The Conversant has invited some of our favorite journal and book publishers to curate interview series focusing on their authors. Octopus Books here has Amy Lawless and James Gendron to talk to each other about their new releases.
James Gendron: If I could choose one word to describe this book, it would be “deathy.” The sequence that opens the book is called “Elephants in Mourning.” The sequence that closes the book is called “The Skull Behind My Face,” and for those just joining us, the book is called My Dead. Did you set out to write a book-length meditation on death? Did it happen by coincidence? Or has death been a fixture in your poetry from the very beginning?
Amy Lawless: I did not set out to write a death-y book. Jonathan Lethem writes in his essay “The Beards,” “Someone once said that every good poem’s true subject is death, yet to write more than one poem you’d better find a way to forget you heard that. If life itself is, after all, only a beard for death, why couldn’t the reverse be true as well?” In other words, living is a beard for death and death is a beard for living. I am concerned with death and dying because I want so deeply to live, to keep living, to have more and more and more human experiences, to fall in love, to use my words to express something and I do that with all my heart even when I’m writing about penises and am acting totally full of shit and joking around—which is often. We are all going to die. I don’t want to think about this. If I keep writing about death, then I must still be alive, right? Death is the big unknown, an X that some are solving for. I’d prefer not to solve for X. I’d prefer to avoid the X, crash parties, listen to music, live, live, live.
As a writer who enjoys experimentation and “play,” I write many different kinds of poems. My Dead is a bunch of them that all landed in the same manuscript and often hinge on the similar themes of mortality and death and mourning and loss. I also write poems about Roman Emperors, nature movies, New York sucking my lifeforce, the female body and poems people might laugh at.
JG: How did you first become interested in poems? In what circumstances were your first poems written?
AL: When I was eight years old my mother suggested that I write a poem and submit it to a contest in Cricket Magazine. They were having a poetry contest that asked contestants to write a poem about a beloved (or detested) food. I didn’t want to write a poem about beloved foods. But I really hated eating peas. So I wrote a one-line, six-word poem: “Peas cannot be eaten with ease.” I felt it really captured my disgust with peas but also the semi-toleration associated with my good-girl behavior. I’d eat the peas when given them, but it wasn’t easy. Despite my mother’s urging to “keep writing” this poem, I declared it was “done.” “It’s just that line.” “Title?” “No. That’s the whole thing.” I received an honorable mention. Right now I think back to the judge. . .did he (it’s always some dude in a room alone, eh?) give me honorable mention because it was too short? Was my strong aesthetic choice to rhyme the first word of the poem with its last too innovative for the judge to handle? Maybe a love sonnet to lasagna would have been more up his alley. If I’d continued on to a second line like. . . “Swiss chard consumption is rather hard,” would I have received 2nd place? 1st place? Ha ha ha. The certificate was placed into a pale pink frame and hung in my room throughout childhood and my awkward teen years: physical proof that I was a poet even when I was doing absolutely nothing of the sort. . .It also persuaded my parents to no longer spoon those tiny green mush balls onto my dinner plate. Whole meals would go by and the peas would be on the other side of the table. My sister Molly ate them. My parents ate them. I’d won something. I had used a poem to impact a direct experience. To this day if peas are served during a visit home, there is still a quiet, respectful understanding of my preferences. I like the idea of writing six-word, one-line poems that rhyme the first lines with the last word.
JG: Poems never return to their homes. One of your bereaved characters “is someone who wants to be told that there is something else.” Sadly, per your narrator, “There is nothing else.” I’d like to know which, if any, of the following you believe in: the afterlife, aliens, angels (including Satan), the astral plane, astrology, augury, crystals, fate, ghosts, the rule of law, the soul, soulmates.
AL: I believe in the transfer of energy. So I guess I believe in a lot of things and am not sure about a lot of things. I don’t know, but I do believe deeply in the limitations of my own perception as applied to reality. I’ve seen ghosts. I’ve had dreams of people dying the night before they’ve died. It scares me too much to go into it any further. But maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m a Pisces, the astrological sign most closely related with death.
I like the idea of astral projection. Astrology is fun but who knows. I’ve been meaning to get into crystals; there’s this crazy-impressive crystal shop near my apt in the East Village. Fate—dunno. Law is unavoidable yet flawed. I like the idea of soul mates, but I don’t believe in the Disney version of soul mates. Co-dependence bores me, but nothing sounds better right now than throwing myself into a fiery romance.
JG: I love the idea of getting “into crystals” as something you’ve been “meaning to do.” You do seem drawn to rituals of that sort. Ritual is a major subject of the poems in your “Elephants in Mourning” section. How much of your material about elephant mourning practices is true? What do elephants actually do “when an elephant dies?”
AL: It’s all true. However, some parts are about humans (e.g., eating chips). The poem assumes a connection between the elephant mourning rituals and human rituals, in particular my personal experience and history with mourning relatives. When an elephant dies the “mourners” take part in a ritual by rubbing the corpse of the dead one with his/her tusks and trunk. It feels and smells the corpse looking for information on how the elephant died. They make trumpeting sounds with their tusks. It’s incredibly moving especially if you’re me and you hadn’t mourned your dead relatives due to whatever reason and this catches you off guard when you’re just sitting around on a Saturday morning drinking coffee.
JG: One of my favorite lines from My Dead is “Write this down in your dumb notebook: I love you.” The characters in this book resist love and death with equal ardency. Agree or disagree?
AL: I don’t really feel like the narrators resist love—I just think love hasn’t come their way lately, or what love there was has fallen away. However, I have little-to-no insight into this question because oftentimes I don’t distinguish myself from the narrators in my work. I radically empathize with every narrator and sometimes she’s just me. I think what you’re referring to with that line is the latent insult in the phrase “dumb notebook,” which gets joined to an admission of love. Or, alternatively, is a person just telling another to write the words “I,” “love,” and “you” in a notebook? Nextquestionplease.
JG: Sure. You have a sequence of sonnets that borrows a few moves from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. There is also a poem loosely based on Baudelaire’s “Obsession.” Which poem by someone else do you most wish you had written?
There was a man who found two leaves and came
indoors holding them out saying to his parents
that he was a tree.
To which they said then go into the yard and do
not grow in the living room as your roots may
ruin the carpet.
He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he
dropped his leaves.
But his parents said look it is fall.
JG: That is one of my all-time favorite Russell Edson poems. In “Barren Wilderness,” you use the abbreviation “buff” to refer to a buffalo. What are some of your other favorite animal nicknames?
AL: I just like to take words and shorten them. Like if your name were Superman, I’d call you Super or even Soops. It is a term of endearment and it saves time and it’s the Lawless family way. My sisters and I can’t even call our favorite mall in Boston “Legacy Place.” We call it “Leg Place.” I can’t help it.
JG: Leg Place! I need to get over there.
I’m returning one of your questions to you: “Are the animals or nature beasts in your poems stand ins or symbols for other things?” I saw deer and wolves and hawks, not to mention buff.
AL: No joke. Leg Place is the best! Deer are dumb and crazy, but they’re also scarily beautiful and different and elegant and everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes I fancy the human male species as a bunch of dumb ol’ beautiful crazy deer. I love the terrifying giant beauty of a buck. I think about men. Preferably elegant, charming, and witty. And yet totally something else and other than myself. Bambi’s father, The Great Prince of the Forest, encapsulates this for me. He got the job done but was elusive. So I guess deer are stand-ins for the heterosexual male in some of my poems. Mystifying and yet seductive and a general requirement of life. I guess I’m talking about observing the male gaze from a place of the female’s gaze (my own). Which is to say: for better or worse I’m probably writing toward half assuring men of their sexual power via presence of giant bucks in my poems. Also deer show up a lot because men are hot and beautiful and I like them. Also I think deer are beautiful and seeing one affects me.
In general, using nature imagery allows me to say the things I want to say using various images or voices. I have feelings and ideas that would be boring and not useful to say in other ways so I say them in poems. In “Pain Minus Love Equals Pain,” and many other poems in My Dead I address the idea of loneliness and sad feelings in many ways. I mask experiences, writing about dreams I have, anxieties, but also a lot of this stuff never happened. Other animals might represent different things or many things at once. No real pattern aside from the fact that I empathize with animals and everything.
JG: You reflect on your own mortality often and seriously, yet you’ve devoted your short, precious life to writing poetry. Why?
AL: I already said that death is a stand-in for life and living. I don’t want to die. Who does? Yes, I have reflected upon death, but I am incredibly focused on living, hanging out with friends, family, teaching, and am passionate about poetry. Poetry is a way to live, a way to talk about the world, a way for shit to matter. Literature and creation of poems is just one paradigm through which to make sense of the world. It is the one in which I have found myself. Despite my terrible memory and other failings, I could have found myself trying to make sense of the world through biology or even philosophy or why not sewing or tennis or the video game Buck Hunter? Each has its rules, its sense, its logic. I’ve chosen poetry. I was close to choosing Buck Hunter, but that should be fairly obvious.
JG: Reading My Dead means subjecting oneself to many cruel taunts. “We’re from two worlds you fuckin’ gentleman.” “Shut the fuck up with your purple eyeshadow.” “I am holding a mirror up so you can see how / ridiculous you look in that outfit.” All of these lines are intended for other parties, but the only “you” who actually reads them is, tautologically, “the reader.” How deliberate were you in cultivating a relationship with the reader that differs from the normal poetry-book social contract?
AL: My voice is chatty, casual. My ideal reader or whoever I write for is, importantly, worth communicating with. And sometimes someone worth communicating with, someone acknowledged, may be someone that the speaker is not happy with. These are not poems written from a place of satisfaction and understanding of the world and its inhabitants. It’s written from a place of What the fuck is going on? Because seriously, isn’t this world really complicated? Isn’t it worth getting angered about?
JG: Is there anything too intimate to be written about?
AL: Absolutely not. I used to think writing about cannibalism was a revolting idea, but then I did it and I didn’t look back. I like to think that anything might be a subject of a poem. I just really like reading poems and writing poems that take risks. Writing safe or with content restraints is boring. Formal restraints are super fun.
JG: Your characters, and particularly your male characters, have the ability to shapeshift between human and animal bodies. How do they do it?
AL: Are you kidding? How do men do anything? It’s a man’s man’s man’s world!
JG: True, but remember: it wouldn’t be nothing—nothing!—not one little thing, without a woman or a girl.
My other-other-other favorite part of My Dead is “Here are the names of birds I’d like to witness our nuptials: / lark, blue jay, hawk, and red herring.” These lines are surprising, and surprise is one of their subjects. Would you say a few words about surprise as a component of your aesthetic?
AL: The aesthetic is at times concerned with entertaining the poet to prevent cases of boredom. Ok enough about my book. I have a million questions for you about Sexual Boat (Sex Boats)! First off, the poem “KNIFEY” is about the male experience. Prove me wrong.
JG: To the extent that the poem describes my experience, and I am a male, your statement is inarguably true. HOWEVER. The precipitating incident was actually a minor cancer scare that scared me in 2011. I say “minor” because the probability of my actually having melanoma was considered low, even at the time, and because the whole thing was over in a couple of weeks. In the moment, though, “low probability” doesn’t mean much. I had recently lost my Uncle Kelly to cancer. In a way, this is my most literal poem.
AL: You named the first poem in your collection after a Biggie album. Later you refer to lyrics from the Who song “My Generation.” What is your perspective on pop culture references in poems? When you named your first poem after a Biggie album you built a burr that stayed in my hair the whole time I read the poem and it informed my reading of it. Thoughts?
JG: Pop-culture references can be found in many poems I love and admire: Kenneth Koch’s long poem “The Duplications” comes to mind. There are also many poems with pop-culture references in them that I don’t like. Maybe the danger lies in attaching the poem to a piece of ephemera, dating and trivializing it in a single gesture. I try not to write anything that seems likely to require a footnote while I’m still alive. With that being said, I feel pretty confident in my prediction that Biggie Small and The Who have made enduring contributions to the culture. I can’t imagine a future where my poems are still being read, but “Juicy” has faded from memory. Therefore this reference feels “safe.” I counted two references to the Kinks in My Dead, so am I wrong to assume you feel the same way?
AL: Touché. . . in “This Is the Common Air That Bathes the Globe,” two lines read: “The smell of the jagged mint leaf and the smell / of one trillion farts pervade the atmosphere / in little windborne particles.” This is really a science question and not a poetry question. When I smell something do the particles really go into my nose?
JG: YES! I refuse to cheat by researching this, but my understanding is that the actual molecules from a smelled thing must come into contact with certain receptors in your nose. This explains why hot things have a stronger smell than cold things (the molecules are moving around more crazily). It also means that everything you smell, no matter how disgusting, is partically inside your face! If anyone reading this has a background in biology and wishes to correct me, please do so in the comments.
AL: Someone once said to me at a party that interesting people write interesting poems and boring people write boring poems. Is this true?
JG: I’m just spit-balling here, but I find the act of writing an interesting poem to be interesting; hence, only an interesting person can do it—even someone who gives no outward indication of being interesting in the slightest. If you can write interesting poems, you’re interesting in my book.
I’m not sure about the other half of the equation. No poet can be expected to write interesting poems every time. And being interesting, but writing something boring—well, that’s kind of interesting, too.
To sum up: interesting poems automatically confer my interest on their writers, but boring poems tell us nothing, which, come to think of it, is the very essence of The Boring.
AL: My favorite line in your whole collection is actually two lines. You wrote: “Poetry / is easy: you write whatever you want.” This is a general concern—and is it true? I noticed an almost German desire to create new words, being unfulfilled by the ones that already exist in English (e.g., you create this word ‘graynbow’). Are you having fun with this play? Are you creating these words because the words we do have don’t do the trick?
JG: I do think it’s true, especially in our time, that the first rule of poetry is “no rules!” And the second rule is probably “try to help people,” though that’s debatable and open to interpretation.
I like to make up words. I find made-up words funny and revealing, and it’s absolutely the easiest way to increase my vocabulary. Shakespeare is someone whose vocabulary is much remarked-upon, but many of his words are made up, as we know. “Graynbow” will probably not become the next “eyeball,” “alligator,” or “transcendence”; those are classics. But I’m going to do my best.
AL: How close are you to the speaker of your poems? Are you speaking your truth or is there a persona/voice thing happening? If so, who is he?
JG: Some of the speakers in Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) are indistinguishable from me. They speak “my truth” straightforwardly, though hopefully in an interesting way. Most of the love poems, for instance, come straight from (and onto) the heart. To cite one early example, the speaker in “Sick” is basically me.
Some of the speakers are aspirational. I would love to be wise, dignified, generous—or at least one of those things—and occasionally I try to write from what I imagine to be the point of view of someone who is.
Some are autocaricatures. Their thoughts are slovenly, their desires are base, and when confronted with something legitimately great, they respond sentimentally. Writing these poems is a way to allay my anxiety that I’m exactly like these poor fools, while still indulging my very worst inclinations in a consequence-free zone.
AL: The speaker of these poems makes a lot of fanciful leaps in logic and logical fallacies, or I guess to put it in a more quotidian manner “fucks up” a lot. This reminds me of how hard it is to be a human. We’re constantly fucking up because we don’t have all the information possible in order to make the right decisions (e.g., “GORDANADO,” Sexual Boat (Sex Boats). Is this really a book about how hard it is to be a human being?
JG: I teach a lesson on logical fallacies in my writing course at Portland State. The subject is utterly fascinating to me. There are so many ways to arrive at the wrong conclusions, to make mush rather than dinner with the ingredients we’re given. I love “ugly” language and “ugly” reasoning. As you can tell by my quotation marks, I don’t think they’re ugly at all; I only pretend they are, for pedagogical reasons.
I also fuck up a lot.
But there’s no way to fuck up in a poem, I hope?
AL: I could reply to that but we’re almost out of time. What is a sex boat? Did I not read my Gertrude Stein closely enough or are you referring to what Urban Dictionary refers to as “the man in the boat”?
JG: That is one of the great mysteries of Sexual Boat (Sex Boats). I shall never reveal the secret.
AL: [Shakes fist to the sky] I found a lot of instances of estrangement between the speaker and his reality. Is there an emotional resonance or confusion that you are cultivating? Someone smart once said (of fiction) that a truly great short story leaves the reader less sure of the world after they read it than they were when they began reading the piece. Does writing about something from an estranged point of view allow a fresh set of eyes on that thing and reveal its impossibility and ridiculousness?
JG: Wow, that is a great question. I don’t know; I hope so. For me, the compulsion to write this way is irreducible and comes from a pre-aesthetic, pre-agenda-having place: my brain’s butt.
AL: What’s your spirit animal? I’m a crow, so I felt fake offended by your depictions of crows.
JG: I’ve taken your test, and I now know that I’m a hawk. I apologize for denigrating the crow, an intelligent, though evil bird.
AL: For lack of a better term, why do you have such a “hard-on” for “luck”?
JG: This hard-on probably “arises” from the same needlessly contrarian attitude that drives all the ill-logic and deformed language in my poems. I aspire to be what Ghostface calls “the smart dumb cat.” To me, there’s something incredibly alluring about the idea of applying my whole intellect to the task of becoming an idiot. And I’ve made tremendous strides.
Amy Lawless is the author of two collections of poetry: My Dead (Octopus Books, 2013) and Noctis Licentia (Black Maze Books, 2008). She received a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2011. Poems are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2013 and The Bakery. Recent prose has appeared in Delirious Hem, HTML Giant and The Rumpus. Amy keeps a blog at amylawless.blogspot.com
James Gendron is the author of the chapbook Money Poems (Poor Claudia, 2010) and the full-length collection Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) (Octopus, 2013). He was born in Portland, Maine, and lives in Portland, Oregon.