The names you give your collections, Otherwise Jesus, No Sign on the Island, seem to me like haikus wanting to expand. All of them have a developed irony to them and the juxtapositions of each flow into one another, especially when considering the release of your new mini-chap from Ghost City Press, The Lucidity of Giving Up. Is this a trend evolving into a kind of mythos, or a nice coincidence?
It’s a little of both I guess (although I can’t speak to the mythos aspect as much of course). The names of the two chaps have come from conversations I’ve had with my best friend from high school and they’re phrases taken out of context from those convos. I like that the chaps’ poems themselves give the titles their meaning, which I feel like is better than vice versa; makes it feel more organic and natural. The title for my microchap (LoGU) came more from my brain but hopefully it retained that enigmatic/ironic quality you point out so nicely.
Would you say that the concept of faith is a common theme in your work?
Absolutely. I don’t identify as a Christian anymore, but it still haunts me and my writing, in mostly good ways. I think I found my poetic voice in Jan 2015, when I wrote “Secular Penance” and it was picked up by Maudlin House. That poem was about finding more community in a psych ward than at a Christian college I didn’t always fit in at (Wheaton College in IL). Of course, much of the reason I didn’t fit in was because I was so in my own head during that time. My other Maudlin poem from that year, “Muslim Neighbor,” deals explicitly with the intersection between faith and bigotry with regards to a gay Christian/Muslim relationship and their disapproving parents. Essentially with that poem I wanted to have my cake and eat it too: I wanted to show religious bigotry (the Muslim parents), a gay-affirming faith that our generation seems to getting better at every day (including at places like Wheaton with each successive class), and the very human problems and joys of being in a relationship. OJ is where faith shows up the most because I was growing out of it right as I found myself poetically, but it’s in the other 3 collections of mine if you squint really hard. I think my most sacrilegious poem is “Curvature” in LoGU; the most anti-church poem is “Perimeter Church” in No Sign. Expect religion to show up quite a bit in my next chap though, which is more narrative-focused.
I find that, no matter how dark an atmosphere you appear to establish, you manage to slip in a little dash of good humor. Was this something that happened naturally? What is your typical process as a whole?
I typically start out dark. My mind has always been dark and morbid since I was a kid, so it’s a baseline I start out with rather than something I try to achieve. I sprinkle in humor here and there unintentionally mostly to keep myself from going pitch black into all-consuming darkness.
Some of the work I read of yours initially gave me the impression that you write with other voices or characters in mind, which is unique in a rather confessional time of poetics. Do you think this rings true at all?
Yes, but I’ve been trying to mix it up post-OJ. OJ is almost 100% persona and contained so many character poems that it became tiresome, and I eventually moved on to more confessional writing in No Sign, which has about a 50/50 split between confessional and persona. I tried writing a straight confessional poem in July, and it was terrible. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t me or my style or anything that resembles my writing conceptually so it felt false. I alternate back and forth between confessional and persona/narrative, and I feel like that will continue unless I have a revelation. The closest I’ve gotten to a revelation was at This Lil Lit Fest a couple weekends ago, where I was in the presence of so many killer poets, most of whom were working within that confessional vein but who all had found their own individual voices within it. This of course made me alternate between despair at the state of my own writing (which I found to be less accessible/relatable because it’s often more conceptually rigorous and just, well, worse) and extreme joy at the prospect of being a part of a literary community. But on the real, despite how hard I am with myself, I do think I have achieved my own style throughout these two years.
Who are some authors you frequently return to for guidance and entertainment?
Favorite poem: “First Communions” by Rimbaud
Favorite poets: Arthur Rimbaud, John Ashbery, Philip Larkin, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, Jericho Brown
Favorite poet friends: Gail Wronsky, Ernest Hilbert, Justin Quinn, Emily O’Neill, Luis Neer, Erin Taylor, Alli Simone Defeo, plus everyone else who was at This Lil Lit Fest
As a graduate of Wheaton College and an English Literature Major, do you feel that your time studying the art form in a classroom setting impacted the way you execute your personal style? Was it an easy decision to undergo those courses? How long would you say you have had an interest in creating poetry and other written forms?
I’m glad you brought this up. Wheaton’s Lit and Philosophy departments are pretty difficult academically, and, although it was sometimes rough going, I think it really prepared me to engage literary questions from a more academic perspective. There’s a trade-off of course, and it means my work is nowhere near as immediate or affecting as some other poets, but it was important for me to see how the pieces fit together academically before I could approach poetry personally. It’s both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness, but it’s helped me develop my own style at least. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 9, and my trajectory was: unfinished children’s fantasy novel in elementary/middle school (the concept for which wasn’t half bad actually) → short stories but aspiring to write more serious literary fiction novels eventually, in high school → and, starting sophomore year of college, poems, poems that became not shitty/palatable second semester senior year after “Secular Penance.”
Any upcoming projects or plans?
I have a chap called Michelin I’m just finishing now that’s an expansion of “Michelin Chef Murder” from No Sign. It’s about two French chefs who committed suicide in 2003 and 2016 because of the pressure to perform at a high level due to the Michelin restaurant rating scale that started in France. It’s probably my most ambitious project formally, so I’m really excited about it. In terms of more long-term plans, I hope to attend grad school next year.
And, to conclude, mention a few ways we can offer support.
Buy Otherwise Jesus ($5 until the end of August from Ghost City Press), No Sign on the Island ($10 from Bottlecap Press), and The Lucidity of Giving Up (which is free or pay-what- you-want, with the donations going straight to me, also from Ghost City Press)!
Interview conducted by Jordan Hoxsie