Josh Medsker created a project about four years ago called Medskerpedia, and now he has started a new version of this pretty amazing poem-a-day practice–Medskerpedia Mark II. I wanted to know more about this new project, so I interviewed Medsker to find out what he is up to and why he’d do such a thing.
Tell us a little about your project entitled Medskerpedia.
JM: Medskerpedia (Mark I) was a thing I started on July 22, 2015. My goal was to write one poem every day, based on the entry from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Abecedarian to Zulu Poetry! I got a secret Facebook group together, invited about 100 people, and we posted our work up there, commented on each other’s work, critiqued it and stuff like that. Some folks just chimed in now and again, and some were super active participants. It was great, that community feel. After years and years of it, I finally finished on August 22 of this year! What a total rush that was. I felt kinda sad too. It was a giant 4-year project and then it just ended. 1,261 poems for each Encyclopedia entry, and 250+ poems I wrote at random when inspiration struck me. I waited a day and then began Medskerpedia Mark II! I couldn’t sit still for too long.
Why did you decide to take on such a long-term project?
JM: This is going to be a long-winded answer, but I’ve always struggled with self-discipline. Confidence in my abilities also, but mostly discipline. I was a shitty student (until grad school in my early 30s!) and always felt like I could’ve accomplished more in my life if I had my shit together. I’ve been writing for publication since 1992, when I was in my late teens… so I’ve been struggling with this for a long time.
Fast forward to 2013. I did Found Poetry Review’s PULITZER REMIX project, and then their OULIPOST project the year after. We were supposed to write a poem a day for a month. I had never written that many poems, 30 poems, at one time. Or ever really. It helped me get out of my head. I’ve always enjoyed journalism and did a punk zine in college. That was a major outlet for me. I got my degree in journalism and that always came relatively easy for me. Had a short career in it, before becoming a teacher… But fiction and poetry was a lot of trial and even more error… It took me years, decades, to finally figure out how to do it to my satisfaction. I had a little success here and there, but I could never sustain it because I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. These short-term poetic bursts through FPR gave me the confidence I needed.
Around 2015, I had recently switched back to writing poetry in earnest, after doing fiction and memoir for years (to varying degrees of success…). I just had this nagging feeling that poetry was the path I was born to take. It always made me the happiest to write. I felt woefully ignorant of the nuts and bolts of poetry. I didn’t know the terminology… The difference between an iamb and a trochee… the different schools of poetry… and so on. I’d had all of these ideas of things to write about but there was this wall of ignorance holding me back. I didn’t even know where to start. Diving into The Princeton Encyclopedia seemed like a no-brainer, since it’s the end-all academic reference book for poetry. I’m pretty obsessive anyway, so it seemed like a fun thing to do. I get fixated on a topic and just go to town with researching it. I’ll look at every nook and cranny of it. Way more than is probably normal. Ha!
Why did you limit visibility to a private Facebook group?
JM: I wanted to make sure that no publisher could deem my poems (or any member’s poems) previously published. A lot of lit mags won’t consider work published on social media. I didn’t want to mess up anyone’s chances.
Do you have any plans to publish Medskerpedia?
JM: I do! Sort of. Most of the poems are hot garbage, but I have a solid full-length manuscript ready to go, pulled together from the last 4 years of work. Also, I recently had a manuscript accepted for publication! The publisher is Alien Buddha Press and my soon-to-be book is called CACOPHONY. It’s an homage to the album of the same name by British anarchist goth-punks Rudimentary Peni, which itself is an homage to the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft. My book is dark and mysterious and just plain weird. I’m very proud of it.
What did you learn about yourself as a poet and artist along the way?
JM: Many things. I learned that through dedicated practice, I could develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t work in my poetry. I learned to trust myself more. I also learned that if you are diligent with daily practice, that becomes the fun part. Being recognized and published is amazing and I love it— but for a long time, that was my measuring stick of worth or success or whatever you want to call it. I learned to not place so much emphasis on that. There are a slew of other things I learned but I’ll just say this… I learned that it’s ok to be where you are. There will always be someone who’s miles above you, skill-wise. And someone who’s not quite where you are. I used to be really intimidated when I’d meet writers on a whole nother level than me! Now I seek them out. What I don’t know about poetry could fill a book! Ha!
I understand you’re starting a new similar project. What can you tell us about Medskerpedia Mark II?
JM: I am, yes! I chose the Oxford English Dictionary as my next challenge. There are something like 170,000 words in it. I did the math and it would take me until I was 600! Haha! So going from A to Z is out. I got the app on my phone and it gives me a Word of the Day. I’m also mixing in a random entry from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. So now I’m doubly constrained. I love that challenge though. The results are pretty unique, I think.
If my readers want to follow along with the new project, or see poems from the original Medskerpedia, how can they do that?
JM: Oh sure, yeah! The original Mpedia and the new one are on the same FB page. I just continued on. If anyone wants to join in, they have to friend me to join (purely because I have to add people to the secret group. Not trying to be weird and amass hordes of Facebook friends).
What advice would you give to poets about finding inspiration and/or prompts for a poem-a-day practice?
JM: If I can sit down every single day and write a poem, then I’ve performed my earthly duty. But the trick is to just let the poem be what it is. If it’s a piece of crap, so be it. Tomorrow’s poem will be better. You have to have the courage to suck. Hahaha! And I’m not saying this lightly… because like I said earlier, I spent decades, holding myself back in self-consciousness. It’s a killer. That kind of self-sabotage will just make you throw up your hands and say ‘fuck it.’ I just persisted long enough to get over that hump. If the writing just isn’t working, at all, I might take a break and do something else I love but am terrible at—- like guitar or drawing. Then the very next day, start writing again. As far as prompts go, I think grooving with the reference works is fun as hell. I like very rigid constraints. I love Oulipo, Cut-Ups, Erasures, Found Poetry… anything that forces you to reimagine syntax… Lastly, if we are talking inspiration… whatever it is you love to read, read that. If it’s fiction, read that. If it’s drama, read that. To be perfectly honest, fiction often feels like a chore to read— and definitely to write. Once I realized that poetry was my genre, everything just sort of fell into place.
If could speak with any poet, alive or dead, what would you ask them?
JM: I would like to speak with Patti Smith about her adventures and all about the punk scene in NYC in the 70s. That vibe is why I wanted to move here! I’d ask her if she thinks New York City will ever be affordable again! Haha! Thanks for asking me about all of the things, Trish!
Josh Medsker is a New Jersey poet, originally from Alaska. He is the author of five chapbooks of poetry, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including: Contemporary American Voices, The Brooklyn Rail, The Review Review, Haiku Journal, and Red Savina Review. For a complete list of Mr. Medsker’s publications, please visit his website. (www.joshmedsker.com)