get ignored, too, though I’m not sure exactly why. He’s without a doubt one of the most essential poets, from arguably the densest, most vital nexus of human civilization. Ever. Also, he’s *actually* a Whirling Dervish. Actually!
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Eloisa Amezcua is an Arizona native. Her debut chapbook On Not Screaming was published by Horse Less Press (2016). Eloisa is the winner of the 2016 Vella Chapbook Award from Paper Nautilus Press for her manuscript Symptoms of Teething, forthcoming in 2017. She currently lives in Phoenix and is founder and editor-in-chief of The Shallow Ends: A Journal of Poetry.
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