“So much of joy is made worse by trying to make joy stay.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I’ve never read a book like Four Reincarnations before. It’s so much weirder than a person might expect. Obviously I’m not using weird as a pejorative. It’s totally its own thing.
I know what you mean, I love weird.
I’ve never really understood the point of poetry, if not to expose you to different forms of mentation. You can write about whatever you want to write about, it’s your prerogative as a poet, but at the end of the day, what a poet does is let you inhabit a different way of thinking for a brief moment of time. For a very very brief bit of time, logic tacks together in ways it never has, and you’re able to have a series of free associations that’ve never been in your brain, or hopefully in any brain, before. I think that this endures so much more than the message of any poem. I’m a big Wittgenstein person and I think language is a game. The way we evolve and develop our sense of definition and truth comes down to playing—playing with language. That’s the only thing it has going for it (laughing).
Haha, the only thing! That sense of play, of language as a site for fun, is so essential and loadbearing to these poems. Discovery through play, like you’re a child trying to figure out which hole the star-shaped peg goes into. The process of discovery in these poems is so tactile. “Do you pity my imagination? It will kill you. / My mother will kill you. / She is my imagination.” It works back on itself. It’s like you’ve created your own physics.
Yeah, I love that. I worry that as contemporary poets we have this pressure to always be moving forward. To always be elliptical and surge ahead, for every line to floor us with the unexpected word or image or turn. But sometimes, in doing so, we lose track of very very good ideas from the beginning of the stanza. Or the poem itself. Lethal imagination—good. Lethal imagination that is my mommy—way better. I think my next turn in the poem is that I’m a leather horse mommy is riding. You talk about language as a site for play—well, dalliance is play for me!
I also love the ancient Vedas, pre-Buddhist and pre-Hindu texts from India, a lot. The way they move poetically is through these limitless portals of comparisons. “This is this, which is really this, which is really actually this is that,” you know? “The altar is the naked woman, and the palm brush that cleans the altar is a sexy combing brush, and all of those things are also a tiki for the universe, and the woman’s head is an abyss.”
You’re right, it’s all star-shaped pegs. I love all the different pegs. And my favorite is when you can rotate the peg in two different ways and it goes in both ways. That’s nuts.
I love that line you picked. Mother as imagination. I love therapy, I’ve been in therapy most of my life, and one of the very fun things about therapy is overhearing yourself on mommy, and daddy, and God. Those are the only things to overhear, really—mommy, daddy, God. I mean, romantic love is just God and mommy, or God and daddy. And power is just daddy and God. It’s all this plus/minus game. I started therapy when I was nine for night terrors. Is this interesting to you?
Yes, totally! I love this.
I just figured I’d ramble a bit. When I was nine I kept having these two things going on, recurring nightmares and more ambient existential dread.
I actually saw a special on how special-effects torsos are made, which should have been the least scary thing because it’s demystifying—it’s all polycarbonates and plastics, but for some reason the image of that assembly line with all those bloody torsos on it really stuck in my imagination and I couldn’t sleep.
And while this bedtime panic was going on I was having a lot of existential dread: I was coming into contact with a more complicated understanding of religion, or joy and suffering. My parents were becoming more complicated to me, becoming real humans. Mommy daddy god stuff, you know? My shrink’s name was Herbert Eveloff, a wonderful man. I was sitting in his office, this little slobbering Jewish tween, saying “Dr. Eveloff, Dr. Eveloff, what does it all mean?” I would say the most ludicrious, melodramatic, hilarious stuff like “there are more moments in my day that are sad than are happy. (Keep in mind I had the most Pokemon cards in my entire class) What is the endgoal of an afterlife? I just don’t understand what my purpose is if the math doesn’t add up!” And he gave me this very sweet boiler-plate existentialism, and I remember him saying, “You just carve out your own meaning, Max. Every moment you check in yourself, and you pick the myth that you want to be.” You decide that you’re going to be a writer, or you decide that you’re going to be an astrobiologist (those were my two big choices at the time) and you make a little alcove of meaning.
I’m instinctually a big-game hunter. I think most poets are. And it was nice, no—it was important to be told a little meaning was enough. The meaning to get you through thirty seconds is enough. I’m into Buddhism now, and I think if Eveloff hadn’t had his shaggy beard, and passionate smile, and pipe-smoke smell, if he hadn’t told me to just focus on getting myself through the next day or two, I’m not sure I’d be the Buddhist I am today.
That’s beautiful. When did you find Buddhism?
My mom and step dad raised me with a hefty dose of Buddhism and meditation around the house for as long as I can remember. We always had Tibetan singing bowls to play the universe with. In terms of Four Reincarnations, Buddhism happened in my college years. During my second existential anxiety in my senior year, I started meditating regularly. I wrote that first little poem from the book’s last section, “Second Dream.” In “Second Dream," a dying Max learns his future is to marry flowers. My friend Shon, from my comedy troupe, who practices Zen, is the one who tells me. In real life Shon goes to temple every day and reads his Zen. But Shon is very funny about everything, including Buddhism. I remember a conversation I had with Shon in which he said, “Have you ever noticed how ludicrous you look during a panic attack? Like Barbara Walters during a shell-fish allergy attack? And you do realize, Max, that during a panic attacks you’ll say things to me like, ‘I’m never going to have a coherent sentence again.’ And you’re speaking a coherent sentence! You realize how funny that is.” Zen is playful, a bit slap-you-up-around-the-ears. This isn’t just Shon, Zen as a whole has a deep comic record. A creed of playfulness, that’s what I needed.
And to be real with you: I was very very sad, Kaveh. I’d gotten a terminal cancer diagnosis, and a two-year relationship fell apart in a chemo room. I was very ruminative. A lot of time was spent processing the same three or four thoughts over and over again. So to heal me—get out of the mind, go into the breath. To know there’s a little current of meaning going through my body at the same time that my mind is being so savage, that was really kind of a miracle. That’s amazing.
I think that tension is there in the poems. The tension between an idealized sublime, this Zen ideal, and a mind that is deeply self-critical, often in ways that are very funny and charming.
You could call it neurosis.
Yeah, yeah. Neurotic, and self-critical, and often ill-at-ease. There are many places in the text that you look toward the natural and end up back in the sort of violence in your head. “I come from a place where the water’s emptiness / is so savage that / when you drink it / the fish of the throat die, / causing malignant thirst.”
That’s really interesting. I actually never noticed how Zen the line “I come from a place where the water’s emptiness” is. You’re right, there is a kind of holding, repose, there. It's hard for me to notice my own calm, sometimes! I think the failure of the sublime is part of the sublime. For whatever reason, I have this emotional rhythm when I write. I write something beautiful, and then something to knock it all down. But then the knocked down thing is kind of pretty, too.
There’s a body, and that’s followed by a neurotic and complicating mind. The poem “The Curve” is actually getting a lot of what you talk about as well. It’s unclear why we humans are here—if we’re here to be bodies, or to be language. Language somehow seems too deep in me. It’s almost more me than I am.
How do you mean that?
Well, that poem I just mentioned is sort of a creation myth. God tries to make human beings, but God’s a little too neurotic for them, too fluxing and complicated. So God made language instead. It made “X.” It turned us into a first draft. Do you know Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem?
A lot of it takes place in the voices of the Andoumboulou—this first, goblin-like, draft of humanity made out of clay, and then kind of shoved into caves because they were ugly and embarrassing. I have never been able to get over that idea, the first draft of humanity.
And Andoumboulou as well, they’re the defenders of the crippled, the defenders of the handicapped. There’s a lot of West African mythology about the defective being first-drafts. But to get back to me, I was very touched by these myths when I read them in college.
Maybe people are a series of palimpsests. God tried to make bodies, but bodies didn’t work, so he scribbled language on top of them. It’s not that he threw out the body. He took away its role as the seed and plant and made the body soil instead. And he has new plants now—language. He took what should have been the human and turned it into a nutrifying force for something else.
You can see how I’d connect that with cancer. My body seems, on the face of it, to be the first thing, the main thing about me! But somewhere along the line I’ve learnt my body is basically a giant nutrient and blood supply. For some horrible, and white, and smelly cosmos. It’s full of malignant fat.
Yeah! Yeah. My body is a soul sick with desire, and my cancer is a body being dragged along behind it! But I think, going back to just souls and bodies, and leaving the star-shaped pegs aside for a minute, the soul is forced to bear the yoke of the body, which puts a burden on it, like a labor animal. You know what I mean?
Do you mean the stress of the body diminishes the soul?
The Yeats you brought up makes me picture this big soul eagle, and it’s attached by this long cord to a body that’s sort of dragging along behind it. And the body has this beautiful heroic Promethus suffering thing going on for it, and the soul is perfect and would just be doing so awesome without this tether. But for me, it’s more like my body is a very very tired donkey, and my soul is Sancho Panza.
It’s not even Don Quixote. It’s Sancho Panza sitting up there. And all he wants to do is take a nap. And everybody just wants to take a nap and be done. But maybe the divine is Don Quixote pulling us all along.
Wow. I think that’s the most Ritvonian possible take on that. I think that’s exactly perfect.
Are we going with "Ritvonian"?
Well, this is your chance. You can establish a precedent right here.
I want you to pick one. What about “Ritvonic”? “Ritverian”?
Oh, I like "Ritvinides." That makes me sound like a Woody Allen short story character. Like “Diabetes.” I think I like “Ritvonian,” your first one. First thought, best thought.
Yeah, that seems right to me, too. I wanted to pick up on something, and we can cut this if you want, but last night when we were talking, you texted, “I haven’t had any sense of exterior communion in a month or two.” I think that’s really interesting though, in light of the book. Would you want to elaborate on that at all here?
In all honesty, I think there are many different ways people engage with the exterior world of art. It’s like introverts and extroverts. I think people can be very extroverted and thrill and feed off the presence of text. I think you’re like that—I see you when you touch something and it turns into flame in your hands.
And then there are people who don’t get any nurturing from the external world. I don’t know that any artist is like that entirely, but certainly somewhat. I’ve always felt a little guilty that I err more on the side of the internal. It was actually very liberating to hear Louise Gluck tell me, as a freshman, “Your work comes from conversation and being a smart guy.” I watch TV, and read mystery novels, and read People Magazine. I also read Isak Dinesen every once in awhile. I’ve had very passionate and deep engagement with some exterior sources that I’ve really loved, that lit me on fire. But I’m very monogamous with them. Splay Anthem was one, the book has never left me. Don Quixote has never left me. I don’t think I nourish as easily as others.
In the past month or two, Kaveh, I’ve barely had the ability to make eye contact with my loved ones. So the idea of wasting my energy trying to make eye contact with a dead person when I could be spending that time talking to my wife, or my mom, or even you right now, that feels wrong. This conversation we’re having feels like an investment to me. It’s deeper. And I do believe we exert the same kind of energy into books as we do into people. And it’s pretty hard for me to be talking to Kafka right now. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think any human being should go through life not having talked to Kafka. It’s life-making. But when you’re sick, when your body hurts, that’s not what you necessarily want. Even now, over the phone, I hear your voice, and I hear in it tenderness towards me, and that lets me flower. It lets me flower and that’s what I want.
That’s beautiful. It’s absolutely true that people have finite social reservoirs, and I think people who are deeply empathetic often expend what’s in those reservoirs when they’re reading texts, when they’re engaging narrative of any sort.
I think that’s astute. Keep going.
Well, knowing you and knowing your poems, it’s very obvious that you’re a deeply empathetic person. It makes complete sense in my mind that if you’re dealing with a finite and diminishing set of these resources, you wouldn’t want to waste them on Kafka, or Cervantes, or whoever when you could be spending them with a tactile person who loves you in the present.
I like your addition of the word “empathy” into this conversation. I think that’s good. Thank you for putting it there.
It’s obvious in the poems. I mean, I haven’t counted, but I’d offhandedly guess that at least half of the poems in the book are written to a specific person or addressee.
I think that’s on the conservative side, yeah.
Right, maybe two-thirds. And this is a book written by a very sick person to his loved ones, so it’s hard not to think of the poems as being little wills, as you leaving little wills. You’re addressing each person, sometimes several times.
That’s a very sensitive way of characterizing it. Seeing it as a series of wills is a very beautiful way to see it. Each one is a reciting of the will and a bestowal of whatever’s in the will. Each poem is both, “I want you to have this jewel,” and me handing them the jewel.
Ahhh, yeah. That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. I’m a little choked up.
What color jewel do you want? Maybe red?
I swear to god, I shit you not, I was going to say red.
I had a feeling, somehow. It’ll either be that or a Pokemon card. I’ll try to send you a fire energy or a Charmander.
Haha, that’s perfect. I love it. You know, I could pick any of these “To…” poems, but maybe we could talk a little about “Poem to My Dog, Monday, On Night I Accidentally Ate Meat.” First of all, you’re one of my favorite poem-titlers ever. You’re up there with Richard Brautigan. Every title is totally perfect.
I want to hear you talk about that poem. “I will live in your small ecstatic brain / and take your life, / and you can take mine / and we won’t give our lives to cancer, / but to each other.” And it’s just the most beautiful address to a pet. I could read it a hundred times and be devastated a new way each time I read it. I guess I’m just clapping like a seal now instead of asking an intelligent question. Do you want to talk about that poem a little bit?
Sure, I can talk about that poem, and maybe also segue into talking about titles in general. Funny composition story with that poem—I’m a vegetarian, and I had a night where I was smoking some pot, and I was eating a dish I thought was vegetarian, but it actually had lamb’s blood in it.
I got really violently sick. I’ve been a vegetarian for a few years. Initially it was about global warming, but as time passed, it became more and more about eating flesh and taking life away from living things.
So I got violently ill from eating this food, and I started thinking about my dog’s flesh in my mouth, because I was upset and that’s what happens. That poem was composed in a very strange way. I’m normally driven very much on the page, but I actually wrote the first three-quarters of that poem by reciting it to myself like Stevens did. And I had a very strange voice on, probably because I was high, so I sounded like, “The liiiights went ooooout on Mooonday, laaaaaying on a green ruuuuug.”
I don’t know why, but that was the voice in my head drawing the poem. There were a series of tones that I needed to hear out loud to soothe me. I needed to somehow get from my abject terror to that saving sweetness at the end where I give my life to Monday, and he gives me his. I think I needed that emotionally, poem aside.
And then, to sort of address what you said about titles, which was lovely. Thank you.
There’s part of me that isn’t really in my poetry as much, but it’s a part of my creative life—I love world-building. I love fantasy novels and sci-fi. I spend three or four hours watching Game of Thrones every week with my wife and her brother, who is a brilliant mathematician. And I love coming up with scenarios, plot-summaries, and projections. I’ve written all these tracts about the religions in Game of Thrones, how they could work cosmologically. There’s a producer element in me. I was born and raised in LA, so there’s this showbiz kid in me.
And for whatever reason, I almost always title poems after the poem. Less than ten percent of my poems are titled before they are written. Somehow this makes me feel like I’m a producer. Like, “BAM! Got it!”
And it lets me do work between the poems. It allows me to modulate and play. I feel like my poems are more intrinsically limited tonally because of the weird stuff I say and the weird ways I say it. But I get to be a little more Berryman when I do titles. I don’t take titles as seriously, they’re just fun for me. I think that’s helpful, you know. I do comedy, I’m a ventriloquist.
Oh, I didn’t know you were a ventriloquist.
I do a ventriloquism act with my medical implant. He’s called Mediport Michael. I have a giant plastic node stitched under my skin above my left breast, and I put googly eyes on him and draw a mouth on him, and I flex his mouth by flexing my boob. And there’s a routine I do with him to teach children about cancer. He’s an educational speaker for children. I talk about the early history of chemo. Do you know what the first chemotherapy drug was, Kaveh?
No, I don’t think so.
It was mustard gas.
Yeah, in World War I they started doing autopsies of soldiers, and they noticed that some soldiers with tumors had experienced tumor death after being exposed to mustard gas. So they decided to put people on tables and gas them. And it shrunk some of their tumors. Believe it or not, Ifosfamide, listed by the WHO as one of the top twenty life-saving medications in the world, is mustard gas derived. There’s a direct lineage.
So since mustard gas, the medical community has really been playing ketchup!
I’m full of dark medicines and silly puns. So that kind of play, that character-building, I think that gets to come out in my titles.
That’s great. I love that. And I think Berryman is an interesting person to bring into the conversation because of the way he invents his own language, and I think you do a lot of that, both in your titles and in your poems.
He’s one of my great heroes.
Mine, too. I hadn’t made that connection in thinking about your work, but now that you’ve said his name, it seems totally obvious to me.
It’s so funny because I see him in your work, too. But it’s in such a different register, like you picked up on the stuff in the front of his mouth, and I picked up on the stuff in the back of his mouth.
Totally, I love that!
We’re clearly both in his mouth together.
Yes! To pivot back a little bit, there’s an obsession in your book with dream logic. There’s repeated cocoon imagery. In “When I Criticize You, I’m Just Trying to Criticize the Universe,” you have that section that’s almost like a Li Po poem. “I went to the bathroom to sleep. / I dreamt two dreams—one inside the other— / the outer dream, a shell, / the deeper dream, a yolk.” It’s exactly what the poems feel like they’re doing.
That means so much to me.
It’s weaving between the layers.
I am a sense-organ guy who loves magic. And dreams are magic. Whatever one can say of heaven or hell, there’s a supernatural realm and it’s right in front of us. The language of the dream.
I love philosophy, too. I love Hume, I love Wittgenstein—I also like Plato, but he’s a separate conversation. My point is that I like truth a lot, and I think philosophy has developed these really immaculate systems for mapping ideas and getting the truth of the world out much better than I ever could. So what truth does that leave me as a poet? Well, the truth of dreams. That’s the one kind of language that’s impenetrable to sentence diagramming. So that’s the unconquered territory for me, since, I have to admit, at my core is a pretty truth-seeking guy.
If you are admitting that you are ultimately truth-seeking, and we’re also seeing these poems as playgrounds, and we’re also seeing them as wills, as gifts to give to your beloveds, it’s so poignant to me that all of those can fit in the space of a well-crafted poem. In a well-crafted book of poems.
Hm. Humf. Yeah. We were talking about how the act of speech is also a transaction, and that’s really what poetry is. The will on paper and the giving of the gem. Poetry can never just be purely the language. There’s motion and function in it. In this light, I guess it is maybe silly to call myself a truth-seeker. Can I revise myself? Let me say it this way—I have desires. And I never want those desires to encroach upon my world-view, which loves truth-seeking. But, at the end of the day, I want stuff, Kaveh. You know, like when you’re fourteen and you think, “This is gonna make that girl fall in love with me!”
You don’t even care what’s in the poem. It literally could have been someone telling you, “Draw this circle, draw a square, whisper these three magic words, then hand it to her and she’ll fall in love with you.”
Totally. It feels like a sort of ceremonial magic.
Completely. And I’ve never ever lost my basic fourteen-year-old desire to make people fall in love with me, and to give them something that has never existed before, to make them so angry that they cry and hate themselves. I have desires for people like that. I can talk all I want about ideas, but, at the end of the day, I want that to happen.
I don’t understand people who outgrow their childhood desires. When I read your poems, I get this very elemental sense. You brought up childhood very early talking about me, and I feel in you a giddiness, like the top of your head is being blown off, and all this language is coming out of it. Like Busta Rhymes. Or like in the Vedas, priests would get into these rhyming theological battles and if they got outfoxed, their heads exploded off their bodies. And you, Kaveh, have that kind of unfettered joy that has probably been intact in your writing for as long as you’ve ever existed. And I do feel many writers lose track of that. But I don’t think you have, and I don’t think I have.
That’s maybe the best thing anyone’s ever told me about my writing. When I’ve written something that pleases me, I think it has the characteristics that you’re describing. And that’s what I look for in the work I take in, that’s what really thrills me. I think that’s what thrills me so much about your book—there’s this sheer wanting. Early in the book you write, “I’m told to set myself goals. But my mind / doesn’t work that way. I, instead have wishes // for myself.” And then you offer around a fifty-page catalog of those, you know? And set against the foil of a terminal illness. What does it mean to be so full of these wishes, so “sick with desire,” and then for it to have a timeline?
Well, that’s the thing. It’s okay that nothing ever works out. All I really wish is for every poem to feel like a perfect completion, to feel that I will get exactly what I want out of it as I’m writing it. And also, I don’t give a shit once it’s done. I love the enactment of the magic. If I could just get personal for a second?
Everybody dies with loose ends. You can be ninety, you can be twenty-five. These are my particular loose ends. And it’s been very very comforting not to really try to do anything other than do today. I want to do this interview with you today. I’m not trying to think about whether I’m going to be well enough to edit it. Whether I’m ever going to see it in the world. What happens to me is just the next step. It’s been immensely liberating to realize so much of joy is made worse by trying to make joy stay. And so much of suffering is made worse by trying to make suffering go away. When you’re just comfortable allowing whatever sensations are there to be there, allowing the paths whatever their paths, that is healing.
You know, I love that line you picked about having wishes for myself. I was worried nobody would notice that one. It was important to me.
It’s a staggering line. It’s a staggering book. “My poor little future, / you could practically fit in a shoe-box.” You can open to any page and find these lines. I don’t want to keep you too long. Is there anything you would want to say about the book that I haven’t asked, any Easter eggs?
Actually, I do have an important thing to say. Being funny is always good. And always important. And it’s not a deflection. Everything in the world is very funny, and I don’t like people calling humor “coping.” Humor is a kind of wisdom. Okay, I think I’m done. I’m just getting crabbier and more gnomic as I go along.
No, that’s great. I think humor is so essential to this book, and not in ways that feel evasive.
Well, I hope the saddest moment is the funniest, and the funniest is the saddest. Nothing could speak more highly to my attempts as an artist.
That’s perfect. Thank you so much, Max.
It’s been a privilege, Kaveh.
Interview Posted: July 18, 2016
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