What does it mean to be a quirky writer?
When I’m sitting down to write every morning, I make sure the sun’s casting a photoshopped glow through the sheer blinds and that all implements of the trade are just so. I’m particularly interested in books being at the right angle for photographing. The above picture is apparently Faulkner’s writing room, and I’m 100% certain that it looked just like that when he was writing in it. He was a meticulous man. No errant papers, no spilled coffee. I’m equally certain that Faulkner only wrote in the perfect light, likely magic hour. Only ever magic hour. He wrote As I Lay Dying during that first and last hour of light because people only die when the light’s just right. You wouldn’t want to die in the wrong light, would you? I mean, what would people think? Writing and dying. Dying and writing. But when you think about it, you also shouldn’t eat in the wrong light or make love in the wrong light. Jesus, what if your lover sees that scar on your left knee?
My dog died last night as I held her in my arms. I tried for magic hour, but the vet was running late. I lit candles instead. She died there in my arms, injected first with anesthesia then with kill-you formula. Her eyes stayed wide open and twitched. She let out a dying breath that smelled like violence. We buried her in a deep hole. My office overlooks her grave. It’s magic hour, this hour, this hour between sleep and waking. I’m writing at my messy desk. The light’s really nice.
Would you, too, wear a dress to the ball?
My favorite childhood jingle was “Good mornin’, best to you each mornin’, K-E-Double-L-O-Double-G, Kellogg’s best to you. And YOU.”
The title of this post consists of lyrics from one of my favorite Mos Def songs, on his album The New Danger. Many of the tracks on this album are about Jack Johnson, the first ever black heavyweight boxing champion. I could listen to it all day. And it’s in my head this fine Sunday morning because I’ve been catching up on Dexter Season 6, in which Mos Def, I mean Mos, I mean Yasiin Bey, plays Brother Sam, a born again murderer who Dex befriends. I am on episode 4, and I already love this character. I was curious, so I Googled Mr. Bey and I found a great clip from The Colbert Report in which Mr. Bey graciously gives no explanation as to why he changed his name, and from which I learned that Black Star has a new record. Continue reading “Black Jack Johnson NYC, R-O-C-K-I-N-G.”
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.
“Best of” lists should be reconsidered as “In club” lists. Unless you can read all of the books, you’re going to pick the cool kids. Especially small press listers. So predictable it hurts.
Fictionitis |fick shun eye tus|
a disease of the frontal lobe that obliterates the impulse to write fiction almost before (in the time-space continuum) the impulse is acted upon; the foiling of grand plans and even grander fantasies as a result of said disease: I contracted fictionitis minutes after conceiving of a fiction-writing-for-poets series on HTMLGiant; I will wash my mouth out with soap, but it won’t cure the disease.
What is memoir in poetry? We read prose memoirs and see how lives are stretched taut around themes: a chronology of water, a debilitating illness, a drug addiction, a nomadic childhood, a strange religion, insomnia-driven thinking. Themes become umbrella girding; living, the fabric that fills it out. But where does poetry fit into memoir? We could think about the confessional in poetry and say, yes this is the place where poetry and memoir meet. Plath on suicide attempts: “I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it–” or Lowell, “My mind’s not right…I myself am hell.” Depression and mania are easily encapsulated states of being, but all poets write their lives, confessional or not. When Simic writes, “My mother was a braid of black smoke,” we assume he’s not writing fact-truth. Maybe he’s writing dream truth or metaphor truth. Maybe he’s just writing, and I’m extrapolating.
I started thinking about this when a poem of mine called “Man Builds a Guitar” went up online recently. It’s basically a persona poem in Jack White’s voice. I wrote it after watching the documentary It Might Get Loud and not being able to shake Jack White’s weird tinkering and instrument making from my head. So, it’s a persona poem, but it embodies themes and emotions I was thinking about at that particular moment in time. When I say, “I heard everything disappearing” what I meant was that my marriage was over and life as I knew it was evaporating in front of my eyes. I’m using the imagery of my childhood in the South and the sounds that take me back there to get at the particulars of silence-after-a-storm. This is a memoir poem even though it’s a persona poem. I mean, I don’t know Jack White, but I know me.
Matt Hart has a poem called “Sailing the Gut Boat,” that begins, “I made you a thing with no tongue / and gallons of new-fangled fog. I made you / a thing with nothing and nobody—not even / a surrealist screaming into an atlas….” Hart reminds us that you can fashion people and events into whatever you want (a nothing, even) on the page, but the truth of them still remains behind that fashioning.
Or take a short couplet poem, “Future,” by Emily Kendal Frey: