This is part four of a micro-interview series Gasher is conducting with authors of the first Gasher chapbooks. Josh Bettinger is the author of the chapbook A Dynamic Range of Various Designs for Quiet, available on Gasherjournal.com/shop. Reviews/Interviews Editor Rushi Vyas conducted this interview with Bettinger via email.
Rushi Vyas: While this chapbook predates the pandemic, reading it now takes on a new resonance. The speaker in A Dynamic Range of Various Designs for Quiet is obsessed with notions of selfhood, how the concept of self becomes warped, mediated, and challenged when stuck in a situation of isolation and vast distance from others. The speaker is, or feels that they are, living on the moon, writing back alternately to a lover and to "HQ." Energy builds as we move through the collection and the speaker is confronted by lack of touch from others, lack of response, and the hollowness of echoes. At one point the speaker says, "I make no certainty of my death, but I know I'd crash planets and move people to brutal disposition for you and the chance of touch" (25). Glimmers of sound are the only tethers to keep the speaker afloat. Have you found yourself returning to your own poems in a different relationship as the pandemic has changed our ways of living and communing?
Josh Bettinger: Isolation as tropos, right? Yeah this piece actually became a bit clearer to me as 2020 gave way to 2021, so much that I honestly wish I could take another pass to further define parts of it. The technological ‘characters’ (references) in the piece and their passivity, when reading it now, is wildly naïve I realize. I think that had I written it now it would basically distill to one page that would read ‘listen to the sound these pixels don’t make’… It’s strange, I know. As someone who has been doing literal & physical room renovations in my home, I know that “Rooms are Never Finished,” but sometimes it feels like this room is just framed now and needs to be updated. But that is a full-scale metaphor for life or something, right?
R: I love how A Dynamic Range of Various Designs for Quiet creates a world for the reader, the speaker's world, one of isolation, uttering love poems to the void or to a love separated by what feel's an insurmountable distance. You wrote this collection over a period of time when traveling. You titled the poems by using word, syllable, and character counts as coordinates of a sort. What is your relationship now to the speaker of these poems? What was at stake in your writing of these poems?
J: I think that this book is a prologue—and I think that each ‘collection’ a person generates / executes is a prologue to their next ‘collection’. It’s not really a new idea, but as I get a bit older and have more of a birds-eye on what a writing ‘career’ looks like, I have a more informed approach about how I frame success and failure. That’s a bit of a wide turn to get to what was at stake in the writing of the pieces, but it informs it. Vulnerability was at stake, right? Conceptually, it’s a speaker confessing love and regret to another that is on an entirely separate celestial body. But we know that isn’t really happening, so it’s a distance imposed for protection maybe, which ‘ameliorates’ the vulnerability of the speaker. But it doesn’t—the speaker is still pretty raw in turns, I think. I keep coming back to this, and I don’t really know my truth on it yet, but I am pretty sure this speaker put themselves at the distance where they are speaking from, intentionally. As many times as I mentally revisit the progression of the piece, I’m still not seeing a great deal of energy spent on WE HAVE TO GO BACK! (telling LOST reference…) even when the speaker attempts to long for the ‘you’. Confession as tropos? Protection as tropos? Self-quarantined Cassandra complex as tropos? Unclear.
To go back to the naming of the poems: looking back, this book is one poem. The naming created a range, both conceptually and organizationally, but really, they are more like self-imposed / dictated breaks that point to the break without trying to define it. I tried a bunch of different ‘dressings’, honestly, and this is the one that fit the scope of the poem(s) best.
R: Similarly to the first question, what were these poems trying to say about technology? The speaker is obsessed with positing new definitions for the self, but these declarative statements and questions are often shrouded in technological language. "I am an archive of self," one poem opens. And later in the poem, the speaker is "drifting in my pool of self beneath the silver shine of the pixelated blade" (21). This idea of the "I" as an "archive of self" rather than a self highlighted, for me, our entanglement with the digital archives shaping our lives. And then on the following page we see pixels again in the line, "A lifetime of sitting in front of pixels that could not love it back. Have you thought of this. / And, maybe then I am the engineer of my self" (22). Maybe this question is too grandiose, but in your mind, how does technology impact the lyric questioning "I" in this collection, and maybe in poetry today?
J: I realize that this book has a cast of characters that could be its own book, albeit a short one. Much like the last 18+ months have seen the majority of us develop different relationships with our surroundings, right? I will not lie; I am pretty attached to the chair I am sitting in right now and in 2019 I would’ve not thought twice about it until it had already become uncomfortable. For example, the thing I am currently trying to figure out with this group is what is the catalyst, what event or breaking point, got the speaker to “Dreaming began as a surgery of thieves” and the opening of this book. I legitimately don’t know. What was it—what silence is broken with dreaming and thieves?
It’s hard to rationalize where the ‘I’ ends and the other ‘cast members’ begin if you look at the thing holistically. I definitely didn’t set it up to adhere to some structure like that, but in the editing that very much presented itself, so I pursued it. I think in (page 23) 136.173.567 it’s not very well obscured, honestly. It’s a saying-the-quiet-part-out-loud moment, but one I felt was earned. Rereading it, this poem feels very aware of the reader. Like, almost watched. More so than most of the others, I think, but it could be some editorial affectation I’m applying after these aforementioned 18+ months of no escape from the very same machines. BIG. SHRUG.
R: Over the backdrop of the book’s quasi-fictional setting, the "I" in these poems becomes a character that allows the first-person aphoristic declarations and repetitions to strike the reader in a way that maintains and builds energy. These are moves which are so difficult to pull off! It made me wonder about the creative works you study or imbibe that help shape the aesthetic here. You placed the Szymborska epigraph at the start of this chapbook, but who are your main poetic influences and what, craft-wise, have you learned from them? This could also cross into other genres beyond poetry.
J: I am very happy that you posed this question, and I am further pleased with the closing qualification — “This could also cross into other genres beyond poetry.” I will be honest that the ‘reliably traditional’ poetic influences on this piece are pretty limited: I’d say Steven Jesse Bernstein (who gets a nod in the back) provides some of the apprehensive energy, which is maybe the keyhole-image of the speaker. I think Television, in general, is a landscape that the work is written on. My thought process there is more like — modern poetry is a cartoon figure on a photorealistic landscape: both juxtaposed and an intruder.
William Basinski (music)
This Will Destroy You (music)
Every Wong Kar-Wai film, most notably 2046 and In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express
Christopher Tignor (music)
Clint Mansell (music)
Neuromancer, read by Robertson Dean
King Sunny Ade (music)
Internet forums about repairing things, refurbishing things
doing Mad-Libs and erasures with my 5 and 7 year old kids
any book Phaidon has ever published
the graphic work of Hanawa Kazuichi (manga)
poetry influences on my work are all over the place: Ralph Angel, Mark Strand, Charles Simic. The aforementioned Szymborska. Anna Kamienska, Tomas Tranströmer, Agha Shahid Ali, Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Brigit Pegeen Kelly. And oh my god: Natalie Diaz, Hanif Abdurraqib, Joshua Bennet. The WAVE Books catalog, LOL
R: What have you been working on lately? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
J: It’s been a slow few years, what with the plague and all, for my publishing hunger. Just this past summer I wrote a lot, and I am in the finishing throes of a non-sequential sequel to this book, I’ve decided. Well, not exactly, but I think they both exist in the same universe. Like, not the MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) but the JPU (Josh Poetics Universe). It’s absolutely the same speaker, but in a different lane. I’d say it’s loosely affiliated with Dynamic in the sense that it’s part of what is shaping up to be a series of Escapist Tropes — where Dynamic is a science-fiction inspired moon-haunt, the current piece of the same length and approach, is more of an AI-assisted road trip into and away from other modern maladies. I don’t know, though, maybe it is a prequel? Working title is ‘In The Pool At The Hotel On The Interstate’. I am going to put a final shine on it and try to get a publisher to return my calls around the end of the year. Any leads?
I also am chiseling away at the full-length, but I may just be losing my edge in that a collection of 70+ poems that gel is a really uphill battle, and I think that I may be putting it off because I don’t know if I could read 70+ pages of my work—or anyone’s, really—at this point in life. I hope that I shake that, because the work in it is very different from the work in Dynamic or the yet-to-be-finished-nor-officially-named book. I just don’t know. I’m entering the brutally honest stage of my writing where I see that I’m not going to advance (editorially, contractually, stylistically, publishingly…) beyond a certain threshold, and so revisiting what the framework of success means is important. And dire. But that’s not all to be intended as gloom and doom — there are a literal million small preses, journals, magazines, etc that are offering really cool and complicated poems and poetry. So as long as indie publishers stay ahead of the looming supply-side issues with paper and binding, there will continue to be amazing and confusing work to be read!
Josh Bettinger is a poet and sometimes editor. He is the author of the chapbook A Dynamic Range Of Various Designs For Quiet (2019), from GASHER. Recent publications include Handsome Poetry, SLICE, flock, Columbia Journal, Atlas Review, Crazyhorse, Punt Volat, and Boston Review, among others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and kids and loud chickens.