Matt Mauch: How excited are you to read a poem at the second annual Great Twin Cities Poetry Read on Friday, April 29, on the campus of Normandale Community College?
[To explain to everyone who doesn’t know, this is an event that Matt organizes which he invited me to
be a part of, but it’s an eight hour drive from where I live.]
I wish I could. But you already know I can’t…you are taunting me about it. But this brings up something interesting — the economics of poetry.
I can’t come because I can’t afford to. This is something hard for many people around me to understand. When the people I work with, my family and many of my friends found out my first book was getting published, they assumed that was a terribly lucrative success I had landed. They’d say things like don’t forget the little people when you’re rich and famous,but they weren’t joking. This may be true for many people in different areas of writing, people identifying as fiction writers for instance, whether it’s mainstream literary fiction or some kind of mainstream genre writing (Mystery, Romance, Sci Fi, etc). These writers seem to have real opportunities to make some money through writing and publishing. I am one of the proud many whose writing habits are one of the most expensive endeavors in our lives. Writing not only isn’t normally a source of income for me, but it ends up being really costly for me, regularly. I’ve had to stop agreeing to do readings unless I can get paid, for the most part, because I’m spending too much money trying to do it. And this is just readings within two hours of where I live…anything outside of that realm is pretty out of the question. It’s tough. I feel irresponsible. My girlfriend, Angela, we’ve been together 8 years, has only supported me in all of this. She hasn’t beefed about this expensive vocation of mine. But I know I can only test her limits on that for so long. Any responsible partner would start to feel a little selfish in that position.
I’m still doing some readings because I agreed to them so long ago, before I realized how costly they’d
be. It’s such a great opportunity, but it’s also really stressful. There’s a lot of peanut butter and jelly
involved at this point. I plan on trying to do a big tour in the fall of 2011, and I feel very committed to making that happen, but after that I’m probably going to have to give up doing readings, as well as some other things, for a long while, to recoup the costs. Unless I start at least breaking more even somehow between now and then.
The important thing in all of this, though, is that most people have no concept that it’s the case. When
I tell someone outside of the realm of poetry that poets so often do readings for free, they’re totally
stunned…they don’t know how to make sense of it. I was presenting to a local youth group about poetry, brought this up, and the facilitator started arguing with me, he simply didn’t believe that it was true and nothing I said could change that because the cultural myth of the value of poetry has been so perpetually reinforced in people at this point. And it does exist, this value, but almost exclusively in theory. When I tell people I’m a poet, they suddenly act like I’m a priest, someone really to be revered. But that pageantry, that performance of the theoretical value of poetry is so rarely substantiated in any way.
Ultimately, I don’t actually think I would change poetry into a commercially sustainable practice, if I somehow magically could. The fact that poetry inhabits this peculiar in-between land weirdly has many subtle benefits as well, or at least the potential for benefits. But it’s definitely a complicated situation and one that, in this case, will keep me from getting to share some messages I really believe in with the folks at Normandale Community College.
Connie Schaible: Are there any recurrent themes in your poetry? Where do you find inspiration? How do you feel about the fact that the male seahorse is responsible for having the babies?
Yes, there are recurrent themes in my poetry. Culture (specifically, race, orientation, gender, religion), categorization (I’ve already talked about genre fiction, haven’t I) and other things that falsely set up pure distinctions from other things are found really often in my work. All the boxes we create and try to separate ourselves into until, cenutries later, we believe that the boxes were always there, part of nature. It’s why I keep applying these annoying quotation marks to everything; because I don’t even believe in the things I’m referencing. If I’m talking about gender, but believe gender to be a huge spectrum of variation rather than a cut and dry binary system, then I’m basically trying to reclaim a word really unsuccessfully. For most people, the word signifies a completely different idea than the one I’m trying to reference, so it’s just poor communication. Aaron Kunin, a poet I really dig, enacts this beautifully in his Cold Genius chapbook. And, for more on the almost-always ignored complexity of gender, check out Anne Fausto-Sterling’s article, “The 5 Sexes, Revisited.” She’s been revolutionary in influencing thought in those areas.
I find inspiration in the fact that the male seahorse is responsible for having babies. Huh. Responsible.
We have so many origin myths that explain the pains of childbirth as a fault of an early woman. I would like to hear what the ancient male seahorses did that was so upsetting to the gods that they cursed him with childbirth.
When I was in grade school, I was really into the band Nirvana. They had a shirt with a
seahorse on it and an explanation of it’s unique nature on the back that I owned and wore
around. That’s an influence I had in the 4th grade, so I guess it’s not too shocking that I’m so
obsessed with things like gender ambiguities and all still now.
Adam Sulzdorf-Liszkiewicz: OH GOD WHAT IS THAT BEHIND YOU?
A sea of loving supporters? Yes?
Don Lawson: Ask yourself about the power of the sexual imagery in the poems in the book: obviously it catches the readers’ attention and it works well in the panoply of imagery you employ, but maybe you could talk a little about the origins or importance or risks of using it?
I like this question a lot.
So a while ago the Chicago Poetry Brothel–an organization of poets that puts on extravagant productions, refer to themselves as poetry whores and, in this whore tradition, give people private readings in exchange for money invited me to be a member of their group. There are groups like this in New York, Barcelona…it’s not unique to Chicago. I really struggled with whether I would join them or not simply because, if nothing else, they’re a bunch of really cool, talented people and I was flattered they bothered to ask me. Two of the people involved, Kathleen Rooney and Susan Yount, are poets and, in general, people I’ve admired for a long time now, before I even knew them personally. I went once, though, and realized that what they’re doing just conflicts too directly with my personal morals so I decided not to join. There were women doing burlesque dances there and it was the first time I’d ever seen live naked people in public, practically. There was a bathroom attendant. Everyone was drunk. It was just not something I could commit to, I felt. For many subtle reasons. The biggest reason, however, is probably that I am incredibly concerned and disturbed by the hyper-sexualization of everything in our entire culture. Everything. It’s inescapable. But in the same way poetry has avoided major tainting by money, somehow, it has also, largely anyways, been able to avoid the fate of sexualization that almost everything else has suffered. So, when I talked to Susan Yount, the madame of the brothel, and told her I did not feel comfortable joining them, the major reason I cited as to why was because I felt uncomfortable contributing to what I see as attempt to sexualize poetry in a destructive way.
Now you must understand that Susan is incredibly cool so, naturally, she responded really decently to this kind of bummer news. However, she did note that she was a little shocked by my feelings there simply because, at the time, she was reading my book and couldn’t help but notice that it’s page after page of sexual imagery and reference. Which on the surface makes sense to me — perfect sense– especially now, in retrospect. But, in the moment, I was so shocked that I didn’t even really acknowledge her point or try to explain why I think there’s a big, missing piece to that misinterpretation.
Here’s the difference for me: the poetry brothel, like, say, the advertising industry or the music video industry, is making a party out of sexuality, celebrating it, which is good, right? They’re even trying to associate themselves with the tradition of whoredom in an olde-timey, light-hearted way, perhaps reclaiming whoredom. In my work, there’s that. But there’s also this fat counter-balance of sexuality as almost always also an occasion of horrible, awful, terrifying violation. When someone says My Penis is the answer to your vagina./ Your vagina was rhetorical — what does that even mean? What are we even talking about at that point? My first reaction to that is laughter. It’s ridiculous, kind of clever (there’s a word you never see without quotation marks anymore). But isn’t it talking about rape? Isn’t that what answering a rhetorical vagina would be? I don’t know. But I do know that it’s preceded by don’t take off the heels. Don’t take// Off the gauze. So sexuality and damage are inextricably related here.
How could it be any other way? If, indeed, absolutely everything has been sexualized, but sexualized
only in that one-dimensional, sex is the key to happiness way… if those sexual messages are being force-fed to us through monstrously powerful media vehicles at a frequency so high that it just becomes
a steady, unceasing stream of false narrative, how is it possible to celebrate sex, to discourse on sex, to
even reference sex, without acknowledging that you are dragging a bloated corpse of historical baggage
along with it? If the radio can play a Lil’ Wayne song that says 的 wish I could fuck every girl in the world, as the chorus — THE CHORUS!! If, every morning when I wake up, there’s a woman being raped in my living room because my roommate’s favorite show is Law and Order Special Victim’s Unit…nay, because it’s MY favorite show…if that’s the bread I eat and the water I drink, how could I shit anything else?
I think I’ve already gone too far with this, but I’ll just add that writing things where sexuality is represented in more than one of its many many dimensions, Dimensions that are barely ever acknowledged in our society I’m trying to create a counter narrative to the dominant narrative being written through mainstream media. In other words, when a young man is told all of his life that life’s ultimate goal is having sex and that it is the key to his happiness…when that young man meets this goal and not only doesn’t feel complete, but is suddenly riddled with a multitude of competing, awful feelings about it, I want my book to work as one of the voices in the small choir of counter narrative saying Don’t worry, young man, you’re not broken, you’ve just been bamboozled. Hoodwinked. Lied to. All your life. Along with everyone else.
As a side note, I don’t want to sound like I’m suggesting this is a new thing, this dehumanization and hyper-sexualization. Thomas Wyatt was writing about women (even a woman he loved, perhaps) like they are deer and he was a hunter back in the 1500s. If that’s not evidence of the same miseducation responsible for I wish I could fuck every girl in the world, I don’t know what is.
Russ Hamer: what social purpose does the modern poet serve?
When you’re in the mountains, you can’t see the mountains. It’s not until you get some distance again, on your retreat, that you can see them in their entirety and go “Wow, those are huge. I was just in those mountains. The same goes for the mountain of dysfunctions a culture (or individual) is experiencing. So if we as a culture think “Hey, gay people can’t get married. That’s weird.” But then also think, “Well, the majority of marriages now end in divorce so why would gay people be interested in that?” And then add to that “Oh yeah, and the institution of marriage is based on one person being the property of another,” etc, things start compounding and it’s kind of hard to see whatever the bigger, comprehensive problem is that we’re dealing with. I think maybe art is an attempt at that. You know how some people say art is a mirror? I think many artists are trying to hold the mirror far enough away from people so that they can get some distance from the issues and, here’s to hoping, get a perspective on the issues that will be eventually helpful.
Feathers Eagleburger: Which one of your parents dropped you on your head as a baby, causing you to become the poet that you are?
I think they alternated. My father, for instance, makes art like this.
Estreya Vasquez: What drove you to become the established man you are now? (cause you are a great example for the youth of today, I cannot say that enough)
Oh man this question is so hilarious. My coworker, Estreya, everyone.
The youth of today. I guess the best thing I could say for what drove me would be that sea of supporters I talked about earlier, so, family, friends…you know, I’m not saying I don’t have a lot of personal resources or am not self-motivated, but I’m pretty sure the biggest part of me becoming established, in the sense I think you mean, is just the fact that I’ve had a ton of really remarkable people who have helped me to do things like read, write…I can say pretty positively that my mother was like 95% of the force that got me to go to college. That just never would have happened without her. And I resisted her every step in some pretty rough ways. So thanks, to all those people. And you should include yourself in their ranks.
Jenny Bootle: What difference has having your own poetry book made to you?
Having a book isn’t hard. Amazon, a company I cannot say enough disparaging things about, will make a book out of whatever word document you send it and then sell it to you. They don’t care about it in anyway, but there’s your book. You and whoever else wants can buy as many copies as you can afford and directly, financially contribute to Amazon’s domination of not the book industry, not the market, but our very culture at large. They’re not alone in this endeavor. Vanity publishers, as they’re called by those not affectionate toward them, are the proverbial dime a dozen now, right?
The difference, though, that I think you’re talking about, Jenny, for me is more just because of who published my book. I had the content of the book for a year or so before they packaged it, so it’s not about that that’s what a vanity publisher does, basically, is package. But my publisher, Fence Books, is one of the many small presses out there that are willing to work really really hard to promote and distribute a book that they know won’t give them any real kind of reward, at least not financially. The reward, I guess, would just be feeling like you’re publishing something you feel is really contributing something to the culture.
So in that sense, getting my book published by Fence has given me a lot of excitement and positivity and joy…fuel to do more good stuff…because it feels so great to get acknowledged by a press I love who publish writers I love and is run by writers I love (Rebecca Wolff’s The King is probably one of my favorite books of poetry). The fact that Joyelle McSweeney picked my book, too, was even better…it could have been any writer who was the final judge, but I’ve been crazy about Joyelle’s work for so long. It just felt like it couldn’t have been more ideal for me, personally. So there’s that kind of ambiguous difference. In a more practical sense, though, the difference having a book has made for me is just the very fact that some people actually know of my work and have read it now. That was not so much the case before the book was published and, again, it’s not just because I have a physical book; it’s because Fence and Joyelle put their names on it and people like myself know that Fence and Joyelle (who’s an editor for the publisher Action Books) publish consistently interesting stuff and so gave it a chance just based on that. I guess my Congressman, Paul Ryan, also put his name on it. I don’t think that quite had the same effect as with Fence or Joyelle, though.
Keith Gaustad: I’ve got one: Who Dat? I’ve been wanting to know ever since I saw the Saints win the Super Bowl.
I definitely don’t know what that means. I assume it’s a sports reference. I don’t have much context for
sports references, unfortunately. Womp wah.
Matthew Trease: Can a poem generate 1.21 gigawatz of electricity?
Keith Gaustad: What the heck’s a gigwatz?
Matthew Trease: Sorry. Gigawatz, McFly, Gigawatz.
Russ Hamer: can a poem make a gigwatz?
Don Lawson: How have you handled all the adoration, worship, and sexual offers that have come as a result of the publication of your book?
While I have never gotten any of these three things, book or no book, the differences in how much attention I’ve gotten from strangers pre-book and post-book is pretty interesting. Going to the AWP conference this year was weird because strangers kept coming up and asking, excuse me, are you Nick Demske? And it’s kind of hard to go from there…where do you go from there? I’m writing a manuscript on celebrity culture right now and the small experiences of people knowing me when I didn’t know them gave me a different perspective on it all. But that was a three day conference. That will only happen one week out of the year, during a huge, organized gathering of tons of writers. I’ll never just be walking down a city street and have someone approach me that way any other week of the year. The only thing I’ve experienced on a more consistent basis is people I don’t know contacting me for things more often now. Journals solicit me much more, I’m asked to go read places more often.This interview, as well as many other good fortunes I’ve had lately, is a direct result of a little one page write-up that Poets and Writers magazine included of me in their 2010 Debut Poets feature last January. Most of the attention I’ve gotten can almost all be credited to either that article or, again in a much larger sense, the fact that Fence Books published my book and they have such a large kind-of-cultish following (and deservingly so — I’m chief among those followers). I also get really kind correspondences from younger poets, as well as younger poets sending me their work and asking me if I’ll read it and let them know what I think.
So these are all really great things. The bummer, though, is there is no mechanism in my life that has made any new time for me to be able to address these things. This interview, for instance, is literally months — MONTHS! — late. The guy who solicited me for it, Rich Ferguson, has luckily been really flexible and understanding about my taking so dang long with it, but I feel like such an ingrate when something like that happens. So I consider throwing something crappy together really fast and turning it in or whatever. Not a good option either, obviously. It’s just not a good set up, though. I’m still not sure how to balance it. I’ve gotten a few unbelievably sweet, generous e-mails from strangers, just going on at length about how much they liked my book. By the time I’m able to respond in any substantial way, though, a month or so will have passed and they’ll have assumed I’m ignoring them or
I’m bothered by being contacted or something. So that’s weird, wonderful, but also can be a bummer.
I’m still trying to figure out how best to balance that new stuff.
Jacob Weber: Whats the square root of 7456 divided by 512^5 + 346 x 128?
Jacob Weber: Dont forget to show your work!
Charlene Sims Horton: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Like most kids, probably, I went through a few big phases of wanting to be different things when I grew up. I remember comedian and garbage man were probably the ones I was stuck on for the longest. Which is cool cause, being a poet, I’m kind of both.
Charlene Sims Horton: Where do you get your inspiration for you writing?
If I can translate that question to mean “Why do I write?”, the answer is pretty much, just, I don’t know. It seems to be compulsive, to some degree. But if you mean what kind of stuff do I end up writing about or what leads me to do the writing, I guess simply the daily task of trying to live in the world or make sense of the world or just embrace a world that doesn’t make sense is what leads me to
Charlene Sims Horton: How about, do you ever drink beer for breakfast? Haha.
I don’t. I actually don’t drink at all. Which is usually, for one reason or another, surprising to people who read my poetry. I struggle with going overboard with so much normal stuff, though — racquetball, food, television — that I just try to stay away from drugs or anything else people typically have really hard times moderating or not using in excess.
Nina Corwin: who does your hair?
I wash and brush it. Sometimes Angela braids it. No one has cut it for a few years now.
Josef Horček: Do you aspire to sainthood? (Thinking of Who Dat, the literary canon, or just old-fashioned canonization. Whose patron saint would you be?)
I still don’t know what Who Dat is, though I assume it has to do with the NFL Saints. And I think I’d be a pretty poor candidate for any other kind of sainthood. So that’s a really uninteresting answer to a really interesting question, now isn’t it. I don’t know whose patron saint I would be…probably no one’s, right? Though, on my blog, it does say Nick Demske is the Poet Laureate of your face. So I’ve got that going for me, anyways.
Jacob Weber: Whats the meaning of life?
Learn how to love the things you hate. That seems like a worthwhile ambition for my life, anyways.
Michael Hessel-Mial: Would John Berryman love or hate your book and is that the response you were hoping for?
I’m going to guess he’d hate it, unfortunately, just because I’m constantly ripping off his kind of trade-
mark moves. But maybe he’d love it for that same reason. Who knows?
Lina Ramona Vitkauskas: My question (as you asking yourself): “Why is this weirdly really difficult for me?”
That’s a good question. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m not too into the idea of a self-interview. On the one hand, it has the really cool benefit of a lot of flexibility so, if you have an agenda you really want to get out there, you can. But, on the other hand, I’m not into monologuing in too many senses. I wonder what the origin of the idea for these self-interviews is. It’s a kind of hyper-efficiency, these writer self-interviews, since no one needs to research the writers’ work ahead of time, come up with questions and correspond with the writer. But that seems to me to take all the humanity out of the process. There’s no human touch, or at least no human interaction. That’s how factory and fast food models work. That’s why there’s self-checkouts at grocery stores and gas stations now. It’s dehumanizing. So I think the idea of the self-interview is walking too close to that line for my comfort. It would be like people watching me masturbate. No, I’d be getting paid for that. It would be like people watching me clean my apartment. And no one cares about that.
I’m not saying it’s an exclusively horrible idea. Maybe the self-interview is designed to give artists the chance to finally ask themselves those proverbial questions they’ve always wanted someone else to ask. But it’s hard for me to get with that completely. There’s so much emphasis with internet sources now on just having tons of content — the more content, the more traffic, the better — that I’m definitely not sold on the benefits of a self-interview outweighing the drawbacks.
Charlene Sims Horton: Beatles or Stones?
Pezzetino. Jeannine Rivers. The Scarring Party. Dream Party. Dave Tomaloff. Melissa Czarnik. Eric Mire. Good Evening. Marco Jaimez. Haywyre. Wastelands. Brent Mitchell. Once Now Ensemble. Everett Thomas. Jonathan Frost. Folkswagon. Springtide. Rob Reid. Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray. Lyra Vega.
The Beatles and Stones don’t need any more of my attention. They’re doing okay without me. The musicians listed above, on the other hand, could definitely use it. And they could use yours, too. So, if you don’t already know them, plug some names into your favorite search engine and go. Think global, listen local, etc.
Edwin R. Perry: what do you like least about yourself? are you actively working to change it?
Leave it to Edwin to end on a totally sincere, heavy duty question. Well done, man.
A few things:
I’m incredibly angry and I feel like I have a ton of violence in me, though it very rarely actually comes out as physical violence. I’ve been doing whatever I can to try and nurture that into something else — peace, gentleness…even if I can turn it into sadness instead of anger, I’ll definitely make that trade. Among the things I do that feel like they help toward that goal is write poetry, exercise, eat well, go to a therapist, spend a decent amount of time outside, etc. But that’s really something I’m struggling with. Just a ton of anger and a ton of violence swollen in me all the time. It’s connected to sex, too. Probably, I bet, because the only two things mass media really ever shows men doing are either being angry and violent (whether that’s valorized or demonized) or doing something sexual. So I’m trying to work with that.
Also, I do not like how negative my general outlook has become. This is probably well exemplified in this interview. It’s really important for me to recognize the jacked up parts of life, the destructive parts, the horrible parts, whatever. For real, I think that’s something many people could maybe afford to do more of. However, when it starts to consume you, when its impossible to see beyond it, when you can’t function because you’re overwhelmed by it…if I can’t enjoy eating fruit or vegetables anymore because I know the people who picked them for me to eat were almost certainly Mexican immigrants with horrible working conditions and wages; if I can’t support a nonprofit as positive as United Way because one of the organizations they help fund is the Boy Scouts and the Boy Scouts openly discriminate against homosexuals; if I can’t do a self-interview without feeling like it’s taking part of a global cultural shift towards dehumanization…that’s all when things have really gone too far.
I’m not sure what to do about it, because nothing that I change will augment the fact that those issues are all still real. But I think it is time for me to just change my mentality a little. Change my focus to more positive things. It maybe won’t help solve the problems that I’ve listed above, but it’s definitely not helping anyone if I let these issues in the world consume me. The duality between wanting to be an activist but, also, just wanting not to devote all your time and attention to horrible things in the world is a tough one to balance. I think I need to practice letting things go a little more. Practice just enjoying the things I can manage to enjoy.
The one other dislike, as far as this interview goes anyways, that I am now dealing with about myself: man, I’m way too long winded. So, with that, I think it’s time to wrap this up. Thanks a lot to everyone who contributed questions. I really feel honored to have all your inputs a part of this. I’m really glad I had the opportunity, too, so there’s a lot for me to celebrate even just right here. So: until next time….