A Conversation With Gregory Sherl
Gregory Sherl is the author of the excellent poetry collection Heavy Petting (my review, here, at Diode). I’ve always admired the sensuality and openness of his writing so we talked about the way he exposes himself in his poetry, Ryan Gosling’s satin jacket in Drive, and the matter of fucking in poetry.
What is your obsession as a writer?
Trying to stop myself from being so desperately aware that I’m a writer. Or maybe my obsession is figuring out how to pay for healthcare when my only income comes from being an Adjunct English Instructor. Or maybe it’s me obsessing over obsessing about the fact that I need to apply for my MFA like today but not doing it because writing new poems is better than putting old poems together in a packet with some stamps on it. Or maybe it’s watching the doctor try to figure out the right cocktail of medication so I don’t sleep nineteen hours in one day. Or maybe it’s trying to watchFelicity in its entirety as quickly as possible (a little over two weeks, I believe). Or maybe these aren’t my obsessions as a writer but my obsessions as me but I’m a writer so I think it fits.
You are very open about your struggles with anxiety, depression, and OCD. Are you ever afraid to expose yourself the way you do in your writing? Why do you approach these subjects in your poetry?
The simple answer: I wouldn’t know what else to talk about.
The still simple answer: I’ve always found it incredibly surprising by how many people comment on the redness of my hands. If you knew me, like stood next to me or spent an hour or just a few days or were my best friend, all of these things (the anxiety, depression, OCD) would be so obvious. There’s no use in trying to hide them.
Or maybe I should’ve tried to hide them but got sick of it, and the poetry was my coming out party. It was liberating, the day I said, “fuck it” and just put the big bottle of Purell on the table at the coffee shop and didn’t care who noticed how many times I used it. I used to leave it in the back pocket of my messenger bag, and every few minutes I would reach into it and squirt too much sanitizer into my hands. But that was dumb. So is having OCD, I suppose, but I might as well only do one dumb thing instead of two, right?
I’m not embarrassed by how much Valium I have to take. I don’t wear it as a badge, but depression or being bipolar or having a borderline personality disorder is never something we should feel we have to hide. I don’t need code words to tell my boss I need a couple hours off to see the psychiatrist. I’m not going to lie about that to the person I only know because he signs my paychecks, so I would never lie to the most important parts of me, which are these poems.
How do you know when you have enough work to call it a book? How did you assemble Heavy Petting?
When I first started writing poetry, I started receiving acceptances very quickly. It just snowballed from there. I was very lucky. It kept my motivation up, so I just kept writing and writing, poem on top of poem, knowing I wanted to write a book but not sure how to do it.
Like I said, I’ve been very lucky. Neither of my currently released collections (Heavy Petting and the now out of print I Have Touched You) were my first contracted book. The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail, which Mud Luscious Press will be releasing in January, was my first contracted title. My hand was held through the creation of that book, and it really helped me realize how to form a collection. At the time I was contacted about The Oregon Trail it was less than halfway done, and J.A. Tyler was very patient with me. He’s a publishing wizard so every time we talked about the formation and length of the book, it was like a little lesson on how a book becomes a book. I kept everything he said very close.
I put Heavy Petting together in one night, with wonderful ordering and sectioning help from Katherine. It kind of just hit me — I needed to put these poems to rest and move on. Maybe that’s how you know, when you realize it’s time to move on?
Each of my books came together so differently I am still not sure how the next one will happen. I think that’s exciting.
Naming a collection can be a difficult thing. How did you end up with Heavy Petting?
I want to say it came organically, but I can’t remember. I know that once the title was out there, that was it. There were no other possibilities. I do want to say it was the only possible title, so let’s go with that. It almost felt too right, if that could possibly make any sense. These poems are young — the idea of “heavy petting” is a youthful one. There are steamed windows, some necking, but most of these poems are young and not comfortable with doing much else. That almost sounds negative but it’s not. These poems have a specific purpose, and that purpose is to be young.
These days I am finding that I don’t write anything quite like these poems anymore. I’m sure this is a good thing — me growing as a writer, etc, etc. But I consider this book to be like those few last few years of true youth when you’re aware of your youth and you’re enjoying it. It’s something you miss on a shitty day with too much rain you, but, in reality, you’re completely content with just watching Felicty on Netflix until it’s time for bed.
Heavy Petting just seemed right.
A lot of your poems are really erotic, hot even. Are you a sexual person?
I think everyone is sexual. We have fingers and we all have faces and our body parts are supposed to touch, a lot.
Hot even? I like this, and I hope it’s true. Is it true? Don’t tease me.
Do I want people getting off from my poetry? You didn’t necessarily ask this, but absolutely yes. Should we be getting off from every poem we read? Sure, in some way. All poetry should be reactionary poetry. I write what I like to read. I’m not talking about porn but sensuality is important, especially in poetry. It’s everywhere. It’s a daily thing for me, so yes, to all of this. I used to joke in workshop, I’d say, Who’s fucking whom in this poem? There usually wasn’t any fucking. I thought there should be more fucking in poetry. I made it a mission. At readings, in class, over beer, I’d say, There’s not enough fucking in poetry. Most of the time nobody took me seriously, but I meant it. I still mean it.
Why do you think there’s not enough fucking in poetry?
Because I never got off enough.
That makes sense. In general, why do you think poets are not putting fucking in the poetry?
Because there are too many birds to talk about?
Snow is more interesting?
I’m not sure. Maybe the poets just express it differently. Maybe they’re embarrassed. Maybe they’re fucking so much that when they sit down to write a poem, they don’t want to write about something they did all day. I hope that’s it, I hope they just overfucked themselves.
Or maybe there’s a lot of fucking in poetry but it’s clouded in metaphors that I just don’t understand because I never got my MFA.
Do you have any rules for yourself when it comes to writing poetry?
Don’t be afraid to trash something. Stop dipping into dried wells. Abuse the Valium as little as possible. Touch as many things as possible without sanitizing. Read. Try to go to bed always wanting to write more tomorrow.
Why do you poem about poeming?
I’m not quite sure, I certainly didn’t start writing poems that way. I’ve found that I’m a very secluded person, yet I rarely have conversations with myself, nor do I journal. Instead, I poem. Maybe my “poeming about poems” is me talking to myself through a poem and being blatantly transparent about it.
I know there are a lot of readers who don’t like to read “poems about poeming”, but I find it hypnotic. And like I said before, I write what I like to read
You’re also working on a novel. How is that coming along? How does your approach fiction differ from how you write poetry?
I have the entire novel mapped out in my head. I can tell you specific scenes, how certain things feel and smell but not a single word is written down.
I guess how I write my fiction differs from how I write my poetry in that I actually write my poetry down. With my fiction, I am simply dreaming it.
Pop culture figures heavily in many of the poems in Heavy Petting. Are you a fan of movies? Does John Cusack figure heavily in your dreams?
Pop culture is a huge part of my life. Whether I’m drinking an iced coffee from Starbucks or answering interview questions on my MacBook Pro or having a Felicity marathon on Netflix, I am always inundated with pop culture. And since my poetry is very personal, it’s going to bleed over.
As an undergrad I had issues with my workshop peers about using pop culture references in writing. They’d say, You mentioned Art Brut in a short story? You can’t have someone send a text message in a poem. You can’t do that! How will you be timeless if you’re mentioning a band no one will be talking about in five years?
Shit, who said anything about being timeless? I just want someone to read my stuff today, maybe tomorrow. That’s enough. That’s huge. If you’ve read my stuff, thank you so much. There’s so much out there no one is reading now, and we’re worried about whether we’ll be read in a hundred years? Fucking ridiculous.
But let’s talk about John Cusack.
John Cusack is a dream. I own Must Love Dogs, that’s how much of a dream John Cusack is. If we say John Cusack enough, do you think it’ll be one of the first things that pop up on a Google search for John Cusack and then maybe John Cusack will read this interview that mentions John Cusack and then maybe he’ll buy my book that has a poem about John Cusack in it?
Now let’s talk about movies.
I love movies. I want to make movies. I would give up poetry today if someone said here’s tens of millions of dollars, go make a movie. I’d say, Fuck poetry, I just filmed Ryan Gosling kicking this guy’s head in over and over and over and over.
He doesn’t even care that he got blood all over his scorpion jacket.
All of my poems care if they get blood on their scorpion jackets.
I have seen Must Love Dogs. Diane Lane certainly has a curious career trajectory though the same could be said for Cusack. I’m glad, though, that you brought up that scorpion jacket because I’m pretty obsessed with it. Gosling wore it well and it was so satiny. What was the best movie you’ve seen this year?
Drive, easily. Though Beginners comes in a very close second. Nobody seems to talk about this movie, but it’s beautiful and quiet and has a dog that’s so cute, I’d let him sleep with me in bed once or twice a week.
It seems like you had some interesting experiences in school. Do you like other poets?
Do we usually like our own kind? Sometimes. But that can be said about any group of people, I think. Sometimes. Certainly there are poets I can’t live without and they know who they are, but there are so many poets I never think about.
Why are you applying to an MFA program at this point in your career, with two books under your belt, and two more on the way?
I have been thinking about this a lot and I’ve come up with a few options:
A. With two books under my belt and two more on the way, I finally feel ready to start an MFA program. I feel like I’ve written enough to start to learn what maybe there is left to learn from The Workshop and by meeting writers much more talented and gifted than myself. Whether the MFA can teach me to be a better writer, I don’t know, but I do know there is still so much for me to learn. This is the time in my life when I can just go learn it. What else am I doing? Answering interview questions at 2:43 a.m. that’s what.
B. Desperation. Adjuncts don’t get paid shit, and the thought of going back to a 40+ hour desk job scares me so much — I just don’t see it as a viable option. Most GTA positions have higher salaries than adjuncts while teaching less courses, so if I can get paid to teach and learn, why the fuck would I say no to that?
C. I was told by many people that getting an MFA is what I’m supposed to do. My mom says, Take vitamins, so I take vitamins.
D. I still have the dream that I’m going to get my degrees and publish more books and get that tenure track position and grow old and keep all my hair.
You live in Florida which is such an interesting place. People either love it or hate. Where do you stand? What is it about Florida?
I would really love to watch the leaves fall and have a reason to wear my cardigans other than that they kind of look good on me and hide my midsection.
Living in Florida, especially the southern part, makes me lose track of months. It’s November but it feels no different than September, which is cooler than July, but no different than March. April is rainy, but then again, so was October. I hear it’s snowing places, is this true?
So what I’m saying is give me a reason to leave Florida and I’m gone.
What do you want for yourself as a writer?
I want to be so fucking good at it, and I want people who don’t know me to think that I am so fucking good at it.
What’s the last great thing you read?
I was very late to the party, but Light Boxes by Shane Jones made me start thinking more seriously about fiction again.
What do you love most about your writing?
I love that my writing ends.