[Note: This interview was conducted by Rich Smith at Oddfellows Café + Bar in Seattle, WA on November 7, 2013. The poets, Lisa Ciccarello, Matthew Dickman, Amber Nelson, and Danniel Schoonebeek drove up together from Portland to give a reading at Vermillion. Amber Nelson organized the reading to celebrate the release of Schoonebeek’s chapbook Family Album (Poor Claudia) and the announcement of his first full-length collection of poems American Barricade (YesYesBooks), PLUS the release of Ciccarello’s The Shore In Parts (graying ghost press), PLUS the release of Nelson’s first full-length book In Anima: Urgency (Coconut Books), PLUS the release of Matthew Dickman’s nothing at all, but if you don’t have his most recent collection, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, do yourself a favor and pick it up.]
[We’re sitting at a long table, surrounded by clinking silverware, laughter, boozery of all sorts, pasta, fancy eggs, and the washed out nautical-Americana décor of the restaurant.]
RS: Ciccarello, I’m really into 18th century plant hunters right now, the backroom men of flora—men who would and did die for the sake of a flower. Are you currently going down some kind of arcane intellectual rabbit hole?
Ciccarello: [Laughing] In fact, I am. One of the holes I’m going down is the Newgate Calendar, which is a record of the stories of all the people who were hanged or otherwise executed in this very famous British prison. I love that. I’ve written a lot of poems very loosely based on the stories contained in there. The other hole is less arcane but more bizarre, maybe? I’m rewriting an entire Agatha Christie novel set in ancient Egypt, and it’s written as a set of tweet-able prose poems. Maybe I’m only interested in the archaic? The imagined archaic and the actual.
RS: Dickman, do you feel, as I feel, that the closet analog to the poet is the standup comedian?
Dickman: Maybe? I think it’s one that could be. If I watch comedians who are really special—people like Rock, or Ansari—I think both of them are like poets in that they touch on things that are part of our human mystery. I think stand up comics do it. Poets do it. Rap artists do it. I think anyone who is touching upon the wonderment and mystery of being a human being is dealing with poetry in some way
Schoonebeek: Can I jump in on that?
RS: You bet.
Schoonebeek: In practice, comedians remind me so much of poets because you write your poems in seclusion and then you try them out on an audience. I might even respect comedians more than poets. If you say a line of poetry and nobody claps then you don’t give a shit because that’s just what happens at poetry readings.
Dickman: I think that sucks though!
Schoonebeek: Right, but as a comedian that’s devastating. And they memorize all their work.
Ciccarello: They make people laugh at stuff that’s upsetting or touching or offensive or dangerous and they turn that into humor. And I think you specifically [she’s looking at Dickman], you have these moments that are funny, but underneath it all they’re also so terrible. And so in that way it’s a pretty fair analogy.
Dickman: Yeah, I mean, who has ever been to a funeral and not laughed? And who has ever been to a wedding and not cried? More people have sex after funerals than they do after weddings. That is a fact. That I’ve lived.
[Lots of laughter]
Schoonebeek: No one feels alone while they’re laughing. Which is the great ruse of comedy. You can talk about dying or something that’s taboo, and because you’re in a room full of people all laughing about it no one feels scared or offended. That’s amazing.
Nelson: I got blasted with Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords in Boise. That was amazing.
[Lots of laughter]
RS: Schoonebeek, do you have to be in a mood to write? What mood were you in when you were writing Family Album?
Schoonebeek: I don’t feel like I have to be in any mood to write, but I am pretty rigid about process. I would never write while drinking. I don’t smoke when I’m writing. For me, writing is a sober space. And it has to just be lucid thought in that way, not informed by anything else going on.
Family Album was a poem that I’ve been writing for about four years. I was trying to write poems that were as short as a tweet but in the form of a fortune. One you would get in a cookie. I got really interested in pre-determined fatalism in that way. But the poems sucked and so I didn’t do anything with them. But then the poems turned into this collaboration thing that I do with Allyson Paty, and I recasted them as monostich poems—these long, one-line poems that were all stacked on top of each other, each with their own title. I stole that from Ted Berrigan. He’s got this poem called “Rusty Nails,” where it’s just 30 mini-poems under the title “Rusty Nails,” and so I thought, “Oh I never thought of having titled subsets.” And so I started redrafting it. “I” was the pronoun the whole time as I was doing it, and it still wasn’t working, and then I got so interested in what Frank Bidart does—he uses “you” to talk about himself—and so I started writing them with “son,” as the major pronoun, and then ended up writing a family narrative that way, talking about myself in the third person.
RS: Very good. Amber Nelson.
RS: Of the arts, which is the most powerful?
Nelson: I know I’m supposed to say poetry, but really it’s dance. I’m a big dance aficionado. I spend more of my time going to see live dance than I do poetry. I like the dancer’s ability to articulate without words.
RS: Ciccarello, the publication of The Shore In Parts marks five chapbooks. You could have had, at this point, two 48-64 pg manuscripts broken into three slightly related sections suitable for inspection by a contest judge, university press, or publishing giant. What’s your plan here?
[Lots of laughter]
Ciccarello: I think the plan here is that I really love working with small projects. And the projects all feel really distinct to me. Danniel [Schoonebeek] has given me a lot of crap for being so—”This is a mummy poem”— and he’s like, “What does that mean?” But in my head it means a lot! They are these really distinct projects and I want them to find a life as such. And I don’t want to smoosh them together into a book. That seems so…I’m just not ok with that.
Schoonebeek: If I could piggy back on that, too—
RS: All yours.
Schoonebeek: I respect that so much about you, Lisa [Ciccarello]. It opposes the way you’re supposed to think about getting your book published, and that’s totally fine.
Dickman: Yeah, it’s not anti-publishing, but it goes against the grain of how you normally publish. You look at the Yale Younger List, and people still look at that contest as a really important contest—which it is—but you look at that list, and even if you’re a really well-read person you’ll look through it and recognize fewer than a quarter of the people on it. So it’s the secular world and the spiritual world. And maybe what Lisa’s doing is being more engaged with the spiritual world.
Dickman: [Laughing] Yeah buddy?
RS: You, like me, make some coin as an ad man. Some people would say that’s the devil’s work. Do you share their view in some way?
Dickman: No! Those people are suckers. [Laughter] I think commercials and advertising can be a form of art. They can break social norms. The best kind of advertising works like short films, and I think writing for advertising is something that poets should try to do more of.
But: I love television. I love watching commercials. The worst commercials out there are ones that are patronizing to the viewer, but when you see a great commercial it’s really moving and really wonderful. And anyone out there who is like, “I don’t watch TV,” or, “I’m not into branding,”—that’s kinda bullshit. Everything is branded. We brand ourselves.
Ciccarello: “I don’t watch TV” is totally a brand.
Schoonebeek: In the car earlier we listened to some commercials on the radio and Lisa and I got some goose bumps. But does anyone here feel at all uncomfortable about using writing in the service of selling a product, though?
Dickman: No. I don’t feel bad. That’s what I want. I keep going to Coca Cola because I want them to do a commercial with Frank O’Hara reading, “Having a Coke with You.” That’s where I want poetry to be.
Schoonebeek: [Laughing] I’m right here.
RS: Though it is a great honor to be nominated for the Ruth Lilly, [knowing laughter and general uproar] do you feel that they—the people at Poetry and at other arts organizations—should do away with the whole nomination folderol and announce only the winners of things?
Schoonebeek: When I read the email that I was a finalist I freaked out. Not in a call-my-mom kinda way, but I just expected a rejection because I’ve sent that to that contest so many times in a row. But when it actually said, “You’re in consideration for this thing,” I went, “Oh wow.” I stared at it for a while. I immediately felt anxious. And then I spent a lot of time until the announcement feeling very anxious about it.
RS: One month of saying, “Well, 15,000 dollars would change my life.”
Schoonebeek: Yep. And what I said to people was exactly that. The most money I’ve ever had in my bank account in my entire life is $7,000. To know that you can get that money for work that you’ve written would change my life. The notoriety associated with it would be huge. I’d also found out at the same time that I was being laid off from my job, and I was planning this tour, so the difference between going on this tour with fifteen grand and four grand is immeasurable.
But to answer your question: no. It keeps people submitting. You don’t pay anything to submit to the Lilly. And people rag on Poetry Foundation quite a bit, but they pay their writers when they publish them. They give fifteen grand to emerging poets. They do the right thing with their money.
It was amazing to me because I don’t write what I think of as their kind of work. When Don Share took over, one of the first people they took was CAConrad. He’s major to me. He’s experimental in a lot of ways. I think they’re now taking a lot more chances on writers.
RS: Hear hear. Amber, did you have a breakthrough moment when you felt like your book In Anima: Urgency was shaping up to be a book?
Nelson: In Anima was totally different than anything I’d ever written ever. It was a game. I felt an urge to write, and I developed a process, and I decided to write these things, and I didn’t know what they were, and I wrote a lot of them. I wrote about 60 of them, and I enjoyed writing them, and people told me to keep writing them, and I was very unsure about it the whole time. I let it sit for a while, and then I was reading Hélène Cixou’s The Book of Promethea and then my book took shape. I was noticing things and taking notes and making realizations about what I had been thinking about through In Anima, having realizations about my own process as I was reading. The book itself is shaped by a few quotations from her: five sections, five separate quotations that were directly related to what I was working on.
RS: Ciccarello, I would like to call attention to your blog, Punching Little Birds in the Face. What do you get out of blogging? Are you in it for the exhibitionist’s tingle, or does it give you access to a kind of community, or what?
Nelson: And, if I may, what do you get out of punching birds in the face?
Ciccarello: [Laughing] Two parts. One thing is I don’t even think that many people visit my blog, so there’s no community, there’s no reaching out. But that’s ok, because here’s the thing: I’m a person with a really miserable memory. Somehow the blog is like this scrolling, undeletable record of things that I’ve done or seen or photographed or participated in. It’s weirdly a very personal thing. I also think of it as a CV+. All of the publications are there, and all the chapbooks and photographs. It’s an online publications list with a personality.
The punching little birds in the face thing is related to Richard Siken. On the drive up here we talked about how Crush is an instant classic. One of my friends at the University of Arizona Poetry center mentioned that Richard had this blog, and I said, “What’s the name of the blog?” and she said, “I don’t know, it’s like: ‘Punching little birds in the face.'” And I said really? And she said something like, “No, it’s like, ‘Birds Will Peck You.'” And I said well then the title’s mine. I took that. And it was like five years ago and I have never left it.
RS: Dickman, what’s your position on baths?
[Schoonebeek shouts “Oooohhh”]
Ciccarello: Where did that come from? I can’t believe that’s on there.
Dickman: This is my thing. I live in Portland, Oregon. I live in a double studio.
RS: What the hell is a double studio?
Dickman: It’s a one-bedroom without a wall. Great little old apartment. I love it. Except: all it has is a standup shower. And I love baths. I love baths so much that each winter—maybe a couple times throughout the season—I rent a room at the Ace Hotel. I won’t tell anyone. And I’ll go there with a detective novel and some whiskey and I’ll take baths for 24 hours.
RS: 24 hours straight you’re in a tub of water?
Dickman: I’m in and out.
RS: How do you regulate the temperature?
Dickman: I just keep doing new baths. I’ll get up in the morning and take a bath. I’ll read. I’ll get out of the bath and go for a walk. Half an hour later I’ll come back, go up to the room, and start a bath. Then I take that bath. Then I get out and watch a movie.
RS: You’ve got a whole bath schedule.
Dickman: I do about four baths a day.
RS: I feel like I’m too big for a bath. Don’t you feel like you’re too big?
Dickman: It depends on the bathtub. I spent a month in Marfa, Texas, and they had a bath there that was 7 ft long and 2 ½ ft tall.
Nelson: That’s so much water.
Dickman: That’s so much water in Texas. I took a bath every night and read The Three Musketeers.
Nelson: I’m 5’1 and I think most baths are too small. I get so worried about tall people taking baths.
RS: Schoonebeek, to whom do you most often send your first drafts of poems?
Schoonebeek: Always to friends.
RS: Would you name them?
Schoonebeek: I usually don’t send them unless I feel like they’re good, so it’s just kind of this affirmation hotline. I think a lot of people do that, right? They’re not necessarily looking for criticism. I’m not really interested in workshops anymore, having done it for years, and when I send stuff to friends there’s a graceful poise to the way they write back. They’ll say “I’d tweak this one thing or this one other thing.” There’s a tacit understanding that your poem is your poem and I’m not gonna mess with it.
Ciccarello: I just want someone to high-five me for making something. That’s it.
RS: You didn’t answer my question.
Schoonebeek: Name names?
Schoonebeek: I’m very close with Allyson Paty; she’s my heart of hearts. Melissa Broder and I trade drafts quite a bit. Lisa and I trade drafts.
Ciccarello: It’s more like I send stuff to you and I say, “I’m still making stuff,” and you say, “Yes you are.” You don’t need me!
Schoonebeek: That’s what I’m saying though! It’s an encouragement thing. If you sent me something that was an absolute fucking disaster I’d be like, “Don’t write that anymore.” But ten times out of ten I end up saying, “Ok, I see how this is taking shape. Here’s what I like about it. One or maybe two things I would change.” But you reach a certain point where you can’t be like (he takes on a snooty voice) “Well, put it in prose!” You can’t change another person’s poem.
Dickman: (also in a snooty voice) “Maybe this is two poems.”
Schoonebeek: (still snooty) “Maybe negate the ending.”
RS: Nelson, do you consider Leonardo DiCaprio a careful and powerful actor, or is he, to you, a squinty-eyed throwback trying to tell you how to live your life?
Nelson: I haven’t super been into Leo since I was 14, when Titanic came out. But. Let’s be real. It wasn’t Titanic, it was Romeo and Juliet.
[Laughter and a lot of nodding]
RS: Romeo + Juliet.
RS: That’s when I hated them the most. (in a bad Jersey Shore accent) “Let lips do what hands do—”
Nelson: I was a teenage girl! Give me a fucking break! [Laughing] I actually kind of like him, depending. I haven’t liked him in everything, but he’s been much more impressive than I would have expected. So, something like…the movie everyone loved but I thought was disappointing…it was…what was the one with the dreidel thing?
RS: Oh, Inception?
Nelson: Yes! I was a little whatever about it. It had Tom Hardy and Marion Cotillard. They were great. Leo in The Departed, I like. Gangs of New York did nothing for me, but most Martin Scorsese pics don’t do it for me. I’ll still watch a Leo movie, but it’s not going to be the vehicle to get me into the theatre. On the other hand, I own Romeo + Juliet and still watch it sometimes.
RS: Cicarello, when someone just so happens to have loose change in his pocket, does your trust for that person increase?
Ciccarello: Well, so here’s the thing. The real thing. In Oregon I might mistrust somebody that has change in his pocket because you know exactly what everything costs and it only costs that. But I came here and bought a chapstick and it said one price and I paid a different price and I got confused and then I understood that it was tax. So in Seattle I would certainly trust a man with change is his pocket because you never actually know what you’ll have to pay.
RS: Nelson, heads or tails?
RS: It’s heads. Nelson, relying on our strengths can be our greatest weakness. What poetic rhetorical device do you find yourself falling back on?
Nelson: The relationship poem.
RS: [Laughing] I’m talking about anaphora, or synesthesia, parallelism, etc.
Nelson: I compete against it so so hard, that desire. I create all of the processes to make that not happen. But, I think, probably the “of.”
RS: The x of the y.
Ciccarello: Mine is the “and.” I could “and” forever.
RS: Dickman, same question.
Dickman: A full-circle poem. I’ll start off somewhere and then I’ll move onto something else, and then I’ll feel like I need to come back to something to put a little bowtie on it. So more and more lately I’ve been trying not to do that. Just let it fall off the earth.
Schoonebeek: Anaphora. Refrains. I love returning to a line instantly. I love revising the line after it with the same beginning, like a restart or a false start.
When I was listening to Dickman’s poem’s tonight I loved hearing the anaphora. You blank over the anaphora itself and it becomes incantatory.
Ciccarello: But there’s a slight difference. His lines have a range. The first two or so words are the same, but the lines vary significantly. So sometimes you blank out the anaphora, but sometimes it pulls you back in.
RS: Ciccarello, is there a word or two that you can never spell right the first time?
Ciccarello: This is so embarrassing but anything with the “e” and the “i.” Like field and ceiling. I always feel like spell check will fix it. Also, apology.
RS: ABSOLUTELY. Because maybe there’s two p’s, right?
[Lots of nodding]
RS: Schoonebeek, would you like to use this interview as a platform to announce your admiration, ambivalence, or plain disgust for the work of Kenneth Goldsmith?
Schoonebeek: No. No I would not.
RS: Dickman, same question.
Dickman: Sure, why not. Who’s Kenneth Goldsmith?
RS: Perfect. Nelson—
Nelson: Well, Kenneth Goldsmith: I don’t care, first of all.
Ciccarello: Even more indifferent than DiCaprio!
RS: [Laughing] Would you be inclined to agree with me or to disagree with me if I were to tell you that you can only write about poetry in poems and nothing about life?
Nelson: Ouch. I’m inclined to disagree with you, but I’m inclined to say that all poems can always be read at all times as kind of being about poetry. Even if they’re not. But I could also argue that all poems are possibly about movies that star Leonardo DiCaprio. And I could probably write a paper about how every poem you ever wrote was actually about Leo.
RS: All, What is your spirit animal?
Nelson: Oh, that shit is a shark.
Schoonebeek: I hate this question, but I have an answer. It’s probably a goose.
Dickman: Polar Bear.
[Then we played a game of 3-second animals.]
RS: Do you have any questions for me?
Dickman: Yeah, how do you deal with pain?
RS: Physical pain?
RS: With physical pain I channel my soccer coach. He always shouted, “Pepper that goal!” And so I just channel my coach and say…
Ciccarello: You just say, “Pepper that goal.”
Dickman: Yeah, pepper that goal.
Nelson: I have no idea what that means.
RS: With psychic pain? I don’t have a therapist, so I call my friend Willie to see if he’s doing anything. Or I get one glass of bourbon in and try to get into a poem. Or use that energy and wrap it around some language. Or I run away from it by doing some physical activity. I recognize it as the physical response it is and I run.
Ciccarello: Are you ever without humor?
RS: Yes. When I am being absolutely denied something I want, I’m humorless.
[Dickman hugs me.]
Rich Smith is the author of Great Poem of Desire and Other Poems, published by Poor Claudia. His poems have appeared or will soon appear in Tin House, City Arts Magazine, Guernica, Southeast Review, Hobart, Barrow Street, The Bellingham Review, Pleiades, Verse Daily, and elsewhere.