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Poet Joshua Judson on His Latest Collection, Gongoozler

27 May 21 words: Bridie Squires
illustrations: Toby Anderton

Joshua Judson has released a sick poetry collection with Bad Betty Press. It’s called Gongoozler, i.e. someone who stares at canal traffic. Bridie Squires had a read-through and was blown away, so she slung the fellow Mouthy Poets alumnus a few questions about his crafts and techniques, writing about family memories with a bit of wonk, and why he’s so obsessed with the city’s nauticals.

How’s lockdown been?
It’s been awful, hasn’t it? I won’t be alone in this, but I’ve been thinking a lot about all those events I didn’t go to because I wasn’t quite feeling it that day or because ‘Ah, I’ll go to the next one’. Never again. Once we’re fully back again, I’m going to everything. Every drag night, every protest, every poetry event. Especially poetry events. I’ve felt quite disconnected from poetry over lockdown because online events just don’t do it for me, I want to be in a room again – to feel the poems happen in a space. The ups and downs of them, the silences, the little intakes of breath around the room. That’s the best way of encountering poetry, for me. 

Why poetry?
Initially, at least, it was because poetry felt like the thing I was best at. I’d always felt that thing I’d be good at was music, but after a lot of teenage years in bands it was around the time I was in Bilborough College that I felt a shift. I felt I wasn’t anywhere near as good at music as I thought I was or was gonna be, and I was a pretty good writer. Which sounds very cynical and speaks to this sense of exceptionalism we’re all taught to aspire to one way or another. Now that I’ve gotten over myself a bit, and have spent eight or so years in and around poetry, treating it as my main deal, it's the love of poetry itself that stops me from stopping. I don’t really know what else I’d do anymore. 

You were part of Mouthy Poets. What was that experience like for you?
You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. In every writing interaction I have, whether I’m editing my own or someone else's work, if I’m reading a poem I haven’t read before, if I’m talking about poetry in the smoking area of a pub, I’m more often than not drawing on knowledge I first learned or encountered in the Ustinov Room, upstairs at Nottingham Playhouse where Mouthy Poets used to meet on Fridays five ‘til eight. It was such a huge loss, and there’s been such a gap for a space where young and early-career poets can develop in the city, it’s great to see things like GOBS Collective and other projects crop up around Nottingham in recent times. 

You left Nottingham for Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study Performance and Creative Enterprise, and worked with the legendary Jacob Sam La Rose...
I’d encountered Jacob a couple of times in one-off workshop situations through Mouthy Poets, so I was very excited to get to work with him more closely. He was my mentor throughout all three of my years at Guildhall. I think Jacob is one of the best askers of questions I’ve encountered. A classic question he would ask would be to look at a word choice, an image, a whole line, and ask “what is the function of this?” Rather than hacking through your poem going “this doesn’t work”, “change that”, he’ll ask you to investigate your reasoning for choices you’ve made instinctively. So often, in answering these questions, I’d realise that I only did something because I was trying to be clever, not because it was the right thing to do.

Your recent pamphlet Gongoozler was released with Bad Betty Press. How did that come about and what did the production process entail? How did you approach the ordering and editing of the pieces? How has it been working with them?
The pamphlet came about when I submitted a sample to Bad Betty during one of their open calls for submissions. I was, and am still, delighted to be a part of the Bad Betty roster of poets. They’re a very exciting independent press – not only in the poets they publish, the anthologies they put together and the editors they enlist for those anthologies, but I also massively appreciate that, for a London-based indie, they are very invested in making sure the work they do reaches beyond the M25. Even before I was due to be published by them, I worked with Jake Wild-Hall at Bad Betty on running a showcase event here in Nottingham.

The poem What Work Is is about your grandad. Throughout Gongoozler, we meet him and others who have passed. Tell us about them and their influence on your life…
You ever have that thing of retelling a story and someone goes “No it didn’t happen like that at all, it was like this.” I’m fascinated by that. My grandad, my mum’s dad, died when I was two so I never knew him really. But through oft-repeated family stories and growing up with pictures of him around the house – including one where he’s holding me when I was just born – I have a sort of sense of him. And that doesn’t feel too far off having a memory of him, you know? So this particular poem was sort of a trigger for like the core of this pamphlet – which for me is mulling over and working through these notions of memory. Shared memory, cultural memory, the unreliability of memory. Then there’s the fact that both my Grandma (mum’s mum) and Grandpa (dad’s dad) both suffered with dementia towards the end of their lives, and the ramifications that disease has in the context of meditating on memory. 

There’s a wonky morose throughout the collection. The detail is stunning and cinematic, pushing through feelings around grief and the aging of our loved ones. Can you walk us through your process; how do you tackle these heavy ideas in such a dreamlike way?
I think that’s a very cool reading of the pamphlet. In The Will To Change, bell hooks sort of lays bare the psychic damage that the patriarchy inflicts on men (among other things – it’s a great book). There’s a bit where she says the only emotion the patriarchy allows men to have is anger. This was certainly true of me, and I’ve been working on it, but it’s strange because although through therapy I’m much, much better, and way more emotionally healthy, I still have periods where it feels like the fog has descended and I can’t see my own emotional truth, and I’m just walking around with this blind anger that in previous years was just the norm for me. I guess what I’m saying is that that dreaminess you’ve picked up on wasn’t intentional. I think it's maybe a product of this stage I’m at in therapy where I am much better at acknowledging, naming and dealing with my emotions, but I don’t always have access to that. So there’s this weird liminal thing of sometimes being able to see the thing to describe it, and sometimes not being able to. 

Tell us about the word ‘Gongoozler’ and its echo in the collection…
I have always been into canals. There’s a family story of me as a toddler walking along a canal somewhere, just fascinated with the barges, knocking on windows and waving at the bewildered people inside. So there’s always been canals in my work, but I barely wrote about anything else for a hot minute there when I was at Guildhall and one time, when we were coming back after a break one of my tutors came rushing up to me saying ‘I’ve found a word for you! Gongoozler! It means someone who watches the traffic on canals!’ in her American accent. It springs up throughout the pamphlet as the title to three different poems, a little nod to Rachel Long’s collection My Darling From the Lions which does a similar thing with Open as a title. 

What does the future hold for Joshua Judson?
Catch me in your local beer garden chatting people's ears off about poems and why I hate neoliberalism. It’d be lovely to be able to get to do some real-life in person readings with the pamphlet, but only when it’s safe of course. I have another pamphlet manuscript in the works that I’m adding to all the time. 

More generally, I’m trying to spend less energy shitposting and retweeting memes about Keir Starmer being awful, and more energy doing things that actually constitute politics. I’ve joined the Nottingham branch of the community union ACORN, who do a lot of work around tenants rights – taking landlords to task through direct action. What little I’ve done with them so far has felt a million times better than just scrolling and getting angry. 

 

What Work Is

When Mum talks about her dad 
she drives her legs apart into the arms of her chair.
She punctuates her sentences with firm drags 
on an imaginary Silk Cut. She talks gruff
and low. I swear I’ve seen her brush ash 
from the front of her jumper with his hand. 

When Mum talks about my Grandad, 
she calls out with his voice to a wife
who is also not here. Says d’ya want a cuppa, Ruby?
Says well get me one while you’re up.

When Mum talks about the man
who wouldn’t let her pursue acting, 
she becomes him. She re-enacts the scene 
where he sends her to catering college in Buxton.
Her face creases, softens. He says
you’ve got to have a trade.

Gongoozler is available from Bad Betty Press

badbettypress.com

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