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Awful Interview: Todd Seabrook

19 Sep

Todd Seabrook This is Todd Seabrook. Todd’s real first name is William, but that’s no matter. He hails from Ohio, was educated in Colorado, and is working on scoring his Doctorate from FSU as. you. read. Along with getting a host of awesomeness published over the years, his chapbook, The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, was the winner of this year’s chapbook contest at Rose Metal Press. We’re celebrating its release here in Atlanta at a big ol’ party at the Highland Ballroom, hosted by 421 Atlanta (who published his collection The Passion of Joan of Arc earlier this year) and Rose Metal Press. To celebrate, Todd allowed me to awfully interview him.

So, Todd. (Or should I call you William? Mr. Seabrook? W.T.? – you tell me!) with release about Joan of Arc and Lewis Carroll now, I’m guessing you’re a bit of a historian. Is that true?

I have always gone by my middle name, a family tradition that was created, I assume, to make sure there is always a source of confusion in my life. So you may call me Todd, thereby fulfilling my parents’ penchant toward single-syllable middle names, chaos.

If I am a historian, I am a terrible one. It does not take an acute reader to know that Joan of Arc did not actually burn at the stake before standing witness in her own trial, or that Lewis Carroll did not kill the same person twice in two separate duels. But I still maintain these biographies are very accurate, except for all the things that didn’t actually happen, of course. I’m guessing such a statement does not qualify as good historical methodology, but these books are not interested in history so much as the individual characters. I am a fan of Joan of Arc and Lewis Carroll, and I write their life as a fan would. Their stories have been in our culture for centuries, and have somewhat fossilized over the ages, shorn and condensed into banal trivia questions. In order to show what they accomplished—Joan of Arc, a 19-year old girl, single-handedly saving France from becoming England II, and Lewis Carroll telling a story one afternoon on a whim that is still being told today—accuracy took a back seat to the dramatic, the colossal, the impossible. I am a fan, not a historian, and these books are my noblest attempts at true fan fiction.

Historical fan fiction – I like it! What other historical figures are you a fan of? I’m a total fangirl for Teddy Roosevelt, personally.

I have written two other magical realist biographical chapbooks—if that’s what these can be called—one on J. Robert Oppenheimer and one on Steve Prefontaine. I would also add Robin Hood into my list of favorite historical figures even though he never actually existed. But obviously such quibbling details concern me not. It is an incongruous melee of people, who share very little with each other (different eras, countries, ages, talents), but they all stand out to me as people who were exceptional at what they did, and that is why I am drawn to them.

Great choices! Wouldn’t it be funny if they all did have something in common that we just couldn’t possibly be aware of this day and age? For instance, maybe they all had a peanut allergy. Or maybe none of them were very apt at climbing trees.

What if I am their only connection, and they all existed solely so that I could write about them in a series of limited-run chapbooks. What grand design!

Wow! That’s so Being John Malkovich. Remember that movie?

I do, one of Kaufman’s best.

I couldn’t agree more. Did it make you want to take up puppetry, a little? Do you think you’d be good at that? Do you have any other comparable secret hobbies the world should know about?

In a related field to puppetry, I am a juggler, and own a  set of juggling balls and pins. I am also a marathon runner, which is why I have a preoccupation with Steve Prefontaine. Aside from running and juggling, my friends know me as a lover of cats,  a fan of science-fiction and  ICP, and a collector of beer caps, which, as I see them all together, seems like another odd assortment.

 That is quite a menagerie of talents. Will you be juggling at this Saturday’s reading? No pressure! But other than your juggling act and reading – what are you looking forward to most about this weekend’s festivities?
I will be dressed as the Mad Hatter for the reading, and I may bring my juggling balls, or maybe even my pins, just to delight the crowd. I can’t wait to see who else will be dressed up for the event, and I am looking forward to reading with Laird Hunt (making a reading-Laird-Hunt sandwich). All in all, I can’t imagine a launch party that could be any more fun than this.

Awful Interview: 826 Valencia’s Pasha Parovoz

21 Aug

pasha-introspectiveTo the left you see a picture of the world-renowned actor, philanthropist, and pufferfish: Pasha Parovoz. He’s been in the city he calls home, the ever-creative and weird hub of culture that is San Francisco, since February of this year. Fresh off his return from shooting Moby Dick 3: The Reckoning in Brazil, he’s been working to lose the weight he’s put on in the wake of the film’s moderate success in anticipation of his next role (whatever that may be). I traveled to the Mission District and sat down outside of Pasha’s humble tank in the fish theater at 826 Valencia-—the non-profit where he devotes all of his time to entertaining children and adults–to talk to him about his work, his life, and his passions.

Mr. Parovoz, Pasha, thank you for meeting with me. My first question is regarding your influences: who made you want to act? Who gave you your first taste of the stage?

Oh, you know it was the fish I associated with, really. It also helped that that one of those fish was Balthazar, Eddie Cantor’s striped bass, who, as you know, essentially brought maritime vaudeville to the mainstream (pun intended).

You worked with Balthazar the Bass? He’s a legend, but no one’s seen him in decades.

Oh yes, well he was already quite isolated when we met, but as he’s gotten older he’s become very coy.

How do you keep all the shows in the fish theater fresh everyday?

Well I work off the crowd, Del Close is a huge influence. I like to break down the fourth wall with the audience and put my face against the glass and just swim back and forth. It really moves them when I move. Some of the standards are the works of Tennessee Williams, the crowds love when I puff up at the famous “STELLA” line. Other than that I do Shakespearean classics. But it’s my monologues that really draw the people in, my words are so powerful that the other fish actually have to hide.

Your most recent work was shot in Brazil, that must have been thrilling.

Oh you can’t imagine. I always get self-conscious filming, though, because, as you know, the camera adds ten pounds, which for a pufferfish is a lot. It wasn’t easy with all that good food around. The krill off the coast of Brazil has an addictive flavor. But we had a great time, Moby Dick 3: The Reckoning has been doing pretty well in small midnight showings in cult theaters across the country.

Tell me about the place that you call home, 826 Valencia.

826 is a non-profit dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Our services are structured around the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. I live in the Pirate Supply Store in front of the writing center.

I understand you have a plug.

I’m plugging Birthdays.

Birthdays?

My Birthday, and more importantly your Birthday! This Saturday, August 23, we will be celebrating Vouched San Francisco’s Birthday at Milk Bar in the Haight district of San Francisco! It starts at 6PM. The proceeds from the event will benefit 826 Valencia!

Well I think we’re about out of time, you have a performance coming up right?

Yes, that’s right, thank you for your time and for interviewing me. Will you stay for the show? We will be performing a stage-adaptation of “Bonnie and Clyde”

Sounds amazing.

Awful Interview: Christy Crutchfield

4 Aug

Christy Crutchfield

To your left you see Christy Crutchfield. She’s fucking fierce. Christy penned a book. That book is titled How to Catch a Coyote. The book, like Christy, is fucking fierce. The fierce book may be purchased from its publisher, Publishing Genius, but only if you do so ferociously. You can do that here.

Christy is embarking on a book tour (possibly with a pack of coyotes? No promises.) …right now. You can follow that here. We caught up with her before she hit the dusty dusty and asked her a few questions about coyotes, Cocoa Puffs, and life in general. She had a lot of wise things to say.

So Christy, let’s get straight to the good stuff. When did you realize that you had such a gift for catching coyotes?

When I almost hit one with my car.  If I hadn’t hit the brakes, I’d have more than caught one.

Oh my God, just typing that made my heart hurt.  I could never actually do that.  I did a lot of research about hunting and coyotes while I was writing the book, and it made me realize two things:  1) I Iove coyotes, and  2) I could never be hunter.  I barely eat meat as it is, and I’m pretty sure the closest to hunting I’ll ever get is fishing.

Don’t worry, I totally understand. How does one fish? I’ve never actually been.

I haven’t been fishing since I was a kid, and I’ve never caught much.  You need bait (crawlers for fresh water, shrimp for salt water), good rods and bobbers, and a lot of patience.

Here’s how coyotes catch fish:

Wowee! That’s incredible! Way to go coyote! Speaking of which,  I feel like I must confess something. Christy, I was a little sad when I discovered your book wasn’t actually a Count of Monte Cristo-esque revenge story told from the perspective of the Road Runner on Looney Tunes. (Are you mad at me?)

Yes and no.  Yes, because I always kind of hated the Road Runner (and Tweety Bird if we’re keeping score).  I know Wile E. is the one starting shit, but the Road Runner is always so smug about winning.  No, because not matter what I think of the Road Runner, I would totally read his revenge story.  I would really like to know what’s in the Road Runner’s head because he doesn’t say much.

 Shew. And yeah – what is with those Looney Tunes birds always being so snarky anyway? What’s with birds in general?

Oh come on.  Birds are great!  Songbirds, hawks, peregrine falcons.  There are lots of blue herons in Western Mass, and there’s something majestic about them when they fly.  Parrots creep me out though.  Maybe it’s a talking/cartoon bird thing.  The Cocoa Puff’s Cuckoo–the worst!

But Cocoa Puffs are so good! The milk! It’s the best, don’t you think?

I feel pretty meh about Cocoa Puffs.  And I love cereal.  I love cereal so much I had to stop buying it.  But yeah, not huge on the “chocalatey” kinds.  I hold out for Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Honey Bunches of Oats, and Peanut Butter Crunch.  I’ll give you the milk part though. (Are you mad at me?)

How could I be mad at you? You’re so endearing! And also, now that I know you’re not a fan of Cocoa Puff Milk and cereal milk in general – we make a dynamite duo. Plus, aren’t we about the same height and disposition? I feel like people may find that endearing.

I clock in at just (or just barely?) 5’2”.  I also remember you being a wee person.  How tall are you?   Does that mean we can share clothes?  According to facebook, you have really cute clothes.

Your disposition may be a little sunnier than mine, but that works well for a duo.  What would our duo name be?  Whoops, I think I just started asking the questions.

 Holy shit, I’m taller than you by one inch – that’s such a rarity! And yeah we can totally share clothes! Want to brainstorm some duo names? We go together like bourbon and lemonade. (Those go really well together.)

Those do go really well together.  Could we be The Boozy Lemonades?  What else goes well together? Chocolate and Peanut Butter?  Egg and Cheese (can I be Egg?)

The Endearing Duo?  The Dynamic Shorties?  I’m struggling here.

 We can keep brainstorming. (Maybe we can get a whole gang going!) But yeah, you can totally be egg, if we go that route. What are your feelings on breakfast, anyway? Do coyotes eat breakfast?

I love breakfast so much!  I will eat breakfast any meal of the day.  If I’m home for lunch, I almost always make a veggie scramble.  Coyotes will eat just about anything.  Animals,vegetables, fish, trash, pizza.  So I assume breakfast foods are on the list.  Breakfast hours, not sure.

Well, you’re a living testament to the fact that breakfast cannot be inhibited by menial things like time, right? Say, what are you most excited about your book tour? And more specifically, the release party in Atlanta on August 9?

I have been looking forward to this book tour all summer (it’s been getting me through teaching at summer camp this July), especially the release party in Atlanta.  I think I’m most excited to see friends, family, and all the amazing people in the lit community along the way.  I’m reading at some awesome series in the coming months (Federal Dust, Three Tents, Tirefire, Sunday Salon) and at some amazing venues (The Goat Farm, Lorem Ipsum, the Regulator Bookshop).  It’s a little scary to have a first book out, but people have been so supportive helping put this tour together (thanks to you too!).  It makes my heart so full.  Also, Atlanta’s my hometown, and Publishing Genius is now based there, which makes the release party even better.

Awful Interview: Scott Daughtridge

22 May

scott

To the left is an image of  Scott Daughtridge right after he returned to the modern era after living in Pleasantville for five years. Clearly he took the “color” thing a little too far after living in black and white for so long. What you can’t see is that his face is actually still in monochrome – well played, Scott. It’s kind of creepy, the way the whole world is in color except for his face. Scott can often be found with his face buried in a book for this reason. It is rumored that he is the actual Phantom of the Opera. He is somewhere between the age of 19 and 87 (no one’s really sure). He’ll be reading at the next Vouched Presents.

So, Scott, your forthcoming chapbook is called I Hope Something Good Happens. What do you mean by “good” per sé? Like, are we talking a really good sandwich or are we talking Team U.S.A. defeating Team Iceland a la Mighty Ducks 2? Or something else entirely?

Well I had money on the Icelanders, so the Ducks winning that tournament cost me a stack. I should have known better. I’m talking about something slightly different. Like a dog is lost in the woods and is exhausted, starving and dehydrated, then stumbles on a creek where it brings itself back to health and later becomes king of the forest.

Oh. Wow. Did you ever really play hockey? Also, I like that story about the dog. Which sentimental dog book are you a bigger fan of: Where the Red Fern Grows or White Fang?

The closest I ever came to playing hockey was skating around in circles at the Ice Forum, which was just a cold version of a roller skating rink. Why do people love skating around in circles while listening to pop music? Why has that need developed in our genetic makeup? I actually met Jack London’s ghost one time when I hopped a train from Atlanta to Athens and he told me how happy he was that Outkast named one of their songs Call of Da Wild. I agreed and we split a pint of Old Forester.

 The only thing I am worse at than skating (in any form) is golfing. So I’m not sure how to answer your question. Was it messy sharing a pint of Old Forester with a ghost? Did he get off at Athens then or keep going?

You seem like you’d be good at skating, with your low center of gravity and all. I’m bad at golf too, both standard and frisbee, but appreciate the skillful landscaping involved. Being around people who are good at golf, or even play it a lot,  makes me want to throw a bowl of salsa across the room, which has happened before, but these days it’s a little easier to restrain myself, so I just interrupt them whenever they start talking.

There was no mess, but he smelled strongly of salt water. I dozed off before we arrived and was alone when I woke up. I still have the pint bottle.

By “low center of gravity” you mean “short,” right? Thanks a lot, Scott. When was the last time you threw a bowl of salsa across the room? Was anyone injured?

It’s been a while, but I’ve thrown a lot of different things across a lot of different rooms. I try to choose things that won’t result in injury. Paper or plastic containers are preferred. That’s how you can test if you’re at a good party or not. If you can throw something (a bowl of salsa, a cup of beer, a pie) across the room and either 1) the person it hits turns but can’t tell who threw it because it’s too crazy or 2) the person it hits doesn’t even give a damn because everything is bonkers, then you’re at a good party. I never have thrown a pie, though. It’s one of my true regrets in life.

Oksana Baiul is 5’ 3”, Michelle Kwan is 5’ 2”, Tara Lipinski, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tonya Harding are all 5’ 1”. I’m pretty sure you’re in that range, and therefore in the height company of female figure skating royalty. That’s awesome!

Okay, you’re forgiven! I love Michelle Kwan. I’ve always wanted to throw water in someone’s face after they insult me. Hey – I’ve got an idea! Want to make a pledge that next time we’re at a party you can throw pie in my face and I’ll throw water in yours?

Deal. I’ll start carrying a throwin’ pie with me at all times until this exchange goes down.

Great. Maybe we should both invest in a good pair of spurs, too? You know, so we can handle this Western stand-off style? Thoughts?

I was imagining more sneak attack, ambush style. I’ll just casually stroll through a crowded room with a pie, walk up from behind you, then WHAM! Everyone will be horrified but you and I can laugh hysterically. Then, in an act of vengeance, you can throw water in my face. Maybe you should make it a bucket of water with a blue little paint mixed in.

Oooh – I like the way you think. I can’t wait! Say – what are you most pumped about for this reading? Free beers? An audience who may or may not heckle you?

I’m going to be reading stories from Strange Temple, a collection in progress. One piece from it was featured in the most recent issue of Midwestern Gothic, but the others haven’t seen the light of day yet, so I’m excited to get those out there.  Free beer is cool too.

Awful Interview: Aric Davis

9 Apr

aricdavis

To the left you will find a photograph of Aric Davis holding a keyboard. (Could we call that keyboard vintage? In a cool way – I think so.) Aric Davis is kind of a badass. Not only is he the author of seven books, but for sixteen years he was a body piercer and he’s a happily married dude and he’s a dad. Badass right? Right.

Aric is coming down all the way from Grand Rapids to help celebrate the third anniversary of The Five-Hundred by reading to us. That’ll be happening tomorrow, April 10th – more details about that here.

In February I awfully interviewed Aric in anticipation of the forthcoming reading. Here’s what happened.

So Aric, how is Grand Rapids these days?

Cold, snowy, and bleh! I love GR, and Michigan in general, but we have been absolutely smoked by snowfall so far this year. I’m used to a busy January and February when it comes to snow maintenance, but the snow started falling in November and has shown little sign of letting up. Hopefully we get a break soon.

You’re a punk-rock aficionado, correct? I’ve come to notice that some of my favorite punk tunes come from chillier climates. Would you say that, from your own experience and expertise – there’s a correlation between those two things? Also, how does one become a punk rock aficionado?

Tough call! There’s a lot of really good punk music coming out these days, and strangely, a lot of it is coming out of the northern United States. Captain We’re Sinking, Restorations, Save Ends,  Direct Hit!, Iron Chic, and RVIVR all put out amazing records in 2013, and they’re all from places where it tends to be a little colder. That said, with great bands like Red City Radio or Against Me! putting out new work recently/very soon, the south isn’t exactly in trouble. That said, I would be hard pressed to say that the north is tops for me, Hot Water Music and Avail are two all time faves of mine, and they’re both from the south.

As for the last part, I have no clue. I just like punk music a ton, and my formative years were heavily influenced by poorly recorded music made by people who give a crap.

That sounds like a really authentic punk way to become a punk aficionado. You used to pierce for a living too, correct? How has that influenced your words?

I worked as a body piercer for seventeen years, and it was and is a huge influence on my written work, even after a year of writing full time. Back when I was still in the tattoo parlor, I wrote on the same bed that I performed piercings on, taking a break as necessary to perform stabbings. It made for an odd juxtaposition, the work that I had to do to make money, and the work that I wanted to do but kept being chased from. I know there are a lot of authors with stories of incredible hardship, but I like to think that having to take breaks from writing to punch holes in genitals still sticks out as a unique situation. I don’t have any exact correlations between body piercing and scribbling, but I do know that spilling blood on a page is a piece of cake compared to doing it with a blade.

Do you feel that can cause you to be hard-as-nails in your own writing? Also – what was it like for complete strangers to trust you with stabbing their genitalia?

I certainly don’t think it hurts! The most useful my piercing career ever proved when it came to writing was when I was working on my gothic-romance-tattoo-ghost-story, A Good and Useful Hurt. With Hurt, I drew upon everything that I had learned in my years behind a needle. For the rest of my work, the tattoo shop proved to be a way to meet very-ahem-unique people, and to draw upon my experiences in working with them. Being in the shop definitely exposed me to a side of life that most people don’t see growing up, and that was definitely a good thing as far as my writing is concerned.

The trust strangers show body art practitioners is insane, in my opinion, and even the best practitioners are still human. That said, I developed a very good reputation for being the go-to guy for body mods in the Grand Rapids area, and I still can’t believe some of the things strangers entrusted me with. That said, everyone lived, so maybe they weren’t that off-base.

 So you consider yourself a pretty trustworthy guy?

As trustworthy as the next heavily tattooed former body piercer that makes up stories for a living.

I’ll mark that down as a “Maybe.” Say, who do you think would win in a bar brawl: Will Smith circa The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Vanilla Ice?

Well, the fact of the matter is that Vanilla Ice got absolutely rolled by the world. Suge Knight’s boys hung him over  a balcony, Queen shook him down for stealing the opening notes of, “Under Pressure” and things only got worse from there. V-Ice is the polar opposite of street cred. Not only was he about as manufactured as major label acts get, he spent so many years trying to reinvent himself that he went from singing a song about, “Rolling up the hoootie-mac” to now remodeling houses on high number cable channels. Mr. Van Winkle is a straight up buster, which would lead one to believe that pre-awful movie Will Smith should decimate him, except…

Will Smith had to leave Philly because he got in a single fight. If the rest of the world had this attitude, school bullying would be a felony. Not only did Will get in one little fight that scared his mom, his milquetoast rap game inspired N.W.A. to exist in the first place. Seriously.

Yup, Will Smith’s rap career was so busted, so unrealistic, that Eazy E and the boys from N.W.A. were inspired by him to invent gangster rap, because they couldn’t believe how fake Smith’s version of the world was when compared to the life of the average African American teenager. Will was worried about parents leaving town and getting caught driving their Porsches, Eazy, Ren, Cube and Dre were worried about being able to eat and not get shot. It pains me to say it, but Vanila Ice wins hands down, and the more Will Smith tries to push his stupid wiener kids on us, the bigger the divide gets.

Awful Interview: John Carroll

8 Apr

John Carroll

John Carroll made a mistake. He has thrice awfully interviewed me at PURGE to help promote both the launch of VouchedATL and our two birthday parties. That wasn’t his mistake, it was nice of him. His mistake was the manner of which he Awfully Interviewed me. I mean, he really ‘gave me a dose of my own medicine’ so to speak. I waited for a long time for retribution.

John’s been a regular contributor at The Five-Hundred since its inception, so we’ve invited him back to read for us at the Five Hundred’s reading this Thursday, April 10th at the Goat farm.

Below you will find an Awful Interview I did with John upon the release of Slow Burn, which was released by Safety Third Enterprises just about a year ago.

What are you trying to prove?

I don’t know? 9/11 was an inside job. The Illuminati is real. Aliens exists. Social media will be the downfall of civilization. You know, just the regular macho stuff. I guess I do know.

Do I come across as someone who has something to prove(other than bald is beautiful and all the other things I just listed)?

Kind of. You seem like one of those people who has a vendetta. You know, like Guy Fawkes. HOLY SHIT- John Carroll are you Anonymous?!

Shit. I wish. I like the idea of Anonymous, not so much for their ability to fuck shit up, which I think is pretty rad, but because they remind me of Borg from Star Trek. Kind of like Legion in the Bible. I guess I just like the idea of groups that refer to themselves as one, but then again the U.S. Army does that too. Nevermind.

Aren’t you a patriot? Have some pride! I heard you like baseball, right? Don’t you like pie? Happiness? Will Smith Movies?

I like Thomas Jefferson a lot. He made his own Bible and brought French Fries to America. I can only hope to accomplish that much. I really only liked baseball when Michael Jordan was playing. Did you know that Will Smith was supposed to play Neo in The Matrix, but turned it down? I’m not sure how I feel about that. But yeah, Will Smith is solid.

Didn’t you burn a Bible once? Was that your attempt to be Jeffersonian? How did that go for you?

You know what’s probably more offensive to most people? I burned a Beatles record once as well. I dated a girl who really liked the Beatles a few months later. She told me I was stupid for doing it. We went on vacation to Virginia and she wouldn’t take me to Monticello. We broke up when we got home.

WOW you really brought that one full circle — it was like watching an episode of Seinfeld. Have you ever seen that show?

Seinfeld is probably appreciated for the wrong reasons. Larry David induces panic attacks in my life. I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan of Jerry Seinfeld, but I read his book, Seinlanguage in 5th grade. I asked my parents if I could have a Bar Mitzvah after reading it. They made me accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour instead.

 Was that a pretty formative moment in your life? What do you think the repercussions were?

I’d like to act like it wasn’t, but the older I get the more I feel the need to revert back to adolescent tendencies. You know, ride a bike, jump on beds, make fun of girls that I’d like to have sexual intercourse with. Normal ten year old boy stuff.

Have you found yourself purchasing a lot of footed pajamas as of late?

Unfortunately, they don’t have them in my size. Hot Topic does sell dinosaur and Hello Kitty hoodies though. I need to stop by there to pick up the new Marilyn Manson album, so you never know.

How does Marilyn Manson always manage to date such hotties?

I think it’s pretty clear Laura. If you bang MM you’re guaranteed at least B-movie stardom.

Good point. You forgot to mention how romantic he is though. I mean, look at him. Marilyn Manson OOZES romance. What’s your favorite 90’s teen flick?

Drop Dead Gorgeous. Two words: Rolling Crucifix.

That makes a lot of sense. Has anyone ever told you that you look like Denise Richards?

Only in the dark.

Oh wow. So. …why should people come and see you read on the 17th?

The stories that I will be reading were actually inspired by Denise Richards’ outstanding performance in the 1998 erotica thriller Wild Things. I believe that I’m the first writer to ever incorporate her influence into anything literary, outside of tabloid magazines.

Awful Interview: Jeff Alessandrelli

17 Feb

JABookI’ve written about my friend and poet Jeff Alessandrelli’s work before; but with the release of his new, full-length collection of poetry This Last Time Will Be the First Time (Burnside Review Books, 2014), I thought I’d ask him some in-depth questions about his poetry and writing in preparation for its release. Jeff was kind enough to answer my questions, via email, over the course of the past few week. (Head Voucher Laura Relyea also conducted an Awful Interview with Alessandrelli a couple years ago.) Below are the contents of that exchange:

“People Are Places Are Places Are People” is the opening section of your new book This Last Time Will Be the First Time. The title of each poem in this section either invokes the name of a person (usually an artist or writer), or employs direction quotation by them. I wonder if you could address the use of proper nouns in these titles. Likewise, what is the relationship between people and places? Finally, how do you understand these names creating a continuum or lineage of influence for you as a writer and artist?

With regards to your initial question— most of the poems in This Last Time Will Be The First’s first section were, directly and indirectly, inspired by my interest in history; I’m fascinated by the (often, but not always, traumatic) lives of the writers/artists I most admire— Evel Knievel (who during his lifetime broke 433 bones, a Guinness World Record), Lenny Bruce (who, about his heroin abuse, said I’ll die young but it’s like kissing God), Anne Carson (whose work as a cultural historian for me is as important, if not more so, than her work as a purely creative writer—although the argument could be made that both modes of her writing are essentially one and the same) and Eileen Myles (Eileen Myles rules). That being said, most of the poems in “People Are Places Are Places Are People” are 90% imagination-based, 10% history-based. In my own work the historical is the jumping off point for the creative; I’m not a historian by any common definition of the word.

The relationship between people and places and places and people— like most easy thinking members of society, I often associate people (Gertrude Stein, say) with places (1920’s Paris). But I also think that where one lives—by choice or circumstance—does become who one is; our environments are our identities, whether we relish or hate that fact.

As far as influence, specifically in terms of my own development as a writer/artist – I consider myself a reader first and a writer second. I read all sorts of stuff— fiction and poetry predominantly but also a healthy amount of history (primarily ancient, weird stuff), oral biographies and arcane “factoid” stuff. And have you been on the internet? There’s a grip of stuff stuck in there, some of it even worth reading. All of which is to say that for me influence is something that suffuses every aspect of my writing. I don’t honestly consider myself to be a particularly “original” or “groundbreaking” poet. But what I do think I’m good at is melding different linguistic particles, often found in wildly different places, into one static thing that I subsequently deem a “poem.”

One of my favorite writers is David Markson, who wrote a series of books toward the end of his life that were almost entirely composed of artistic and cultural anecdotes and quotes (i.e. “A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside down in the Museum of Modern Art in New York—and left that way for a month and a half;” “Art is not truth. Art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth”—Pablo Picasso). I personally find Markson’s work to be far more interesting (and “original,” to use that word again) than a wholly fictional novel about the emotional complications parental divorce engenders in a 19 year old growing up in rural Indiana or a wholly fictional novel about ketamine addiction or a wholly fictional novel about an overweight Turkish bombardier fighting in World War I. (I’m making all those up, by the way. Although I’m sure they’ve also already been written.)

As a writer I’m far more interested in reading than in writing. But the great writers don’t let you simply read their work. They make you rewrite it.

I like that you mention “identities” in your previous answer because the concept segues nicely into a question about the second section of your book: “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats.” How does the character Jeffrey Roberts align with or diverge from Jeffrey Alessandrelli? I mean, “Roberts” is your middle name, correct? You certainly seem to be toying with the concept of self-identification, autobiography, and confession–but, no doubt, in a off-kilter manner–given a title like “The Semi-biography of Jeffrey Roberts.” Tell me more about the partial identity inherent to the “semi” modifier. How do the poems in this section trouble our notions of selfhood and subjectivity?

Although my middle name is Robert—and, since my last name is so long (13 letters!), Jeffrey Roberts is the name I usually give at restaurants/bars when I’m waiting for a table—the poems in “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats” are only very very loosely related to myself. The only similarities, actually, reside in the fact that both Jeffrey Roberts and I hate job interviews and once also had to work fairly diligently on doctoral dissertations. But re: identity and selfhood, both partial and not, the character (or speaker) Jeffrey Roberts is not a stand-in for the author Jeff Alessandrelli. I don’t consider myself particularly interesting, and in light of that opinion I (rightly or wrongly) rarely write out of direct personal experience. The last poem of the section, “The Same Jeffrey Roberts That Has Been Missing” begins with the line, “I was born with two wings, / one of them broken.” Broken or not, I wish I had been born with wings. Are you familiar with the Nora Ephron directed film Michael (1996)? Playing the Archangel Michael, John Travolta had wings. It wuz tight.

When Stephen Malkmus’ first solo album came out, Magnet did an exposé on him. In that article, the reporter asked Malkmus if he ever wrote songs about himself; he replied:

Not really. I’m always commenting or assuming voices about lives that would be interesting to me. I’m not particularly interested in my own feelings or my own struggles, so I wouldn’t write a song about them. But anything you write is a reflection on you, so if you are into being non-revealing, it shows your personality.

Do you feel similarly? To you mind, what does it say about an artist if he/she avoids their own life as a source of material or inspiration? Likewise, your previous answer also reminds me of when John Keats wrote that:

the poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence because he has no identity he is continually informing and filling some other body.

Again, does this quote reflect, to some extent, your thoughts as well? Generally speaking, what type of relationship does a poet or a poem have with identity and subjectivity?

I do agree/identify with Malkmus’s statement, yes. And I’d also say that identification is less about my writing and more about my personality—regardless of the situation, I don’t much like to talk about myself. (Job interviews are tough.) Which thus means I rarely find myself writing (directly at least) about myself; instead, I’d rather “make things up” or identify fissures in language that I find interesting and then exploit them to my own ends. I’m sure there’s some deep-seated Freudian shit that I should consider finding out re: why I don’t like to write about myself very often, but in the end I’d say I’m simply more engaged in fiction than reality. And I don’t find my personal reality—day in, day out—to be necessarily worthy of poetic effort. There’s more out there and poem after poem I’m hoping to find it out.

As for Keats’ quote, I’d say that I identify with it as well. Although I also find a bit sad— the fact that in order to embody something one has to, to a degree at least, reject their own idiosyncratic existence, gives me a minor case of the willies.

One of my main goals in life is to complete eradicate my own self-absorption. It’s something that I feel very strongly about. It’s also something that—as a writer at least—I think is impossible pretty much.

I like the idea of “fissures in language,” at least to the extent that is conjures in my mind an image of you (or James Franco) as Aaron Raslton hacking away at your arm with a penknife in order to extricate yourself from a deep and narrow poetry crevice. But something tells me that’s not what you mean. Could you explain a bit further about these linguistic fissures? Likewise, could you talk about some specific examples from your new book?

I simply mean parts of language that we take for granted or perhaps don’t think much about, parts that are thus apt for poetic manipulation. Like how little words are engrained in so many big words— is the art in party the art in heart the art in fart the same art in Stuttgart? Or the ass in crass the same ass in passion the same ass in association? I don’t know—maybe that’s stupid or facile, but I find it kinda interesting. In “(Sharks),” a poem in the 3rd section of This Last Time Will Be The First, I write how “I hope to be creatively satisfied// in the same manner as the windmill/ and jetstream.” Which in and of itself doesn’t say or mean a whole lot probably—but I personally find the whole concept of “creative satisfaction” to be strange. Sexual satisfaction I can understand. I can understand gustatory satisfaction and monetary satisfaction. Maybe even spiritual satisfaction. But “creative satisfaction” is something that I find alien, possibly because to be “creative” in any field means, to me at least, to be continually hungry for more. Cr-eat-ive.

Also, I am not a linguist. Obviously.

The lack of satisfaction you derive from the creative process makes me think about the repetitions in your collections. By that, I mean, there’s a passage in the poem “Simple Question” from your “little book” Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound (Ravenna Press, 2011) that states:

it is only
the imagination

that can resist
the imagination,

it is only
the imagination

that can withstand,
uphold, subvert

and resist
the imagination. (43)

And, in This Last Time Will Be The First, you have a poem titled “Understanding Barbara Guest” that contains the lines:

It is only
the imagination
that can resist
the imagination,

it is only the imagination
that can withstand,
uphold, subvert
and resist

the imagination. (19)

Does the repetition or reuse of these words signal dissatisfaction with the original permutation? Or a dissatisfaction with the context in which it was originally found? If not, can you discuss what the recycling of your own lines means to you? How does returning to your previous poems for content/material affect your poetic sensibilities at both the moment of initial conception and the moment of re-appropriation?

I mean, I derive satisfaction from the creative process, definitely—it’s just that I don’t derive the same type of satisfaction as those other kinds I mentioned, mostly because I think being “creatively satisfied” is somewhat of an oxymoron; if you’re 100% “creatively satisfied” then I think you either have too much confidence in your work or need to move somewhere else pretty quickly. A plethora of satisfaction for writers/artists/thinkers in general is a trap and one that, in my opinion, can beget some potentially boring crap. The short, more readily known title of the song is “Satisfaction” but the longer version is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Sure, they’re mostly talking about sex, but I think if Mick J. and Keith R. had been totally content and “creatively satisfied” that (inarguably iconic) song wouldn’t have come out the way it did musically or lyrically.

As for my own personal poetic repetition/ re-appropriation—something that I do fairly infrequently— it doesn’t signal a dissatisfaction with the original permutation at all; the opposite actually. Years ago my friend Trey told me that the poet Donald Revell has, in wildly different poems, the same exact stanza (identical line breaks and everything) in something like 4 or 5 of his books. And when asked about it he (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) said, “Yeah, I really like that stanza.” I did and do think that’s great. In both of those poems I’m paying homage to the creativity of Erik Satie and Barbara Guest, both of whom, in my opinion, had pretty wild imaginations. I liked the way I said it the first time, so I thought I’d try it again. I love leftovers. I love second (and sometimes even third) helpings.

That all being said, is the recycling of my own lines an example of extreme “creative satisfaction?” I’m not sure. But probably. Forget remembering.

The penultimate section of your new book is a longer poem in parts, titled “It’s Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious of Oneself.” Did you conceive of this poem, initially, as one extend piece, or did you end up putting individual pieces together retroactively? What, for you, does the long/serial/sequential poem offer that a “regular” of “small-sized” poem does not? And, of course, why is it especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself?

I started writing that poem in early 2011 and the earliest version of it appeared in Octopus Magazine later that year; a 2nd, different version of it subsequently appeared in a chapbook entitled Don’t Let Me Forget To Feed The Sharks published in early 2012. And then there’s the version in the book, which is wildly different than the other iterations and really only loosely connected to them. Throughout, though, the main thematic “thread,” as it were, is the poem’s epigraph, which is taken from (as translated by A.C. Graham) The Book of Lieh- tz’u: A Classic of Tao and reads:

There was a man who was born in Yen but grew up in Ch’u, and in old age returned to his native country. While he was passing through the state of Chin his companions played a joke on him. They pointed out a city and told him: “This is the capital of Yen.” He composed himself and looked solemn. Inside the city they pointed out a shrine: “This is the shrine of your quarter.” He breathed a deep sigh. They pointed out a hut: “This was your father’s cottage.” His tears welled up. They pointed out a mound: “This is your father’s tomb.” He could not help weeping aloud. His companions roared with laughter: “We were teasing you. You are still only in Chin.” The man was very embarrassed. When he reached Yen, and really saw the capital of Yen and the shrine of his quarter, really saw his father’s cottage and tomb, he did not feel it so deeply.

Although each is, as mentioned, different, every version of “It Is Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious Of Oneself” takes as its primary feeling the emotionality (half ironic/half solemn and sincere) enveloped in that passage.

As for the serial poem structure, I think it can force a writer to make (imagistic, thematic, emotional, associational, linguistic, etc.) connections in his/her work that singular poems, obviously, don’t allow for. But it’s not my ideal form and in my opinion somewhat overused in contemporary poetry. I personally believe it’s far more difficult to write a long poem with direct/overt threads than it is to write a serial poem with threads only loosely woven together.

It is especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself because the more conscious you are of yourself the less conscious you are of everything and everyone else. “A gambler plays better for tiles than for money, because he does not bother to think; a good swimmer learns to handle a boat quickly, because he does not care if it turns over; a drunken man failing from a cart escapes with his life because, being unconscious, he does not stiffen himself before collision… A woman aware that she is beautiful ceases to be beautiful,” etc. Being too conscious (or aware or engrossed or absorbed) of yourself inevitably means you’re not conscious of what else is out there. Which is a lot. And the title of that poem sums up the way I desire to live and be—something I’m still working on, of course.

Awful Interview: Roberto Montes

13 Feb

Roberto Montes, as the Huffington Post pointed out, is a 25 year old poet whose first book drops on us right soon. Roberto is one part nervous joy, one part frustrated pulse, one part buoyant imagination. I was lucky enough to blabber back and forth with him over the last few weeks about the book. Hope you’re happy.

Here it comes, this first book of yours, I DON’T KNOW DO YOU, out from Ampersand real soon. A big hunk of these poems are of the prose-poem type titled “One way to be a person is…” and then smattering some quick tip like “…to fall for the environment” or “…to take matters into your own hands” or “…to orchestrate what should be orchestrated.” The poem power, for me, comes in the dismantling of expectations of what can help, what can be done, what can be reflected/refracted to “be a person.” Another thing like this you’ve done is that e-chap of yours HOW TO BE SINCERE IN YOUR POETRY WORKSHOP, as seen as NAP UNIVERSITY ONLINEidkdoyou

You like giving advice, huh? Ha, but for real, this advice-giving style seems more of a self-searching than about helping others, or at least equally so, an artifice for working through your own shit in a less obvious light (maybe that’s most poetry’s purpose). Anyhow, as the title suggests, the speaker in these poems still isn’t sure, is still looking for some help. How did these poems function to help you “be a person?” What can contemporary poems (and poem writing) teach us about being a person?

I thought of many of the “One way to be a person” titles while walking around Manhattan waiting for class to start. I find going alone to public places that demand you to sit still for an extended period of time (computer labs/cafés/etc.) to be terrifying so I’ll often pace around outside listening to music instead. I had been fantasizing about teaching a poetry class that focused primarily on preparing young people for the psychological, spiritual, and ethical damage entering poetry inevitably causes. I actually take Jack Spicer’s warning ­– “[…] the closer you get to it the worse off you get, and the more it eats into you” – very seriously.  Probably comically so. But it was during this fantasizing that the titles began to pop into my head in rapid succession and so I wrote them down. After that I was writing maybe 4 or 5 of these poems a week for a few months. Mostly I believe that poetry serves to teach us about being a person by moving us beyond our person-hood. If you run screaming down the street the first thing people do is look for what you’re running from; a kind of drawing-attention by drawing-away I think poetry is uniquely suited for.

Daily, I wait for your internet presence–the statuses, especially. Scooping back just now, I saw a pic of a I DON’T KNOW DO YOU bracelet. Are these gonna be promotional things, or is that just a lucky charm? What other promotional things are you doing? Any readings?

Thanks! The biggest compliment I’ve ever received was someone telling me that they thought I was the “best person on Facebook.” For some reason – probably the connotation of inanity FB statuses drag with them – that compliment felt more genuine than anything anyone’s ever said about my poetry. Who knows. “This is how touching a Fields medal in an empty auditorium must feel” is a thought I might have had in response.

The bracelet is something impromptu my boyfriend Justin Sherwood made with his niece’s beads. I don’t think I’ll be entering Etsy anytime soon. I hate the idea of promotion so I’ll probably be doing a lot of it and obnoxiously so. The question I’m wrestling with now is how can I maximize obnoxiousness while maintaining my alienation from the larger world. I’m passive about readings but there are things in the works. I’ll be reading at AWP when the book’s launching so I’ll get to say “I have books in the back afterwards for anyone who’s interested” and then immediately lower my eyes before anyone gets the chance to lower them for me.

idkdoyoubraceletOh I’m also still Snapchatting lines from my book to anyone who adds me. My username is “otrebor53”.

What are some AWP events, releases, and such you’re stoked for?

I’ll be reading at a reading with incredible readers from Sixth Finch and Yes Yes Books on Saturday. I have incredible love for 6F and Yes Yes so I’m really excited. Also pumped for The New Megaphone + H_NGM_N Reading and The Wave Books & Friends reading. I’ve only been to AWP once before but I plan on focusing all my time there checking out the press booths and going to off-site events again. Really stoked to make a fool of myself to Zachary Schomburg again by awkwardly mumbling how I sincerely think Octopus Books is one of the greatest presses of all time. Stoked to make a fool of us all.

Today the status was this: “I forgot how hard it is to write poetry while being beaten to death with wonder.” Will you say more?

I haven’t been able to write much at all since finishing the manuscript. It’s taking a real toll on my well-being. It’s like this: I’ve had temporal lobe seizures in the past that have helped emptied my mind of itself. But wonder is what comes after, when you barge back in and knock over the rearranged furniture, loudly inquiring who put it there in the first place. Wonder’s a symptom of what we got but it’s loud and sometimes confuses us into believing it’s all there is.

What is a poem you’ve read lately that you know is awesome? What is a song you’ve heard lately that you know is awesome? Who is a person you met/hung out with lately that you know is awesome?

I’m currently reading Christie Ann Reynolds’s Revenge for Revenge which is wonderful. In addition to that I’ve been orbiting Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny We Are All Find and Amy Lawless’s My Dead a great deal. Both take explicit risks against their audience in a way I find very refreshing and necessary. A lot of contemporary poetry is just being the tree but not shaking it. Both books were very significant to me while I wrote I DON’T KNOW DO YOU (and still are.)

When I write I tend to listen to the same song over and over again. I think for this book one of the songs I listened to most was “Aminals” by Baths.

I’m blanketly antisocial but Brooke Ellsworth is awesome.

So here, you mention being “antisocial,” though online and the time we met in Boston you have always been rather friendly and pulsing outward. But that label on yourself, that feeling inside you, makes me think back to your first answer about poetry being “a kind of drawing-attention by drawing-away.” Does poetry’s ability to throw its voice, and thus the attention, away from You provide the recognizable space for an “anti-social person” to be a social person, to interact with others in a less direct manner, perhaps similar to the way the internet allows that, with its artifice and theoretical walls and physical distance (Snapchat, too?)? 

Yes I remember seeing you at the Yes Yes Books/Sixth Finch reading.  I believe I was a huge nerd.

As far as poetry goes, I’m a Spicer acolyte and actively attempt to remove myself from the poem so I don’t interfere with it. I’m not interested in expressionist or conceptualist poetry, both of which originate from the inside and seek to communicate something the author is already aware of. But it’s the shreds of you that cling to the poem regardless of your evasive efforts, like a chain link fence ripping your jeans as you vault it, that speak to me the loudest of personhood. That which you can’t shake off.

The love poems in the book are a kind of prototype of this. I only wrote them when I wasn’t in love, believing that that would somehow purify their intent, or at least complicate their existence.

What’s your favorite Spicer poem?

For Russ

Christ,
You’d think it would all be
Pretty simple
This tree will never grow. This bush
Has no branches. No
I love you. Yet.
I wonder how our mouths will look in twenty five years
When we say yet.

Easily one of my favorite poems in the collection, “One way to be a person is to reach an understanding” immediately declares “History necessarily weds a political love. For example, ‘Last night you threw a vase at me.’ ‘No I did not.’ Already we have two parties and a desire to vote.” Already, I have been challenged to pick a side–in the scenario, in the poem, in the definition dungeon of love.

As it continues, I was astounded by how it developed, both poetically and politically, more importantly those simultaneously. Poetics. Romance. Politics. What’s what and what isn’t–

Recent studies have suggested that I love you is the most repeated phrase at the site of any artillery space. There are two conclusions one could draw from this: 1) Love exists. 2) Love is a sound one makes. If (1) is to be accepted, then you buy a new vase. If (2), then we return to the beginning to prove ourselves wrong.

Even if we tried, could we prove ourselves wrong about love? Even when we’re pitted against another, we’re still on the same team, right? Loving and being loved, throwing and being thrown. What sound did you want love to make in/out of these poems? 

In the final circle it’s just you and the person you love throwing stones or not. I have a strange association between missile weaponry (i.e. the ability to affect from far away) and the way love can embody and complicate a space of any size. The message and the medium and how the medium can shiver when the message is let go. Peter Jay Shippy introduced me to the idea of love as a conspiracy theory – the couple vs. the world. That seems diagram things right. When love is just a sound I think it mimics the first pulse of breathing underwater, hence the ending of that poem, which terrified me when it marauded into my head out of nowhere.

Here I won’t speculate or request a confession of whether or not you’re in love, but having a boyfriend that makes you a I DON’T KNOW DO YOU bracelet seems pretty serious. But seriously, in a relationship and such, how do the love poems written outside of love (well, I guess one is rarely if ever if possible outside of love, but you know what I mean, outside of a relationship that would “typically” induce love poem making) sit with you now? Are they more pure, or are they more complicated now?

I’m looking at (SPOILER ALERT) the last poem “Love Poem In The Shape Of Another Poem Climbing Out,” which admits “What I did just now was a trick/to get people to love each other/and eventually me.” Did it work? Could it ever? Does the reveal intensify the intent, and perhaps the result? 

Oh wow yeah I should point out that the love poems were some of the earliest written poems in the book. I wrote them before I met my boo now. (Side note: after meeting Justin I found I could no longer write love poems because they’d be about him and I felt I’d enter the poem too often to gab about how happy I am.) The poems seem a lot sadder to me now but I’m unsure if that’s the result of looking at them now from the perspective of love or the general reorientation a few years bring. A lot of them seem lonelier. Even the more jokey parts feel like they’re being spoken by a lowered head to an absent audience.

I wrote the final poem directly after reading Vortexts by Ben Mirov. I still don’t understand it but it’s insistence on appearing obvious in its desires seemed like a faulty defense mechanism, which intrigued me while I wrote it. It was one of those rare and lucky times I felt completely un-authorial in the work. I wish I could answer your question but then, if I could, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write the poem down.

When I happened upon “I Mean Botany And Then What?” My ears perked as I started to feel the kinship between this ditty and Nick Sturm’s Lettuce poem (at Sink Review).

from “I Mean Botany And Then What?”

Traffic signal flora. Physical confrontation
of flora. Teenage flora that look away
as they call you names. Flora that refuse
help like discontinued hydrants. Empathic
nod of flora. Barbarity flora. Flora circling
the pond but not because they are afraid.
Misguided disobedience of flora. Mischievous
flora mocking toddlers. Vocabulary of flora
in widening arcs of turned-away light.

Their stranglehold on plant life. Their repetitious jiving. It’s a nice thing now to read them side-by-side, elementary-style compare and contrast Venn Diagram wassup, to see how they both so well go GO and spatter along. Do you know that poem? You obviously dig repetition—in poems, in series, etc. What does repetition allow you? 

Yeah I really like that poem! I was kind of scared by how closely they crossed streams when I first read it. I’d be interested to know the impetus for the Lettuce Poem.  I Mean Botany came about when I was walking home one afternoon and passed two boys who were probably in junior high school and one of them turned to his friend and called me a faggot. I was taken aback not only for the obvious reasons but also the way he seemed to wear a guilty expression when he said it, like he was testing out being a bad person, or cursing in church. The line “Teenage flora that look away/ as they call you names” immediately entered my head as I continued walking and then more and more flora lines entered my head, and didn’t stop. I went to sleep and woke up with more flora lines. I worked on it for around a total of 12 hours I think, trimming excesses and trying to find a place for all flora. It was a very intense experience and it was all because of that child who didn’t have to say what he felt he had to.

Repetition in poetry, I think, is one of the few incantatory things we have left. When done correctly it brings with it certain powers that people try to forget about. The only way to know if you’re doing it correctly is to desperately want to stop but finding yourself unable.

If instead of Rock, Paper, Scissors they were Hands, Heart, Mouth, who would beat what? 

Hands would beat heart. Heart would beat heart. Mouth would beat heart. But no one would ever know because by the time you start it’s already over.

Awful Interview: Trey Moody

20 Jan

ttnmoodyRecently, Sarabande Books released Trey Moody’s debut, full-length collection of poems, Thought That Nature; the book explores  our relationship with nature through a deeply meditative and musically-charged poetics.

In her forward to Thought That Nature, Cole Swenson, who selected his manuscript as the winner of the 2012 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, argues that Moody’s poems imbue the concept of nature with a “tension” replete with a “historical dimension” (vii) that challenges us to more thoroughly consider what nature actually is and how we respond to it. To this end, she claims that the poems in Moody’s book exhume the “subtleties” of nature that, ultimately, “shape our lives” (ix).

I was lucky enough to meet and become acquainted with Trey Moody in autumn of 2009 when he first arrived in Lincoln, NE. As earlier as my first encounters with him and his writing, I was struck by the deft craftsmanship and simple beauty of his poems, his unpretentious intellectualism, and his generosity as a person. For these reasons and more, I’m glad to call him a friend

Trey Moody lives in San Marcos, TX where he is remotely completing his Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from University of Nebraska.In addition to Thought That Nature, he is author of the chapbooks Climate Reply (New Michigan Press, 2010), Once A Weather (Greying Ghost Press, 2011) and the collaborative collection How We Remake the World: A Concise History of Everything (Slope Editions, 2012), which he wrote with some other knuckle-head.

Last week, Moody was kind enough to answer some questions for me–via email–about his new book.

Your first collection of poetry, Thought That Nature, borrows its title from the opening line of Emily Dickinson’s poem “472 (1286).” I wonder if you could speak about the relationship between your book and that poem. Feel free to answer in any way you’d like, but I’d also be curious to hear how these poems, perhaps, address the dichotomy that Dickinson forwards between “nature” and “Human nature.”

Well, the way I read Dickinson’s poem, she’s poking fun at how problematic the word “nature” is, a notion that speaks to all the poems in my book. I’ve always thought it funny when someone (me included, at various times of my life) says something like, “I love going out into nature”; it’s not that our word choice is incorrect, necessarily, but this stance assumes that nature is something over there, not here, into which we, separate from it, must enter. I think Dickinson was having fun with people’s conceptions of these types of artificial dichotomies, preferring instead to maintain that humans—even the things they make and their spiritual inventions—were merely small parts embedded into the grand entity of nature. Of course this concept isn’t anything new—I’m thinking of some canonical haiku, Virgil, etc.—but what is interesting is how still (in 2014!) some folks resist this stance, even considering it threatening.

I like how your reading of the Dickinson poem undermines the notion that “nature is something over there, not here, into which we, separate from it, must enter”; to this extent, it imbues your use of Lewis and Clark quotes in “Lancaster Country Notebook”—which is Thought that Nature’s second section—with a certain amount of irony, at least to the extent that these were adventurers heading West to explore the wilderness. Could you describe how you stumbled upon their journals? Why did you decide to work with them? What was your process of reading and writing through their work? How do you see their journals engaging the poems in your collection?

That’s true, I think there is a certain amount of irony that goes along with including them in the context of Dickinson’s poem. Those journals are amazing, but as you read them you see how their writers’ lack of understanding their unexplored environs leads them to projecting themselves more and more upon the land and its organisms. But I love the raw earnestness in their language, steeped in (I think) a fear of the unknown, isolation, etc. There’s something energetic in imagining each explorer scribbling down his notes after an arduous day, not knowing what the next will bring, seeing where his mind drifts. And I enjoy the authenticity of their journals, especially with their preserved misspellings (you quickly learn that Lewis was a much better speller than Clark). I first started reading them in a Great Plains Lit course at the University of Nebraska, after I had been living there for about a year and a half, still learning my way around, so I think I was comforted by the writings of others as they were exploring the uncharted version of the region I was living in and trying to understand. I wanted to get even closer to their language, so during that spring, whenever I wrote a poem I grafted language from the corresponding date’s entry in 1805 into my writing. I had never really borrowed language before, perhaps for fear of some kind of exploitation, but in this case I felt like I was exploiting fellow exploiters, which seemed permissible, though maybe it’s not.

You’ve interspersed a suite of prose poems, each titled “A Weather,” throughout the collection. The first sentence of the first permutation straightforwardly inquires: “Why a” (6). This interrogation of the indefinite article reminds me a bit of Zukofsky’s claim that a poet should give “some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve.” So, my question to you, then, is why “a”? Additionally, I’m curious about how you understand the relationship between organized sound patterns and weather. I mean, the “A Weather” pieces are so intensely musical that the form of expression seems to tacitly suggest a deep or meaningful relationship between them.

Why a? I’ll tell you why a. If not for a, it’d be the weather, and we all know how unspecific and unrelenting that can be. But in all seriousness, I do find it interesting that we say “the weather,” as if it’s experienced exactly the same way by each individual. To my mind, “a weather” feels more intimate to how a specific individual experiences climate conditions. I like that Zukofsky essay a lot, and in a different essay he speaks to how the sounds of words themselves can’t not carry a kind of meaning: “It is this musical horizon of poetry [...] that permits anybody who does not know Greek to listen and get something out of the poetry of Homer: to ‘tune in’ to the human tradition, to its voice which has developed among the sounds of natural things, and thus escape the confines of a time and place.” This sort of meaning is certainly less semantic, though as the poet Ralph Angel said in an interview, “there are different kinds and levels of understanding.” So in the “A Weather” sequence, I wanted to largely abandon semantics to (hopefully) produce swells of other kinds of meaning, sometime random and associative and sometimes repetitive, just as one might experience weather.

OK, then, what does one achieve (as a writer and/or a reader) from accessing meaning that avoids semantics in favor of randomness or associative patterns, particularly within a poetic context? Moreover, I’m curious as to how you understand the poem (or your poems) as an engagement with a broader, public context. In Thought That Nature’s introduction, Cole Swensen suggests that your book implicitly addresses issues of environmentalism and global community-formation. Do you agree with her assessments? Do you believe in pragmatic, political, or efficacious poetry? Why or why not? Do your thoughts on poetry in the public sphere agree with or contradict your thoughts on the non-semantic value of poetry?

I think what one can achieve (as writer or reader) is the opportunity to receive language differently than the ways we have been trained to consume it in school, advertising, and politics. Of course, stripping the kind of meaning to which we are accustomed from words makes for an uncomfortable reading (and writing) experience, but such discomfort seems necessary in being able to earnestly revise our language—how we use it and how we are used by it. But poetry mustn’t always be so extreme in its stripping of semantics to accomplish this goal. To this extent, I think all poetry is, as you say, “pragmatic, political, efficacious,” though in differing ways and to different levels of effectiveness. In 2014 America, just the decision to write a poem—as opposed to an essay or Facebook post—is political. And regarding the poems in Thought That Nature, I do agree with Swensen’s assessment because things like the environment and global consciousness are important to me, so I would expect them to come up in my writing; however, I didn’t necessarily intend those things to be at the forefront of these poems at the time I was writing them. Basically, I see the poems as attempts of trying to understand the world, which is impossible and thus must include many failures along the way.

I like the notion that poems are sites of failure that act as catalysts for an impossible understanding of the world around us. Could you elaborate a bit more on this idea and, perhaps, provide some specific examples from Thought That Nature? Also, on a somewhat similar note, it seems as though the poems in your book reach for that same understanding through negation; I’m thinking specifically of lines such as “You cannot remember what your body does // but you believe your body’s not a tree, a tree not a body” (13) and “I am not the moon, nor am I the tree” (68). Could you address how, to your mind, negation functions within your poems?

I guess what I’m thinking is that poems—the ones I write and the ones I like to read—embrace the world as this giant thing filled with many smaller things, yet they also embrace how terrifying and mysterious the connections between, the sources of, and the fates for these things are. Like, as humans we experience the world by way of our senses, which may seem accurate to us, but these same senses are just such giant failures. In a section of “Backyard,” I write, “Wind blows— // I can’t make sense / of it, even” (64). Of course language itself is similar to sensorial experience, in that it feels like some kind of truth but is only another series of failures. For example, in the book’s opening poem, “We Use Spoons Mostly,” I call myself out for relying on a somewhat cliché simile.

One way to think about negation in my poems, perhaps, is as a kind of avoidance, as a kind of laziness in confronting the poems’ subject(s). Recently I’ve grown more wary of negation for this reason. But I hope that such avoidance isn’t the case in these poems, especially the ones you’ve quoted from here, whose negation of things actually implies a desire to be those things by the act of simply naming them. When I write, “I am not the moon, nor am I the tree,” I may not be saying what I am, but what I wanted and tried to say was, “I am the moon, and I am the tree,” but just wasn’t able to. The very last poem in the book, “Dear—,” addresses this as well in its opening sentence: “I said Ghost because I couldn’t / say anything better” (73).

Several poems throughout Thought That Nature reference specific locations, such as the poems “Salina, Kansas” and “Chatter,” the latter of which states: “There was once a glacier / here. How it has become / Nebraska” (11). Could you discuss how place affects your writing and/or your writing-process? How attentive are you to your geographic surroundings when you compose a poem? Generally speaking, what is your relationship to place?

Place is very important to me. When I was younger, thinking about places—their geographies, histories, weather patterns—helped satisfy some kind of anxiety I had about wanting to grasp or understand places, which to me were frightening because they seemed so enigmatic. Well, older now, I’m not any wiser (probably less so, even) but I’ve at least admitted a sort of defeat. I’ve realized that it’s pretty much impossible to figure out places, even small towns or neighborhood parks. About the park, for example, if you stop to think about it—where all the gravel was harvested from, who all was involved with the harvesting and then distributing, who drove the trucks, where each tiny part of the swings came from, how each part was made, what kind of flora and fauna frequent the park and how the seasons or even occasionally high air pollution levels affect these nonhuman visitors’ presence, the zoning and bureaucratic histories of establishing and maintaining this park, the vast history of what preceded the park at its specific geographic location, etc.—you see how no one can possibly know all of this. Yet for me (and many others, thankfully) it’s important and rewarding to think about these things.

As I compose poems, I do think about these things as well, but less steadfastly. I tend to focus on language when I begin writing, but when my attention wavers in the act of composition, I try to rely on my senses—however faulty they are—for any kind of data that might serve as a trigger, like the wind blowing tree limbs into the window or the smell the heater makes the first time it’s turned on for winter. And the heater example might make my mind wander into thinking about industry, energy policy, isolation. I imagine most poets and writers do this, too, because it’s really the most convenient way to gather material. Plus, it helps me feel more present, which doesn’t happen often enough during days filled with responsibilities.

Finally, tell me a bit about the writing you’ve been doing recently. How does it relate to the poems in Thought That Nature? Are they in a similar aesthetic mold, or have you altered your writing style or interests in any manner?

The newer poems I’ve been working on feel quite different from those in Thought That Nature. For one, there’s often much less white space in my newer poems, many of which are single stanzas or strophes with longer lines. Also, they feel quite a bit more personal—not in a Confessional sense or anything—but so far these newer poems seem to have a closer relationship to the body than those found in Thought That Nature. They’re definitely still concerned with place, but probably in much less obvious ways. But these are still so new, which makes me a little nervous to talk any more about them!

Awful Interview: Elisa Gabbert

14 Jan

SelfUnstable_low_resElisa Gabbert lives and writes in Denver, CO. Recently, Black Ocean released her second book, The Self UnstableBirds LLC published her first book, The French Exitfour years ago. She is an avid blogger, tweeter (Is that a word? IDFK.), and contributor to Open Letters Monthly.

Although The Self Unstable was published mere weeks ago, it’s already garnered much critical praise. The New Yorker listed the collection as one of their Best Book of 2013, calling it one of “the most intelligent and most intriguing” releases of the calendar year. Likewise, it has appeared on various “Year’s Best” lists at The Poetry Foundation, HTMLGiant, and elsewhere.

Last week, Gabbert agreed to answer some questions  for me–via email–about her new book.

The marketing copy for your second book, The Self Unstable, calls the writing in this collection “lyric essays.” I hoped you could address the concept of genre designation: what makes the texts in The Self Unstable “lyric essays,” as opposed to prose poems, or just plain-old “poems” for that matter? To your mind, what is the purpose of genre designations? What benefits and disadvantages does labeling a piece of writing in this manner provide for both the writer and the reader? Does categorizing The Self Unstable as a collection of “lyric essays” demand that the audience approach the book differently? How so?

I think in the case of The Self Unstable the genre distinction is almost arbitrary. You could call them prose poems or just poems if you wanted to and I wouldn’t say you were wrong, but I do think it’s pretty clearly a hybrid text. In some ways the pieces are like essays and in some ways they’re like poems. They touch on other genres too – Zen koans, aphorism, etc. So I guess you could say the genre is unstable.

From the outset, Black Ocean was interested in marketing the book as prose, and there are a couple of reasons that I agreed to that. One, Bluets by Maggie Nelson is one of the books that inspired me to write a book like this, and Wave calls Bluets lyric essay even though they’re primarily a poetry press. Two, I was interested to see if the prose designation would widen the readership and/or, as you say, change the way people read it. I think it’s too early to say if it has or will.

Regardless of where it’s shelved at the library, I expect some readers to say, “What the hell, these aren’t essays” or “What the hell, these aren’t poems.” My hope is that readers either don’t worry about that too much, or are interested in engaging with how the form “subverts” or “interrogates” the idea of the lyric poem or the idea of the lyric essay. I hope it works on both levels.

I’m glad you mention “Zen koans” in your previous answer because your book concludes with a prose block that states: “Koans are used to provoke ‘the great doubt’” (83). The internet tells me that a koan derives from the practice of Zen Buddhism and is “a brief paradoxical statement or question used a discipline in meditation.” It would appear that the writing in The Self Unstable embodies or appropriates these characteristics. Could you tell me a bit about how you originally encountered this form; likewise, what compelled you to employ it in your own writing? How did the use of it alter your writing or challenge you to re-conceive the manner in which you compose and/or think? In your own words, what is “the great doubt” of our contemporary era?

My college boyfriend used to have a book of Zen koans, which he found more amusing than profound I think, and it was our bathroom reading for a while. I am not a Buddhist, and I went many years without thinking of koans at all, but as I was working on the pieces in this book, I found I wanted them to function as koans, meaning that they are designed to provoke contemplation, not to be taken as absolute truths in themselves. And further I found (this is probably weird) that I wanted to structure the book so that it would make good bathroom reading. In other words, I wanted it to be the kind of book that you can pick up, open at random, and read a few pages, then go back to whatever you were doing. You don’t have to read them in order, and they’re easily re-readable. Like a book to be read in interludes, a little lite pseudo-philosophy. (All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy.)

That line you quote is, if I remember correctly, lifted verbatim from the Wikipedia page on koans, which of course may be different now. I have no idea what “the great doubt” is in Buddhist terms but what a great fucking phrase. For me, “the great doubt” is what happens when you suddenly stop playing the game – all the little rules we need to follow to exist in society, all the logistical distractions of contemporary life – and say, “Wait … WHAT IS THE POINT of all this?” Why anyone would want to encourage more confrontations with the absurd, I don’t know, but I suppose that’s what I’m doing here. Or if not provoking those moments, at least thinking about them.

You open The Self Unstable with the question: “What is the self?” Then, you offer a concept of the self that aligns itself with constructivist thought: “You wanted a life of cause, but it was all effects”; moments later, you forward a proposition that promotes essentialism: “Luck is a skill, as is beauty, intelligence–all things you’re born with” (3). As both a person and a writer, how do you negotiate these ideas of the self that appear to be in opposition to one another? What are your expectations—or, at least, desires—for a reader when they encounter such a paradox in your writing?

I remember reading recently that cognitive dissonance is overstated as a phenomenon, that people can hold all kinds of contradictory beliefs and experience no dissonance whatsoever. Certainly I think it’s almost impossible, if not completely impossible, to have a coherent experience of the self, considering that you have to use your selfhood to form that concept – it’s like trying to look at your own eye or taste your own tongue. Here’s another analogy – you know when people take a bunch of different photos of the Eiffel Tower from different angles and then use it to build a collage that depicts the whole tower, because when you’re close to the tower, you can’t get it all in one frame? A book about the self is similar, in that you can’t get a complete picture of it in one view or from one angle. I think that’s part of why it makes sense to label The Self Unstable as an essay – which of course etymologically means “attempt.” This is an attempt to get a grasp on the ungraspable. And I suppose I assume readers will be intimately familiar with the paradox because they are selves themselves.

In the opening prose block of the “Transcending the Body” section of The Self Unstable, you write: “Transcending the body sounds a little ’80s to me, not to mention flaky and paranormal. Even avatars have gender” (19). The statement got me thinking about a recent post at Harriet by the poet Tyrone Williams that’s subtitled “Posthumanism and Poetry.” He begins his article by referencing N. Katherine Hayles’ concept of the posthuman, which is “the disappearance of the liberal humanist subject to the distribution of human desire and will through digital technology.” As poet who tweets and blogs frequently (i.e. uses “digital technology”), how has your online presence/persona altered or informed the ways in which you approach the concepts of self and subjectivity, as well as the “poet” moniker?

I used to think a lot about post-humanism. For years I truly believed that within our lifetimes we’d hit the so-called “singularity” and become immortal via digitization. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not that I don’t think it’s theoretically possible to upload the self (in fact I think it’s possible that we’re all already living in some kind of digital simulation); it’s that I’m less confident we’ll get there before we all blow each other up or die off in some kind of mass plague.

But getting to your question: I think it’s interesting that having an online presence (in my case, on my blog and Twitter in particular) creates an automatic archive of both your experience and your own description of that experience. And what’s continually surprising to me, when I dig back through that archive and re-read things I’ve written in the past, is how consistent it feels. So either my true self is more consistent from the outside than it feels from the inside, or the online persona I’ve unknowingly crafted through language is very consistent. So I’ll read something that I wrote four years ago and be struck that I could have easily said the same thing yesterday. Another early line in the book: “The self regenerates every five or six days.” This is a reference to cell regeneration, the idea that after some amount of time your body literally does not consist of any of the same cells that it used to, but somehow your selfhood persists. For me, my digital traces are a very concrete illustration of that persistence, much more so than, say, photographs, because my body seems to change more over the years than my personality.

The notion that The Self Unstable is a “collage” pieced together by different perspectives and “angles” reminds me a bit of Benjamin and Adorno’s concept of the “constellation.” But it seems as though statements such as “All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy” and “Whatever you do, don’t start thinking about thinking” (10) express a certain antagonism toward—or at least skepticism about—philosophy. Given that large portions of The Self Unstable obliquely (or directly, depending on your viewpoint) engage ontology, epistemology, and phenomenology, I hoped you could a speak to what seems to be your (or your book’s) conflicted relationship with/to that discourse.  

It’s not true antagonism – I actually love philosophy and think poetry and philosophy are deeply entwined. In fact I’ve blogged about how philosophical poets tend to be my favorite poets. When I say something like “All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy” or “All philosophers are armchair philosophers” I mean that you don’t really need accreditation to be a philosopher. It’s like being a poet in that way, all you have to do to qualify is sit down and write some poetry. And a lot of philosophy turns out to be bullshit, but for that matter, most “science” historically has turned out to be bullshit. It’s still interesting, in that philosophy shows you the history of thinking. I’d love to be placed in a continuum with Benjamin and Adorno as opposed to, say, Stevens and Berryman. Why not?

Returning to one of your previous answers, I like that you think of The Self Unstable as a possible bathroom read, as I’m a strident advocate of them, generally speaking. Of course, my bathroom reads tend to be “Collected” poetry books; this way I can engage with a specific poet every day over the course of 6-8 months. What are some of your favorite and/or current bathroom reads? Why?

We subscribe to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and Harper’s, and those tend to end up in the bathroom, but I don’t spend enough time in there to really get into long articles like that. For me a poem is about the right size for a bathroom session, so I throw literary journals in there, in particular contributor’s copies, because otherwise I never seem to get around to reading them. Currently you’d find issues of Crazyhorse and Denver Quarterly in among the other periodicals. I also sometimes use this space to peruse catalogues, like Dean and Deluca, and that can be pleasantly meditative.

Speaking of continuum, how do you think The Self Unstable engages, speaks, or reacts to your first collection The French Exit; likewise, how does it relate to whatever you’re writing nowadays? This second part of the question, obviously, begs the question: what are you currently working on?

I think writers tend to have a few subjects they obsess over, and my big subjects are present in both The French Exit and The Self Unstable – stuff like time and memory and meaning and death. But the form/approach is very different in The Self Unstable; aside from the fact that it’s organized into untitled prose blocks, versus titled, lineated verse poems, it’s also more idea-driven, whereas The French Exit is, I think, basically driven by emotion. That change is probably a result of the way my life has changed since I wrote the poems in my first book; I spend more of my waking hours working (at my day job) so I need to impose more structure in order to get meaningful amounts of creative writing done. When I was younger I was more naturally prolific, but now it helps me to contribute slowly and in small chunks to a longer “project.” Also, my life (ironically) got more stable so I think the move to more contemplative reflection is a result of having fewer spikes of intense emotion.

All that said I’m back to writing in lineated verse. I recently acted in a production of The Designated Mourner, a play by Wallace Shawn, and I’m currently writing a series of poems in the voice of Judy, the character I portrayed. It’s really too early to say how they relate to the other books but I’m sure my usual obsessions will find their way in, despite the filter of the character.

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