This transatlantic interview series, “The Slow Boat,” provides a setting for poets to engage in occasional conversation over the course of two months. It strives to be an invitation to further inquiry into the methods and complexities of a particular composition. The aim is not to be conclusive, but, in tandem, to further explore what it is to make a poem.
Jim Goar: The opening lines of The House of Zabka (“Carrie was born in the best of times and the worst of / times”) weave A Tale of Two Cities into its tapestry. When her father dumps pig blood on her head, Carrie is incorporated into Carrie. On the following page, Toto appears at the entrance of a forbidden zone amongst “ancient symbols and a mobile phone number.” The reader, at the border, is forced to grind pop and canonical material just as Carrie’s father rolls “up that pig meat into all kinds of kielbasa.” And, like the consumer of these mysterious meat products, I am not certain that I know what I am eating. After all, this is a land in which: “You could swap the dog for your boyfriend or girlfriend.” I am pulled to these trades. If we could swap the dog for your boyfriend or girlfriend, could we also swap a Dickens novel for another Dickens novel or a newspaper for a fish? Does it all taste the same or are the specifics of the trades important? Do you choose the transactional material or does it choose you? Did you have the source books open and the movies playing while you were writing The House of Zabka? Maybe we could start somewhere in the vicinity of these concerns.
Marcus Slease: I have been interested in grinding for a long time. Grinding things up and putting them back where they don’t belong. To create the new via sampling, mash-ups, using juxtaposition, Google/Flarf poetics, etc. However, that was in lyric poetry and more at the micro language level. Recently, I have been moving toward exploring narrative. How can I layer plots in narrative to the point of absurdity? I began House of Zabka with the idea of writing a kind of memoir about my 2.5 years living in southern Poland. Zabka is a chain convenience store; something like 7-Eleven. It means “little frog” in Polish. I went there every day to buy my meat paste (among other things). Well, as I was writing this memoir, I got to a section that takes place in this convenience store, Zabka, and I was reading a lot of pulp fiction/bizarro at the time and it opened up a lot of possibilities. I decided to swerve away from the memoir and bring together my interest in poetics with my interest in narrative. I decided to make the convenience store, Zabka, a place where the mundane can meet the magical. I wrote the opening flash fiction/section and then decided to keep going.
My first idea was to combine The Wizard of Oz with the 1979 film, Stalker (directed by Andrei Tarkovsky). I wrote the opening of The House of Zabka with that in mind. But then along came Stephen King, Heidi, elves, Charles Dickens, a famous Polish pop song called “Lato Lato,” folk songs of the mountain culture (Gorale), the invasion of frogs in the movie Magnolia, a glass lake, The Sword in the Stone and lots and lots more.
I didn’t have the books in front of me. I did sometimes have Stalker or The Wizard of Oz playing; at least, at the very beginning of writing the book.
I would write for 2-3 hours (usually in the evening after work). At the end of the writing session, I wrote in my notebook the writing plan for the next day—usually a plot outline in the form of a few paragraphs (very loose). The overall genre is one of a fairy tale.
I also incorporated elements from my memoir. Like getting a mesh product installed in my groin at a clinic in Poland, living with retired miners in an old hotel in Poland, climbing mountains in Poland and meeting mountain men (the Gorale in Zakopane).
I did this for six months or so. Of course, I didn’t always adhere to my daily writing plan. In the middle of writing, sometimes, a new plot reference suggested itself. I am very bored by most conventional narrative structures. Postmodern fables and fairy tales excite me.
JG: What began as a memoir shifted to include, or to be, a postmodern fairy tale. The trades extend beyond the materials gathered in the text to the writing of the text, as well. But, as you mention, narrative remains a focus of exploration: “How can I layer plots in narrative to the point of absurdity?” This also seems to be a running question throughout the content of the book. For example, in “Don’t Peak Too Soon,” the narrator says: “OK. Bad joke. I am trying too hard.” It’s as if a misstep had quit the absurd for a quick laugh, and broken the narrative spell. I wonder, is the narrator aware of the attempt to layer plots to the point of absurdity? Does this voice still think it is writing a memoir about living in southern Poland? Further, would it be wrong if it thinks that it is?
MS: I was finally reading Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night’s A Traveler (it had been on my reading list for over twenty years) while I was writing The House of Zabka, and it got me thinking about frustrating the desire of the reader by weaving multiple stories. Again, to go back to The Wizard of Oz, it is like opening that curtain and revealing the wizards (the author, god, etc.) for what they really are. A sham. A big machine with lots of contraptions. Literature is, of course, a machine made of words.
The House of Zabka is both a true-to-life memoir and a shaggy dog story. It is a dream window. There is one main voice guiding the narration, but sometimes that voice steps out of the main narrative and becomes self aware and tries to tell a silly joke (like in the example you mention). Perhaps to remind the reader they are reading something artful/artificial. But it is also real and the speaker believes it is real. The self-consciousness, perhaps, mirrors the attempt to wake up from a dream. But there is no waking up.
JG: I’m glad you brought up “dream window.” Your previous book mu (Dream) so (Window) took that phrase for its title. However, this phrase-title is positioned as a translation from Korean, providing a few layers of separation: a physical window, a translation and the division of waking/dream. Although The House of Zabka looks and sounds very different than mu (Dream) so (Window), there is a dream quality in both. There is, in both, an individual chronicling from and in an uncanny setting. This leads me to a few questions. Is mu (Dream) so (Window) also a true-life memoir and a shaggy dog story? And, although approached with different material and style, is the speaker in mu (Dream) so (Window) also trying to wake up?
MS: I wrote mu (Dream) So (Window) in London and in Seoul. It began in Seoul in 2006 with long narratives, journal entries, philosophical prose poems. Some of the journal entries became sound poems. These were all transformed in 2012 in London, when I was reading Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches and Ariana Reines’ Coeur de Lion. These books opened me up to the possibilities of memoir in different ways. Basho’s travel sketches are a mix of narrative and, of course, haiku. That compressed haiku form became the framework for mu (Dream) So (Window). I also added a lot of scraps of Basho (in English translation) into the opening sequence and throughout the book. I omitted a lot of what might be included in a straight, less fragmented memoir. Omission is, of course, a form of creation. Narrative is also more implied in the book. It does not proceed along the lines of what happened next, but more along the lines of a lyric memoir. In other words, instead of asking what comes next, as in a conventional memoir or novel, it asks “what does this mean?” So it is indeed a shaggy dog story and a true-to-life memoir. A kind of conceptual memoir. I think some of the original sound-based poems are layered into the book. Reines’ Coeur de Lion is refreshingly direct in its use of the so-called confessional mode. Coeur de Lion helped me to open mu (Dream) So (Window) within the context of a love affair. The love affair was both true and untrue. Untrue in the sense that memory is always a kind of dream. Setting and place are also very important in my writing. The speakers are always, in some sense, nomadic travelers who are trying to wake up to a sense of home or love or both.
JG: A handful of your poems, recently published in the journal summer stock, are composed amid domestic travel, specifically on a train. Your decision to write on a trip’s departure and return (by alternating your seat from backward to forward), ensures that you see the same side of structures and landscapes regardless of the direction of the journey—the difference being that on one leg of the journey you are moved away from these, and in the other you approach and eventually pass them. What remains, though, is a voice in transit. You do not write from your destinations. Again, then, there is a nomadic sensibility to these pieces, yet, in these pieces, the writer is always facing in the direction of home. In this direction, and because the writer is writing toward home, one side of a story is lost. After a long period of travel, you’ve resided in London for a number of years. Could The House of Zabka or mu (Dream) so (Window) have been conceived in London? Were these books written towards home? Maybe you’ll reject these premises, but has a sense of home changed the purpose of your writing?
MS: I don’t think The House of Zabka or mu (Dream) so (Window) could have been conceived in London at all, or if I were still living in the U.S. I needed my experiences of living in Poland and South Korea to conceive those books. Since I have been living in London for the last 2.5 years, I have been able to move out of the mostly survival mode that I experienced in non-English-speaking countries, and that has helped a lot with the productivity and fluency of my writing and creating. And yet, I still feel the temporariness of life and all that entails. I guess I see travel as a state of mind more and more, rather than feeling the need to ship out to somewhere else in the world and boil my life belongings down to 15 kilos. That desire to live simply is a state of mind and, although it is proving more difficult to live simply in London, it is possible to do it. But who knows if I will stay here? I think the train poems are an attempt to see home as a state of mind. And the mind is always moving. Therefore home is movement. I have given up on finding a magical static place called home. We are all in transit, in some form or other, from the day we tumble out of the womb. But that said, I do find comfort in having a clean, well-lit place to work. And being back in an English-speaking country has helped to think and write more fluently in English. So I think what has changed with my writing is the yearning for home. I had a lot of yearning for Northern Ireland when I lived in America, and a lot of yearning for America when I lived in Turkey, and at first in London, too. Now I want to skillfully let go. My personal library is a kind of home, too. I got rid of about 2,000 books of 20th-century poetry when I left North Carolina for South Korea, and now that I am in London, I am getting close to 1,000. Reading widely and variously helps me to keep my interest in writing, and hopefully my writing is more interesting, too. Reading and writing are, of course, intimately connected. I want to let all those voices bump around inside me along with my various experiences of travel. Right now Richard Brautigan inhabits me. He has been in there for over six months and I am enjoying it. There are other people in there, too, but he is perhaps the main voice right this week. But most importantly, home is having one hell of an amazing relationship with my girlfriend. We met in Poland in 2008. That has made the most difference in my writing and all areas of my life. I like what Frank O’Hara has on his tombstone: grace to be born and live as variously as possible. I think that is what I want to think about when I think about home.
JG: Living as variously as possible is not often associated with home, a place where we behave according to the imaginations we place on the home and the home places on us. We grow into a routine. This routine, of course, while different in other environments, shares the sense of the already known. In travel there is the already known in the exotic, but this surface, at least the surface of the surface, is more easily challenged because it is apparent. At home, the already known can be an entrenched reality, something invisible. Senses dull because there is nothing to see that has not already been seen. On the other hand, a commitment to transit helps the “don’t know” mind. Maybe we could talk about in-home transit. Acousmatic Tin Tin, a book written while listening to the London sound recordings of Ben Morris, dislodges the local. It reconstitutes the sounds of the city, but their essential traces remain. The work enters into an interaction, a dialogue with place. The writing furthers the sounds. Although your well-lit place might not always be in London, is your dialogue with place becoming more important as place becomes more present, as the longings for remembered and distant lands are lessening? Is Acousmatic Tin Tin part of an ongoing project that converses with the local?
MS: The last section of my book Godzenie enabled me to step back and to explore my local surroundings via a documentary poetics, in the tradition of Georges Perec and others. I wrote the last section while a guest in Poland at my girlfriend’s parents’ house. I wasn’t in survival mode. There was less a state of emergency, and I was able to record observations about the area I was staying in (a housing estate in Piotrowice) and examine my own subjectivity with a more critical distance. I do think the local has become a big part of my writing now in London. I live in East London, the docklands, and there is a lot to explore. The area I live in was the original Chinatown in London and the sight of all the opium dens in those Sherlock Holmes novels. The area was bombed heavily during WWII, and so Chinatown moved into Soho (where it is currently located). There are so many layers of history in this area of East London. So many outsider immigrant communities have inhabited this area: the Jewish, the Irish, the Chinese and now the Bangladeshi community. This makes me feel more “at home,” or as “at home” as I can be on this small, provincial island. There is even a pub down the road called The Grapes where Charles Dickens used to sing on the tables to pay for his father’s beer. And yet, I do think that I am trying to work in a more expansive poetics, in the tradition of Philip Whalen and Walt Whitman and Bernadette Mayer and Eileen Myles and Ron Padgett and others, rather than in the typical constrictive mode of 98% of British poetry, whether it is labeled experimental or mainstream. But maybe that will change. There are a few terrific poets here. It is certainly nice to have a community of poets, even if it is very small compared to what I had in North Carolina and other places in the U.S. I feel claustrophobic easily, so I need to create an expansive space in which to explore place! I do think longings for distant lands have receded as I have tried to focus more on what is around me (with mindfulness practice). The mindfulness practice, whether sitting, walking or writing, has helped me to survive and accept all those various selves running around inside me.
JG: Your last few statements have returned to the term “various.” I am not surprised that this word surfaces again. Your poetry embraces the “poly,” whether it be phonic, optic or any number of suffixes. In the October “Slow Boat,” Johan de Wit stated:
Day after day, chapter after chapter, poem after poem, I’ll have to hang on to a mood that initially was real but must be lodged in my mind as soon as possible so that it can, through the act of writing, be exhausted before it disappears. That’s the challenge I face as a poet.
Would you mind concluding this interview on a similar note? Is the need to be “various” a central challenge, or is there a more pressing concern at the heart of your poetics?
MS: The need to be various is also another way of saying that, like everyone, I am full of contradictions. Instead of reconciling all those contradictions, I want to explore them. Doubt, a lack of certainty, is part of both my writing and non-writing life. I also want to be entertained, and a various poetics can accomplish that more readily than a poetics that replicates its “successes” like a one-hit wonder. Like Frank O’Hara, I want my poetry as exciting as the movies. Like Eileen Myles, I want to embody openness (both in my life and in my poetry). And like Philip Whalen and Joanne Kyger, I believe in the light touch (mostly). I suppose, in many ways, I am also interested in the anti-poetic, or, to put it another way, poetry as possibility. That phrase is thrown around a lot, “poetry as possibility,” but I think there are many institutions (whether creative writing programs, the Poetry Foundation, The Gallery and various other organizations and award programs) that often attempt to fossilize art and poetry and limit the possibilities. I guess as long as those organizations get out of the way, then they’re not too damaging for creativity and play. And I do want to play. I very much want to play. I want my art to attempt to be equal to life. It will never be equal to life, but that’s what keeps me writing—knowing that poetry is impossible.
Marcus Slease was born in Portadown, Northern Ireland and currently lives in London. His books include Hello Tiny Bird Brain and Godzenie, and his chapbooks include The House of Zabka (Deathless Press, 2013), Acousmatic Tin Tin (a collaboration with sound artist Ben Morris, Deadwood Press, 2013), mu (Dream) So (Window) (Poor Claudia, 2012), Elephanche (a collaboration of poem plays with SJ Fowler, Department Press, 2012), from Smashing Time (miPOesias, 2011), Balloons (Deadwood Press, 2011) and This is the Motherfucking Remix (a collaboration with Brian Howe, Scantily Clad Press 2008).