Joshua Schuster is an associate professor of English at Western University, where he teaches classes on poetry, American literature, environmental ideas, and philosophies of nature.
His academic publications include "The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics" (2015) which focuses on modernist American literature and music in relation to environmental problems of the era between 1900-1950.
Schuster also writes poetry when he gets the time, and has published a few chapbooks, including "Theatre of Public Safety" (2008).
The way everything that is liberated sways.
The way you wake up covered in stains.
The way the soft crackling of the branches and the faint puffing of the car engine meant we had arrived at the campground.
The way a poem does not add writing to the already existing pile of language, but actually effects a subtraction from that pile.
The way thoughts appear in a puff, then linger, then stray in wisps.
The way we never quite arrive at the actual image of ourselves, like when the thing you see in the mirror in the garish light of morning requires you to reluctantly muster up the force of recognition.
The way objects flow.
The way of all the ways you can lean your body against the wall.
The way we look to identity to solve the crisis of our lack of agency.
The way you can get rabies from watching Fox News.
The way the page is always all about you and the new you that you might want to become.
The way all ashes contain within them the form of a phoenix.
The way junk bonds.
The way dust collects in your nose, ears, and navel.
The way speech speaks only when spoken to.
The way we have to train ourselves to get used to politics that have little direct effect in the world – and thus we cultivate politics of delay, distance, boredom, inactivity, indirection, non-productivity, post-consumption, dislocation, loss.
The way the body’s two kings usurp the king’s two bodies.
The way the design of the table influences what food will be served on it and how it tastes.
The way a poem holds a promise to greet the very next poem that will appear – and if the poem doesn’t offer this welcome then never trust it.
The way, one day, all the rockets on the earth realize the desperate times and decide to launch themselves in one mass exodus.
The way the fingers tremble while the palm tries to steady them.
The way quotes float.
The way capitalism can affirm itself for much longer than you can negate it.
The way abandoned brick buildings in Philadelphia slowly bury themselves in their own ruins.
The way those notebooks will later be confiscated as part of a crime scene.
The way, as you fold yourself, the you unfolds.
We Live In a Permanent State of Cleanup (2010)
We can survive on oil and meat for years in this bunker
You eat your heart out
The hole is the good: goods come from holes
A team of anthropologists were digging in the Sahara for bones in a middle-Paleolithic cemetery but found oil – it was hypothesized then that oil was seen by this prehistoric tribe as having shaman-like spiritual qualities – after more digging, a vast series of oil wells and human graves were uncovered that stretched for miles – the anthropologists suggested that oil was crucial in the evolutionary stages of homo sapiens – a special attachment to oil must have materialized at the same time as language and possibly music first emerged in humans
All poetry lines are pipelines
These poems could cost up to $30 billion, but the poetic way of life is not up for negotiation
As the State declares oil as 3/5ths of a person
Years later a second team of anthropologists returned to the site of the first cemetery/oil well discovery – they hypothesized that oil was not viewed as a substance of spiritual power by ancient humans, but rather was understood as a slow, living clock – because humans were being buried in oil, the anthropologists argued that ancient humans understood that oil was an organic substance that came from previous life – to be buried in oil meant being buried in life – with the passage of time, out of this life, new life forms would emerge, hence the belief in oil as a kind of clock of the living – some anthropologists suggested burying animals in the oil to prove how the clock system worked
Dominant psychological state shifting from depression to compression
Insurance now requires all minds to be double-hulled, since single hulls breach when beached
Like a horse-drawn carriage suddenly appearing in the street in the middle of the day, seething with tea
Did the anthropological discoveries in “We Live” literally take place? Does that question miss the point––in other words, can/does/should poetic transcend scientific truth?
The anthropology stories are fictitious. Though it is known that ancient humans in North Africa did use bitumen for a variety of practices, from mummification to dentistry. Indigenous peoples in North America have long used bitumen too. I use a lot of "what if" scenarios and structures in my poems and short prose pieces - sometimes I use that formulation to project far forwards or far backwards. I think oil has a lot of incredible "what if" stories and poems that are to be written. Also I'll mention I have a side hobby in reading paleoanthropology and visiting prehistorical cultural sites if I can when I travel.
Of poetry and science, I'll say that for me poems and science keep pushing the limits of what we know and can know.
Briefly describe, if you would, the place in which you sit to respond to the following questions.
I spend a lot of my time in my work office and home office. Both places badly need a redesign, plus I need to get my library in order one day. I'm definitely a fan of looking at photos of offices of writers and philosophers I like, and I try to discern a few of the books in the background.
Would you please introduce us to the idea of “The Ecology of Modernism”?
Sure. This book is a study of how environmental issues affected the form and content of modernist American poems (poets discussed include Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Langston Hughes) and some musical works (such as early blues singers, John Cage's avant-garde stuff, and punk music, especially Dead Kennedys - these all come up in different chapters).
I focus on environmental issues that were relevant at the time (circa 1900-1950) but also still resonate today. The book opens with a look at how modernist poets tended to praise pollution or find it aesthetically alluring, beginning with Whitman, because pollution signified things like action, industrialization, masculinity, modernization, and corresponded to aesthetic excess.
One chapter looks at how shifting human-animal relations and animals portrayed in popular media prompted Moore to modernize the genre of the fable.
Another looks at concepts of landscape and environmental immersion as important to Stein, especially as they guide her sense of composition as something you are always in and surrounded by.
Another chapter is about the paucity of direct discussion and depiction of oil in modernist literature, given the massive social and environmental changes due to oil at the time.
I discuss how modernists had a keen perception of some of the developing ecological issues facing their work but also tended to skirt around other relevant issues. I'm interested in how changing concepts of nature, the spread of academic ecology, and the rise of environmental activism marks the form and content of modernist poems.
With regard to your teaching of philosophies of nature, and perhaps harkening back to the distinction between poetic and scientific truths, I wonder if you’d address the question of whether or how rationality is an inherently colonialist enterprise, and where poetry and myth exists in relation to reason.
I don't think rationality or reason is inherently colonialist.
I'm very intrigued by recent philosophical discussions of how reason is independent of human cognition and the plans we have for ourselves. I'm thinking of work by the philosopher Ray Brassier and his reading of Wilfrid Sellars.
There is some irony in this approach - use reason to think of how reason can exceed any sensible or conceptual means we have to generate the missions of meaning and tasks we give ourselves. I'm slowly reading through some of this work on realism and rationalism as foundational for scientific claims (and slowly articulating some of my own thoughts and critiques on related issues - see for example my recent article in the online journal Parrhesia.)
Some of this work raises some unsettling questions about what reason entails regardless of humans or how the development of reason might involve profound changes to being human. However, I certainly think expanding reason is an emancipatory project for everyone, but this includes using a wide variety of ways of reasoning (pure, practical, scientific, collective, inter-generational, embodied, inter-species).
I have my own interests with these issues in terms of poetry and philosophy. I admire emancipatory rationalism but it's not the only thing I'm devoted to; right now I'd call myself an existential formalist. By this, I mean consideration of how poetic forms generate and work through issues of their own "existential infrastructure" (Beauvoir's term) and existential risk.
Lately, I've become very interested in how poems can register the wear and tear of the functional and formal aspects of linguistics and poetics. I'm wondering things like how long poems last, and how a trope or device might show awareness of its own limits and precarities.
For example, I think all poems make use of the linguistic function of contact, but poems are especially sensitive to how contact might be sustained or evanescent. How long does the "you" last in a poem, how far does the "you" go, how might the "you" flicker on and off like a neon sign?
Who or what are you reading now? What thereby have you learned or reconsidered in your own thinking?
I'm always reading the work of LA-based poet Will Alexander. He scrambles my synapses. He explores the outer reaches of the poem-space and has a teeming vocabulary.
His work is involved in forming conduits of communication and exchange with entities that are non-human, including entities that are beyond Earth (see his book "Exobiology as Goddess”). There are a lot of planets and planetary activities in his poetry. Right now with all the environmental upheavals going on, I think it is imperative to find a form that will allow everyone on the planet to speak with and to the planet. I have no idea what form such speech would take, but I think poems can begin to provide such forms, and these forms are emerging in Alexander's work.
To take up the phrase “scrambles my synapses,” I wonder whether you’ve considered poetry through the lens of neuroplasticity. Is new work––which, as you say, doesn’t add to, but rather effects a subtraction from, the already existing pile of language––obligated to bend neurological pathways, to resist already-thought thoughts, to subvert dogmatism?
We're in for a total fight right now to reclaim our own synapses from the infotainment complex. It's up to us and our poetry to mess with our synapses. Poetry already does this by messing with every single device known to language, communication, and sense.
I do think that reading a poem elicits the effect of seeing your synapses right there on the page, taking form, becoming reformed. Once the poem is written/read, and the messing with devices have re-routed our synapses, at that point, we're enabled to do other things with our brain. But do what?
Also, I cannot resist one last point here.
Think about how Artificial Intelligence is also trying to mimic the neural net, to the extent that true AI is trying to find a way to have the computer learn intuitively, showing the same kind of creativity and care we talk about when we talk about poetry. But the great thing about poetry is that it keeps changing the game, changing the synapses, with every word, line, and poem. So the AI machine will say yes, I got it, I wrote a poem. But the poet then responds by once again messing with the devices and synapses, and the game of what is a poem and what can it do starts all over.
“The way the design of the table influences what food will be served on it and how it tastes.” I wonder if you’d free-associate upon this line and its implications.
Foods taste square on a square table. Who built the table and how it was built and where the wood, iron, and other materials came from affects the food too - we can taste the labour of humans and plants in food (I'm a vegetarian) and the labour put into making the table plays a role in taste too.
What, if anything, after publishing “Theatre of Public Safety” did you wish you knew or better understood before doing so?
That title, "Theatre of Public Safety," is a riff on the French Revolution's "Committee of Public Safety." I did some research on the utopian declarations of that Committee, but I'd love to see a whole book on the rise and fall of that group and its members. My own book has a lot to do with the rise and fall of various utopian plans and sentences.
I was intrigued to learn that words in indigenous languages are often local, site-specific, unable to be applied elsewhere, as Aamjiwnaang, for instance, whereas in English we use adjectives to specify and locate nouns, as in “The St. Clair River.”
I wonder if you’ve encountered this thought before, ask that you riff a bit on how this difference in thinking shapes our sense of environment, space, time, and history, and where pitfalls in the English language may lie.
I do notice often how street names in cities I've lived in were named after geographical or environmental details that are often long gone - a Walnut St. with no walnut trees, a Deer Creek with no deer or creek. There are all these plant and animal names surrounding us, but not much of those plants or animals are found where those names are found.
On the other hand, perhaps these names all over these cities are gesturing to a once and future world. Maybe the signs stand in patient wait for the return of their namesakes.
Maybe soon enough there will be walnut trees and creeks and deer running through these spaces again. And definitely, also the peoples who lived in the places where the names stand for them, and stand for their displacement, and can stand for their re-arrival.