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Tomaž (Wave, 2021). Cover design by Jeff Clark.

Contributor: Joshua Beckman

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Documentary Poetry

Assistant Editor Helen Hill talks with Joshua Beckman about his most recent book, Tomaž

Joshua Beckman’s book, Tomaž (Wave Books, 2021), is a long poem assembled from years of interviews and conversations Beckman had with Tomaž Šalamun about his poetic career. Interspersed within the book are photos of Šalamun’s life and loved ones, as well as original poems translated by Beckman. Excerpted below is one of the embedded poems: the first poem Šalamun ever wrote. Beckman has a long history with Circumference; his translation of the poem “Little Mushrooms” by Tomaž Šalamun appeared in our very first issue. Tomaž is available for purchase here

Circumference Magazine:

Šalamun describes his process of finding pieces for cut-up poetry as “looking for some other pieces that attacked me…” Did you feel, while revisiting the recordings of your conversations with Šalamun, that some of his phrasings “attacked you”? What did that feel like?

Joshua Beckman

I love this question, though I do think of what we were doing as two very different things. His was more inspirational and mine was more documentary. If I see a connection, I think it is an overlap in the pleasures of listening and the excitement to make something new that comes out of that experience. There was lots of being attacked by things but it wasn’t the looking through and plucking from that Tomaž describes, it was more like following him. Being drawn to spans of conversation. And it felt amazing, like being back at my kitchen table with him.

Circumference Magazine:

Can you elaborate more on your experience of synthesizing these interviews into a cohesive poem? Were there times where it felt like you were responsible for suturing together gaps that might have been resolved had the project gone as planned? What were the most difficult transitions in the book?

Joshua Beckman

In a certain way I felt less responsible for filling in gaps than if we had been able to work on it together. Given the situation, it felt like an uncomfortable overreach and so I was usually just trying to follow him through the conversations, go where they went and accept the at times untethered quality which that produced. The book works by accumulation of story as much as chronological consistency. Maybe my resistance to filling in comes from the first draft, which was just a way to hear it again, to be really listening again. It was just for me so I wasn’t doing much connecting in the beginning, but I had typed up the poems he read out loud while we were recording and when he read them it often signaled a shift in the interview’s energy or direction. When I worked on the book I used the inter-leafed poems (and photos) to create space, which may be a little more breaking than transitioning.

Circumference Magazine:

Who were the poets that “turned [your] head around” (to use Šalamun’s words), or poets who reoriented your idea of poetry, either as a reader or as a writer? I’m not talking about the people who got you into poetry, but the people who surprised you along the way, or redefined poetry for you in some way.

Joshua Beckman

At this moment, I think of some poets who informed this project by opening in me that space of listening as a making practice. Listening recording transcribing. David Shapiro, the play and joy and hearing ways of the voice in Shapiro’s poems with children. David Antin’s constantly divergent streams of thought and image. Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, his listening and letting the voice speak in density. 

Circumference Magazine:

How much of yourself do you feel is exhibited in this book? Surely as the weaver of these words, Joshua Beckman is going to come through…how much do you see yourself in this book?

Joshua Beckman

I’m probably the one least able to answer this. I tried for as little as possible but I was the one being spoken to and I think that guided much of it: what I asked and how I paid attention. Then of course, all of that is magnified by me being the one making something from the recordings.

Circumference Magazine:

What do you feel was added and/or lost in the making of this poem from the original conversations, either through assembly or translation?

Joshua Beckman

What was added, I think, was a sense of the continuity of impulse. We were enjoying making it and that it would be shared was part of the enjoyment so I think Tomaž would be pleased that it was able to happen. For me, I think what was lost was the privacy of time together.

An excerpt from Tomaž by Joshua Beckman, with an embedded poem by Tomaž Šalamun

so that my first poems
really dropped
like stones
from the sky

and everything else
five six poems in a row
and I knew that this
this is something really strange

I thought maybe I’m sick
and actually these were the first
lines that stayed

One day you are aware the hand exists
already for ages it has known it exists
swollen with its handness
it stares at you vaguely used to being a hand
but what now what will the consequences be
who will define the new borders
you didn’t understand well said the hand
you’re not you I’m the hand spreading
then I’m an arm
I’m pale and I sing I sing loud
and make my bed
stop for once with your tiny yellowish thought
you’re not pale you didn’t sing you didn’t sing loud
nor make your bed
because YOU ARE NOT YOU, I AM THE HAND
the world is the decay of the world
but what now what will the consequences be

so these lines fell
and my reaction was 

that I was afraid 

that maybe
this was some kind of
mental disorder 

but also I felt that
this is something important 

From Tomaž. Copyright 2021 by Joshua Beckman. Printed with permission of the author/translator and Wave Books.

Tomaž Šalamun (July 4, 1941–December 27, 2014) was a Slovenian poet who was a leading figure of postwar neo-avant-garde poetry in Central Europe and an internationally acclaimed absurdist. His books of Slovene poetry have been translated into twenty-one languages, with nine of his thirty-nine books of poetry published in English. His work has been called a poetic bridge between old European roots and America. Šalamun was a member of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Joshua Beckman is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Tomaž, The Inside of an Apple, (which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award), Take ItShakeYour Time Has Come, and Things Are Happening, which won the first annual Honickman-APR book award. He is the editor-in-chief at Wave Books and has translated numerous works of poetry and prose, including Poker (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004) by Tomaž Šalamun, which was a finalist for the PEN America Poetry in Translation Award.