Plush, what a word to start a poem w/
cozy—smacks of luxury—decadence
but cheap too—a plush toy—polysemig
from the start—like John Milton’s Paradise Lost—
which opens like, “Of man’s first disobedience & the fruit”—& you think
fruit like the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
& like Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s womb
like in the Hail Mary—but it took Milton a whole line
First line in entirety is Plush facial covering
clinical & generig—marketing speak
Then made of cheese—more self-canceling
This is something Rupert would like, I think
I bet he does like this
makes mama smile every—Okay
I know the next line has to start w/ time
but for a moment I get to imagine that smile
is a transitive verb like makes mama smile every
duck—makes mama smile every Tilda-Swinton-in-a-box
time the whistle calls / her back to the alley of /
Lemon ohms make almonds—good juicy line
whether you pronounce almonds “ahmonds” or “alllllmonds”
Out sock—like Lady Macbeth but instead of
washing her hands she’s obsessively taking off
her socks—but she thinks she’s still wearing them
one sock each / lock tack time—okay
like a serious future / in tall socket majors—uh huh
here we go—wake the pilot / wake the plunderer /
wake the pallbearer / me when it’s over
Urgency works whenever—however we get there
& the pilot, the plunderer, & the pallbearer
are a good like a complete totality—
Here’s how it ends—Get us up in there so some day /
when time begins / our owls will suddenly know /
what to say again if we / could only grow avocado
if only don’t be so polite / it’s killing me
One thing Publishing Genius authors are doing over the course of the year is interviewing each other in a chain. In this installment, Megan McShea talks to Matthew Savoca about his new book.
MEGAN: To start in an obvious place, I love the title of your book. I loved it more when I was reading it. It seemed like a kind of home-base for the narrator. Somewhere in there he muses that it’s his fallback position. Did you know the title from the start? Or did that come later?
MATTHEW: I don’t know.
Hah. Just kidding. I say “I don’t know” too much, but it’s even worse with this narrator guy. Don’t you want to just kick him sometimes? Yeah, I knew the title from very early on. It was just sitting there. Most of the time I start with a title. Like I start every day with the name Matthew. And then I go from there.
MEGAN: The only times I really wanted to strangle the guy were times when he was overly accommodating, like when Carolina’s in the bank and he’s waiting outside but he won’t go get a soda because he’s afraid she’ll come out and wonder where he is. What kind of magical leash does she have him on?! But really, it only bothers me because it reminds me of myself at my most servile in relationships. I have to say, your novel had a real squirm-factor in terms of remembering some of the more pathetic moments of past relationships.
MATTHEW: He’s just afraid of being a bad guy. He doesn’t want to do anything that could put him in the wrong, and that’s messed up. Because it’s fake goodness. The kind thing to do for another person is let yourself be the fuck up half the time.
Jean Rhys always talked about wanting to “get things right” and that’s what I had in mind with this book, which is maybe what that squirm-factor is all about. But I figure if I can make you squirm a little this time around, then I know you’ll be back next time.
MEGAN: Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of art that makes me squirm. I figure it’s doing something right if I’m a little uncomfortable. Your story manages to do that in this really quiet way, without resorting to the grotesque or melodrama. It just follows the thoughts of the narrator into all these places he hits his own walls. At which point he generally says, “I don’t know.” It’s very honest.
Despite lack of melodrama, there’s some vivid, memorable scenes in this book. Did you start with a collection of scenes and then map them out into a story?
MATTHEW: That’s a great description of the book. I like that. Most of the stuff I wrote down in order, while it was fresh in my mind. Scott McClanahan talks about how when he sits down to write, it’s game time. There’s no exercises or practices. It’s just sit down and go. I didn’t start with a collection of scenes or even anything in my mind, really. I try not to think about it too much. I just start telling it and then fuss with it a little bit later, but not too much. I used to play ice hockey when I was in high school and most of the time when you’re out there on the ice you’re just going on your nerve. You grab the puck and race down and score and then you think to yourself, Who just did that? That’s how I feel about writing things down. Frank O’Hara said the thing about going on your nerve. He said when someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife, you just run. You don’t turn around and yell, “Give it up, I was a track star for Mineola Prep!” (from “Personism: A Manifesto”)
MEGAN: I love that piece. My favorite line is the one about form: “if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.”
I like this idea of Rhys, getting things right. I can see how it worked its way into this book. The way the interactions and thought processes of the characters are spelled out so plainly, nakedly. There were so many moments that felt true to me, with all your detail about those spaces in between the big things that happen or get said between two people. The body language and the talking about nothing. And there are flourishes in there, too, but they aren’t grand. They’re very small, but beautiful little payoffs the readers gets for following the nuances.
My favorite scene, though, is when he encounters the streetlamp in the rain. It sort of seems like a moment of enlightenment. Elsewhere you mention Zen. Am I imposing something on the book, or is there a path to enlightenment story in there that you meant to tell?
MATTHEW: For a while there, back around 2007-2008, I was pretty into Zen so I’m sure it made its way into the book, and I think Arthur probably views himself as some kind of Siddhartha, but I never meant it that way. I mean, I never meant to tell anything. I just sat down and wrote the things out that were in my head. I think most of the time I saw it as scenes in my head, like in a movie, and all I had to do was describe what I was seeing. It must have worked too because I don’t have any of those things in my head anymore. But, yeah, the streetlamp is my favorite character in the whole book. I love the streetlamp deeply, like that lady who married the Berlin Wall.
MEGAN: Yes, the streetlamp is a great character! Especially when it returns later like some lost love.
I’ve been assuming this is at least partly memoir, although I’m never clear why that matters. Am I right? And if so, do you think it matters?
MATTHEW: You know what I think is funny? Adam never once asked me that. I heard this great joke the other day: Why’d the chicken cross the road? Because the road crossed the chicken. Never cross a chicken, man.
I don’t even know what memoir is. I guess it’s someone saying here’s a true story about a thing that happened to me. I don’t think I ever tell the truth. I’m always trying to make myself look better. But, here we go, here’s a true story of something that happened to me the other day: I was on the New Jersey turnpike and I stopped off to get gas, which you’re not allowed to pump yourself in Jersey, and this guy in front of me at the pump didn’t want to wait for an attendant, so he just started pumping the gas himself and then an attendant yelled Sir you can’t pump your own gas here, Sir! SIR! And the guy just ignored him and went right on pumping his gas and the attendant eventually came over but just stood there and told the guy he wasn’t allowed to do what he was doing. Over and over again just telling him until the guy was finished and then drove off up the highway scott free. And I sat there the entire time just watching this scene and thinking about the guy and I went from hating him for being a total jerk to almost admiring him for seeing it all the way through, even though he was still a jerk. I mean, what crazy hurry was this guy in? And then just a few minutes later, I passed by him on the highway and he was parked on the shoulder, just laying on the hood of his car with his arms crossed behind his head staring up at the sky.
But, see, that’s not even true. I just made that story up right now.
Actually, it is true. That really did happen. Didn’t it?
MEGAN: I really want that to be a true story. In fact, I look forward to a time when I’ve sort of gotten dislodged from the source of that story by the passage of time and can adopt it as my own, telling someone who I think might appreciate it that it happened to me.
I think that dispenses with the whole memoir question very nicely.
The verse from Ecclesiastes at the end is pretty spot on. At what point did you come across it? Or did you just happen to know it?
MATTHEW: Yeah, I know a lot of Ecclesiastes by heart. It’s such a great damn book. I have been reading it for a real long time, so it’s always kind of been in my head, but it was a real late addition to this book. I think Adam and I added it in there like a month or two ago. I wrote him an email one day after listening to an audio recording of Ecclesiastes in my car, and I said what do you think about putting this at the end of the book. And he liked the idea. I love Adam.
MEGAN: Tell me more about what it was like to work on the book with Adam.
MATTHEW: Adam is so goddamn great. I feel like he made I Don’t Know I Said ten times better. I really mean that. He must have read it through a dozen times from a dozen different perspectives and he continually offered his suggestions, 99% of which I took. All kinds of things from cutting unnecessary sections, to just clearing up parts that were unclear, to making sure grammatical and dialogue issues were consistent, to rewording parts. Adam is the one who came up with the idea to divide the book into three sort of sections to help make the book’s timeline a bit more clear, since there are so many starts and stops and restarts to this story. Adam came up with the titles to the three sections as well: The United States. The Ski Lodge. I Don’t Know. Just that little addition right there made the book instantly a lot better and have such a better flow to it. Adam is really thoughtful and also just damn good at putting out books the way he wants to. We had a lot of fun with it. That’s one of the best things about Adam is that things are always really fun. At one point he was staying at my place and we sat at the kitchen table at two in the morning, drunk, and talked for a long time about whether or not we should change the book to have Arthur kill Carolina at the end by poisoning her drink, and what that would do to the story. I could go on and on. I can’t say enough good things about Adam Robinson. I just love the guy all around.
One thing Publishing Genius authors are doing over the course of the year is interviewing each other in a chain. In this installment, Stephanie Barber talks to Megan McShea about her new book.
STEPHANIE: i love the way the first 10 or so pages are small snippets of a poem. i was imagining them as one poem broken up by page turns or as poetic koans getting me into the meditative space needed to receive the longer poems. it’s a sort of classic theatrical introduction to location and characters.
what made you think about opening the book in this delicate and unusual way?
MEGAN: That was 100% Adam Robinson in concept and execution. I won’t speak for him as to where the idea came from, but I like how, in drawing lines from the pieces in the book and reassembling them into a completely different piece, it gives the book an added set of echos, which are always a pleasant sort of hook, and also because of the interactivity of the act. I wish I had a better word for that because interactivity makes me think of website design, and that’s not the kind of interactivity I mean. To me, it would be the best of all possible reader encounters if a reader felt activated, free to play with the images and ideas and language there. So when Adam just up and did that and made it part of the book, I just thought, well, perfect.
STEPHANIE: oh, i see. it really does work so well, i like thinking about them as echoes. they are sort of pre-echoes. how about the quotes by kenneth patchen and yves bonnefoy? they seem to contradict each other. language as hope and language as killer—why did you choose these and how do you see them impacting the reader’s thoughts about your poems?
MEGAN: I hadn’t even noticed their opposite-ness but I see what you mean. They have such different tones, heavy and light, but I sort of see them as saying the same thing in different ways.
I was reading The Journal of Albion Moonlight last year when we were editing the book. Among its themes, or channels to tune into let’s say, was this overt engagement with language as a live thing that’s sort of uncontrollable. My read of the Patchen passage I put in my book is as an oracular statement about a rebirth of the wildness of language. And the Bonnefoy interview I think speaks to a similar thing, that if we can shake off the perfunctory use of words, then we might be able to see through the veil of everyday assumptions about what everything so obviously means, and what everyone is so obviously trying to say, if we can “discover” just one word, as he says, we can enter that live wild part, the “true life.”
They’re both conferring language with an animating power as well as a deadening power. As an animating power, language can be world, energy, animal, life, and it can put us in direct contact with those things, or put us in their presence as Bonnefoy says in another part of the interview. But for both writers there also seems to be some force that has deadened language, something that has to be thrown off in order to re-animate it.
Those ideas resonate with my experience of writing. It’s like I’m trying to wake up the words, and wake myself up with the action of the words. This probably isn’t a foreign idea to most poets, I imagine. I’d be glad if people who read my writing experience that, some of what I experience writing it, that it makes language new and alive, animates them somehow. Thinking about it now, I am noticing how the opposite tones of the two quotes, one heavy and one light, also reflect something in my work. It does oscillate between the two qualities, I think.
STEPHANIE: can you take us through one of your poems and talk about the language as animating power and deadening power simultaneously?
MEGAN: Well, just to clarify, I’m interested in the animating part, not the deadening part
To continue being general (sorry, I know you’re trying to get me to be specific), I think readers will recognize strategies of disruption in most of the pieces in the book—disruption of logic, of meaning, of grammar, of any convention available, really—narrative, character, etc.—nothing that hasn’t been done before, of course. Hopefully these strategies will trigger something in their imagination or consciousness, heighten their attention, and maybe activate a sense of freedom to let language misbehave, and experience some of the gifts it can bear when it’s freed from its duty of imparting particular meanings or functioning in expected ways.
The quotations from Patchen and Bonnefoy are aspirational statements about what I take the whole project of writing to be. I would guess that a lot of writers who’ve embrace experimentation would also embrace those aspirations.
STEPHANIE: it’s interesting in terms of this concept you are proposing, this giving the reader a process which triggers a sort of linguistic dance session, that the first full piece in the FIRST PART is called “The Brain is a Pleasure Organ.” it connects with both what you have written above about activating a sense of freedom as regards language as well as working against the sparse compositional beginning to the book.
MEGAN: Yes, thanks. That piece probably spells it out much better than I could in plain language.
A dance is a good analogy. This is also why I immediately loved your collage for the cover, because reading this stuff is something like going into the woods. It asks something of readers, you have to go into it, but it’s likely there will be unexpected delights.
STEPHANIE: “Going into the woods” makes me wonder where you wrote the majority of poems in this book? Where, when, how? How does where or when you write affect your form or content??
MEGAN: I wrote the pieces in this book over a period of about 10 years, and almost all of them were written alone in my house, and often in the morning, or some other part of a day in which I had the luxury of not breaking my solitude until late in the day. I’m easily distracted, so once I’m out and about I find it difficult to conjure up the right kind of focus to write. And for like 20 years I have written on a manual typewriter. This is a somewhat embarrassing confession because it seems to imply a romance I am having with ye olde writers and their typewriters or something, but actually borrowing an old army-issue typewriter from my boss at my first post-school job got me started writing, and it’s a habit I have a hard time breaking. I like that you have a session on the typer, and then you have this artifact of the session, ink on paper. I think the speed of it (cast iron, not electric) is just a little slower than my thoughts and somehow that bends the language in a way I like.
There are a few pieces in the book that were written during live performances of experimental improvised music, by hand, sitting in the audience. I say which ones they are in the notes section at the end. Those pieces are more artifacts of my own active listening at a performance that is wildly unstructured, so improvised structures are getting thrown up every minute, and I just try to record that somehow in words. I guess that practice is something close to my writing at home alone on the typer in a way. It’s just that what I’m tuning into is more internal at home. It’s so liberating to leave the interiors once in awhile. And when it’s a group improvising, you can hear them listening to each other, and you sort of feel like a collaborator even though you’re not out there in front of the audience. It’s a secret collaboration. A super-shy collaboration.
STEPHANIE: i like this idea of a secret collaboration. i’ve always thought all art work is a collaboration with all other art that has come before it, the way we build upon each other implicit and explicitly (like engineers GETTING AT IT). So for “Parked,” “Damn Pigeon for Company” and a number of the other you were ‘”hired” as the bard for the High Zero Festival and so these “collaborations”, do they feel more musical to you than the others? Or less musical in an attempt to counterbalance the music? Do you remember how any of these listening pieces went in and out of ‘collaboration’?
MEGAN: I totally agree about the grand collaboration that is art. I think we’re all channeling influences all the time, taking what we’ve absorbed and making it into something else.
One year the High Zero festival in Baltimore did hire me as a sort of festival writer in residence in exchange for a festival pass, which was a very intense few days of listening and writing. If memory serves me right, “Idea for a Song” is from that batch. That one turned out more narrative than usual. I was naming sounds and describing their actions. Oh, this sound is an elephant, a rock star and Philip Glass make an appearance, an ice cream truck, something falls over a cliff, takes a train, signals are sent back and forth between a dolphin and a quail, there’s weather.
But I also just go to shows now and then and write surreptitiously. I like to think that musicality is one of my strengths as a writer, that the music is always there, but when I’m writing from actual live music, the rhythms and images are coming from sounds produced by others, rather than my own lyrical instincts. I’m trying to pick up on their lyrical instincts and translate them into words, and it’s an inspiring challenge that leads to things I can’t predict.
“Crap Collapse on the Slow Channel” was a piece I wrote during a performance by a DC outfit called Caution Curves. It’s the one we took the title of the book from. That one is more fragmented, which is another thing writing to music triggers, because the music usually moves and changes more quickly than I can write, so I don’t really finish one thing before I’m off to the next. So the writing leaps a lot, and in fact, might be a little less lyrical because of the fragmentation. My reaction to that effect as a writer is to find other ways to make the words cohere, by repetition, say, or simply rhyming, carrying a family of vowel sounds through for continuity. That piece also sets up a dynamic relation of pronouns, which provides a sort of structure, goes from a third person thing to a first person presence back to some third person action then resolves in a first person plural, a we. Of course none of these persons are anyone, but I find that sort of dynamic satisfying. Going from “I” to “we” has a certain feeling to it. It’s a natural instinct when reading to try to locate a subject, who’s doing the action? who’s thinking the thoughts? who’s feeling the feelings? and when you can move the subjectivity of the piece around among these basic conceptual entities, I, you, it, he, we, they, it suggests relationships, and it can have all these different sort of effects.
STEPHANIE: yea, it also changes the readers participation. it moves dangerously close to collusion. do you have a favorite poem in this book?
MEGAN: Gosh, that’s hard. Well, my favorite title is “Yelling Séance in a Crowded Theater.” That piece is a favorite, too. I think I’m kind of partial to the ones that lean just a little more to the narrative side, like “The Appointment,” “Cannibals and Canopies,” “Us and Her.” And the elegy, “A Perfect Bedlam.” Okay, so that’s five. And five is also my favorite number, so I’ll stop there.
The Toad Splendor Party is a celebration for the release of Megan McShea’s new book, A Mountain City of Toad Splendor. Megan will be joined by other local writers to read selections from the book, and music will be provided by the Mole Suit Choir and Electric Junk Band. Free!
Megan McShea thinks about her new book and some old ones. Discussed: Chris Toll, Pablo Neruda, bookstores, Emily Dickinson, and her writing style.
It’s a few months before this book is supposed to come out, and I’ve just been at a residency where I tell the other residents, yes, I have this book coming out. It’s my first book published by someone other than myself, I say. I think that is a funny self-deprecating statement, but after I say it I realize from the way it hangs there that it might be more fraught than it is funny.
On the way home from the residency, I stop in a city known for its bookstores. I find one easily, a great one. A temple of books. It’s busy there on a rainy Saturday. The owners welcome me, even make sure I know the poetry section continues at the back of the store. I browse and browse, preparing myself for re-entry after two weeks of perfect seclusion, and also completely waterlogged with grief after finding out the night before about the sudden death of my friend, the poet Chris Toll, who recently proofread this book I have coming out. I was on my way home and stopped in this bookstore hoping, I think, that it would be some sort of mind-spa for re-setting myself after all that.
So I am in that zone of really seeing every spine, you know? Making connections and remembering things I wanted to look for, and I’m just taking my time even though I’m running late to crash at a friend’s place that night, four hours drive away. I come across a little volume from FSG, a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s Nobel acceptance speech. I notice it because it’s called Toward the Splendid City, which is enough like the title of my book, “A Mountain City of Toad Splendor,” for me to notice. I also notice it because of its color. It’s saffron. The title is close enough and the color is holy enough and I am wired enough for this find to feel like sparkly kismet. I usually eschew that kind of magical thinking, but whenever someone I know dies, the floodgates of mysticism are suddenly uncontrollably open. The night before, right when I got the news, I was outside and looked up and saw a cloud shaped like a giant squid pass over the full moon and took it to be an indecipherable message from the other side. Then I went back to my cabin and opened up Emily Dickinson at random to “This World Is Not Conclusion.” In the bookstore I was still ardently looking for messages.
So I bought it. (I also bought In the Future Perfect by Walter Abish off the clearance table, which I am currently enjoying in all its euro-urbane-macho finery.) Neruda’s title, it turns out, is from a line by Rimbaud: “A l’aurore, armés d’une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides Villes,” which Neruda translates as “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.”
I didn’t know about this speech or the Rimbaud line when I wrote the words “a mountain city of toad splendor” in a musical transcription that would later become the poem “Crap Collapse on the Slow Channel.” Any connection I could draw between my line and the Rimbaud line or Neruda’s highlighting of that line seemed tenuous, but like I said, I was looking for signs.
Back when I handed the manuscript off for PGP’s consideration, I was calling it “Lonesome Machine” because it was January and I was lonely, and the book documented many of the lonesomest times of my recent years in a way that seemed to rise to the surface when I brought it all together. But then Adam read it and we started talking titles and he grabbed a bunch of lines from different places and finally said, “it might be a real shame if we don’t name this collection A Mountain City of Toad Splendor.”
When I got home from my trip, after the tide of emotion from Chris’s funeral had ebbed a little, I finally sat down to read Toward the Splendid City. I was feeling really serious about poetry at this point, because Chris was a poet and then he died all the sudden, leaving us grasping at all his poems and having uncanny and mystical encounters with them, and it was terrible but it was also elevating in a palpable way. So I was in this heightened state; this dead friend had dared me to believe in poetry, and then this book came to me in that far away city in the mountains, this pretty little book by one of the greats that took its title from a line by another one of the greats, a line my own title will echo unintentionally, unless you can retroactively intend things. Call it a precognition, maybe? Chris would probably attribute it to aliens. In any event, given all that was happening I was completely open to what it might have to tell me, and I expected it to tell me something important.
The speech is a poet’s formational journey story. Neruda talks about his 1949 escape from Chile across the mountains, the help he got from people who guided him, the sights he encountered, and the shelter and company he enjoyed on the way amidst a terrible uncertainty and deprivation. He uses the story to convey his idea of the poet’s place in the world, a place of solitude and uncertainty but at the same time a place of connectedness that would not feel the way it did or happen the way it did if it weren’t for the solitude and uncertainty.
I won’t recount the whole thing here, but it’s quite beautiful as you might expect. It turns out you can read it online here. Reading it I felt newly willing to admit to intentions and wishes and beliefs, not so much about my writing, but about wanting to share it. I write in an improvisational way, so it can sometimes seem to be lacking in intention. However much that may be, the act of bringing it out is, I’ll admit, entirely purposeful. It’s strange, new territory.
Megan McShea is a writer who lives in Baltimore. We are excited to introduce her book, which will be released late this fall (and available for pre-order soon). A Mountain City of Toad Splendor is a collection of microfiction and poetry. Blake Butler called it “700 kinds of music” and said “McShea seems to have studied at the Harvard for Ooh.”