An Interview with Alex Lemon
I met Alex Lemon about a year ago, not long after he was given, by our mutual editor James Cihlar, a copy of a book of stories I was soon to publish, The Hospital for Bad Poets. Alex is a poet and no stranger to hospitals -- his memoir Happy chronicles a harrowing era of “brain bleeds” and risky surgeries -- so I was concerned that the comedy I’d attempted with a literal read of a Nietzsche metaphor wouldn’t be all that funny to one intimately acquainted with mortality, eternity, etc.
I needn’t have worried. Alex is one of those guys -- it’s surprising you don’t meet them more often -- whose work (poems: Mosquito, Hallelujah Blackout, and the recently published Fancy Beasts) captures the oxymoronic feel of his presence: a playful seriousness, an innocent gravity, a calm chaos. In this interview, I tried to get Alex to open up about the process of moving from poetry to nonfiction for Happy, but it seems to me now that there’s something lurking inside the exchange, too -- a certain soulfulness that my utilitarian questions couldn’t fully expose or disguise. Indeed, Alex is one of those people you meet -- writers, or maybe saints -- who seem to have a chance, even while they’re speaking to you (or emailing, in this case), to glance over their shoulder into some kind of abyss, and somehow they turn back to your conversation not with a thousand-yard stare, but with an equanimity, a fiery peace, as though whatever they’ve seen -- the invisible, the ever-present -- is somehow good news.
I think there’s a burgeoning trend -- poets writing creative nonfiction. I’m thinking of writers like Ander Monson and Eula Biss. There are many others. My question: what nonfiction were you partial to before Happy, and what nonfiction did you seek out once you realized that you too were a poet turning to nonfiction?
I’ve always been an all-over-the-map type reader, so I don’t think I can easily say I was partial to any one thing. And even though I wasn’t publishing nonfiction, I was writing it. I was working on nonfiction as a political science major at Macalester College. And, like now, I read widely and with depth. I like to read everything someone’s done to see evolution. This doesn’t really answer your question, but in the years before I began writing Happy I know I spent a lot of time with Didion, Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and with the work of the philosopher E.M. Cioran. When I realized Happy was going to be a book, I did two things -- I read what people told me were important books about young men: among the dozens of them were Stop Time, This Boy’s Life, Goat, and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Then I spent a lot of time thinking about what made a good memoir (for me) and also made lists of what I couldn’t stand about the genre.
What are those things -- the things that make a good memoir for you and the things you can’t stand?
I’ll give you three trends that don’t always work for me because often they feel forced: The “everything is fine now” memoir, the “This is what it all means” memoir and the “Feel sorry for me!” memoir. What works: Good writing that isn’t afraid of being messy, of working towards a better understanding of our complicated lives (while knowing that that understanding is never really attainable).
You’ve written about the central events of Happy before -- what did nonfiction let you do by way of approaching that material that poetry could not?
Nonfiction makes you a mermaid so one can swim around, meander in and out of the sunken wreck.
And vice versa? What did poetry let you achieve that nonfiction can’t?
Poetry makes you Poseidon: for 41 seconds.
Are you trying to suggest that nonfiction is woefully effeminate and mortal?
Wow. I wasn’t thinking effeminate at all. When I said mermaid, I think I meant the general category of that type of mythological creature, so that would include mermen. I’d be a mermaid in a second, love them. So not effeminate in the least -- but maybe good nonfiction makes you into David Bowie. And the issue of mortality: nonfiction makes you mortal, yes, but one still has these amazing powers. In poetry, when your 41 seconds is up, you turn back into Slappy Pinochle, and he can’t even swim, so pray you’re not too far underwater.
You begin Happy with epigraphs from Denis Johnson and Shakespeare. Explain?
Denis Johnson’s writing has had a tremendous impact on me. Though I love his fiction and essays, I go back to his poems more frequently. It’s wild and dark and odd. It’s really beautiful stuff. Shakespeare has been less influential to me as a writer, but is incredibly important to my life. And specifically, the two epigraphs speak directly to Happy. I lived that DJ epigraph most mornings [“i am this morning electric”], especially the morning that begins the book. The other -- well, that, to me, is one of the major themes of the book: addressing who we are, what we’ve done or what’s happened to us, which, in my case, lead to addressing mental illness and depression.
Johnson is riffing on Whitman, no? I certainly thought about The Incognito Lounge while reading Happy, but Jesus’ Son kept popping up for me, too. A kind of detached, floating quality -- not just the Fuckhead character, but, for example, the mystery of the guy who survives the knife poking through his eye into his brain. If someone were to ask me for a one-word response to Happy I might say, “Mystery.” In the biological and spiritual senses of the word.
You’re perfect with both those thoughts. Of course Whitman -- and how strains of that tradition have bled down and through some of the modernists, and Ginsberg, and (in some ways) Johnson. The darkening yawp, that for me, and how I read Johnson has a lot more to do with confronting the unknown than some of those other poets (not to say they didn’t do it at all, there will always be an exception, right?). And Jesus’ Son has always meant a lot to me -- and I think that’s directly related to your question about what I dislike about some memoirs. And “Mystery” is a great word to choose. So what lives in it? -- the wayward off-kilterness, the unspeakable, the sublime, the horror, hopes that are larger than the self. All of that.
As a writer of nonfiction, something I more or less constantly find myself addressing these days is anxiety about whether there ought to be limits on bringing a creative process to bear on factual experiences while still calling it “nonfiction.” What’s your perspective on this?
I think authors make contracts with their writing and choose to live by them. I believe in the endless power of creativity and a writer’s foremost concern should be with writing well. Be creative, be “true.” Writing a good book should be different than strapping a video camera to one’s head.
Why is the culture so preoccupied with this?
I wish I knew. I think it’s a sad obsession and speaks to a cultural failure. “Truth” should have no impact on a book’s power to alchemize what’s inside us. A good book is a good book. Alas.
Did you have a personal ethic when it came to writing Happy? Can you perhaps offer examples where you felt a fairly dramatic departure from documentable fact was warranted? And conversely, an example of a moment when you perhaps had an impulse to bring a creative process to bear on an experience and decided against it?
I wanted to stay “true” to the events as they happened in my experience. I can’t think of a departure of documentable facts -- I strongly feel a need to keep an integrity there. Writing is a creative engagement with a story -- so I hope I didn’t ever decide against it -- but then, in this logic I’m creating, this might be the stories in the story that I left out.
The central relationship in Happy is mother-son. I’ve heard you say publicly that it was hard to go back and embody this earlier version of you -- you don’t like that guy -- but what was it like to recreate this earlier version of your mother?
This was easy, actually. I don’t think she changed, I did. And because she’s really the hero of the book, and I love her so, so much, that writing was fun. That was the part of the book that I didn’t want to end.
In the prologue, you find your mother sitting in a car outside your apartment some years after your surgery. When did you realize, in the process of the writing the book, that this is where the book should begin?
I knew right away. I can’t say why I knew, but thinking about that morning I knew that was the beginning of the book. It was an image I couldn’t shake: looking down from my apartment window and seeing her car. It still makes my insides flex and give.
You’ve said that the book began or was inspired by writing exercises and a requirement to write outside your genre at the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. What was the first bit of the book that you wrote -- and how did you know it wasn’t a poem in disguise?
I wrote the parts that take place in Miami first -- more specifically, I wrote about the scene where my mother and I are walking along the beach. Hurricane Floyd is approaching Miami. I’m supposed to have brain surgery in two days. My mother and I walk, and I’m numb to it all. We play in the sand and I walk into the waves, picking up shells. Most of the ones I find are broken and then, out of nowhere, this little girl runs up to us and gives me all of these perfect shells. It was amazing. I didn’t know what to do. I guess I knew it wasn’t a poem because I’d written a poem about it before, and this time entire pages were being filled -- side to side -- top to bottom. It was rich and long and bloaty.
One can’t read your work without noticing that you invent verbs more or less regularly. What’s your theory of verbs, and where does it come from?
I don’t have a theory, really. Language is such a beautiful thing -- and when thinking about it as part of some sort of emotional and energetic equation, I like to think about how malleability can affect potential. I can’t say directly where these ideas came from, but I’m sure music, poetry, literature in translation, and even visual arts influenced me. But also, I think living with disabilities plays a roll in it, too. Not being able to see, or seeing a world that is constantly moving (because of nystagmus and dipolopia) means that what I see is active. All of it vibrates, I’m surrounded by shuddering light.