“The pain is real. And I get something from it.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
NF: Let's talk about your chapbook.
KA: My chapbook? Haha. That's not what we're here for. We're here to talk about your work.
Well, we're here to talk about what I'm thinking about, and right now I'm thinking about your chapbook.
You wrote a brilliant and very generous blurb for it.
I know. And I think I cut a lot from the blurb. I had the lines, "oh lord / spare this body set fire to another" in the original blurb, but for some reason I cut it.
Yeah. The lines seemed kind of wild. It felt a little provocative to put in a blurb.
That's interesting. I want to see the director's cut of the blurb.
Yeah, the long version. I distilled it down to what appears on the book.
I sought out your blurb because we're both people in recovery who are interested in writing about addiction, and your work is a place that I've gone to for years and years to find experience, strength, and hope in writing about that. We had no sort of interactions before.
No, we didn't. I think we were initially connected through our mutual friend Alix Lambert. And somehow, as things go, it just slipped off from my shelf.
Yeah. It was cool to then loop into each other's orbits.
I think it's much better this way. We've gotten to know each other. Otherwise, with this phone call—I wouldn't even know what you look like. I wouldn't know your poems. It would've been a very different thing.
Yeah. And aside from just the content of talking about addiction, I think there's a kind of load-bearing humility in your work that I'm very interested in.
Yeah. I don't know how I would talk about that. It's one of those things where once you start talking about how humble you are, you definitely run into trouble. "I might be the most humble person in the world."
Haha. Sure, sure. A useful way to talk about it might be to say that I think there is a way to write about what you've written about where the locus of control is external—where you are the victim. But the way that your poems work is often a way that claims responsibility, and accepts responsibility. And they work in a way that is not ashamed of fallibility. That's something that I've studied intensely. And my poems owe your poems a great debt in that specific way.
Yeah, I love the way poems work. Reading your work opens up other worlds to me. Early on, with my first book, I met with Fred Marchant, who's this wonderful poet based in Boston.
Yeah, he's got a new book out with Graywolf, right?
Yeah. I didn't know his work before we met, but we had this great conversation—you know, before Graywolf took my book, they didn't take my book. They asked if I'd be willing to talk to this editor. So I talked to Fred for a few hours. And it was so moving to sit down with someone who really gets what you're doing and what you're succeeding at, but who also sees where you're failing and where you're falling short. Who sees the little things that you think you can get away with in poems, you know, the things where you're like, "No one is going to notice this one spot that isn't quite working."
There are going to be moments where you're not pushing into something deep enough. Where you're holding back. And maybe you don't know how to go deeper yet. You can only write a poem—you can only do anything from where you're at, you know? Which is also a part of the whole recovery idea—whatever speed you're going at is the right speed.
Stanley Kunitz said writing the first book is like creating a myth of yourself. You're introducing yourself to the world, like, "This is who I am." And that sounds sort of grand especially in our day and age, but these are the concerns that I'm going to try to sort out for the rest of my life. You know, you're not going to get it perfect in your first book. It's impossible. You're going to return to these things and keep circling around them.
So Fred Marchant said this thing to me—and there are only a handful of moments in my life where someone said something that really opened another door for me. He was talking about poems about my mother's suicide in my first book, and he said, "You're approaching it in a way that is really successful in this poem. It has an emotional energy. But these other poems are approaching it the same way. You're going back into it and repeating yourself in some way. Not in a bad way, they are decent poems, but you should think of the whole subject of your life as a mountain that you're climbing. And what is it? Is the mountain the self, is it the story of the self, the myth of the self? At any rate, this is your material. And in these poems, you're taking the same route up. And it's a good route, but you have to find different purchase on the material." He used the word, "purchase." And somehow that word was enough to trigger in me an understanding. And I said, "I did! I did have other purchase on the material." I had other poems I didn't think fit in. I was uncertain about them, or they made me uncomfortable in a way. I've become much more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
In the first book, in Some Ether, I was able to have a poem coming from the mother's point of view, and a poem coming from the bullet's point of view. I was able to take those different routes up the mountain. So many ways up it feel uncomfortable, and I've come to trust that as a sort of dowsing rod for where the water is. When I feel that energy—it's not good energy. Usually it feels very bad. It feels like, "Oh my God, this is the wrong place to be." It's like in a dream where something bad is happening behind the door. And you have the choice to either turn away or open the door. And it seems for poets, or for any artist, or maybe for any human being, it just seems like you probably should open the door. But you should open it when you're able to. You might not be psychically able to open the door. You might need a few years of whatever it is you do to make yourself healthy before you're able to open that door. You might have to leave the door closed for a while, which I think is a perfectly valid choice.
Yeah. Yeah. And that speaks so perfectly to the epigraph of My Feelings, "You cannot hold a Flood— / And put it in a Drawer." There is all this activity surging behind the door, and that is your subject, and that is where your poems will draw their power. And you can't keep pushing the door closed to keep them there.
Epigraphs are always so hard because you're usually choosing someone much more brilliant than yourself. You set the bar really high, like, "Let's start with Dickinson." That's an impossible peak to reach.
Yeah. That feeling where you're worried that the epigraph is going to be the best part of your book.
Or all that's remembered. Or in an interview, it's all that's quoted back to you.
I'm kidding, I'm kidding. I'm letting my churlish side come out.
Well, we can talk about that as it pertains to a specific poem in the book. Like the titular poem, "My Feelings." It's such a staggering poem, and a lot of that stagger is the flood of words that comes at the end. The crossed-out adjectives. And that seems like a way of marking on the page the experience of what it's like to harness that energy behind the door.
Yeah, and also what it's like to keep opening the wrong doors. It goes back to the added line, too. Many doors appear to be the right door. And maybe they are the right doors at that moment. My years of using and living a sort of shadow existence—apparently that's what I had to do. It's one of those things where, in retrospect, I'm like, "Yeah, that's the shape of my life." And there can be moments of regret, but what if I'd taken another door? What if I opened the door of pure light, and love, and acceptance, and of feeling completely held by the universe? That would've been a different life, of course. But that wasn't the life. And there would've been different poems, too. It would've been a different book. If one finds their true authentic self behind the first door, then that'd be a short book.
And it'd probably be a nicer life. It might be a nicer life, but you wouldn't have the benefit of all that fucking up. The benefit of seeing how difficult life is. And that's the thing—we're going to have designer babies, right? With changed DNA so they don't have any problems. They won't be fat, they won't be addicts, they won't be sad. They won't be anything. They'll probably be like monsters. Perfect monsters, maybe. I don't know. Maybe I'm romanticizing—you know, I can romanticize the grittier parts of town, because they have an edge compared to the shined up mall.
Yeah, you're going to have these weird Stepford babies.
And what kind of poems would they write? Good lord.
A friend of mine talks about how there's something to be said for not reaching out very far to grab what you want for your poem, and then successfully grabbing it. There are these poems that don't stretch out all that far, but the poet can write them with pretty staggering consistency by barely extending an elbow.
And what do we think of that?
I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about writing the same poem over and over. But I'm obviously very interested in what you were talking about with the experience of the addict opening up all the doors, and how that experience becomes a sort of necessary backdrop to the work. I think that for me, and I think for you, too—zooming in on snorting coke off the bathroom tile is not the part of the addict experience that is of interest. Because it's so familiar. It's in every movie you watch and every novel you read.
Yeah, it's supposed to mean something. We're supposed to know what that means when a person rolls up the bill and snorts it. And we sort of do, but it just seems like it's in the foyer of the experience. You haven't really gone deeply into it.
Yeah, that’s a great way to say it. It's the shorthand for something—the rolled up bill. And I feel like poetry isn't the place where you're interested in that kind of shorthand. And it seems to me that you're more interested in the psychological and cosmological ramifications of addictions, rather than the literal experiential narratives of what it was like.
Yeah. All my friends are addicts.
And we all have the same story, basically. There was a time in my life when I realized in horror that every story I told began with, "When we were so fucked up..."
Every story. And I would hear myself saying it and I thought, "There's something strange about that." I could just sort of tattoo that on me. "I was so fucked up, and then this really fucked up thing happened." And it was kind of fun. It kind of showed how wild and transgressive life could be. Yet it was always the same story.
Yeah. One of the beautiful, terrible things about recovery is that it disabuses you of any notion of how singularly incredible your particular addiction narrative is.
Yeah, there is a beauty to that. There's the isolation of the addict, and then there's the unity. And what unifies us is that experience of eventually reaching the last room—suddenly you're in the room with no doors. And you're like, "Oh, this isn't what I expected. I thought there'd always be another door."
And what do you do when there are no more doors to open? You're just left with yourself. That's a horrifying prospect.
Yeah, and I think anyone who has gotten to the point where recovery seems a viable solution has probably gotten to that room. Otherwise why would one get there? Why would one choose not to get fucked up?
You've written articulately in the past about how when you quit drinking and moved into recovery, you lost a kind of fear that was native to your consciousness up to that point. And that was very much my experience of the thing as well. There's this sudden absence of this native fear. And it's really uncomfortable. It's startling and dissociating. And I'm interested in that idea. In what you do when you're left alone in that room.
Well, I think any sort of psychological, spiritual movement is glacially slow. It wasn't a sudden thing, where I was no longer afraid. I suddenly realized how afraid I had been, but I wasn't suddenly not afraid.
Yeah, but there's this perpetual dread that accompanies addiction. Like, that all the plates that you have up in the air might come crashing down with a single phone call. And it is a gradual thing, but relative to the entirety of your lived life before it, it is sort of what I meant by saying it seems like it happens fast. And you're like, "Trying to keep those plates in the air was what I did to move through the hours." You know what I mean?
Yeah, that's certainly one thing, but there's so much to say about this. We use drugs or alcohol to move through the hours because the actual reality of life seems overwhelming.
And the drugs and alcohol simplify it—all you have to worry about is whether or not the police will come. And then you move out of that, and something else takes its place. Sometimes for poets, the terrifying thing is that then poems take its place.
Suddenly that's the thing we can control. We'll use language to control this and to actually contain our feeling. That way we don't have to feel. In a certain way, it's a projection of feeling out of us and onto a wall. It's a little movie of feeling. We can watch it, but not actually feel it.
I was going to do a bonfire of all of my poems a few years ago because I suddenly realized that. I still wasn't acknowledging that I wasn't in control. I was still holding onto that illusion of control.
And in order to break from that illusion of control, I’ve been pulled toward what I think of as “rangy” poets—Olena Kalytiak Davis, Rachel Zucker, you. Yesterday, here at UH, we read Jamaal May's latest book, The Big Book of Exit Strategies . What a wild poet. He's all over the fucking place. And there's something beautiful about that. And I don't know about Jamaal, because I can't speak for anyone else, but the wildness within myself can be performative. I can get as close as I can to some sort of authenticity, but I'm still containing it in this language. And I'm not sure what to do about that. It feels like a puzzle and I've sort of woken up to the danger of it. So what I've done is I've sort of walked away from poetry. I've just sort of decided that I'm not going to work on a project. I'm not going to do a book. I'm just going to let things happen. If the poem comes, it comes. If it doesn't, it doesn't. For the past thirty years I've been like, "Book!" There was always some sort of project. Somehow any experience—whenever fire was contained in an experience that I couldn't hold in my hand, I could just be like, "Well, I know of a place to put it." Now I'm just allowing myself this discomfort of not having a place to put it. And it's a very different thing. But I'm not sure. This probably isn't the end of it either. That's one of the things I love about poetry, you know? Ever since I was young, it just seemed like a thing I would never get to the end of. I'd never really figure it out. There'd always be some other place to go. You start your book with Fanny Howe, right?
She's a poet who just keeps going. She just keeps pushing into these other realms in these ways that are so astounding. And she's getting into this spiritual realm, I mean, she always has been, but she's getting into this meditative, spiritual, almost bardic realm.
Yeah, she'll just go off and live with the monks for two months and emerge with a new sheaf of poems. There's so much that you just said that I'm really excited about because you were beautifully articulating stuff that I've been amorphously working out in my head. I think all the time about how my old addictions have just sort of sublimated into this new obsession with writing. The fervor, and compulsiveness, and obsessiveness isn't really any less intense, it's just that now I'm not killing myself.
And you're seemingly not hurting other people. It's improvement. It's progress.
It's progress, not perfection.
I'm trying to think about how to do a poem that isn't about containing affect, but somehow allows the affect space. That allows the affect to not be pinned down and hung on the wall like a moth.
That's the eternal struggle, right? That's the duende. Brian Eno has this quote, "The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it." That's what I'm looking for in poetry, too. Those frayed edges. How do you get that cracking on the record into a poem? How do you get that duende into a poem? And I think your poetry is very interested in that. Like in "Cathedral of Salt," you ask, "What's / the name for this? Ineffable?" You're leaving some of the process of cognition in on the page. And I feel like that's a way of getting to that fraying.
Yeah. I just had a crisis. I went through a big door or something, you know? Which I think was maybe, as they say, my Saturn return, or something. I quit drinking for the first time on my first Saturn return, where suddenly everything in the universe lines up for you to see that you're going in the wrong direction. You've taken a wrong turn and now it's time to right it. And I kind of went through that again a couple years ago. It felt like this force, this incredible, almost natural force, was waking me up, saying I'm going in the wrong direction. And some of it was contained in my writing. It felt like, "Okay, everything needs to be reexamined, even the writing." And I was looking back at things that'd been right in front of me, that I just wasn't able to actually see. Like ways of being. I guess they call it denial. They call it justification. Ways of moving through the world that work. I'm a slippery motherfucker. I can figure out workarounds. I can figure out ways of getting through the world that makes it work for me. And suddenly I was like, "Wait a minute, this isn't how I want to be." And somehow I'm doing that dance in the poems. I've always questioned that in poems.
In Some Ether, I write about the horror of writing a poem about my mother's suicide, and then I write a poem like "Cartoon Physics Part 2," where I say that I'm just using this story in order to seduce you. I'm showing you my scar and I'm doing it for a purpose. And I know it. I can say that part of it is genuine and it's true. The pain is real. And I get something from it. And then feeling the horror of that, the horror of using a tragedy and not really knowing what to do, to be honest. There's always the questioning of that. It might be in his first book, but Denis Johnson has this poem where he talks about seeing a barn on fire—someone set a barn on fire to clear the field or something—it was some sort of tragedy, I'm not sure, I read it in my early twenties when I first started reading contemporary poetry. I just remember how he ends the poem, "And God help me, I pulled over to the side of the road and wrote this poem." Like that's the worst thing you can do, like "I'm going to transform tragedy, suffering, experience, life itself into a poem, and God help me." That always stuck with me. Even if I can't remember it exactly. I return to it every now and then. I'm looking right now at my bookshelf for a Denis Johnson book, but I can't land on it. I don't alphabetize, unfortunately. I group them by affinities, which are all random.
Haha. That's awesome. It's like in High Fidelity where he re-sorts his records autobiographically.
Yeah. Exactly. I don't really know what else to do, but it's been really refreshing to not be in a book for a couple of years. But it's also been terrifying because I sort of realized what being in a book has accomplished, which is what drugs or alcohol accomplished; it allows you not to feel certain things. Everything will have a place. Everything will be put in a place. With a book, there's the illusion of it being controlled or manageable, or comprehensible. Or at least able to be understood. A poem, by its nature, you understood something, right? You understood it. You wrestle with this experience and you've walked away from it. You've survived it, you understood it. But I don't think that's even true in some ways. It means you've only understood some sort of corner of it that you could understand. And then there's whole other parts of reality that might be forever incomprehensible. It's a very strange thing. It's not pleasant. To put down the poetry—and saying this is the strangest thing because I have actually finished a book of poems in the time where I haven't been writing. But it's been done almost from the side. I can barely look at it. I almost close my eyes and put my hands on the page. I can't spend too much time there. It's probably going to be messier than the last book in some way.
Is it a thing where the poems are coming to you faster? Not faster in that you're writing the whole thing in a month, but faster in that when you sit down to write the poem comes out fully formed?
One of the things that happened was I had these drafts and I worked in collaborations for quite a long time as part of my process. I think it's a way to step out of my general tendency toward isolation. I've been doing these collaborations and one of my collaborations this past year was with this band. I would have this sheaf of rough poems and I'd be expected to fill in certain parts of their performance with language. Whatever worked with the music of these people sort of became the poems. The music is really a part of it. It couldn't have been written without the music. It was a really interesting and pleasant experience.
And you have those sorts of poems. "AK-47" is a poem like that. And "Epithalamion" is like that. Well, maybe not collaborative, but—
Yeah. Yeah. It was for people I really love. And actually it was collaborative because I sat with them for a long time and we had conversations. I asked them how they met and things like that.
You kind of blew my lid off with what you said about sitting in this uncomfortable space of not having a project. Because I feel like a huge crutch for me in my recovery has been immediately being able to displace that obsessiveness in one addiction into the other thing. Into poetry. It's something that I'm aware of, but maybe I haven't deliberately thought too much about it because it's worked for me this far.
Yeah. It's better than it was. It's progress. It's funny, for me it reached a dead end in a certain way, which is interesting because it was like, "Wow, even that's a dead end." And well, then what is the way? It's a real spiritual crisis.
What did the dead end look like for you? When you say dead end, what do you mean?
Well, I mean, a lot of things. My recovery is deeply imperfect, as it tends to be. Suddenly trying to shift my modes of just being without poetry sort of precipitates suddenly looking back at past behaviors. Really what contained it was sort of seeing an episode that I've contained in almost every book I've written, which was, you know, our house caught fire when I was a kid. I was like six years old, our house caught fire, and we had to run out of it. In Some Ether, there's a house burning. And then by the time I get to Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, I'd talked to my mother's boyfriend at the time and he said that she set the house on fire to collect the insurance money. And I've written about that in other books. But suddenly that was like the example of containing affectlessness. These were pieces of language that had no affect; they were just sort of stories. And I thought it was kind of a funny thing, or a cool thing. Like, "My mother was clever. She got the insurance money. We were broke. We got a better house." But then part of it is time, and age, and having a child. And suddenly I was alone with this six-year-old child, my wife was working a lot, and I looked at my kid and thought, "Wait a minute, how could you set a house on fire with a kid inside? That's insane." And suddenly the story became pure affect. And this had been the one example of containing something affectless. But I was also sort of holding it in time and space until I was ready to look at it, I think. In some ways I just probably wasn't ready to deal with the implications of that. So that's the central thing I'm trying to sort through at the moment.
Interview Posted: June 19, 2017
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