Interviews, Recent

Interview // “The Poet as Urban Planner”: A Conversation with Josh Feit 

By Paul Constant | Contributing Writer

For his entire career, Josh Feit has written about cities. He covered politics and policy as a reporter for Portland alternative weekly Willamette Week, and was a city hall reporter and news editor at Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger (where, full disclosure, we worked together for several years.) With his Stranger coworker Erica C. Barnett, he co-founded an independent news and opinion site called PubliCola, where he continued to focus on urbanism in reported stories and editorials. After decades in journalism, he moved over to speechwriting, first for the Seattle mayor’s office and currently for Sound Transit. Now, Feit has found a new avenue for urbanism as a poet. In his 2022 debut collection, Shops Close Too Early (Cathexis Northwest Press) Feit blends the language of urbanism with poetry in a wide variety of forms—haiku, tanka, and even pantoum. His second collection,The Night of Electric Bikes (Finishing Line Press,) was published on May 12, and will be celebrated with a book release reading at Good Weather Bicycle & Cafe on May 25. We talked on the phone about how poetry has created a new avenue of expression for his lifelong love affair with cities. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Paul Constant: Have you always been interested in city planning and urbanism as a reporter? 

Josh Feit: When I became a reporter at an alt-weekly full-time in the mid-’90s, we were asking “what are we doing as alternative weeklies in this industry? How are we carrying on the history of the underground paper movement?” Underground papers started in the late ’50s and blew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and so we were trying to figure out what we were doing.

Well, at some point in the early to mid 2000s, it became very clear that, in these smaller-tier cities like Portland and Seattle, changing zoning and density, and creating cities through city planning, housing, and transit was what we’re about.

This urban planning renaissance found people rediscovering what had been born in the ’60s, particularly with women reporters, researchers, and writers like Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson—and also Ralph Nader and the corporate accountability movement, too. All these voices emerged, and I think they were on a little back-burner in terms of the larger civil rights and anti-war movements that were happening in the counterculture. But those threads sustained, not to be punny, and then came to the forefront for people like me in the late ’90s and 2000s, melding environmentalism and city planning in this wave of new urbanism.

PC: And have you always read poetry?

JF: The straight answer is not really. I was a teenager that was interested in poetry in the way that I think teenagers are. In college, I certainly didn’t really study poetry.

But it took over my mind recently. I started reading poetry because I realized I was at a deficit by not knowing it. And so I’ve just been on a crash course in the past five years of trying to catch up—a lot of the modern, contemporary stuff, but also I’ve found myself gravitating towards classics. I just love Greek mythology and Ovid. My poetry shelves used to be a Federico García Lorca book, a LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) book, and a William Carlos Williams book from college. But my shelves have quadrupled in the last five years—they’ve just blown up.

PC: How have you been guiding yourself into the world of poetry?

JF: It is pretty self-directed. I luckily have a couple of lifelong friends who nudge me to stuff, but it really just comes from hanging out in the poetry bookshelves and flipping through books. When I started five years ago or so, the poets that hit me were Louise Glück and Yehuda Amichai, who’s an Israeli poet. And the more I read, the more one poet led to another, who led to another, who led to another. So it’s just been a crash course.

PC: And when did you start writing poetry in relation to this poetry crash course?

JF: I think they happened simultaneously. I’d already been starting to write poems and felt out of my league. I realized I needed to read, read, read. And the writing of poetry grew out of my reporting. I just found the stuff I was writing about to be rich with more literary ideas than you could put in a news story, or even an editorial. There was something so poetic and meaningful about these subjects of transit and density and how they are about people and how people live. When I transitioned to writing speeches, I would see these words leap from where I was on the computer screen into the margin—and that’s where I wanted to be.

PC: I loved how you incorporated the language of urban planning, phrases like “linger factor” and “non-destination riders,” into your work. It’s maybe not the most beautiful language, it’s sometimes kind of antiseptic, but it’s also very particular, both alien and familiar, in a weird way. Are you scooping these words out of papers at Sound Transit for your work? Do you look to that space for inspiration?

JF: It started that way: crush load, dwell time, non-destination riders, I do grab at those. Sometimes the language is fun. Linger factor? That’s super-interesting!

One of the poems in the book is based on a term, “desire line,” which of course is so poetic. If you don’t know, “desire line” is when people cut a path that’s not a sidewalk, when you see a worn path in the grass that’s an easier route. That’s a description of how humans live in cities, and city planning does try and capture that.

The antiseptic language, as you call it, is an interesting juxtaposition. Some of it is clunky, but I do like that relationship, and the fact that it’s about how we live together, how people live.

PC: You have a lot of influences that you mention in the book: Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Jane Jacobs, and so on. Alongside the references to your influences, you also experiment with different forms, haiku, pantoum, and things like that. Now that I know that you’ve only been writing and reading poetry for a relatively short time, this makes me ask, are you learning in public or is there a performance aspect to you showing off what you’re learning? It feels like you’re exuberantly showing your work.

JF: That’s a great observation. I think your description is quite right. I’m excited about these forms. The form that I’m most excited about is a tanka, which I learned about two years ago from a wonderful contemporary poet named Victoria Chang who has a wonderful book called Obit where she writes poetry in the forms of traditional newspaper obituaries and then she intersperses those with tanka.

So whenever I want to work something out or do an exercise or wrestle with an idea or something’s not going and I can’t get it together, I slam it into a tanka. I just did one about Blondie and Salmacis, who is a character from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Blondie has this great lyric: “my finest hour / the one I spent you watching you shower,” which echoes this Greek myth where Salmacis is watching Hermaphroditus. It’s the same scene, and I just turned it into a tanka.

But you’re quite right, the forms you saw in the book were me really learning and experiencing all these wonderful forms.

There’s an enthusiasm that comes through. It doesn’t feel like you’re putting on a pose or anything. It just feels like discovery.

Thank you. I’m glad to hear that because I recognize it could obviously be a shtick, this idea-forward poetry based in urban planning concepts.

Early on someone said to me, and I think it is a little bit to my chagrin, that my poetry seemed to glance away from emotions. I disagreed with that: I thought I was opening up my wrist and being so personal and vulnerable in my poems! But it did highlight for me that there’s a cryptic nature to this urban planning stuff, and so I had to try to fuse this longing and aspiration and these personal feelings together with these more sterile concepts.

I guess I’ve always interpreted urban planning as your love language, it’s how you interpret the world. A really good food writer writes about the world by writing about different meals and different styles of cooking in different regions. That’s always how I’ve read your journalism and your editorials, and now your poetry: you’re making sense of the world through the city. But your writing always feels very immediate to me. Even some of your journalism felt like a diary entry occasionally.

Interesting. Yeah, we had the luxury, as an alt-weekly, to go that route. And you’re right, I was very invested in it—more invested than maybe you’re supposed to be.

And some of the poems in Shops Close Too Early, about empty city streets at night, feel like they could have been written during the pandemic. Some of the poems directly reference the pandemic. Were you doing some processing? Was your journey into poetry influenced by the pandemic?

The genesis of this is pre-pandemic but, yes, I was in the throes of it when the pandemic hit. I was just on a poetry bender, all I did was read and write poetry. It’s all I wanted to do. I had this thing going that I called my Frank O’Hara Lunch, which essentially was me dedicating my lunch hour to poetry. I would go to a coffee shop and write. Any free time I had, I was doing poetry.

Some of the poems were written during the pandemic. And of course, the pandemic interacted with the idea of cities: what does this mean for cities? What does this mean for transit? And so, I was sort of wrestling with that.

I will say there’s one lengthy poem called “Evelyn McHale Chooses the Tallest Building in the City,” which may be the most obsessive poem in the collection, where I dive into this suicide and a single day in the life of New York City, Manhattan in the 1940s. That was written during the pandemic and I think maybe, now that you’ve got me thinking about it, it did sort of lend itself to obsessions and going deep.

PC: Do you think of your poetry as political?

JF: I don’t necessarily want to think of the poetry as political, even though it’s about the politics of city planning, and I take on NIMBYs in the book. So there’s clearly a political thread.

One of the original prompts for this was the Trump election and the trauma of that. This project really was in a large part prompted by the animosity towards cities that I was feeling from this Trumpist movement. I really wanted to celebrate cities and slap back at what I saw as fascism and the kind of anti-urban sentiment that was informing this reactionary right-wing movement.

The pro-city thing really resonates with me, because I want to push back against an idea that comes up a lot in poetry and in literature, which is this fetishizing of authenticity, and fetishizing the idyllic and simple and rustic and uncontaminated.

There’s this kind of fascistic thing about the uncontaminated and the idea that we’re being ruined by cosmopolitanism and technology. I’m trying to push back against that and say, life is complicated. Life is not the beauty, life is the mishmash and the overlapping ideas.

And so there’s something to me where I want to celebrate the urban in a way that kind of pushes back against a narrative that both transfixes and animates the political, but I think is also present in some leftists, which is this idea of a nirvana, of an Eden, of an idyllic place. I don’t think that’s real, and I want to push back on that, if that makes sense.

PC: Yeah, it does. And it seems like poetry is a good place to do that, because it can get a little didactic in an editorial or in prose. I think poetry gives you a little bit of space, maybe.

JF: Obviously I have a history of writing editorials, and I think that can be effective too. I think the benefit of poetry is you can just really explore ideas and put contradictions out there. And there’s a contradiction in my poetry: The cities I’m writing about often feel nostalgic. Why am I writing about 1947 New York? Why am I writing about urchin chic from the 1890s? 

PC: But I think it doesn’t get too nostalgic. Maybe the practicality of the urban planning language helps a little bit in grounding it and not making cities something unattainable, because it is the language of how you make this stuff attainable.

JF: No, no, that’s right. It’s really very exciting to layer these modern, ultra-contemporary urban planning ideas and find their commonality with these kinds of ideas we have of cities from ideal cities from the past and combining them. Thinking about bike lanes, and thinking about Billie Holiday singing in a club in the 1940s, and combining those things. There’s a commonality, there’s an electricity, to that. I guess it describes possibility. It does point to the future. And poetry gives you the room to explore these weird juxtapositions where you’re talking about a transit-oriented development, and you’re simultaneously talking about Athena. She rides a chariot, and we’re riding a bullet train.

Paul Constant has written about books and politics for BuzzFeed, the L.A. Times, The Stranger, Business Insider, Literary Hub, the Seattle Times, and in many other magazines, newspapers, and websites. His debut comic book with artist Alan Robinson, Planet of the Nerds, was recently optioned by Paramount Players for a possible film adaptation. His comic with artist Fred Harper, Snelson: Comedy Is Dying, was a New York Public Library Best Adult Comic selection for 2022.