Tell us a little bit about your new book of poetry, THE MORROW PLOTS. What’s the significance of the title, and what was your inspiration for writing the book?
When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Illinoisans lend the Plots this crazy holiness. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Yes: we lived behind MazeLand.
Upon researching old newspaper articles from the 20s and 30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, and a dumping ground for bodies. And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.” And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. But, the obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things.
What’s your current favorite poetic image, and can you somehow associate that image with THE MORROW PLOTS?
That’s a toughie. My favorites typically change every week. Right now, it’s this, from Norman Dubie’s recent poem, Gotterdammerung:
Brunnhilde with her breasts cut off and red-faced dogs
barking from the cavities. Her voice
has become the river.
I mean: wow. I mean: what the fuck? I mean: I can’t handle that. The voice of the Illinois that plagues THE MORROW PLOTS is sometimes the voice of Brunnhilde mimicking the river in order to survive. Knowing Norman, I imagine these dogs to be dachshunds. Sometimes, THE MORROW PLOTS’ Illinois is the voice of the barking dachshund. The one on the left. Brunnhilde’s left. Not mine.
Okay. Well, that’s a weird answer. Why are you choosing the dog on the left? Or are you saying this just to be cute?
No. Cuteness was never my strong suit. I was always the last guy left during the Junior High Champagne-Snowball dances, bouncing on the balls of my feet like some hiccupping electron in ill-fitting Z. Cavaricci imitations. No. I choose the one on the left because of etymology. Right comes from the Latin dexter, from which we get dexterous. Dexter means right, as in, right hand. As in, the correct hand to favor is the right one. Left comes from the Latin sinister, which means exactly left. (A la sinistra, in Italian, means to the left). Way back when, left-handed people were marginalized, thought to be in cahoots with the devil. Left-handedness was seen as a sign of bastardy, and all other sorts of sinister shit. My mom’s left-handed, and I remind her of this all the time, of how the truth—or at least a truth bound to linguistics—hurts. Anyhow, the Illinois of THE MORROW PLOTS is definitely not right.
Any other cool word origins?
Well. The avocado is a lie. When the Spanish conquistadores overtook Mexico, one of the first things they attempted to steal from the indigenous peoples was their language—a common story—and force them to speak Spanish, the language of the conquerors, in an attempt at assimilation into the “new order.” The conquistadores, though—Señor Cortés included—fell in love with that greenish tree-bound fruit that we now call, avocado, but, since they were unfamiliar with the foodstuff, they had no name for it in their own language—Spanish. So, the occupiers asked one of the remaining Aztecs what they called this captivating fruit. The Aztec, happy to once again speak Nahuatl in public, told the conquistadores that the fruit was called, ahuacatl. As Nahuatl is a difficult language to master for a non-native speaker, the Spanish began laughing at the word, garishly mispronouncing it, poking fun at the native language of the poor Aztec, effectively saying ahua-WHAT?!, and patting each other on the back.
The Spanish told themselves that they were indeed the conquerors, the winners, the ones in power, and that there was no way they were going to practice the correct pronunciation of a word in a language they were busy trying to decimate. So, instead, in laziness and ridicule, they decided to re-name the fruit after the Spanish word that most closely resembled, ahuacatl. That word was abogado (later bastardized to avocado, when referring to the fruit), or “lawyer, advocate.” The Spanish continued to giggle while gorging on the fruit, crying, “We’re eating an avocado! (We’re eating a lawyer!)” What they didn’t at the time know was that the Aztecs had a killer sense of humor, which penetrated their language. The word, ahuacatl, meant something in Nahuatl, and that something was, testicle, presumably due to the shape of the fruit.
Since the only way to translate the Spanish word, mole, into English, is sauce; and since guacamole was originally spelled huacamole, from ahuacatl, you know what you’re really eating—linguistically-speaking—when you’re eating guacamole, don’t you? Yeah. Yeah.
Testicle sauce? That’s gross.
So is linguistic history, dude-sicle.
Okay. What’s your favorite poetic pick-up line?
John Berryman used to prowl the grad. student parties at the University of Iowa, sipping his bourbon or sipping his gin, draping his arm over the shoulders of one female student, and then another, cooing into their ears, “Do you think wickedness is soluble in art…my dear?” Apparently, this worked for him, again and again. As ever, he knew his audience.
All right. Let’s James Lipton this shit. Here comes the innocuousness: The High C6 or the Low D2?
Can you do one?
(Gripping testicles) EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE…
Nice. I mean, it’s no Farinelli, but…
(Recovering) Well, Farinelli was a castrato. Gimme a break. Do you know how that shit was done? The church fathers chose some of their choirboys—Farinelli included—and before these kids turned ten, they were laid into warm baths, and, while one adult jammed his thumbs into the boys’ jugulars, sedating them via the lack of circulation, another man would razor the scrotum and scoop, with a finger, the testicles from the sac. Can you believe that? The fucking Church… So no: I don’t even aim for Farinelli anymore. I shoot for Brad Delp from Boston or, if I’m really feeling it, Dan McCafferty of Nazareth.
Favorite word for vomit?
Favorite insult (contemporary)?
Favorite insult (vaudevillian)?
Little Blue Puddle or Big Red Brick?
Brick. For sure.
Can we see it?
(Inhaling deeply, then holding breath)