Alex Lemon is the author of four poetry collections, including Mosquito (2006), Hallelujah Blackout (2008), and Fancy Beasts (2010), which was a recipient of a 2011 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. His newest collection, The Wish Book (2014), continues his exploration of voices in despair, thirst, satiation, and love that one can also find in his first full-length prose work, Happy: A Memoir (2009). He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is an Associate Professor at Texas Christian University and an Editor-at-Large for Saturnalia Books. His awards include a 2005 Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Alex joined me one stormy morning to discuss the messiness of life and writing, in an old tower with a fittingly leaky roof.
Interviewer: Your forthcoming book is a collection of essays—what can readers expect in this new work? Is it more collegiate political science? Are you heading back in that direction?
Alex Lemon: [Laughing] No, it’s not like this intensely analytical collection. I’m not trying to write policy about international relations. I’ve been working on essays for a long time. I think the first real essay that I was committed to was published in the Southern Review and it’s called “Heartdusting,” which was a notable essay in Best American Essays 2011. And it has the same kind of lyrical thrust and associative jumps that happen, probably, in a poem, right? That same kind of fragmented movement.
Something like the leaps in “My Misogyny”?
Yeah, that’s another one that’s going to be in the collection. “Like Any Nightmare,” and “Rabbit-Hole Music,” a lot of them have been published. So they leap through the personal. They have an element of memoir, but they are backboned by research or whatever sort of associative moves seem to fit. So I might move from something personal into the anthropology of chickens, evolving that into chicken fighting and that into Wilfred Brimley, and Wilfred Brimley tying back into the memoir part of it because I grew up in Iowa, and Cedar Rapids was the home of Quaker Oats and Wilfred Brimley did the Quaker Oats commercials. Obviously these are incredibly tangled and wooly, but there’s also in that kind of chaos, there’s a logic to it, and at least as someone who is writing them, there’s a ton of energy.
Is that why you so often use the image of the flame as a marker for The Wish Book, but in other poems and essays as well?
Absolutely. I think that’s one of the things that I’m drawn to in the work I read, in that because of who I am, maybe, or maybe my aesthetic, it’s something I want to imbue my work with, whether it’s poems or essays, or long-form memoir, I want it to have an energy, a dynamism to it, so that there’s a vibrancy on the page. I’ve read a lot of books and a lot of books are boring. I don’t want to be bored when I read, and I don’t want to be bored when I write. We can go back to the old adage, “No surprise for the author, no surprise for the reader,” but I feel that strongly, so I’m willing to follow my ideas in essays. I let those ideas guide me and return back to me, almost like a homing pigeon, or a falcon, where it starts with me, but it always comes back. So there are linkages, and even if the steps are gnarly and totally busted up, they will return in some sort of structural cohesion.
I’ve been writing more and more essays, they just take a lot of time—which is not something I always have between my teaching life and my family life.
What about the essay entices you away from poetry and other more solipsistic nonfiction?
I think I’m drawn to it because it’s similar, it has all of these echoes of what I like about poems: the movement in them, the elliptical motion, the fragmentary nature. But whereas poems are often that flash, that instant often, even if there is a new narrative to them or some kind of narrative underpinning to the lyric moment, they are more of this flash. That one image, that photograph. Essays, because of how expansive the canvas of the full page is, page upon page, are almost a 3-D rendering of whatever you’re thinking about, so that there’s a new way of seeing, seeing it from so many different angles, that the possibilities that maybe started off in a poem, and that energy.
I think also just because I’m kind of lost thinking about the essay, especially because the parameters of the essay or creative nonfiction have been blown wide open, which I find amazing, and there is so much possibility in all of those freedoms. I think I’m drawn to it because I want to understand it. I want to understand my own process, my own aesthetic, my own thematic and topical obsessions and that’s a new way for me to attend to some of the same ideas in my poems. I’m always going to write the same kind of things. It’s like I found a new path into the woods. I want to just check out what’s going on in this trail. So far it’s been incredibly stimulating. It asks for a different kind of time and attention, especially when the essays bring in cultural allusions, intellectual allusions, so they take research. They take in other books, whereas often the poems are limited to me.
Do you find yourself doing less research for poems? I’m thinking of some poets who might sit down in a library for weeks and months, working on a new collection. Poets like David Kirby, or David Wojahn. It sounds like you, however, have your own muses that provide the spark.
I’m drawn to that work, I’m drawn to people who are writing poems that are historical in nature, poems that are incredibly external and how the external can comingle and fuse together with the personal, because it’s always going through the lens of the personal. I, for whatever reason, have never felt that impulse. I am nowhere even close to being finished exploring all of the things that have happened to me in a confessional way. My backstory, my bio, I feel like there is so much inside of that, how that bleeds out into the research, and the research is guided by the personal, instead of being external, so until I feel that well is dry… I think someday it will probably happen. I’m not done going through my own darkness first.
I know what you mean. I write in a confessional vein as well, which offers so many easy to reach platforms, but I worry that I ultimately won’t reach beyond them. Have you also struggled with scope?
I’ve found it incredibly powerful to navigate the world through my own crises, and life, even The Wish Book being more celebratory in nature about being a father. The intimacy of work that feels like it’s often a person carving a little out of themselves to share. I find that work captivating, emotionally overwhelming sometimes, but I want work to floor me. I don’t just want it to be pretty, or sound craft-wise. I want it to drop me to my knees, so often it is that more personal work that does that to me.
My first work felt incredibly internal, personal, the lens was focused inward on brain surgery. More narrative poems like “MRI” and “Swallowing the Scalpel” are about specific personal events, and I felt closely tethered to that. I had no control over what was happening. My belief in writing, especially with my poems, is that I don’t really control what is written. I might have some ideas, some guides, but when I sit down to the page, I never know what will flourish out of that creative act.
I think it’s different for essays and for memoir, where there is more guiding intellectual framework, but with poems—that’s one of the beauties of contemporary poetry—there is so much happening, and if you care about what you are doing and you do it with passion, there’s room for it. Whether you’re writing poems about the life of Walt Disney, or you’re writing poems about getting abused as a child, there is room for all of that. I think that’s one of the awesomely powerful things about literature, and especially poems, is that it is the place where you can say whatever you want, and that is one of the last places in the world where you can do that. And that seems powerful. Not only that freedom but also to think only with your imagination—that’s all you need to make and unmake the world around you.
You don’t need bricks to make this building. You don’t need a hammer to construct this table, but you can make something that has the potential to move someone to their core with just what you are. There’s nothing as powerful as that in the entire world. Every day I feel incredibly moved by that idea, not that it can’t be fun or juvenile, there’s room for all of that in that powerful space of poetry.
In an interview with JC Hallman for Bookslut, you talked a little about the messiness of memoirs and said you liked “good writing that isn’t afraid of being messy, of working towards a better understanding of our complicated lives while knowing that understanding is never really attainable.” I wonder if that could be extrapolated to poetry.
I think that the act of producing literature is already imbued with artifice. It’s fake, but I think that the acknowledgment of messiness in life, in all our lives, is one of the more true ways to work at that understanding, even though it’s never going to happen. In the same way, all of the books you write in your lifetime, all of the books that Beth [Bachmann] writes, they’ll never be the book that she, that you want to write. And that’s ok. You’ll never fully understand the experiences that you write about, but that doesn’t mean that the writing about them working towards that understanding is worthless. I think it’s incredibly powerful to find more ways to see the world we live in, the world that happens to us. There’s something kind of joyous in knowing that you’ll never get there.
That’s something I think about a lot, I guess. I think it would be disingenuous to say that they wrote the book they wanted. To think the work is always right in front of you, right in front of your finish line, it’s always there egging you on. That’s why people continue to write. That’s why people continue to explore in their poems their themes or their topics or memoir, and that is beautiful. It’s hard, a work of failing, gorgeous failures that ennoble and illuminate the human existence in all kinds of ways.
I attended an art exhibition in Hamburg while I was studying in Germany, titled “Fail Better.” The features were films of people kicking tennis balls up hills, vases actively reconstructed from shards—kind of a challenge to ruined, or ruinous, ruins.
Right, that’s a line from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “Fail. Fail better. Fail again.” I think that should be a mantra for most writing courses. The act of production of literature is an act of failing, but there is an incredible amount of goodness that reverberates through that failing, and by acknowledging that, the acknowledgement in confessing failure is really empowering.
In the same way, teaching an introduction to creative writing is an awesome, awesome class. I think it’s one of my favorite classes, but it’s also emotionally challenging, because students for the first time have found a place where they can talk about things—it’s in a place that’s liberating and free—so emotionally, it’s often really hard to attend. I’m overcome by some of the things that some of my students are thinking about dealing with, even if it’s just other people. But that act of speaking and writing is powerful. It’s an acknowledgment of the messiness. There is something that the endless failing we do in writing, in acknowledging the terrible thing. For me, the most important part of Happy was this overwhelming sense of strength. Just by talking about that, I see that empowerment happen, on a very simple level in the intro class. It’s hard, right? It’s uncomfortable.
Thinking about your newest collection, The Wish Book, and the messiness that appears in world that you create, you have these characters, voices, objects that desire the antithesis of each other. The first poem, “Boundless,” declares “This here, right now,” soon before the poem, “Not Here Not Now” pleads from the pages, just as “Maybe You’ll be Young Forever” a little later rebukes itself, “All things will ultimately / End. Please shout, No, no // No, everything will last forever.” Could you speak to this conversation of despair and vivacity?
It goes back to Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” I can both love and hate a person. I can love myself and feel like I’m the worst person alive, and that for me speaks to a greater truth than any sort of clean, one-sided view of anything. I think that whatever grows from all of those frictions and dual voices, whatever blossoms out of that when it is read is closer to anything that I could say than if it was not so messy. That acknowledgement of the messy is powerful. Even though I’m often writing from myself, I start with that. Even though there is tons of fiction in everything that happens, I’m starting from the personal. Whether or not people like that, or that’s the way it is, that’s the voice that comes up for me, and I’m being true to that voice.
There’s that [Czesław] Milosz poem in which he talks about each person having these incredibly large cities filled with angels and demons and as a writer, we don’t control who shows up every day. My poems or my essays are an acknowledgment of the vicissitudes of the way the volume of life is modulated. There’s very little stasis. There’s very little smooth flow to anything. Life feels very chaotic, even for my friends who have a very chill existence. There are little conflicts happening around all time, “Do I turn the light on?” If you think closely, that’s all the world is—little moments of tension and conflict, and they can be positive.
So, based on Happy: A Memoir and The Wish Book, I might suppose your angels tend to sing vivacity while your cities of demons most often screech, bloodcurdlingly, despair. But both are always in chaos, if not discordant harmony.
Just because there are two different cities, it doesn’t mean they’re all singing the same way. There are layers. Again, that speaks to the complicated act of art-making. I can think about how that aesthetic mindset has always been present, because I took drawing, painting, ceramic classes, and even at that level I was more interested in work that you could probably say has aesthetic echoes in my work. Maybe this is all just bullshit and it’s only my mindset. For me, it feels like an incredibly important lifework, especially when thinking about the power of the imagination and how amazing writing can be.
Do you remember when you first started writing–or even reading–with an eye toward philosophical themes? Was this sense of the vicissitudinal always lurking?
I think I’d probably be lying—I’m sure there was an element of chaos. If you wanted to psychoanalyze me, you could talk a lot about how I grew up in a chaotic way. We moved a lot. I was not raised in a mainstream household. I was raised by a single mother who was an artist, so maybe my perspective was already slanted in that way, but I really worked to push back against that—I wrote about that in Happy—I wanted to be the good ol’ American boy.
And you were really close, too.
And it was really false. I was not being true to what I was and what I was interested in. I was so wrapped up in pushing back against the life that I’d grown up with: being poor, being raised by a single mom who was an artist and not interested in a lot of the cultural concerns of the communities we lived in. She was not interested in sports, and she probably found it disgusting that everybody was so interested in sports and not the arts. I resented all of that.
I wanted to be normal, especially having to do with those personal crises that happened earlier in life, so I was a kind of split person for so long. I didn’t acknowledge those facts until after I got sick, until after I had brain surgery. I had to check myself: What am I doing? What am I doing in life? What makes me happy? Why am I here? So the chaos was always there, but I hadn’t acknowledged it until after that happens. That was a tipping-point moment where I acknowledged myself, my pain and depression, how weak I felt, and how much I needed to be loved, how much I didn’t love myself, all of it. Then I could see and look back on that interest and recognize that the world’s sloppiness was always there.
You also have a poem, “Haruspex,” which is for one a great concept, and two, a great poem. It emphasizes a certain kind of pleasure and decadence in the visceral morbidity or mortality that you often investigate, and I was wondering if writing for you feels like the pleasurable unfolding of entrails?
That’s great, the pleasurable unfolding of entrails. Yeah, of course. If you’re exploring what I’m interested in, these fundamental things of existence, it is. It has to be messy, it has be like wearing a scarf of entrails. [Laughing] Like, “Look at me! Look how fancy I am, wearing my scarf of entrails.”
Yeah, that’s one of the beautiful things about writing: It is a place where those things can be explored in ways that I don’t think can be acknowledged in the rest of the world we live in. It is a way in which I can attend to the most vital questions we might ask or have, and it seems important for people to be doing that. The things we don’t talk about. “Do we put Gram in a home or not?” And after that’s decided, they’re just in a home, right?
I think sifting through your entrails or other people’s entrails is important the whole way, because I think it allows life to open up fully, to be illuminated. Because I think so many people don’t acknowledge those parts of life, so I think there’s a myopia, a myopia of existence. And that seems sad to me. My poems might be dark and gloomy, and I might have written a memoir about being abused and almost dying, all this terrible shit, but there’s also something terribly celebratory about life, that acknowledgement that it’s a party, too. It’s important that those things not be separated. There are so many other ways the world asks for all of that to be separated, right? It can only be good if it’s clean and nice and appropriate, but that’s so untrue. Historically, it seems so blatantly untrue, but people seem to live their lives by these totally inappropriate constructs, instead of seeing that it’s all kind of laid over each other.
What other books do you have coming out? What projects are you finishing up?
My fifth book of poetry is under contract with Milkweed Editions. I’m working on a book after that, which is almost complete, and I have a book of essays under contract as well, and that’s nearing completion. So hopefully in two years, the next book of poems and the book of essays will be published in coordination with each other.
I also have a couple prose projects in the works. I have a really kind of fragmented memoir that’s playing with truth and personal narrative in ways that are more along the aesthetic working ideas that the essays are. They’re more about how much they can consume and put together than just about telling the specific stories. Then there’s a memoir about fatherhood, fatherhood in the alive shadows of Happy. I try to stay busy.