Red Wolf Journal caught up with Josh Medsker, who writes poems somewhere in New Jersey. If you’d like a taste of his work, you may find it here and here.
How and why on earth did you end up pursuing poetry?
I don’t really know. I’ve been writing poetry since I was in high school. In my senior year, I started thinking that writing might be a legitimate path for me. I had a little luck early on, actually! In our freshman year of college, my best friend Chris submitted a poem of mine to the literary magazine at his college, Alaska Pacific University, without my knowledge. And it got in! That was nice. But I was also obsessed with music, and that took over my mind for a long time. My folks were beside themselves and urged me to go into journalism, because it was more stable than a life in the arts.
I floated along during the 90s, doing music writing… for my own punk zine in Anchorage, and then later, after I graduated with my journalism degree, for the local weekly newspaper. I’d been writing poetry, and short stories, the whole time, but frankly it wasn’t even worth talking about. Bad, sub-Beat trash. I burned a lot of it in my parents’ backyard.
Journalism was where my talent truly was, at the time. Then I got the memoir bug, writing about my crazy travel adventures across the US and abroad. That was very satisfying, but I didn’t necessarily want to pour out my whole life story.
It wasn’t until about ten years ago, in my late 30s, that I essentially gave up trying to write fiction and really gave poetry another shot. I’ve always struggled to keep a whole story in my mind all at once, and poetry just seemed natural. I can start and finish a piece quickly, and then go back and edit it with some confidence.
Since it’s safe to say poetry doesn’t pay the bills what’s your day job?
Ha! Exactly. I’m an English teacher at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. It’s a tough school in an even tougher neighborhood. Every bad thing you can think of with inner-city life, these kids have seen it or experienced it personally. It’s exceptionally difficult, but I love it. I feel like I have a good rapport with my kids.
Do you do any poetry related stuff in class and if you do what’s the response been like?
Oh, absolutely. We are reading Chaucer now. Just finished selections from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. The language was a little tough for the kids to get into, but I tried to ramp it up a little bit, do a dramatic reading. I think they liked the hack-and-slash aspects of it! They seemed to.
Tell us about your first poetry book—what’s it about, what led to it, what you hope should be our takeaway from it and where we can get it.
It’s called Cacophony, and it’s a poetic exploration of the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft. The title and direct inspiration is from the album by Rudimentary Peni. They’re a British punk band. Really dark and moody. One of my long-time favorites. Anyway, they did their album as a tribute to Lovecraft, and I did my book as a tribute to them. I’d been curious about Lovecraft for a long time, through my love of Stephen King, and science fiction, fantasy, and horror in general.
As far as how the book got started … I don’t know if Red Wolf readers know, but from July 2015 until August of 2019, I did a poetry project called Medskerpedia. I wrote a poem a day, based on each entry in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Anyway, one of the entries was “Cacophony”. I wrote a poem based on one of the songs on the album. It was so enjoyable and came so easily that I just kept going. Fifty-five poems later I had a whole book. It pretty much came out as a whole piece. It was very quick.
Each poem has a drawing with it, done by my old friend Aaron Morgan, a fine artist from Seattle. His work is really dark and he’s also a big Lovecraft fan. We have known each other since our days in the punk scene in Anchorage, in the early 90s. We’ve been collaborating for about, dang, ten years now! I was beyond excited to do such a long-form project with him.
As far as what I want people to take away from it, I want to give them that unsettled feeling you get when you read Lovecraft’s work, and that WTF moment you will have if you listen to the RP album. When I was writing this book, the darkness and Lovecraft’s ideas about “cosmic indifference” just kind of enveloped me. It was spooky. That idea that humans are essentially insects in an overpowering, uncaring universe was very powerful to me.
Why are you so moved by Lovecraft and how do your poems express the themes surrounding the man?
Nick Blinko, the lead singer for Rudimentary Peni, is also schizophrenic, and a lot of that mental confusion comes through in his lyrics. It’s also a big theme in Lovecraft, people losing their way because of unknown or unknowable forces working on them. Blinko wrote a great autobiographical novel called The Primal Screamer, which I read, absorbed, and whose themes I expressed in these poems. He talks about his illness, his obsession with Lovecraft … It’s a great book.
In Cacophony, I tried to present Lovecraft as a multi-faceted man. I mean it’s not straight biography, but there are certainly biographical aspects to the poems. In some of the poems Lovecraft is the narrator. In some of the poems the Great Old Ones like Cthulhu are the narrators. I’m the narrator in some of them. It’s all over the place, in an interesting way I think.
Lovecraft was a deeply flawed man, and I try to tackle that racism, nativism and xenophobia of his. There was some wiggle room in some of the RP lyrics—some of them were pretty baffling and didn’t make a whole lot of sense—so I took the opportunity to make some political statements. That was another thing that really fascinated and confused me. Here’s Rudimentary Peni, a group of committed anarchists, associated with Crass and all those folks … doing a tribute album to Lovecraft. His stories are incredible, but when you hear some of the statements he made … yikes. I do understand, though, that he was a product of his times. I wanted to put in my own two cents without derailing the whole book on a tangent. I think I pulled it off.
What’re your future plans to conquer poetry?
I have another manuscript finished, created from the Medskerpedia project, and I’m getting ready to shop it around. I’m taking a break until January, though, so I can focus on teaching.
I’m also going to do Medskerpedia II! Every day I will write a poem, using a random word from the Oxford English Dictionary. And as a further constraint, I’ll be flipping to a random page in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. It should be fun! I tried to start it in September, right after I finished Medskerpedia I, but it was too overwhelming. I got about ten poems in and realized I was stretching myself too thin. So, I’m resting my poetry brain for a minute.
When I get back into it, I’ll also be working on my verse play about the friendship between early-20th Century Midwestern poets Vachel Lindsay and Sara Teasdale. Lindsay was madly in love with Teasdale and there was a lot of tension between them because of that … but also a mutual love and admiration between them. I’m very excited about it.
Hmmm doesn’t Josh seem like a guy who’s out to conquer poetry … If you’re interested to buy a copy of Cacophony, it is available here.