Exploring the Edges: Close Reading with Josh Roark of Frontier

09/22/2017

Logo for Frontier Poetry magazine feature the letters F/P over an image or a rocky landscape
Josh Roark is the Editor in Chief of Frontier, an online poetry journal created by the folks behind The Masters Review.
Last week, we took a close look at two poems he recently selected for publication, in an effort to 1. deeply consider the journal’s aesthetic, 2. shine light on work by fantastic newer writers, and 3. geek out completely. What follows are highlights from the conversation. Stay tuned for the second half of our chat—which lingers over the poem “Flamingo”—coming within the month.  

Rachel: First, please tell me a little about Frontier. I’m especially intrigued by the name.
Josh: At Frontier, our primary focus is on emerging poets. We’re aiming to lift people up who are just breaking into the community, while also introducing the community to new poets who are going to be there. In terms of the name itself, we see the journal as an interchange in this way, where poets can come together in this space called the “Frontier,” a sort of borderland.
We look to publish poems which express the idea that poetry is more than what we learned in school. We wanted to find people who are writing work like this poem we’ll be discussing, ‘Burning Haibun’ by Torrin Greathouse, daring in the way that it twists and turns what a haibun is into this beautiful erasure that’s talking about itself as it’s performing itself.
Frontier seeks to be a space that accurately represents the people who enjoy poetry, the people who are reading poetry, the people who are writing poetry. Every identity and self-position is welcome—we want to make sure there isn’t any silencing happening on our part. I’m passionate about this because I believe it’s about the health of our community, and by community I mean all of us: poets, journals, presses. It’s important that we are bringing in more of the people who care so much about poetry, that we’re bringing in the life that they each carry with them. That’s the space where we want to plant ourselves and make a home, at Frontier.
Rachel: That’s wonderful. Thank you. So, let’s dive into this poem, ‘Burning Haibun.’ Any initial thoughts? First impressions you’d like to share?
Josh: Haibun is a Japanese form that typically starts with a prose poem and ends in haiku, with the haiku standing in as a sort of distillation of what the prose poem was. Torrin introduces an additional progression in their haibun through erasure. It’s like steps, we have the prose poem.
The prose poem Burning Haibun
Then the second stanza, where the poem is shrinking and becoming more condensed.
Second stanza from the prose poem Burning Haibun
Finally we end with the haiku, the third stanza. And the haiku is beautiful on its own.
Burning Hiabun excerpt
I found it so impressive that the focus on language within the piece itself became part of the performance. Both haibun and erasure suits this poem so perfectly—we have this trauma and memory happening that’s distilled to a final haiku that becomes a poem both about, and emerging from, this memory. I was so impressed when this came into our submissions.
Rachel: It’s really incredible, like the fire from the content literally burns the poem down. So, we start with this tight block of prose that has punctuation but no capitalization. Any thoughts on that? Is it stylistic, is it trying to say something about the “i”?

Josh: I think what’s happening—and this is typical of haibun—is that the prose contains a lot of energy and imagery compacted upon itself. The lowercase serves to perform this act of stream of consciousness. It makes the piece feel more intimate, as though it’s from the poet’s journal or diary. The same way with the ampersand, instead of an “and.” The words feel pressed up against each other.
Rachel: So, the poem is prose at first, and several phrases start with this word “once,” so it feels like maybe things will proceed in a linear, narrative fashion as prose might but this poem twists that expectation.
Josh: The use of “once” is anaphoric. If this was broken down into lines, we’d see that more clearly—once, once, once. It’s a way to carry sound and idea both, the idea being that something traumatic is here but the poet is talking around it, rather than directly exposing it. We are given this memory, then this memory, then this one. We’re only getting half-glimpses off of these “onces.”

Excerpt from Burning Haibun
At Frontier, we particularly love poetry that speaks to the reader’s body quickly, specifically, and consistently. And there’s so much of that happening here. The blood. The burning. The wounds. Palm. Fist.
Rachel: I did notice other reverberations, in addition to “once.” We have “guilty verdict,” “alcohol,” and “father,” themes around the mother and birth. It’s powerful how this poem plays with those themes again and again.
Josh: Yes, and then how it all gets narrowed down to that simple 5/7/5 haiku at the end. In that prose section, where all these things are repeated and stacked on top of each other, you get this sense of intimacy tied in with emergency, and danger. Words like “room,” “guilty verdict,” “crescent moon,” “fists.”
Rachel: The poem starts with an accusation of throwing alcohol, and the last line is about swallowing, so it takes the outward and moves it in. Which is exactly what the erasure does.
excerpt from Burning Haibun
excerpt from Burning Haibun
Josh: Exactly. It marries the content and the form so well. That middle stanza really pushes toward what the form wants to do, by showing us an intermediate stage as things are getting condensed. Not to mention that it’s a lovely image to look at before you even know what’s going on. This square block of text, then into the white and the full black, the pattern happening.
Rachel: Do you have a favorite moment or line?
Josh: There’s a lot in here, but the one that sticks with me is, “his car curved inward like a palm, how it birthed him back as a fist.” I couldn’t tell you completely why, there’s so much that’s good here, but it’s the line that I immediately felt was a strong anchor image for the poem. It sets you up where you can begin to be in the same space as what’s coming.

Rachel: It’s mysterious, but it’s physical.
Josh: Your body has bought the ticket, it’s in the car. It’s going for the ride. I also love, “once I tried to drink myself into blackout or erasure myself into something more poem than memory.” There’s that very simple Frost definition of poetry: “A poem begins in delight but ends in wisdom.” That’s what this line has done.
excerpt from Burning Haibun

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excerpt from Burning Haibun

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Excerpt from Burning Haibun
I always like when poets take that chance. Because it truly is taking a chance to say, “this is what’s happening, here’s the wisdom,” or as close as you can get to it. A lot of poets might run away from that moment, they don’t feel like they have the authority, the expertise, the experience, the courage to say that in their poem. So, I always appreciate it when it shows up.
Rachel: That’s such helpful insight into Frontier’s aesthetic. I’d also love to know a bit about your Poetry Award for New Poets. Its deadline is soon, September 30th—could you tell us a little more about it?
Josh: First, we’re so proud to have Tyehimba Jess as our guest judge. I read Olio earlier in the year, before it won the Pulitzer, and the book is amazing. Tyehimba is a complete genius with language. What he does with his syncopated sonnets, with the structure of the book as a whole, is incredible. The book itself is as an artifact, where all the pieces are performing their own thing but also talking with each other the entire time. I think he represents what, for us, Frontier is trying to achieve: the pushing forward of language beyond its usual, comfortable spaces.
And for that reason, to have the chance of putting your poems in front of this remarkable poet is a very unique opportunity and I love that we get to do that for emerging poets, that we get to put them in that same space as someone as established and successful and experienced as Tyehimba Jess. I’m also very excited to publish the great work that I know is coming in.
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Note: The opinions expressed by interviewees of the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.  
Joshua RoarkJoshua Roark writes and teaches in Los Angeles. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Frontier Poetry, and he received his MFA in Poetry from Antioch University LA.

Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is Senior Editor for Submittable's Marketing Team. She also writes and teaches poetry. You can find Rachel's creative work here: rachelmindell.com