Joel’s passion: Chasing beauty through poetry
Joel Showalter is famous at Ologie. He won’t agree with that statement, but as our editorial director, most of our work goes through him. (Thus, pretty famous.) But Joel’s talent for the written word extends beyond his profession. His love of writing is at the core of who he is. He’s a published poet, and in 2020 he received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. The way Joel approaches poetry and the emotions that inspire him will feel familiar to anyone who considers writing to be part of their larger purpose and calling.
Raina: We recently talked about The Slowdown as a podcast that you listen to for a daily jolt of poetry inspiration. What else helps inspire you? Do you have any other inspirations that help with your poetry?
Joel: Most of my inspiration comes from experiences I encounter throughout my day. I’m not one who gets a whole lot of ideas out of the blue. I think it’s easier to talk about where inspiration doesn’t come from, because it comes from anywhere. I have a poet friend who says he stopped going to generative workshops for poetry because he doesn’t need ideas for what to write, but rather to be able to finish writing the ideas that he already has.
The stuff I write tends to be rooted in my own experience, and anything can spark it. Right now, I’m writing a lot about how I grew up and those relationships — about growing up in a conservative, evangelical Christian household, and my experiences growing up gay in that setting. There certainly is plenty to talk about there.
More than anything, I’m chasing beauty with poetry, whether that’s beauty of imagery, beauty of language, beauty of an experience. Poetry in particular can be really good at taking an experience that is, at first glance, not beautiful or not comfortable, and by writing about it, using metaphor and language, you can create something beautiful.
Are you noticing any trends in particular? What moods or emotions are inspiring your pieces more frequently right now? When do the words come to you?
If there is a difficult emotion, or if there’s a wound, that’s sometimes what I choose to explore because I think there’s something interesting there. Not every poem I write about related to my past is a poem of healing, necessarily. But the process of turning those ideas over can help.
Sometimes I have an experience that makes me feel joy and I want to capture that in the poem. There are those who look down their noses at what they call sentimentality — poems that engage with beauty in a certain way or that aren’t too difficult. To some, those poems are too facile or too simple or wear their emotions on their sleeve. I think that’s a shame, because those are the poems that I respond to. The poems I want to write are those that create emotion in the reader as well.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I write in free verse, which is unmetered and unrhymed — but meter and rhythm are still important, the sounds of the words are still important. I pick a line length and try to stick with it, so my poems look like boxes, and I tend to write in stanzas. I learned a couple of years ago that “stanza” is Latin for “room.” I like playing with the idea of rooms that are the same size, but the poem flows through them.
You know, the thing that separates poetry from prose is the line break. That’s it: in poetry, we get to decide where the line ends. And there’s some prose out there that is very poetic because of the type of language the writer uses. But in poetry, the line is what makes a poem, a poem. That line break has a certain tension in that it creates a pause. So I like to play with stanza breaks and line breaks to create and release tension across the language I’m using.
“I prefer to have something that looks orderly, but then have the chaos happen in a different way.”
I don’t do a lot of end rhyme, but I do use a lot of internal rhyme and other musical devices. The stuff you learn about in grade school: assonance, consonance, alliteration. Those are also types of rhymes. There are devices like repeated language. All of that creates music in the broader sense.
In the past, I’ve written sonnets, and on occasion, rhymed and metered poetry. Working within a form generates a different kind of creativity. When you have boundaries, you’re actually more creative than you are without boundaries.
You brought up line length and how you try to pick a line length and stick with it throughout a piece. When I’m reading poetry, I’ve noticed how I get really uncomfortable if there is one really long line. And my first thought is, “Did this person not realize?” But maybe I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable by this. Maybe it’s supposed to be a two-word line followed by a 12-word line. Maybe it’s supposed to generate some sort of feeling.
Exactly. I prefer to have something that looks orderly, but then have the chaos happen in a different way. But that’s just my style. There are a lot of great poems where the line length varies widely.
What is your editing and revising process like?
It’s hard for me sometimes, because I edit all day long, and it’s hard to turn the editor off when I’m writing poetry. I start with getting an idea on paper. I’m not writing lines, just writing material, trying to think about figurative language, and the topic, but also trying to get out of my own way. Then I go through a process of transcribing the poem from paper to the screen, and sometimes back from the screen to paper. Sometimes I even do that multiple times.
Writing on paper tends to be more generative for me, and I do more of my editing on screen. On the screen, I can get a sense of how it looks — whether it fits that line length I’m going for, whether it’s ordered a certain way — and it’s also easier to play with and change the lines. My editing process is pretty messy, a lot messier than what I do at work — trying things, undoing things. Once I have a decent draft, I try to put it aside for a little while. Then I come back to it and go through it again until I feel happy with it.
Editing your own work is hard. Being more comfortable with revising my stuff means I need to be more comfortable with having a not perfect first version. Because then it’s a lot easier to let go of things.
Mary Oliver said that you have to be willing to write stuff that you’re gonna throw away. And think of that well-known phrase among writers to “murder your darlings.” My friend David suggested that we think of those darlings not as our children, but rather as a person you went on a date with, that you later realize isn’t going to work out. You don’t take them home to the family, but they’re still a fine person. It feels less horrible to delete that stuff when you think about it that way.
“A good experience reading poetry, in my opinion, involves some type of recognition. You recognize some part of yourself in it.”
Who are your favorite living poets?
Ada Limón, who hosts The Slowdown. I’ve been re-reading one of her collections and finding more to love about it. And she was just named the next U.S. poet laureate.
Tyehimba Jess: he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his book Olio, which blew my mind. There’s an Appalachian poet I really like named Maurice Manning. And Nickole Brown: she’s phenomenal, and she and her wife are both poets. You know who else I love? Naomi Shihab Nye.
And favorite dead poets?
Something I think is fascinating is that I never used to see people sharing poetry who wouldn’t typically describe themselves as literature or poetry people. But with social media, it’s become a medium to do so.
A good experience reading poetry, in my opinion, involves some type of recognition. You recognize some part of yourself in it. A single poem can have an effect on you, or move you. You can connect with a single poem, and not know anything else about that poet’s work. So yeah, social media is really a place where poetry can thrive.