On “Psalms for the Wreckage”: An Interview with Joshua Young

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Joshua Young is poet, playwright, and multimedia artist living in Chicago. He is the author of six collections, most recently, Psalms for the Wreckage (Plays Inverse, 2017) and with, Alexis Pope, I Am Heavy w/ Feeling (Fog Machine, 2017). His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Puerto del Sol, Fugue, Sal Hill, Vinyl, and Cream City, among other journals. Young’s feature films have been the Official Selection at the Seattle International Film Festival, Montreal International Black Film Festival, Athens International Film Festival, and True West Cinema Film Festival.

With Psalms, Young presents a one-of-a-kind collection featuring three hybrid pieces of dramatic literature, each uniquely modern in its approach to character and genre. The first of these three pieces, To the Chapel of Light, “functions as a screenplay or film in verse”; When the Wolves Quit, the second, is a “play in verse” with the play functioning “as an anchor/metaphor for the small town.” The third, This is the Way to Rule, is “written as a play-play (within hybrid elements, keeping in the tradition of the rest of the trilogy).”

Embracing the nuances of theatre, Young breaks the fourth wall in Psalms, even in the act of writing itself. Writing theatrically about small towns, identity, organized religion, irresponsible authority, and more, Young realizes “we are all actors,” planting readers into a world chillingly mirroring our own today. Wolves is about roles,” he says. “Chapel is about perception of identity related to place, and Rule is about the roles tied to authority, and what happens when the world begins to end.”

What drew you to writing drama and experimenting with hybrid texts in which plays and films read like poems and prose? When you write, do you envision the performance of the text?

I was drawn to drama by accident — I was making films and writing, and I used film language to structure my first manuscript, and decided I had to do something different for my second. It was completely arbitrary at first, and then as I started thinking about my work as something “staged,” I realized that I was already doing that — visually, I’m always working inside of a world that I’ve staged. When I started to embrace the idea of using the practices of playwriting to push my work and its narratives, it felt natural.

I do see everything as a performance. When I taught creative writing, I would constantly talk about writing being at its best when it’s an utterance, rather than something written — I think that applies here too … it could be movement, or utterance, or stillness, or all these (or more). I can’t write something unless I can see it — so having a stage is necessary for me, and when I did that in the past, I didn’t know that that was what I was doing.

I’d love to hear about your experience with the publishing process of your book. How did this collection come to be, how did you decide on Plays Inverse, and what was it like working with a publisher of contemporary drama to create your book?

Psalms came to be because my first two books were out of print, and I had a third book in series of hybrid plays/scripts. I told my publisher, Tyler, and he immediately wanted to see the third book (my first book is what help sparked his desire to start a press — he’s said this, I’m not trying to act like I’m amazing or anything). He asked if he could release the trilogy (thus reprinting my first two books, along with a new manuscript). Of course, I said yes.

Tyler had some really kind words to say about my first two books on social media, so I reached out and was like, “Hey man, this really means a lot that you get this.” That started a friendship — he one day told me he was starting a press, and so (here’s the short version) I sent him The Holy Ghost People, and we started working on it.

I wasn’t a playwright yet — not till I started working with Tyler. He showed me the rules and the practices of playwriting, and I tried to use them and destroy them, and he helped keep me tethered to the “stage,” or in the vicinity of the stage. He started calling me a playwright, and I was like, “Me?! No way. I’m just using plays as a way to make my stuff.” He insisted. I had already started writing other plays at this point and was like, OK.

Here’s the thing, I’ve never had a play staged — I’ve made films, and watch them come to life, and shown them at festivals. But my plays have always just been on the page — Tyler helped show me that a play should do both: function on the page and also live off of it.

I’ve said this so many times now, but I won’t stop: Tyler is the best editor I have ever worked with. Not only does he understand what I’m doing, he calls me on laziness or lack of clarity and pushes me. My first edits from The Holy Ghost People was a bloodbath, but I didn’t get upset. I was horrified, but I listened and the book/play is what it is because I trusted Tyler. I can’t say enough how much I owe to him. But on top of being an amazing editor and publisher, he’s goddamn good friend.

Has your written work been performed on stage or on film before? If so, were you involved in that process, or if not, would you hope to be?

I’ve been making films since 2006. Two of my feature films worth mentioning are Do You See Colors When You Close Your Eyes? and Into the Lavender Creases of Evening. Both of these I wrote and my twin brother directed. I won’t mention earlier films because, well, let’s just say I’m not super proud of them. I’m very involved in the making of the film, but I don’t go on set — one, my brother and I would kill each other (we disagree on a lot about process), two, because the budgets are micro and they can’t afford to fly me out, and three, honestly, I trust my brother to interpret my scripts into something great. I only have two complaints about his directing, and he already knows what they are (lol).

I’ve been working on staging THGP and Psalms and hope in the next year I’ll have a few performances/staging/live readings of these — fingers crossed. I’m working on a third film that’s linked to a multimedia project, but that’s still very much in the creation stage.

Could you talk a little about your writing background? How did you start writing, and what is your writing routine or practice like?

I started writing in my teens. I couldn’t get into college so I just wrote on my own — self-published a couple novels — and finally got into Western Washington University, where I started taking fiction classes with Kathryn Trueblood. Eventually, I took a poetry class with Oliver de la Paz and almost failed it — then he became my mentor. I blame him for getting me into poetry. Because of my background writing fiction, poetry became a way to harness my narratives — narratives that needed more than just prose.

I don’t have a routine. I actually railed against the idea of routine when I taught. I’ve come to realize that some people need it, whereas I don’t. I just don’t think people should worry about the right paper and place and bathrobe and moment to write. If you don’t have all that, you can still find time to write. So, I write when I can. I’m always writing something, working on something. Lately, my “writing” has been multimedia and music stuff, but when I can I’m always writing something — ideas, lines, images — and eventually that will become something I can see “staged,” and I’ll start building it.

I loved the end of the last play of the collection. The Leader says almost hauntingly to the DJ, “hey there’s my monologue & your execution! that’s drama. people are waiting for it.” The back-and-forth between the Leader and the DJ is so interesting, especially the way the DJ tells the Leader, who seems so sure of himself that the script is unchanging, “things change.” It’s brilliantly meta how they talk about the script, the stage, a missing page, and how “things change” right as the play itself turns right before the reader’s eyes. Did you envision this ending when you started writing This is the Way to Rule, or did “things change” along the way?

That happened on accident. Tyler said that the play ended too easily. That it was too expect. And I was thinking, “well, that’s what I wrote.” I was telling my wife this, and she said, “Things change, Josh. That’s OK.” And it hit me — everyone is trying to perform their roles, and this DJ is trying to dismantle that (I mean, it’s clear in the play that’s what they’re doing). I saw something happening offstage. I think I called Tyler and told him what I was seeing — he said, “Yeah. Do that,” or something punny. (He LOVES puns.) When I wrote that scene and sent it to Tyler he said it should it with a “Huh.” I died. I wish I would’ve thought of that last line. But anyway, that change made the rest of this dismantling of power that the DJ is trying to encourage really rise to the surface — so it’s there the whole play and then this scene happens and it all hits you: We are all actors. I think why this is also so important (as a scene) is that it ties all these plays together. Wolves is about roles, Chapel is about perception of identity related to place, and Rule is about the roles tied to authority, and what happens when the world begins to end.

The book ends with: “if you listen you can hear history under your foundation. listen. listen. listen.” What do we hear when we listen to history? What do you feel happens or changes when we listen?

I’m hoping listening teaches humans (men, especially) to listen to what history is warning us about, to listen to the damage we’ve done to humans and the world. It’s easy to claim you’re listening, but it’s harder to continue to listen even if what you’re being told is that you’re part of the problem. As men, we are fragile beings who have trouble admitting how complicit we are in all of this. I think, though at the core of this I was talking to myself. I don’t listen enough.

A unique, diverse cast of characters are present throughout all three pieces in the book. In This is the Way to Rule, in particular, you have children, soldiers, ghosts, leaders, a DJ, a rat-catcher, aides and advisors, a preacher, and simply a voice. I enjoy how cleverly you play with character. How did you come up with these characters in This is the Way to Rule? What symbolism or literalness do you associate with them? When you started writing the plays/screenplays for this collection, did the ideas for characters come to you first?

Characters come first — not who they are, but what they’re doing. From there I move down into character based on how I see them behaving. I think I’m always trying to start within the boundaries of roles and push out from there. I mean, it’d be shocking to see Superman driving the Batmobile, but you could build it if you start with the expected. Build something from the world we already find familiar, and push it out into something strange, something unknown.

What do you hope readers take away from this collection? When you write, do you have an ideal reader in mind?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer for that. I try to make stuff that I would like to see in the world. I want people to like what I do, to talk about it, but at the end of the day, I want them to like it for their own reasons, and if I’m not happy with it, I don’t believe they can. So, in a selfish way, what I make is for me, but because I feel like I’m making something honest, and I hope people can find that useful or likeable.

What advice would you give emerging writers who want to hone their craft while experimenting with new ways of writing? Is there a space you like to go to when you write that inspires you to be creative? What do you love about writing?

Advice: Listen to the people who are giving you advice and criticism (especially criticism), but don’t listen if they aren’t willing to understand what you’re doing. Study with people who will support you not just in the classroom, but outside of it and after. Find a cohort of people who know and understand your work, and if life gets hard, they will be there for you. You don’t need an MFA to be a good writer, but you need readers who understand what you are trying to do, and won’t let you get away with not doing that.

Keep toxic behaviors out of this. Promote safe spaces. Don’t be an asshole. Call out and exorcise toxic people. Listen. Believe women. Art is meaningless if people are silenced.

I don’t have a space I go to write, but I tend to end up writing on the couch, on the train, at my work desk (I’m doing that now, while I wait for a work email), but I do have a space that I work on stuff for film and music — but that’s really practical thing. I’d rather be able to make stuff wherever I feel like it (or need to), but I have equipment I use, so …

Who do you look up to as a writer? Who are some of your favorite authors today, and how has their work inspired your own?

David Bazan, Oliver de la Paz, Craig Santos Perez, Haruki Murakami, The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Alexis Pope, Beyza Ozer, Julien Baker, Mitski, Greta Gerwig, Kristoff Diaz, Jill Magi, all my friends and family making art, all my former students making art, my twin brother (Caleb), the ghost of John Cassavetes, David Lynch, Noah Hawley, Eve Ewing — these are my current and sustaining sources of inspiration and appreciation.

It’s hard to explain — but these are at the front of my mind and I feel like you can see traces of their word in what I’m doing now — or at least what I’m shouting about on the internet.

There are so many fantastic lines throughout the book that I’d love to highlight — could you possibly expound upon some of my favorites?

“this is the undanced cadence of vanishing” (p. 105)

I stole this from Galway Kinnell’s book of nightmares (but I’m not sure if it’s word for word — I tend to steal and borrow based on what I hear/remember/misremember).

“when I learn to sing, it’ll change / the key of everything” (p. 106)

I stole this from a Starflyer 59 song from their brilliant record Leave Here a Stranger.

“dear sisters, / this town is killing me with all its gray and rain sputter. keeps me up nights. i miss the punch clock misery from my twenties” (p. 101)

I was thinking about Seattle rain and all the shitty jobs I had to get me through school.

A small town church where “rumors swell like a new bruise” (p. 95)

My experience inside churches and church leadership is watching the power of a rumors destroy friendships and lives. I didn’t experience small-town living, but churches function, many times, as small towns.

The word “gunshots” alone on a blank page under the title “Prologue—Spotlight” (p. 92)

I was thinking of perhaps the sound of a gunshot triggering the beginning of a narrative, and in this case a play. The gunshot tells the audience, “Look over here.”

“of the two boys, he’s the one who still feels” (p. 175)

When we get caught up in a plan or a decision that unravels, we can lose sight of reality, we lose our grounding—the last thing you want to lose is your ability to empathize and feel, but something hate and anger leads to is nothingness. This boy still felt something, and that’s why he didn’t get taken to the place of light and shadow.

“the sound of WRECKAGE” (p. 206) in small caps throughout the book

I wanted that word to shout. So that it became almost like a soundtrack within the story.

In regard to CASPIAN, how “it must’ve been the wind” (p. 287)

We hear and see things we want to, even if it’s nothing or in this case the wind. Humans are made to suture together unrelated things to make sense of the world … sometimes the pieces aren’t really there. (i.e. conspiracies, false hope, etc.).

Is the following in reference to ideas of belief in god? “don’t you know / there isn’t a this out there — find a place to dig in, make your own caspian. there’s no reason to break your backs looking for something that’s not even there” (p. 300)

Yeah, religion can sometimes take advantage of the human’s need for meaning. But really what matters is community, safety, and love. I think what I’m trying to say is we don’t need institutions to function, to live right.

When the PREACHER claims he wants to help the CHILDREN, the children say, “you can’t even help yourself” (p. 305)

I mean, this feels pretty relevant. In my experience, leaders who don’t accept their fault address them. But most of the times, they want to lead when they can’t even lead themselves to decency.

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