There should be no coddling in workshops. They should be brutal, you should feel bad about yourself when you’re finished. If you feel bad you can learn what you’ve done wrong in a poem and then maybe you can start to write a little bit better.
That said, the MFA program I was enrolled in might very well be an aberration. I’m sure my experience is not your experience. A lot of great writers, I guess, have come out of the MFA I quit.
The other issue I had was there were all these seminars about what a writer does with their MFA once they acquire it. I had no interest in doing any of these things. I don’t care to run workshops, I don’t care to teach in any way. I had no interest in moving into the publishing world. I didn’t necessarily have a life plan or goal but I knew the career paths being presented to me were uninteresting. All I wanted from an MFA was to write better and I didn’t feel like the MFA I was in was helping. So fuck it.
Lacking a terminal degree hasn’t hindered you. You have a fantastic book of poetry, I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone, out from YesYes Books. You’ve been published all over the place, including in PANK, Diagram, HTML Giant, and Diode. Since obtaining an MFA didn’t come with the keys to Valhalla, where’d you get them and when are you most vulnerable to theft? Also, does this impact the way you see yourself in relation to other poets or your presence within po-biz?
I’m not a viking so the only thing I know about Valhalla is what I just read in the first paragraph of the wikipedia entry on it. I’m going to interpret gaining the keys to Valhalla as “having arrived” or maybe just “being awesome.” I don’t think I’ve actually arrived or gained any keys or anything really. I think with writing, like anything, really, you can’t allow yourself to arrive. Once you arrive you’re dead. Publishing a book is definitely awesome, as well as placing pieces in the journals you’ve listed, but once you’re done you have to keep moving. I think it’s all about stamina and endurance. It’s about constant motion, constant growth. I personally struggle to keep moving. That’s where my weakness is, I guess. I want to sit down and relax and get showered with praise and fans and admiration. Lucky for me the world doesn’t really care about poetry and there’s not a giant public waiting to shower me. That helps, I think, but it also usually leaves me with a feeling of uselessness. There needs to be more public awareness of poetry, but that’s a whole different issue. Check out what KMA Sullivan and YesYes Books are working on with their E.P.I.C. initiative.
As far as how I see myself in relation to other poets, I feel mostly lesser and sometimes equal to other poets. Sure there’s lots of stuff that I read that doesn’t interest me, but then I just don’t read it any more. I try not to put a judgmental hat on and compare myself. I try to only compare myself to the real badasses, the poets and writers that, in my eyes, have arrived. And in those comparisons I usually end up on the worse side of the comparison. And in my experience interacting with some of these badasses I’ve found that they generally feel pretty similarly to me, in that they don’t have anything figured out and they’re still striving to get “there.”
Speaking of Valhalla, what’s it like being on the other side of the first-book barrier? Is your house lined with more mirrors? Do you see other poets differently? Has this changed the way you write?
I am definitely writing differently than I wrote while I was writing I Don’t Mind, and I mean that in a bad way. I started working on a second book-length collection before I Don’t Mind was published and I’m still working on it and part of me feels like I’ll never get it finished. I think a second book means more in a way than a first book. The second book will always be compared to the first book. And what do I do if the second book is found lacking?
My other issue has been that my ideas are too big, perhaps, for my second book. I need to control myself and write in a more manageable way. I can’t tell you exactly what that means, but that’s what I’m feeling.
In your response to the second question, could you just tell me a couple of those badasses that make you feel inadequate? And I’m not trying to make you focus on stuff you dislike, I just want to know who you think is awesome and then tell other people about it.
I think my number one poetry crush out there right now is probably my fellow YesYes Books author, Nate Slawson. I’ve been a fan of his since I stumbled across his online chapbook. His work has always been totally refreshing to me, as in his work doesn’t feel like he’s trying to copy or fit in with anyone else who’s writing now or ever. And it’s just fucking awesome. I’m a huge fan of fiction, also, and even though I don’t write it, I draw on it for inspiration and can’t help but compare myself to fiction writers. I read Notable American Women by Ben Marcus a few years ago and it changed the way I look at literature. My all time favorite poets are Brenda Coultas and Claudia Rankine. Every time I read something by either of these two women I feel very small and useless in comparison.
You write in a very specific way, in those neat little prose blocks without a whole lot of punctuation. Would you label this writing “stream-of-consciousness”? Is this writing in any way related to your old blog? Do you feel your writing lends itself to the face-jab format of internet information consumption?I write neat little prose blocks partially in protest and partially because I think they look awesome when collected (see the pages of I Don’t Mind) and partially because it just feels right.
The protest is born out of the MFA I dropped out of. I had a mentor there who had us write prose poems as an exercise and he told me my poem wasn’t really a prose poem because it didn’t have a moral. He equated prose poems to modern fables. I had read prose poems before this—Rimbaud and Baudelaire and contemporaries Brenda Coultas, Claudia Rankine, Joe Wenderoth—and had never considered any of these prose poems as fables—and while I don’t disagree that a prose poem can be a fable, I don’t think that’s its defining factor. I decided that I would write everything in prose blocks for the remainder of the semester in protest, and I did, and I was criticized constantly and I kept thinking “I don’t really care.”
I read a lot of the Beat era poets who I think mostly felt stream of consciousness was the ideal to strive towards in poetry and I wrote in this way for years when I first started writing and none of those poems were ever published because they were mostly terrible. I don’t think stream of consciousness is entirely to blame for the failure of these poems. I was learning to write and finding a voice and finding what I was comfortable with, also. But for many of the poems in I Don’t Mind as well as most of what I’m working on since, may begin with a stream that gets thinned down and edited and reworked over and over.
I think the strength of stream of consciousness is in getting all those little strange and fresh images out of your head and onto the page. That uniqueness and freshness is the most important thing in the world, to me. I try to let it all out at first and then edit it into something that’s readable. I don’t always succeed and of course over-editing happens and messes things up.
Your blog died in September 2011 when you started writing Battlestar Galactica poems. Has your writing changed? Do you have another venue (either internet-y or sidewalk chalky) that influences how this writing happens? Do you think this much about writing?
I’ve been working full-time as a web developer for the past 2 or so years and I get seriously tired of the internet. I’ve had several blogs and websites and I get bored of them and I redesign them and I try to make them perfect but I do all this at the end of the day after I’ve been fixing or building someone else’s blog or website. The poetry blog you speak of still exists and was started as a way for me to continue writing because the methods I was using weren’t working. I carried these little Moleskines around—you know, because hip writers write in moleskins—and I would write everything down in them and I filled somewhere around 25 or 30 of them up with drafts and poems and thoughts and I finished almost none of those poems. So in an attempt to bring my thoughts to completion I started keeping an online journal—the blog—and I’d work and rework my poems online. I thought the idea of a craft blog was both unique and functional.
I stopped using it because I forgot about it and because I now use google docs to organize my new work. In the next few months—hopefully before 2013—I’m going to launch a reworked website which will contain all the content from all of my websites in one unified blog. My plan is to move back into crafting my poems publicly again—as I did on the tumblr blog—and to begin blogging again about whatever one blogs about. Reviews and thoughts and nonsense. I might not do that last part, but we’ll see.
And Battlestar is the greatest thing ever. I haven’t written any more of these poems, but thanks for reminding me. I feel like I now have the perfect excuse to sit down on the couch for the next few months and watch Commander Adama beat up some Cylons. Because you know, it’ll be research.
Could you talk about your entry into the repo business? Does this occupation in any way inform your writing?
I would work from 7am until about 4pm in the warehouse the agency stored its cars in, and then I’d work in a truck until sometimes as late as 5am. I did this for a good year before I was completely burnt out. It was a shitty time of my life. It was simultaneously the most fun job I’ve ever had and the worst. I’ve always thought that being a repossession agent is the most punk-rock job in the world and I had a mohawk in high school so it felt like a match. I got to do a lot of questionably legal things—and that was fun—but I also had to watch people who were already fucked suffer while we took their car from them. For the record, the actual process of a repossession rarely involves guns and baseball bats. Most of the time the car is repossessed before anyone has any idea what’s going on. Almost all people who’s cars are repossessed know that their car is going to be repossessed so when you show up to perform the act they’re relieved. A lot of the poems in I Don’t Mind were written while I was working as a repossession agent. I took a lot of images from my work and put them in my poems. There aren’t any poems in I Don’t Mind that are actually about repossessions, but they sort of are at the same time.
Do you like reading your poetry aloud to people in a room? Are you performative when you do this? When you reach the parts of your poems that are in all-caps, as if some sort of dialogue or internal thought is taking place (“I WANT TO EAT TOGETHER THE OATMEAL OF OUR NECKS” from “WHAT ON EARTH”), do you use a funny voice? I love those all-caps lines in your poems. What do you feel is their function?
I do like to read my poetry. There are a few videos of me reading mostly from I Don’t Mind up on youtube, you can go there and watch some of it and see for yourself. I try to make my reading more of a performance than a reading. Readings are fucking boring. It doesn’t matter how good your poetry is, if you read straight from a book with no enthusiasm I will be bored at your reading.
I like the caps lines too and I’ve been criticized for using all caps. The intention of the caps is not necessarily a way to denote emphasis so much as a way to denote moments of dialogue. When I read I think I make a conscious attempt to put an emphasis on these lines, but I don’t use a funny voice.
Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that the best reader I have ever seen is Matt Hart. I can’t talk about reading poetry out loud without citing this video.
I really liked “IOWA” from I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone. This whole section or poem talked a lot about building things from other things, focusing on the components that make stuff up. Or that’s what I got from it. For instance, “The paint on your Toyota Camry is made of American corn. The car is a recycled bottle, so many computer chips.” Moments like this take place often. They fascinate me. What do you feel you are doing here?
Isn’t this the way things are? Each thing is made of other smaller things. It’s like metaphysics or something. I don’t really know what that means. I feel like I should make didactic analysis of my own work right here but I don’t have anything for you. You know, if I had an MFA I might be able to speak more intelligently.
Do you see “IOWA” and that Scarlett Johansson chapbook and your other work as love poems? If so, why? If not, why not? What’s the big deal about love?
“IOWA” and “Please Don’t Leave Me Scarlett Johansson” are love poems. I Don’t Mind as a whole is a love poem. I don’t know why they’re all love poems. Everything’s a love poem. Fuck it. Everything’s about love because we’re all just lonely and we all just want to not be lonely. And I don’t think there’s any way for us to get away from that. I’m not sure I sat down and thought something like “I’m going to write some love poems now,” but I ended up with a whole bunch of love poems.
However, I think I captured a whole bunch of sadness in I Don’t Mind. I think mostly people can’t read it because there’s just nothing positive in the entire collection. While I think there’s definitely love, it’s not a joyous happy Neruda kind of love.
What are you going to do now? Both right now, after you finish answering this, and the more universal now, like with writing and reading and ‘rithmetic?
When I finish this I’m going to maybe do a bit of work. I’m at work and I should probably do some actual work. But there’s no guarantees that will happen. I will definitely sit in a bunch of traffic on my way home and I think I’ll pick up kebabs for dinner. Then I’ll play Dishonored for an hour or two, watch Archer on Netflix, and maybe reread and rework some of my answers to this interview.
More universally, I’m working on my second book, which I mentioned before is a mess. I’m trying to figure out exactly what the hell to do with it and myself. A lot of the work I’ve published in magazines over the past few months is early versions of some of these poems. It’s different than I Don’t Mind and also I think exactly the same.
I’m reading Infinite Jest—this is my second attempt. I got lost in footnotes reading it two or so years ago and I just stopped. I’m nearly lost again. That book is so damn big. I need a companion guide to help me through it.