Commentary, Interviews

Interview // Kai Carlson-Wee

By Aaron Barrell | Senior Editor

Kai Carlson-Wee has roller-bladed professionally, surfed north of the Arctic Circle, and traveled across the country by freight train. His work has appeared in Narrative, Best New Poets, TriQuarterly, 32 Poems, and The Missouri Review, which selected a group of his poems for the 2013 Jeffery E. Smith Editor’s Prize. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.

We first met in the Spring of 2015, in Minneapolis, during the annual AWP Conference, where Kai and his brother, Anders Carlson-Wee, premiered their short film, Riding the Highline. I was curious about this work, as well as other film work he’d been doing, since we’d been thinking all year about film and poetry at Poetry Northwest. Kai and I had a chance to talk a bit during the conference, and it seemed there was more to say, so we left with the promise to pick things up later. Then, over the course of several weeks this summer, we revisited and continued that conversation via email. This interview comes out of those email exchanges.

You recently released a short film called Riding the Highline that documents a train-hopping trip you and your brother took in 2013. Could you talk a bit about that journey, what prompted it, and the film that came of it?

Sure. A film like this has always been a fantasy of mine, ever since I was a kid. I grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota, a block from a cereal factory and a railroad yard. It was a typical Midwestern town, but there was all this industry around us. We woke up to the smell of Cheerios in the morning. We fell asleep to the sound of trains. When we were bored, my brother and I used to ride our bikes to the trainyard. We would climb on the boxcars and dig through the trash in the hobo camps looking for cans. It was sort of this outlaw territory for us, this big metal playground. Like most kids I was pretty obsessed with adventure stories. Books like Huckeleberry Finn were important to me. On the Road, Hardy Boys, Hatchet, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—things like that. I loved the simplicity of travel narratives, the way they allowed me to follow a journey and leave the Midwest in my mind. When I got a little bit older, my friends and I would dare each other to jump on the slow-moving grainers. We would ride out of town to the baseball fields in Dundas. We only stayed on for a few hundred yards, but it was a wild feeling. All that power and speed. It left an impression. So this was the beginning of the idea, the nexus. Then we fast-forward to the year I graduated from college. By that time I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had written one terrible novel and one not-so-terrible collection of poems. I was thinking of applying to grad schools, but I was also going through a serious depression and I was taking these heavy medications. Anti-psychotics and stuff like that. Really heavy shit. I could barely read books. It didn’t seem possible to think about grad school or writing at the time, so I decided to spend some years traveling around the country. I worked as a cook in the Northern Cascades. I hopped freight trains, hitchhiked, slept outside on the rooftops of buildings. I found all the movement was good for my brain. It made time slow down, and it made me receptive to language and flashes of poetry. Images stood out. Characters told me about their lives. My brother and I often traveled together and we went through some weird situations. If you hang out with either of us long enough, we’ll probably tell you some stories. Some of them are funny but some of them are really bizarre. Things get a little unhinged on a train. But yeah, the idea for making a film sort of sprang up intuitively. My brother and I were traveling together. We were both writing poems. We were both riding trains. We figured it would make a good movie.

Your serious pursuits have included, at one time, rollerblading. The existence of videos on the Internet that document this interest got me thinking: these must have been among the first experiences you had with film (well, video). Is there anything to that? Would you say that your experience in front of or behind the camera at that age has shaped what you do now with a camera?

Yeah, definitely. The first videos I made were skate videos. They’re a huge influence on the way I shot the film. I mean, when I was in high school I spent almost every day skating. I was completely committed. My brother and I used to film each other constantly. We took photos, video—it was part of the culture. We would go downtown after school and session the rails. We would hang out with homeless folks, street people passing through town. We were constantly documenting everything we did. And because it was skating (as opposed to a more traditional sport) we were thinking a lot about aesthetics. We wanted the footage to look professional. We wanted the photos to hold a particular light. We learned all these technical aspects of filming and editing, but we also learned how to remain open to the world, to take things as they came, and to attempt to find beauty in the real-time happenings of life. Skate videos are often invested in documentary, and when I was filming for Riding the Highline, I wanted to keep this in mind. I wanted to focus on beauty and action, on the aesthetic movement and flow of the film, and less on the narrative arc.


Are there particular poets or films that have inspired the work you’ve been doing with film and poetry?

As far as influences go, I’m a big fan of films like Badlands by Terrence Malick, Gummo by Harmony Korine (probably my favorite film of all time), Streetwise by Martin Bell, Two-Lane Blacktop, Thelma and Louise. I love the photography of Joel Sternfeld and Alec Soth. Michael Brodie’s photographs of train riders are amazing. Books like Riding Toward Everywhere by William Vollman and Rolling Nowhere by Ted Conover. There’s an essay by Matt Power called Mississippi Drift I really dig. Separation Sunday by the Hold Steady is an incredible album and deals with similar themes. On the poetry side, I’m drawn to poets like Larry Levis, Philip Levine, Jack Gilbert, and Walt Whitman. Poets who work hard to tell you a story and invest it in personal experience.

What kind of response have you received to “Riding the Highline,” either in the process of making it, after premiering it at AWP, or now, having shared it with the wider world of the Internet?

The response to the film has been really positive. Sort of across the board, which was a surprise. We had about two hundred people at the AWP premiere and it’s been viewed over two thousand times since we released it online. As far as festivals go, we’ve got it in the Napa Valley Film Festival in November, a screening in LA with the Hollyshorts Film Festival, and it’s going to be shown during Squat the Planet’s meet-up in Slab City this fall. Lots of different people have been interested for different reasons. It’s wild actually, because I kind of thought people in the poetry world would turn their backs on it. I don’t know why. Everyone has such a strong reaction to film, and I was nervous about the language feeling overwhelmed by the form. I think of when Bly started incorporating theater into his readings, or when Ginsberg sang Blake, or when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. The response to these things isn’t always positive and I was nervous about challenging the medium, about pushing the vehicle forward. Twentieth century poets have a sort of holier-than-thou relationship to words on the page. They still haven’t fully accepted slam poetry, song lyrics, digital forms, improvisation, etc. There’s a sense that anything performative or cross-genre is gimmicky, even sacrilegious. There’s a sense that anything entertaining is cheap, and that general audiences can’t be trusted. I think this is a huge problem and one of the main things holding poetry back right now. The way we are coming to language is shifting. I think people are ready for a change.

The stated ambition of Riding the Highline is to document the journey you and your brother took, and I see it also aiming for more than that–trying to push the vehicle forward, as you say. Sure, the film is exactly what it says it is, from its first moments: a brief record, in poetry, dialogue, images and narration, of a journey made by two brothers, two poets. But it’s also each of the poems it contains, as well as songs performed by other artists, and what they point to beyond the film: an attitude about the American landscape, a way to move through it. But I wonder if we don’t sometimes confuse “document” with “narrative”; this is one of the questions Sandra Beasley tries to untangle in her essay, “Flint and Tinder: Understanding the Difference Between ‘Poetry of Witness’ and ‘Documentary Poetics.’” If your film is a document, I’m not sure it necessarily is, or tries to be, a full narrative. Were any of these ambitions–or other aims–in your mind as you were making the film?

Yeah, this was a question I struggled with—how much the film should be a straight ‘documentary’ and how much the film should be developed as a work of art. I wanted to make something that felt like a road narrative, but that was also loose enough to incorporate metaphor (which is poetry’s strong suit). I wanted to tell a story, but I also wanted to share a dream. I mean, on one hand, the film is pretty limited by the experience of hopping freight trains, which is obviously illegal and involves all kinds of off-screen complications. You need to stay hidden. You need to be quiet. You can’t just run around with your camera and shoot what you want. It has to be done on the fly, in the moment. In this way, it seems like a documentary to me. But on the other hand, there are the photographs and the poems, which reflect a deeper interpretation of the experience. They slow things down, they meditate on themes of spirituality, American industry, survival, history, etc. The difference here is speed. The speed of film resists interpretation. It allows for a certain amount of randomness and spontaneity to enter in. As viewers, we’re used to interpreting linear and documentary-style images like this. They make sense to us, they put us at ease. Even if we don’t understand everything the director is trying to say (all the suggestive layers and themes) we still enjoy the experience. We don’t question it as much. The speed of poetry is much more recursive. It exists in a dream-space and it reflects things suggestively, emotionally, rather than literally. My hope was that the two different speeds would enhance each other: the documentary side would feel more substantive, and the interpretive side would feel more immediate. One of my biggest goals in poetry has been to create a sense of experience in language. I want my life to touch the words. I want the interpretation to be found in the subtext, in the background, in the off-hand asides of the voice. I want all the intellect to seem like an accident. I mean, when you’re riding a freight train, you don’t have time to comment on the significance of the experience. You feel it in the tone, in the faint atmospherics. You feel it in the rattle and clack of the cars. It is a mood more than a meaning. If I would have made a straight documentary film, I would have lost some of this lyrical power. If I would have made a straight art film, I would have lost the immediacy of the story. My goal was to blend the two modes. I don’t know if I pulled it off, but this was the goal.

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You’ve said that Riding the Highline is composed with an “associative narrative structure.” What has the process of film editing been like, for you? Take “Riding the Owl’s Eye” or “After Havre,” for instance, as they appear in the film. What informed some of the choices you made in editing those portions of the film?

Well, the way I put the film together was pretty simple—I just followed the timeline of the trip. There are a few shots from different areas and locations in there, but most of what you see happens in linear time. I started with the shots from Minnesota and ended with the shots from Washington. If you look closely, you can see my brother and me getting progressively more dirty and haggard throughout the film. The sweat builds up on us. The fatigue sets in. I wanted the poems to do a similar thing. I mean, the “Riding the Owl’s Eye” poem is about the lifestyle and spiritual elements of train riding. The “After Havre” poem is about the death of the American dream. The first poem is lyrical and meditative and the second is based on an historical murder in LA in which the killer escaped by hopping a freight train to Oregon. The tone gets progressively darker. It moves from a bright-eyed naiveté (ala Kerouac), to a wheeling nightmare of associations. When the fiddle comes in with Charlie Parr singing “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone” and you get those saturated shots of the Columbia River, the film offers a little bit of hope. The narrative closes down on a theme rather than a plot point, which I feel more closely approximates a poem. You have the river in the background and the two white cars on the bridge. It might be a little bit biblical.   

The process of film editing has been compared by Walter Murch to the blink of an eye. Likewise the poetic line, and the line break, has been likened to various bodily actions, such as the act of breathing (Ginsberg etc.). Troy Jollimore suggests, in his essay, “‘Just to Watch Them is to Feel Again’: Film & Poetry, Time & Image,” that “the cinematic shot is analogous to the poetic line, and the scene to the stanza.”

Yeah, there are definitely cross-over elements between mediums happening, and the jump cuts are often analogous to linebreaks. In film, just as in poetry, the organization of elements is always about balance and relativity. A slow shot will speed up a fast shot. A green shot will pop out a red shot. A pattern of O sounds will highlight a pattern of I sounds. Everything works this way, regardless of the medium. The best artists are the ones who develop a discernible pattern and then break it at the right time, just when you start getting comfortable. You’re like, I see what you’re doing here, and then BOOM, they flip it on you. It’s more than just a jump cut or a linebreak, it’s about a totality of feeling and an ability to push the pattern beyond the fold. You want peaks and valleys, but you also want the moon. You want something to reach beyond. I think of the scene from Blue Velvet when the camera zooms in on the ear in the grass. Or the scene from Badlands when Kit is throwing all the stuff from the suitcase into the garbage can with the billboard sign in the background. These are odd scenes, symbolic, and slightly out of sync with what surrounds them. They are risks, and they make those films memorable and brilliant. It isn’t enough to have content. It isn’t enough to be beautiful. Beauty comes first, of course, but the deepest beauty stems from asymmetry and idiosyncrasy, not from cohesiveness. In most art, things need to mismatch a little in order to fit. Much of this work is intuitive and is done by setting things next to each other, by seeing what comes next, and allowing yourself to be open. If the mind is dialed in to the feeling of the work, it will happen naturally, like “leaves to a tree” as Keats says. I think this is true across mediums.

You mentioned earlier your depression and restlessness–certainly we can see a certain restlessness and searching in your poems. Lots of movement, both in narrative (place names, etc.) and in the lines themselves. It’s funny, isn’t it, how movement can seem–paradoxically, considering what you say about the speed of film (or of a train for that matter)–to “slow down” time. (Images stand out.) I wonder if this has something to do with the kind of attention the mind can bring to bear on the world when the body is just a passenger, or when one gets away from one’s everyday self.

Image has always been important to me. An image allows the reader to participate in the making of the poem. If you give a reader only sound and rhetoric, they might nod along in agreement, but they might not feel the poem is theirs to inhabit. If you paint a picture, create a scene, the reader can actively form an imaginative landscape. They can walk around there, stretch their legs, and more easily relate to the content. But this is just an issue of craft. The real reason images are important to me is because of my experiences traveling alone. Not just traveling for fun and adventure, but traveling to keep myself free of depression. When I’m passing through landscapes, places unknown, I start to see images differently. I start to see coincidences and matters of fate. Everything seems to be veiled in meaning. When we move outside of our natural environments, our brains start working to map out directions, understand people and places intuitively, and we slip into deeper levels of awareness. When you start taking photographs, carrying a camera around, you notice these moments more frequently. They stand out to you. They seem to shine. And you see they are happening always.


I think of Matt Power floating down the Mississippi on the SS Circle of Death, seeing with river eyes. I think of Robert Bly in his essay “What the Image Can Do” suggesting that an “image…keeps a way open.” Or the lines by Philip Levine that open your film: “wind whipping in / the open door.” Actual wind and an actual door and also something more. A black tunnel, frozen light at the end either approaching or receding. These could all be among Bly’s deep images.

When you write poetry this way (in transit from one location to the next) the language becomes more significant and exact. You hear a more subtle tone. Robert Bly was tapped into this. Definitely in his early poems, many of which involve traveling. I think of his poem, “Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield” when he writes, “What is so strange about a tree alone in an open field? / It is a willow tree. I walk around and around it.” Or his poem “Depression” when he writes, “I felt my heart beat like an engine high in the air/Like those scaffolding engines standing only on planks.” Those are incredible images. Weird, intuitive, memorable. They stay with you. They allow you to participate in the making of the poem. As I mentioned to you at AWP, I was lucky enough to hang out with Robert Bly last summer. We got coffee and talked poetry for a few hours. It was a dream come true for me, and he was very generous with his stories. We talked about James Wright. We talked about our family cabins in northern Minnesota (which are next door to each other on the same lake). He knew my grandfather back in the day. Our ancestors immigrated from the same region in Norway. Lots of crazy overlaps and ties. Shared histories. I read him some of my poems out loud. He read me some of his own. We were just two poetry nerds hanging out at the coffee shop. It was pretty incredible. But yeah, then I made the mistake of showing him a poetry video called, “Holes in the Mountain.” It’s a poem of mine with a montage of video and still photos and my friend Seth playing a pump organ in the background. Robert read the poem on the page and really liked it, but he couldn’t get down with the video. He looked off to the side and said, “When is this going to be over?” He was visibly irritated by the whole thing. I was pretty crest-fallen about it. I felt like I’d failed him.

You mentioned earlier being “nervous about the language feeling overwhelmed by the form.” I wonder if this has anything to do with Bly’s response; that a film presentation might narrow or close down the way offered by a poem and its images, instead of leaving that way open. Possibly this narrowing is unavoidable, or even desirable. The worry might be that to assign one film image to a string of words or to a literary image, whatever the relationship (associative, illustrative), might be to fix that literary image in a way a poem usually aims to avoid, on its own.

Yeah, I think this had something to do with it. Bly was invested in the imagery of a poem, not the imagery of photography and film. But then again, he also used to play the sitar during poetry readings and he incorporated storytelling and other performative threads. He sang songs. He wore masks. He had all kinds of tricks up his sleeve. I think his reaction is probably typical for poets of his generation. They grew up with more rigidly defined genres. They didn’t grow up with video cameras and websites and YouTube channels the way we did. They wrote letters to each other. The literary culture was smaller and more intimate. Twenty-first century poetry, as I see it, is more about breaking down boundaries of genre. It’s about cross-pollination, sampling, sharing, remixing, riffing on old forms, and using all sorts of new media. The fear of all this is a dilution of quality, but I don’t think it comes at the expense of the poem. There will always be the poem itself, the poem on the page. But there will also be the poem set to music, the poem as video, the poem online, in a series of additional contexts. I mean, is the film Short Cuts as good as the Carver stories it’s based on? No. Is the film Apocalypse Now a better work of art than Heart of Darkness? Probably. But I don’t see the film versions detracting in any way from the literature. I see them enlarging the literature, creating new visions and angles of approach. The imagery in a poem can certainly make a deep connection to the collective subconscious, but so can the photographs of Joel Sternfeld and Robert Frank, the visual landscapes of Terrence Malick, the music of Bob Dylan or Iron and Wine. When I watch a music video for one of my favorite songs, I don’t feel the video harms the music, I feel like it expands the potential of the song. It allows me to see the musicians. It gives me a better sense of their vibe, and allows for a broader context to develop. It isn’t only about marketing and YouTube views, it’s also about how the art survives, how it lives in the world and continues to evolve.


You talked a bit in an interview you conducted with Nate Pritts back in 2011 about what you called a “division of aesthetics…between traditional print journals and the journals that appeal to the youths of today.” About, as Pritts put it, places where “their own concerns & obsessions & energies [are] reflected back.” The two of you were discussing print journals, of course, but I can’t help wonder if the kind of work you, Motionpoems and others are doing with poetry and film isn’t one way that poetry does that reflecting. Do you think that there is a different audience for poetry films than there is, say, for a traditional journal or book of poems? Do you think this could point toward new ways of sharing poetry that not only reach different audiences but also speaks to our experience of the world in ways that aren’t available with more traditional media such as books and journals?

Yes. Definitely. The question of audience is a big part of the push here. I mean, the sad reality of publishing poetry is that almost nobody reads it. When you compare this to music, photography, prose, etc., poetry is barely approached by anyone. A few people read Billy Collins or Mary Oliver or whatever, but this is too often an occasional sort of readership. It’s an introductory-level zone and it requires minimal effort and commitment. It’s like listening to Coldplay or Dave Matthews Band. It’s like saying your favorite movie is Garden State. The poetry is enjoyable but it follows a familiar formula and takes about as much risk as a cheese plate. I mean, there’s plenty of contemporary poetry out there that is radical and beautiful and is willing to change the world. If you’re reading contemporary poetry then you know what I mean. The problem is the vehicle, not the audience. People want to read poetry. People love to read and write poetry, but the way it’s currently delivered is not sexy. It’s just absolutely not fucking cool. The journals are boring. The workshops are boring. The large majority of the poets I know are competing for future careers. The culture has been sidelined into academic institutions and petty competitions for jobs. And everyone complains about the anti-intellectualism of America right now, but, I mean, how many people own a copy of “Howl”? How many people had formative times watching Dead Poet’s Society or The Basketball Diaries in high school? How many people woke their souls up slightly reading “Song of Myself” in college? The audience for poetry is real. It’s massive. And I really think there are people out there who need to read it, who, as William Carlos Williams puts it, “die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” I really think this is true. And I don’t know if it’s the pastor’s kid in me talking now, but I do feel called to deliver these poems. I feel a responsibility to make this stuff work. I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in god in poetry. I believe there is a spiritual realm made available to us through art. And however this spirit comes through—whether in the form of poetry, photography, film, or whatever—doesn’t really matter to me. I think they can each tell a piece of the same story. I think they can all be friends.

What’s around the bend? Does your photography and your film making have some role to play in where you’re headed next, in your work?

The next thing I’m working on is this series of videos. I’ve been working on a book called “Rail” for the last seven years. It deals with depression, homelessness, transience, grief, and the myth of the American West. Freight trains are the main theme. All the poems are thematically linked and they build up a narrative plot. This has been my vision for the book since 2008. But I also have this dream of making a video version. Sort of like a music album, but with a group of linked poems telling a story. I’ve got eight poems picked out from my manuscript so far, and I’m slowly piecing together the visuals. I think it’ll be pretty cool. Sort of like La Jetée meets On the Road. You know, I already mentioned this briefly, but ever since I started taking photographs for the project I’ve noticed these crazy connections. I’ll have a poem about a speedboat or whatever, and I’ll go looking for an actual speedboat to photograph. Maybe I’ll find a picture of a speedboat, or a man in a captain’s hat, or something like this, but I’ll start seeing all these layered connections. I’ll write about poodles and here comes a poodle. I’ll write about someone who’s missing an arm and then here comes a one-armed man. It’s really bizarre, but it keeps happening. Almost as if the poems begin to exist in a parallel world, as if the act of writing the poem itself is giving reality form. I’m sure this is all in my head, but it makes the writing more fun, and gives me these new ways of seeing. I think it was Anaïs Nin who said, “We write to taste life twice.” Well, this is like tasting life three or four times. Like claiming a booth at the Country Buffet. Ha ha. Not exactly the perfect analogy, but you get what I’m saying. It expands the potential. It broadens the range of your eye. Most of our writing is done in a vacuum. In small rooms, in complete isolation from the rest of the world. This is fine, but I think there’s more to the experience. There’s a way we can carry the poetry with us. We can write about life, but we can also live the writing. It doesn’t have to end with the words.

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Photos: Kai Carlson-Wee

Two poems by Kai Carlson-Wee, “White Pine” and “Westbound Train” appear in the Summer & Fall 2015 issue of Poetry Northwest.