Interview by Carson Colenbaugh


 Disease of Kings is a spare yet plumbing collection of poems set in “a midwestern city at once gritty with reality and achingly anonymous” that “leads us into the heart of one friendship’s uneasy domesticity.” Carlson-Wee’s is a poetry of frugality: it’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the ornamentation of figurative language and rhyme and allusion, but folks, the man is on a budget. He is working within the constraints of economics & lyric, and he’s investing in story. He’s investing in observation. He’s investing in, to quote his poem “Where I’m At,” the “only thing there is to say.”

Following his visit to Nashville, I had the chance to correspond with Carlson-Wee about the legacies, communities, and artistic inputs that drive his work.


[Carson Colenbaugh] Your new collection of poems, Disease of Kings, is a narrative told through tightly controlled poetic lines about, per W.W. Norton, “the tender yet volatile friendship between two young scammers living off the fat of society,” and so far it’s received a lot of coverage through various outlets. What’s one detail about the collection (narrative, craft, writing process, etc.) that you always hope an interviewer will ask about? Can you elaborate on it?

[Anders Carlson-Wee] One thing that rarely comes up is how much Disease of Kings is a book about food. As a reader, you’re following these two friends who spend all their time looking for it, finding it, stealing it, cleaning it, hoarding it, and eating it. The whole book is one big communion, albeit the sacraments are lifted from the trash. And food is at the center of much of the story’s drama. For example, in Section II, when North—the narrator’s only friend—takes seasonal work fishing in Alaska, the narrator rents out North’s room as a bed and breakfast and makes meals for his guests from the food he finds in dumpsters, although, naturally, he never tells his guests where the food comes from. Later in the book, in the poem “Gout,” the speaker and North have found so much rich food that North can’t help but gorge on these wildly expensive delicacies, and his overconsumption leads to a bad attack of gout, also called “the disease of kings.” Throughout the collection, the significance of food keeps shapeshifting, at times representing freedom, at times a trap, and at other times a yearning for connection, or for something closer to a spiritual awakening.

As an early alum of Vanderbilt’s MFA program, you studied under Kate Daniels, Mark Jarman, Rick Hilles, Beth Bachmann, & Lorrie Moore, but you’ve also learned the craft of poetry at other places like the Sewanee Writers’ Conference & Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Is there a pair of complementary mentors who don’t know about each other? Who doesn’t know they filled a gap in your Vandy education? Who at Vanderbilt doesn’t realize they taught you something nobody else could? 

At Vanderbilt, Mark Jarman taught me a great deal about the beginnings and endings of poems, and I’ll always be deeply grateful. Mark and I are both pastor’s kids, and I think that helped strengthen our bond. Outside Vanderbilt, my greatest mentor has been the poet Mary Cornish, my professor at Fairhaven College. Mary brought poetry to life for me and made it blaze with overwhelming brightness. More consequentially, she gave me the confidence to believe that I could be myself and write in a manner that felt intuitively true to me, and through that inward turn, I could contribute something of value. Until she helped me see that, I felt Id have to bend myself and conform to preexisting notions of what poetry is and should be. Thanks to her and her alone, I have the confidence to be myself and write from a place of profound personal freedom. Thank you, Mary. 

Vanderbilt has a deep, complex, sometimes progressive & sometimes troubled history of poets & poems stemming from its halls. How do you see yourself fitting and/or not fitting into this history? What progress do you believe you can make or are making as a poet of the early 21st Century? As a poet of this present moment? 

Across time, Vanderbilt has taken an interest in narrative poetry, and I think that’s my largest connection to its history and its present community. As a writer, I have no idea if I’m making any progress, or if the notion of progress is useful to this life, but I can only hope my writing contributes something of value to someone or something, now or hence. Like the rest of our lives, we’ll probably never know what our art signifies. But I do believe that our lives and our art signify something beautiful, beyond our comprehension. 

What other arts do you find yourself most consistently in-conversation with as a poet? Fiction & nonfiction prose, visual art, sculpture, theatre & film, etc? Most people know Nashville as a music city before they know it as a literary one; how does music factor into your craft, if at all? 

As a narrative poet, I feel a close affinity for short stories and novels. I read more fiction than poetry, and usually prefer it, but not always. A truly beautiful poem is so overwhelming and magical. Also, my parents are both Lutheran pastors and their sermons have left an indelible mark on all my work. (Thank you, Mom and Dad.) Finally, my writing has a deep relationship to rollerblading, which was my first love and the realm in which I was schooled in aesthetics. From age ten to age twenty, I rollerbladed at least four hours a day, every day, and now I experience a kind of synesthesia between rollerblading and writing. Most of the craft choices in my poems derive from the craft of rollerblading tricks. I refuse to explain.

How has a sense of community grown/changed/shifted as you’ve continued developing as a poet? How do other writer friends currently factor into your creative process? How have they in the past? What’s a goal related to community you’re still striving for? 

The poet Edgar Kunz and I have a very close creative relationship, which we forged at Vanderbilt. Hes helped shape just about everything I’ve ever written, and I hope I’ve helped him. Beyond that, I keep a handful of close writer friends that I share work with. Otherwise I mostly hangout with rock climbers.

Okay: Lightning Round. The poet you’re influenced by that someone would be least likely to guess:

Hayden Carruth

Your all-time favorite beginning line to a poem:

Don’t have one, but I like this from Jack Gilbert: “There was a great tenderness to the sadness / when I would go there.”  

Your all-time favorite concluding line to a poem:

Don’t have one, but I like this from Carol Ann Duffy: “Into my life, larger than life, beautiful, you strolled in.” But that isn’t the last line of the poem—this is: “There you are / on the bed, like a gift, like a touchable dream.” 

If you had to name a new poetic movement (Imagists, Beat Generation, Black Mountain School, etc.) right now, what would you call it?

Movements are groupthink masquerading as revolution. I will not name one. 

The book of poems everyone should read before they even think about sending out their first manuscript:

The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert 


Anders Carlson-Wee is the author of Disease of Kings, out now from W.W. Norton. He is also the author of The Low Passions (W.W. Norton, 2019), a New York Public Library Book Group Selection, and Dynamite, (Bull City Press, 2015), winner of the Frost Place Chapbook Prize. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Washington Post, Harvard Review, BuzzFeed, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sun, The Southern Review, and many other publications. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writers, the Camargo Foundation, Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, he is the winner of the Poetry International Prize.

Carson Colenbaugh is a writer from Kennesaw, Georgia. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review,, Birmingham Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He has received support from Clemson University, Vanderbilt University, Newman Wetlands Center, and the Tor House Foundation. He is currently an MFA Candidate in Poetry at Vanderbilt University, where he teaches creative writing and serves as an editor at Nashville Review.