Monday, May 9, 2016

1/2 Dozen for Joshua R. Helms

I can't quite describe the feeling of having students who devote themselves to the craft and emerge with a book in hand. Joshua R. Helms was an undergraduate student of mine. MACHINES LIKE US, their debut chosen by C. Dale Young, has just recently been released into the world. 

"Out of three hearts (Boy Heart, Historian Heart, and Poet Heart), Helms has woven a new poetics of vulnerability that tells the story of survival and lust, brutality and tenderness.”  -- Sabrina Orah Mark 
Introducing Joshua R. Helms -- in the form of six questions. 


Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Emily Dickinson. The Outs (though the second season is disappointing). Pesto carrots from the General Store in Putney, VT. My “grunge is dead” t-shirt. Washing my face with honey -- an excellent skincare tip from Jess Richardson, whose debut story collection, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides, is now available.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I also despise the myth of inspiration because I think making a book exist is really hard work, but I don’t deny that sometimes I feel “inspired.” I started writing these poems during my first semester of grad school, just a couple weeks after I broke up with my first long-term boyfriend. Breaking up with him was one of the healthiest decisions I’ve ever made and it also broke me apart. There are several poems in this book that I felt compelled to write during the first year or so after the break up -- poems I wrote quickly and feverishly and often in one sitting because I didn’t know how to breathe and continue being without writing them. 

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

Hemingway. I hate a lot about Hemingway. I especially hate that, in various literature classes, I feel I’ve been asked to see the value in his blatantly misogynistic work. How this shaped me: I don’t feel obligated to see the value in problematic work and I’m working every day to confront and unlearn the various misogynistic things that the patriarchy has taught me. 

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

I was quiet, bookish, sensitive, introverted, queer. I have vivid memories of my mom reading to me when I was very very young. I also remember watching Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music a lot and how important those narratives were (and are) to me. When I was five, I climbed to the top of the slide on the small swing set we had in our backyard and I jumped off with an open umbrella, pretending I was Mary Poppins. I always had a lot of imagination, was often daydreaming. I read the Harry Potter series (as it was coming out) when I was a teenager, which was delightful and gave me a safe place to go during a time that was hard and shitty -- I experienced a lot of queerphobic harassment at school and I desperately needed to believe in magic. I’ve always needed to believe in magic. And so I write. 

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

No. This is a thing I think about all the time. I have to work to make money to feed myself and meet basic needs and like go to therapy and stuff. Having a job is exhausting and uses up so much of my energy and sometimes I’m pretty mad about this. It’s a constant struggle. 

What’s your worst writerly habit?

I don’t write enough. 


Joshua R. Helms is a nonbinary queer person from the south. They have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and their writing has appeared in various print and online journals, including alice blue review, Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Ocean, Gertrude, New England Review, Phoebe, Sonora Review, and Word Riot. Their first poetry collection, Machines Like Us, was chosen by C. Dale Young as the winner of the Dzanc Poetry Collection Award and is available now from Dzanc Books. Their chapbook, The New Promise, is forthcoming from Tree Light Books in 2017. Josh lives in Brattleboro, VT. Follow them on Twitter: @joshuarhelms, and Tumblr: joshuarhelms.tumblr.com/