Poet Joshua Mehigan (The Optimist, 2004, and Accepting the Disaster, 2014) grew up in upstate New York and earned a BA from SUNY-Purchase College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and named a Big Ten University Press Pick by ForeWord magazine, he has had poetry featured in several anthologies, including the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (2009), Poetry: A Pocket Anthology (2007) and Writing Metrical Poetry (2006). His work has appeared in the New Criterion, Poetry and Poetry Daily, garnering numerous accolades and fellowships.
When asked how the impulse to write poetry formed his life, he says, “It’s complicated! It’s the thing I do every day, so it’s like a job, but it’s also a somewhat peculiar job. The economics of it are definitely supply-side. The possibilities are few, with respect to what I can do for money and also have time and energy to write.” Not being independently wealthy, he describes always trying to get a job that will allow him to write and also to live a reasonable life. “I am always trying to figure out how to make time and energy to write. It’s hard and frustrating work at times. But it has also obviously given me a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction.”
Did you find poetry as a reader before you began to record your own thoughts?
Just the opposite! I started out mostly interested in writing, and not so much interested in reading. Most reading took work (I have a couple of learning disabilities that were undiagnosed until I was an adult). But, over six or seven years, I did begin to find poets and fiction and nonfiction writers who made me say, “I want to learn to do that!” The writers I looked to, and who inspired me to keep going, were poets like Alan Dugan, Gary Soto and Elizabeth Bishop, and fiction writers like Stephen Crane and Flannery O’Connor.
Does “being a poet” serve to separate you out of the crowd, or does it make your connection to others stronger?
Both! It separates me – most definitely! – in that I’m deeply into something, day in and day out, in a fairly intense way, that most people aren’t into at all. Most non-poets I’ve talked to over the years can’t name a living poet. But in my case, it also strengthens my connection to the crowd in that I am always trying to think about other people. When I was young, I wrote to Hayden Carruth once, and he gave me a very good piece of advice. He said to try to place my sympathies with other people. I’ve always hoped to understand something about people, and I’ve hoped, also, to communicate whatever I can learn about people to them.
Is poetry an art that comments on our society, or does it actually, proactively form our world?
In terms of immediate cause-and-effect, it may be more of the former; but if you mean something like what William Shakespeare did in the 17th century and what Gwendolyn Brooks did in the 20th, then poetry in the US isn’t really read by enough people to form our world – not relative to more popular artforms like TV, music, movies et cetera, or even, say, memes on social media. Also, a lot of poetry doesn’t comment on society, really, or does so very elliptically. But I do think poetry helps form our world – of course! – or I wouldn’t bother with it. I just think its effect is probably very slow. It takes a long time to sink in. But I think good poetry lends gravity and permanence to the ideas it carries along with it!
How does writing poetry occur to you?
Constantly, inconveniently and usually in an extremely rough form.
You take on some sobering subject matter. Do you consider yourself a basically serious guy? Is there levity behind the words?
I do not consider myself an especially serious guy! I own at least two whoopee cushions. With my wife, family and good friends, I joke compulsively, usually in a scatological vein or in an attempt to shock them into laughing with extreme gallows humor. I wouldn’t describe my poems as funny, I guess; but when I write about very serious things, for the sake of irony I do occasionally use certain mildly amusing verse techniques. And even in some of the serious poems that I’ve kept stylistically very plain, I’ll often feel the presence there of something absurd and so maybe, occasionally, funny.
What inspires you?
Many, many things! Movies, fiction, nonfiction, science, poetry, nature, music, language I overhear, uncanny events, enigmatic occurrences, unusual states of mind, observing people, interaction with people, thinking, talking, sublime or horrible things that happen in real life, the need to articulate things, working out technical and mechanical problems in writing et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Mehigan will appear at the Honors Center in College Hall this Monday evening. The event, free and open to the public, is sponsored by the English Department and Creative Writing Program at SUNY-New Paltz.
Joshua Mehigan reading/book-signing, Monday, November 9, 7 p.m., Honors Center, College Hall, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; (845) 257-2755, firstname.lastname@example.org.