Pen Pals: A Conversation with Nate Slawson

Nate Slawson is the author of Panic Attack, USA (YesYes, Fall 2011) and two chapbooks, The Tiny Jukebox (H_NGM_N Books) and A Mixtape Called Zooey Deschanel (Line4). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Diode, Handsome, alice blue, Slope, Cannibal, horse less review, Corduroy Mtn., Forklift Ohio, DIAGRAM, Typo, and other places. He lives in Chicago where he teaches and runs cinematheque, an indie press that publishes chapbooks of poetry and prose.

I recently corresponded with Slawson about his new book from YesYes, Panic Attack, USA, but as with any great conversation, our subject matter ran the gamut from basketball to Neutral Milk Hotel—sort of like the  book itself with its strange and penetrating imagery, its tide-like rhythm-making, its obsessions, its pop culture memories. I pushed Slawson to talk about his poems in uncomfortable ways (for any poet), and he engaged—and set me straight a few times. And then we talked about good, old-fashioned poetics. Slawson felt like my pen pal for a week or so. Below is our conversation in its entirety–unedited. It felt like the thing to do.

AO: Talk to me about the first section of Panic Attack, USA, The Teenage Sonnets. There’s an American tradition of reducing the sonnet form to its most basic constituent part: 14 lines. What’s the significance, for you, in writing the American sonnet?

SLAWSON: Sonnets are rad. The first poems I ever wrote were sonnets, proper iambic, rhyme-schemed sonnets. And I thought they were fun to math. It was kind of like doing math, kind of like a word problem where the train from Poughkeepsie needs to arrive in Baltimore at 6:22 pm with its 140 passengers. But as I read more poems, stumbled upon more poets (my partial travels, chronologically: O’Hara, Lowell, Dickinson, Berryman, Stevens, Natasha Trethewey, Donald Justice), I was enthralled by how form was used. For a young (read: halfwitted) student/writer, there’s something remarkably badass and American about making an established form into something else but still calling that form the form.

AO: I wrote a lot of sonnets early on too. I was writing these intricate things about snails and kids smoking in the streets and, well, my neighborhood in L.A. Eventually, these sonnets got torn apart and recycled into other poems, some of which found their way into my first book. Do you think part of being an American poet is learning how to dismantle (tradition, form)?

NS: I kind of want to read those early Alexis Orgera sonnets. And by kind of, I mean very very. [Nate: I just looked for those old sonnets. They are gone, gone, gone.] A part of me feels I’m always trying to re-write my own version of “Where You’ll Find Me Now” (from Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island). With the “tear into me” and the “kids in their cars cigarette smoking.” And yeah, I think learning how to dismantle is essential part of being an American poet (all the awesome poets do it). And learning tradition and learning form are the constant, the must. That comes first. We come to form and tradition through different experiences—books, teachers, friends—and proceed with whatever steam our mind-wheels generate.

AO: The Teenage Sonnets, again, as the first section of the book, set into motion the trajectory of the book: grappling with violent obsession, taking road trips, and recalling all kinds of musical influence. Could you talk a little about how these moments inform Panic Attack, USA?

NS: I look at this section as the clumsy (narrative trajectory-wise) introduction to what happens in the rest of the book. Along with the idea of TEENAGE sonnets being scattered and earnest and obsessive and trying so damn hard to convince “you” to show “me” your non-matching underwear.

AO: I would really love it if you’d talk more about the book’s trajectory. If the Teenage Sonnets are the most “earnest,” maybe in terms of teenage naivete, have you written a coming-of-age story that perhaps widens both the world and the heart? Maybe it’s not fair to ask you as the writer. Maybe that’s the job of the reader, but I’m always curious about what the writer sees.

NS: I don’t think I’m smart or skilled enough to write a coming-of-age story. I mean, I hope there’s some of that happening in the book—as the heart explodes it covers the world in its beautiful heart explosion. And that is, in some way, how I wanted the book’s quasi-narrative to function. But it was never all-consuming or mapped out. If you or another reader see a/the story, rad.

AO: In terms of micro-story (vs. meta-narrative), in regard to individual poems I’m very interested in your line breaks. I like the surprise I feel line by line, particularly in the shorter-lined poems. For instance, in “You Are a Saxophone,” you break on articles and prepositions in a way that creates a neat rhythm. You write, “a pain in your heart / sprung from the / blues & which / when I cup my / hand to your chest / be like thunderous / rain like wasps in / a coffee can & thou / nettles & dry river- / bed thou sermon / of fire sister & we / hymnal of matchsticks?” My sense is that you’re breaking lines rhythmically, almost as though you’re rocking back and forth (ala Nate Pritts at a reading) as you write. Yes? No?

NS: Yes x 100! Lines are sonic, and they break or continue because of sound. I’m sure there are theories out there people tell people or teach their students, but I and you and we can do what whatever the hell we like. And I do a lot of rocking: reading books, writing, giving readings. I never sit when I give a reading. I need to dance a little. I need to love-up the microphone. Sometimes people joke me (if you do it to my face it’s cool) and/or I can sense there’s what the fuck? vibe in the crowd, but I think almost everyone realizes 1) it’s something I can’t not do and 2) it’s something that’s a part of the poems. Though I hope some people like the sway of my hips.

AO: Ahh, readings. I’m jealous of people who are really good readers, or memorable readers at the very least. I get an instant migraine. Is reading to a crowd integral to being a poet in the 21st century? What do you get from the performance of your poems? For instance, I read all of my poems aloud to my dogs and cat, incessantly (poor things), and that way I’m able to hear the words in the air—I believe my poems need to be read aloud, but sometimes the audience part is a stumbling block. Put me inside your head when you’re doing a reading. Also, are there any videos I could post with this interview?

NS: YesYes has a page on the YouTube. Last I checked there’s some video of the Ft. Wayne punk bar reading.

There have been times I’ve almost passed out, had to end a reading early. It’s tough sometimes having a panic disorder because I never know how I’ll feel. Usually it’s cool because I have pills and breathing exercises. But no matter my issues or how I feel, I have to read to a crowd. A great reading—and I’ve seen my share—makes poems and books that much better. You have the poet’s voice in your memory bank and all that voice conveys. For me, when I’m the in-front-of-the-audience reader, I want my voice to infect how my work will be read on the page. I also want the sitting people to enjoy those 15 or so minutes. And you know how audiences can be: you never know what kind of response you’ll get until you’re up there doing stuff. So I always step up there thinking fuck it, I’m gonna rock and dance and rage.

AO: Speaking of panic, I think I had a little panic attack when I finished reading Panic Attack–there’s a recursiveness to the obsession with the “you” in these pages–especially with wanting to violently fuck the “you”–that’s pretty affecting. That said, the book is not about the “you” but about the obsessions, recursions of the “I.” In essence, for me, it’s a book about the speaker’s desire to consume–and even about embodying the male gaze in a seemingly un-ironic way. You even say in “An Essay about Tommy Guns,” “the TV news would be / better if it was about me.” Am I reading the book incorrectly?

NS: I think so. First off, I’m happy you find consuming desire vis-à-vis the “I’s” gaze “un-ironic.” I hope there’s some funny in some of the poems (dark funny or funny funny), but the cyclical obsession of what, at their core, are love poems is straight-faced sincere. And there’s an oscillation, too, regarding the “I” and desire and violence. What follows the part you quote from “Tommy Guns” is how some of these step-backs (and subsequent steps to the “you”) seem to function: “though I can’t say for certain / I’d watch it but that don’t / mean you can’t be happy / to see me.” And it continues in that back and forth, give and take. And the give and take is often literal: a promise for a scalpel, “my hurt” for a drink, etc.

AO: I’m glad you continued with “Tommy Guns,” which sets me straight a bit—that the recursive, and maybe elastic, nature of the book is more your point. But I can’t get away from a feminist lens; it’s almost as though the book pushes me to critique the male gaze and the violence inherent in making an object of the female while the dude remains the ever-subject. That’s the universal question as a 21st century male artist, right? How can I desire (women) without my desire being damaging? Your desire in this book seems to remain just that, desire. You don’t actually commit acts of violence, but you want to. I could site Laura Mulvey here, and Judith Butler, and any number of feminists who discuss the dangers of the male gaze, of course. I’m not trying to pin you into a corner here; I just want to hear your thoughts on the matter, particularly because the discussion of the gaze is sometimes relegated to painting and other visual arts, probably because they’re so, well, visual.

NS: My initial take on the book’s desire as violence is that violence is desired on the part of the “I,” to be implemented by the “you” upon the “I.” But I understand where you’re coming from. There’s a “standard” way to read the trinity of male, female, and violence. The oscillation I talk about also includes a disruption of subject and object. If I may talk about ideas I don’t have the firmest grasp on: the screen through which the gaze is filtered is not a one-size-fits-all screen. What I mean is much much much of the violence the “I” speaks of is self-inflicted or wanted gift-like from the “you.” And sure, the “I” always controls the trajectory of (the speaking of) the poems, but I don’t think this makes him (sure, let’s call the “I” him) subject a priori. He’s a proxy to the oscillation of the gaze. He desires objecthood. He’s continually becoming-object. I’m talking too much nerdy stuff. And putting myself into another corner. Does this make any sense? This theorizing is done for you only, Alexis Orgera. When it comes to my poems and talking about them in some kind of smartish way, I’d prefer not to. But these things I speak of, if you re-read almost any of the poems in the book—“You Are Johnny Lawrence,” “The Drugstore is a Volcano,” “My Band Name Will Be Your Name,” “What I Mean Is Yes”—you might begin to see the furtive(?) ontology of subject/object the way I do.

[I re-read these poems, and I can see the becoming-object Slawson speaks about in lines like, “I wish your fists & exploding birds / & bruises on my lungs. / I wish your goodbye hand / was a derringer muzzled / into my gut” and “I can’t remember / what you said when I told you / I wanted to paint your fence / I think you laughed or else / you said I should have come / dressed as a body bag.”]

AO: This is your first full-length book. What was the process of putting these poems together like? Did the YesYes editors help with that, or was the book pretty good-to-go when they decided to publish it?

NS: Putting poems into an order of any kind is horrible for me. When I start the actual doing, I start hating everything. This book, before it was a published book, had a good run in the few free or minimal-fee open readings that are out there. But when Katherine and YesYes took it, I wanted to do a complete re-write. YesYes liked it as it was but also knew it needed some love here and there. Katherine let me run with my “I’m going to write you a completely different and way better book” idea for a bit. I went back to PANIC ATTACK, USA, though, and spent my time making it a book again. A number of pieces were trashed, some newer work was molded to fit, and almost everything else that exists in the book was “fixed” in some way (a tinker here or there, a hefty re-write, a bunch of new titles). The most important thing for me: I wanted a book I could read any poem from—no filler.

AO: I love that. “I wanted a book I could read any poem from…” That’s really important. You know how people say to front load your book with your “best poems,” well my feeling is that if they’re not all your “best poems,” why are they in the book? Sure, if you want to catch the eye of contest judges or something, you’ll put the most whatever up front, maybe, but if you care about the narrative arc of your book, you’ll be thinking about other things. This goes back to my trajectory question. Also known as narrative arc. Road trip. Map. I’m curious about yours, so if you didn’t answer above, you can here J

NS: Books are records are movies. The good ones deliver beginning-to-end. Please don’t run out of steam. Please don’t slap a bunch of crap together at the end. If there’s a trajectory (even if the trajectory is more about transmission than story), there must be a completion. Not a conclusion, not a The End—these aren’t a must and they should not be conflated with completion—but a leaving that leaves the reader satisfied or curious or longing or something.

AO: Did you set out to write Teenage Sonnets and Essays for a Broken Heart as series? Did they organically become series?

NS: I’ll start with the easier/simpler answer. The ESSAYS were always a series. They were partially a de-forming the prose poem (the prose poem has to be a block, you know—I think it’s written down in the same rule book that says sitcoms must use laugh tracks). And my tendency (obsession?) is to initially write all poems as part of a series. The SONNETS are a long (mostly boring) story. They, too, were always a part of some series, though a few of the poems in there were taken from different series and whittled down to sonnets. But some of the poems that form the core of the SONNETS were part of unending sonnet series that traversed the world of The Tempest and The Sound and the Fury and the Arcade Fire and other stuff and stuff.

AO: Do you find that you get really excited to start a series and then bored just as quickly? I was reading somewhere recently about “poetry projects,” oh, it was about contests and judging contests and how many books seem to be “project” books but that the best books are filled with diversity of language and form. Writing series, for me, only works in short bursts because I get bored! I get bored with myself easily! What about you?

NS: I read that piece too. It made me want to poke my eyes out, as most contemporary poetry criticism does. The one thing I remember most from it, and I’m going to horribly generalize, is that there was this “projects are usually derivative and lame, but some aren’t” thesis. I could be terribly wrong about what/if this was said. But I wholeheartedly disagree that the best books have a diversity of language and form. Some of the most fantastic books in recent years are repetitive in the most awesome way: Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth, Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life, Chelsey Minnis’s Poemland, Abe Smith’s two books, Joshua Wilkinson’s oeuvre, &c. And what about every young poet’s 21st century discovery, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford?

Here’s the thing with me: I’m rarely excited, but I quickly bore myself. The way I know a series is working or has the potential to work is when I don’t get bored. For every completed series of 8–30 poems, I’d say 9 out of 10 of these series get dumped deep into some desktop subfolder of a subfolder. But the one that doesn’t…O the one that doesn’t. I have a series-in-progress that initially ended after 8 poems, but then I went back to it and wrote 2 more, and then another, and another, and I’m not stopping anytime soon.

AO: You’ve got a shout-out to WC Williams in Panic Attack  in “Letter Written in Blowtorch,” though you substitute the idea of eating plums with the notion of tearing into someone’s flesh. Talk to me about what that means for you, or how that poem is working. Is there a purposeful toppling at work?  Also, who are some of your influences or favorite poets?

NS: I don’t think WCW was talking plums when he was talking plums. Or who knows. I always thought it was such a hot poem, fraught with innuendo and sweetness and just the right amount of naughty. So why not turn it on its ear? I remember when I saw Punch-Drunk Love for the first time, and there’s the beautifully affecting bedroom scene between Emily Watson and Adam Sandler. She says something like his face is so beautiful she wants to eat it, and he replies with something like her face is so beautiful he wants to bash it with a sledgehammer. Everything about that scene is gorgeous.

AO:  Funny you should say that right now about WCW. I just said last night, sort of Beavis-and-Butthead-esque: “I’ve eaten the plums in your icebox, huh huh huh huh.” I was arguing that the plums are way better than a red wheelbarrow, for many reasons, not least of which is sexiness.

NS: The red wheelbarrow might be the Sir Mix-a-Lot version of plums in the icebox. Even white chickens got to shout?

Before I read or wrote poetry, music was everything. In late high school/early college, I listened on repeat to Superchunk, The Smoking Popes, Jawbreaker, and others. There are a handful of records I’ve played so many times that they feel like a part of me (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, Foolish by Superchunk, and Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub are a big three, a big three forever and ever which is what Lebron, DWade, and Bosh will never be).

AO: I swear, half of my early poems are based on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea lyrics. You know, I have Rob McDonald to thank for lending me that record in grad school! I remember I was vacuuming the apartment, and the music was on really loudly, and I thought, WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING HERE? That was almost the beginning of a new world for me. Mangum’s lyrics are so perfect, right? Also, Lebron, Wade, and Bosh don’t seem to have the spark that makes magic. Disappointing, but true. For years, I’ve thought about basketball and poetry as cousins. When I watch a beautiful basketball game, it becomes poetry for me, the rhythm, the movement, the grace. Maybe I’ve read Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops one too many times, it’s poetic, like “King of Carrot Flowers” is poetic, like Bishop’s fish houses and north Atlantic are poetic: if you dip your hand it, it’ll fucking burn, etc.

NS: Rob is 100 kinds of rad! Why aren’t you talking to him instead? I want to hear what he has to say about stuff. On Avery Island was transformative, and I listened to it every day for months. I picked up In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and was like, cool, but I stuck to On Avery Island (“Where You’ll Find Me Now” is my favorite NMH song for now and forever). A friend of mine, a friend I trusted 100% on all things music, told me he thought In the Aeroplane was better than On Avery Island and I thought no fucking way. So I listened to In the Aeroplane over and over and damn if my buddy wasn’t right.

So, not to cause a ruckus between us, but I’m here in Chicago (where the MVP Derrick Rose is) and have been a Bulls fan for 25 years. So I wish the Heatles nothing but suck it.

My favorites poets are all the poets who have written a poem I’d make out with. This an incomprehensive list of who/what I read over and over and over: Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Alice Notley, Frank Stanford, Brian Henry, Emily Kendal Frey, Matt Hart.

AO:  Maybe we should post a follow up conversation about basketball! For now, I’m going to wrap this up. Many of your poems orbit around these powerful lines like “All my energy is so fucking religious” or “& that’s how / my love grew into a great white shark.” How do you build a poem, or–should I ask–how does a poem build for you?

NS: Sound builds a poem. How words and phrases sound, if you can dance to them, if they make you shake in the belly that lives your heart. Everything else builds from there. Or at least that’s how words function for me. Sometimes poems are poems. Sometimes poems are rock operas.

AO: So true. Sound is where the soul of the poem lives. Sound, for me, is the blueprint. What other craft elements are important for you? Maybe there aren’t any as important as sound, since sound can inform all else—line breaks, stanzas, spaces, obviously rhythm, internal rhyme—even image. As a kid, I read very rhythmic stuff, rhyming stuff, incessantly. I think it had an effect. Did you read poetry as a kid? Or anything else that shaped your poetry as an adult?

NS: I don’t know if this important for me, though it’s something I’ve been working with for a bit, but I try to use as little punctuation as possible. And not just because. It’s partially about sound, partially about breaking lines and speaking/breathing rhythm.

I didn’t read poetry until college. I read a poem here and there in class as a kid, but that’s it. I got into Motown when I was young (The Four Tops were my favorite)—R&B and soul in general have been vital. Same can be said about hip-hop. I was 12 when De La Soul dropped 3 Feet High and Rising, the Beastie Boys released Paul’s Boutique, and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was the soundtrack to Do the Right Thing. As I’ve said, music is what brought me to poetry, is how I could get into a poem, enjoy it, feel it. And for the record, a great blues record beats a great book of poetry every time. That’s gospel.