Josh Medsker on “Medskerpedia”

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

headshot newPoet Josh Medsker is developing “Medskerpedia,” an accumulation of poems for each entry of the “Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.” Medsker began this endeavor in July 2015, after a poet and friend, Eryk Wenziak, encouraged him, and as of March 1, he has completed 153 poems.

Medsker decided to dive into this lengthy project after he continuously found himself returning to the same themes and styles in his poetry. “I didn’t want to write myself into a corner again,” Medsker said, in reference to his earlier experiences writing short fiction and memoir.

“‘The Princeton Encyclopedia’ always seemed like a massive doorstop of a book, crammed with everything I could possibly want to know about poetry, so I got a copy,” Medsker said. His initial plan to read the book from cover to cover blossomed into the idea to write poetry for each entry. Since then, Medsker and a team of other writers have been working at their own speeds to write poetry based on the entries they have read in the encyclopedia.

He was inspired by A.J. Jacobs, a writer who read all 32 volumes of the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” and wrote his memoir, “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World,” recounting the 18 months it took him to read the volumes. “His obsessive nature really resonated with me…diving head-first into some insanely drawn out writing project, and digging into the nooks and crannies,” Medsker said.

Creatively, the development of “Medskerpedia” has given him the space to explore different types of writing. Both he and the other contributors read about and then attempt various styles of poetry referenced in the encyclopedia. “I’ve come across many different styles so far,” Medsker said. “For example, the other day, the entry was for Bylina. It’s an old oral Russian or Slavic poetry form, in which the speaker retells a story loosely based in historical fact, often exaggerated.”

Medsker formed a private Facebook group, in which he and 100 other writers work together on “Medskerpedia.” “I started sending emails to writer friends, asking if they wanted to get involved, in whatever capacity they were comfortable with,” he said. “Everyone in the group has made a conscious choice to be there.”

Medsker’s friend, Laura Page, has recently taken on the role as co-administrator. After he expressed his wish to have more administrators for the project, Page immediately wanted to climb aboard. “If I had to do this all on my own, it would be much, much harder,” Medsker said.

“Since Medskerpedia’s inception, I’d been like that annoying classmate you’re unlucky enough to be paired with in science lab,” said Page. “Which is to say, I guess, that I was outspokenly invested in what he was doing.” Medsker anticipates that she’ll bring more writers into the group, increasing the volume of contributors.

“I would say that there are about 10 of us who post poetry regularly, and we all critique each others’ work. There are another 10-20 people who always post comments or critiques. Most of the rest of the ‘Medskerpedia’ group clicks ‘like’ on our poems with no comments,” Medsker said of the Facebook group.

Page enjoys the different perspectives and ideas from writer to writer. “I have to say one of my very favorite aspects is seeing the divergence of style and voice in the various poems that result from the encyclopedia’s entries,” Page said. “One entry, ‘Auditory Imagination,’ prompted poems from three poets, reflecting on Derrida’s philosophic ‘echoes,’ disembodied voices, and the language of nature, respectively. Each poem was unique.”

For Medsker, the most fulfilling moments come from his conversations with other writers about the poems. “I relish that,” he said. By using Facebook for this project, contributors receive almost immediate feedback on their writing. “I can post something in the evening and get comments about it in the morning,” he said.

Medsker began writing when he was in high school. “I started writing poetry then. About that same time, a little later I guess, I discovered the DIY punk scene and began making music zines, writing bad fiction and bad poetry,” he said.

He got his BA in Journalism, and spent six or seven years writing primarily human interest and art pieces. “But the poetry, memoir, and to a lesser extent, fiction, were always lurking around the corner,’ Medsker said. “I spent many years in an autobiographical fiction and memoir ghetto, and couldn’t find my way out.”

After publishing some short stories and memoir, he realized he was not finding pleasure in it. “I realized a few years ago that writing prose doesn’t hold much joy for me, so I stopped,” Medsker said. Now, he is focused on poetry and completing his massive project, “Medskerpedia,” with help from others in the Facebook group.

The Penmen Review has published three poems by Medsker: “The Beginning,” “A Dream (Bashing My Strings),”and “Losing.”