'More Than One Way to Tell a Story': Joshua Mensch on Hybrids & Personal History

Oxford Writers' HouseInterviews2018August'More Than One Way to Tell a Story': Joshua Mensch on Hybrids & Personal History

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'More Than One Way to Tell a Story': Joshua Mensch on Hybrids & Personal History

OXFORD WRITERS’ HOUSE: Congrats on the publication of Because! Central to the collection is sexual abuse, a quite difficult subject. How do you describe the subject of the book to readers? Was it difficult as a writer to render personal trauma without sensationalizing it?

JOSHUA MENSCH: Because is a personal story about my childhood. It’s about a man named Don, whom I knew when I was growing up, and my relationship with him. Don was an old friend of my father’s. He ran a summer camp and private school out of his house, a cabin in the woods in northern Nova Scotia, during the 1980s and ’90s. When my parents decided to send me to Don’s camp, I was thrilled. I made a few great, lifelong friends there, and I kept going back, summer after summer. Unfortunately, Don was also a pedophile whose camp gave him access to children, and I became an object of his obsession. Because explores the dual nature of Don’s camp and what that experience was like.

For me, the stories that feel most true are those that don’t sensationalize their subjects, but observe them with an almost dispassionate attention to detail, the way a good documentary does. Devastating facts don’t really require amplification. The way I looked at it, the only way to capture the truth of my experience was to record what I remembered as accurately as I could recall it, without embellishment or unnecessary effect, and let those recollections speak for themselves. The best way to make a reader really understand the texture of an experience is to make them see it for themselves, as if they were actually there. The key to doing that, I think, is to expose the senses.

OWH: Poetry debuts are commonly collections of shorter pieces that have appeared here and there over a number of years, leading up to publication; it’s unusual for a poet to debut with a long book-length poem. Can you tell us something about that journey?

MENSCH: It’s a story that I’d known for a long time I would have to write, though I had always envisioned myself being a much older man when I did it. The events it relates had such a profound impact on my life, and on the lives of so many of my childhood friends, that it felt necessary, obligatory even, to write about them. But I wanted to be ready, to have the skill to do it right. It took me a good few years of false starts before I finally figured out that I could write it as a poem. I had just finished putting together a collection of poems and was waiting for feedback from some friends when a line, then a memory, came to me, seemingly out of nowhere. “Because the room . . .” it started—and I realized I’d found the hook, my way in. Without intending to, I’d stumbled into a long poem, and that revelation was incredibly freeing. The long poem, as a form, gave me the space I needed to develop a narrative arc of real scope, while at the same time freeing me from the burdens of “plot” that had got in my way so many times before. Poetry is a genre that lends itself to fragmentation. It gave me the flexibility I needed to jump around in time, to operate by image, metaphor and implication.

OWH: You call Because a lyric memoir. That sounds like a kind of hybrid. What does this definition mean to you? What can the reader expect?

MENSCH: The reader can expect to read a poem, and the reader can expect to read a memoir. It serves both genres equally. What a reader more inclined toward more traditional nonfiction may be surprised to find is that, even though Because is a book of poetry, it’s very accessible. It has a plot, and its plot carries the reader forward with a narrative as well as a lyric momentum. As a poem, its lines are lyrically balanced, they have a more or less regular measure, rhythm, and prosodic structure. And their music, their rhythm, is what carries the story forward.

OWH: Has writing Because helped you make sense of the past? How do you understand what happened all those years ago?

MENSCH: It’s hard to explain without imposing an adult perspective on it. I’m almost 40 years old now. At the time, as a 10-year-old, my terrors were bullies, being picked on, being picked last—the usual traumas of an uncoordinated, introverted child. So, I think in order to understand the how and why, it’s important to understand the what—what the alternatives looked like, what I was trading off. Because is an attempt to answer the many questions I’ve fielded over the years by creating a sense of what that experience was like. I thought if I could make people experience it directly, as if they were also there, they would be able to understand it more intimately and answer those questions for themselves.

OWH: How did you know when you were finished with Because, that you had answered all the questions that needed to be asked? What do you hope readers take away from the collection?

MENSCH: I didn’t. I still don’t. The thing about a book like this is that its structure makes it infinitely extensible. I could add to it for the rest of my life and still never finish it, still not answer all the questions people may have. But at some point, I felt I had said enough. [I hope readers of Because will see that] there’s more than one way to tell a true story. That true stories are messy in the way that reality is messy, full of contradictions and ambiguity and mystery. That nuance can lead to a better understanding than absolute clarity. That two contradictory truths can stand in opposition to one another, and still both be true. That embarrassment and shame are tools of the powerful, and to claim power, the powerless must forgo both of them. That, if nothing else, at least I’ve done this well.

OWH: You also you work as an editor. Can you say a few words about     B O D Y, the publication, its origins and mission?

I co-edit an online literary journal called B O D Y, which I founded in 2012 with my friends Chris and Stephan. At the time, all three of us were living on the same square in Prague and would meet up after work to talk about what we were reading and gossip about whatever literary news was making the rounds. It was during one of those conversations that the idea of starting our own journal came up. I don’t think we were motivated by any particular mission except to publish work that we felt was good and deserved attention, and to give it an attractive platform to appear on. But we knew right away that a web journal was the way to go. This was driven in part by the isolation we felt living so far off the Anglophone literary grid, in a place where access to print journals was difficult. So, the idea of doing something online that would be accessible to everyone everywhere was really attractive to us. These days, there are a lot of really good online journals to choose from, and most print journals put out regular online content, too, which is necessary if you want to become a part of people’s reading habits. But six years ago, that wasn’t the case. It was really easy to feel cut off if you didn’t have a ton of print subscriptions.

Though we’re known mainly as a poetry journal, B O D Y publishes a pretty wide range of work, including a lot of work in translation. We have a regular series devoted to European fiction in translation, and we work closely with a number of translators to bring poetry as well as prose by non-Anglophone writers into English. Working with translators is one of the great pleasures of literary exploration. Through them, we get to explore the kinds of work being published in other countries and in other languages that we might not have access to otherwise. And because of that newness – that sense of discovery – publishing work in translation is always very exciting. It’s also exciting to explore the other kinds of writing we feature: criticism, personal essays, performance texts, art interviews. Our interests are pretty wide ranging and I think the kinds of work we publish reflects that.

OWH: You grew up in Nova Scotia, studied at universities in the United States, and now live in the Czech Republic. What’s the poetry scene like in Prague? What excites you there?

I’m most excited by the work being written now by the Czech poets who came of age just after the revolution in 1989, and those of the younger generation who weren’t even alive then. It’s a really interesting moment now in Czech poetry. It’s just as absorptive of the poetries being written in other languages and countries as it’s always been, and often translates easily (in some ways, back) into English. But it’s also very aware of itself as something distinct, based on a very distinct sense of humour and reference, but in a way, less premised on a sense of isolation (social, political, linguistic) than it might have been in previous years.

The poets whose work I find particularly exciting include Milan Děžinský, whose collection, A Secret Life, was recently translated and blew me away. I find his work utterly compelling – and thanks to Nathan Field’s superb and sensitively handled translations, I was able to fully access it in English. Other poets whose work I admire, especially among those now in their 20’s and 30’s, include Olga Pek, Marie Šťastná, Jonáš Hájek, Ondřej Hanus, Jitka Srbová, Ondřej Buddeus, Štěpán Nosek, and Kamil Bouška, all of whose work I discovered through the efforts of translators.

Of the previous generation, the poets who came of age around the time of the revolution, I really like Petr Hruška, Petr Borkovec, and Wanda Heinrichová. The work of the latter two has been translated by Justin Quinn, a Prague-based Irish poet. Along with my co-editors Chris and Stephan, whose own poetry led me to befriend them, Quinn stands out among the Anglophone poets in Prague as someone whose writing I admire. He’s also a generous translator of other poets’ work and has brought many Czech poets into English, including most recently the mid-20th century pastoral poet Bohuslav Reynek. Stephan Delbos also translates seriously, and recently introduced me to the work of Vítězslav Nezval, a surrealist poet from the 1920’s and ’30’s whose book, The Absolute Gravedigger, he co-translated with Tereza Novická and published with Twisted Spoon press in Prague.

OWH: Thanks so much for the conversation, Joshua! Best wishes on Because and future books!

MENSCH: Thank you!

Published by Norton, Because: a lyric memoir is out now in the UK available in hardcover and ebook. 

Joshua Mensch

Joshua Mensch

Joshua Mensch is a poet, visual artist, and a founding editor of the online literary journal B O D Y. His poetry has appeared in several magazines, including PlumeBrick, the Collagist, and Smartish Pace. He grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, and lives and works in Prague, Czech Republic. 

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