January 2011

Noah Cicero


An Interview with Kendra Grant Malone

I met Kendra Grant Malone four years ago. She emailed me on Myspace and we talked a few times. At that time, I was very focused on my own life and writing and did not notice that she was really interested in writing. A writer gets so many random emails from fans that they do not what to make of them. But I remember sitting at a bar having a drink and listening to her talk about Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil and many other books. A few months later she sent me a book called something like Cigarettes and Fruit. (She says it has a different name now.) I remember reading it thinking, “There's something here.” She had not quite defined herself, but you could tell something would come. I think Everything is Quiet, her new poetry book, is that something. Everything is Quiet is honest. It can be said to be “pure.” I'm not sure what “pure” means, but I get that feeling from it.

Could you describe growing up in Minnesota? Like, did you grow up in a forested area? What was it like waiting for the bus in the cold? You told me once you had to wear snow suits all the time in the winter. What do people do in the summer in Minnesota? How has growing up in Minnesota affected your writing?

I lived in Minnesota until I was 22 about, when I moved to New York. Those are the only places I’ve lived. I grew up in a first ring suburb of Minneapolis called Golden Valley, which my parents moved to because it was mentioned in a Steinbeck book called Travels With Charley, and they both really love that book. Also, my mother grew up a few blocks from where I grew up, so there was a lot of family living close by. There was a nice woods and a creek close by, which I spent a lot of time in as a kid, and a bus a few blocks from my house that went straight downtown. My mother had a really large garden in the summers, which my brother and I pretty much spent all day in, every day when it was warm. We had a split level house and a big back yard with a two hundred year old oak tree, that I think was the biggest in our neighborhood. Yes, we wore snow suits all the time in the winter when I was little. My mother was always worried about us getting sick and we liked to build little igloos and tunnels in the snow.

In the summer in Minnesota people really take advantage of being outside. It gets really muggy because of all the lakes, but I don't think most people really mind so much. Maybe some people do, but I never minded it. People go to the beach a lot, which in Minnesota means a lake beach. When I was growing up I used to do a lot of drugs in the summer and my friends and I would go to places called “hidden beach” of which there were a few. It basically meant that it just wasn't a legal beach and you had to go down a long secret path to get to and was safe to be naked and do drugs at. I think the police are pretty hip to those locations now, but I also bet people have found new “hidden beaches” because there really are just so many lakes there.

I think growing up in Minnesota has undoubtedly affected my writing. I’m not sure how though. Maybe if only learning to entertain oneself is a necessity when there are frequently snow storms so bad that you can’t leave your house. I never really feel bored because I learned how to just keep myself busy for hours on end, writing little stories and imagining things with my brother. You would go crazy otherwise. Its really flat and spacious there, you can see really far out when you leave the city. Roads go on and on. Its easy to feel alone without going very far. These things all give me feelings that make me want to write about things.

What writers first got you excited to write? And could you list some influences, and why they influenced you?

The first writer ever to get me excited to write was probably Ernest Hemingway. I think around my late teens he really started to move me, and I read a lot of Bukowski at the time too. I had just sort of started to care about things like existentialism and feminism, which I still think about all the time when writing. Now I would say Jean Rhys is probably one of my biggest influences, along with Eileen Myles, Knut Hamsun, Dottie Lasky, Mary Gaitskill, and still Hemingway, I guess. Oh, Frank O’Hara is a pretty big deal in my life, too. I think I will spend the rest of my life trying to write a poem as good as “For Grace, After a Party.” I once masturbated while someone read that to me on the phone and it was a really moving experience.

What is it like in your head before you go to sleep?

If you had asked me this two months ago, I would have told you spinny. But now it's a weird little fog where I think about things like zebras and people of large and small sizes before I start dreaming. I take sleeping pills almost every night, because I’ve always had insomnia. I don't mind it, though, it's not a huge problem in my life. The pills are effective and keep me from drinking so much. They keep my stress level low and my anxiety at bay until my eyes stay shut.

Have you ever walked down the street and just burst into tears?

Yes. So this is funny. The last time that happened was after running into you at a party, during a time I was afraid of you and I don’t think we could have been called friends. I think you wrote about this in a book of yours, but I don’t think you knew I was crying. Some times I cry on the trains, but it’s not a “burst into tears” situation. It’s usually a slow onslaught of sad feelings, and I do it on the trains because I feel comforted by crying in public. I am a really emotional person, but in general, I don’t do a lot of bursting, because one thing I really hate is when people try to soothe me. I like suffering in private.

How do you relate yourself to other American poets? I would say that Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the originators of American poetry. Do you see yourself in them? What do you feel or think about them?

This question is difficult and embarrassing for me. I am not very well-educated, and everything I have ever read I did on my own, out of curiosity. All I feel entitled to say about these two is that I very much enjoy Dickinson but not really Whitman. I don’t see myself very well in either of these people, I suppose. Academic questions really terrify me. I have a very low reading comprehension level. I don’t mean to be self-deprecating, but I can say with confidence I am not at all smart. I am very clever, and motivated, but as far as academic standards go, I fail in most regards.

One of the things I like about your poetry is that you have the voice of a person and not a woman. The language you use transcends how people generally speak, let alone how women speak. In “Hellfire Among Other Things” it is the voice of a person, not any specific gender. It is like, I've known since I was little because of my mother that women were strange and fucked up like men, and I feel like most people know that. But we aren't raised to believe that. We are raised to believe that women are there but not really there. It is like in the American or Christian mythos, women can assume two identities in storytelling, docile loving creature or witch/bitch. There are no other modes of behavior. But you present something different. In "It's Better This Way," I think a lot of people have sat on the floor of the shower depressed. I've done it, I've seen girlfriends do it. Just staring, letting the water hit you. It is a nice feeling. Maybe it brings us back to the womb, I don't know.

Isn’t sitting on the shower floor a nice feeling? I am also a big fan of baths, both alone and with other people. I’m sure that I’m going take one when I get home tonight.

Something that is always speaking to me is different women’s experiences as women. I have a lot of friends. I like having friends so much. Almost all of my friends are women -- I mean, it's a huge majority. I don’t feel close to many men. Generally speaking, men seem to operate in my life in a very disposable manner, except that some men take longer to dispose of. I value men very much and by no means am I a female supremacist. This is just how I relate to people in my personal little way. The men I do consider to be my close friends know it and get a lot of love from me. But anyways, I bring this up, because almost everything I write feels to me to be really grounded in being a woman and being around women. I am looking to record experience, for altruistic purposes. I don’t really mind at all if a man can pick up this book and feel connected to it in a way that is not gender specific. I mean, that's fucking fantastic. But that was never intended. I want the reader to know I’m a woman, and that these are things that women can feel, but not exclusively so.

I feel when reading your writing, you feel very restrained by life. Modern life and its social roles do not make you happy. And through writing you can take power over it. It almost feels strange writing a poem or a short story when you look at some big giant building that takes so much science to make. There are engineers and scientists and statistics and biology, and politics, and it is all important. And there are these important people with law degrees, medical degrees, doctorate degrees all making these important decisions that affect our lives. And there we are, sitting on a bench, writing a poem. This makes me feel weird at times, how does it make you feel?

From time to time, I do feel existentially small, and transient. But this feeling never really bothers me. It’s there, and the buildings and science and medicine, etc., are there and they pass over me and I say hello to them and keep on with the only thing I can do for this world to help a little. If I were good at something else, I would probably be doing that to help people instead. I don’t know if I feel restrained. I am very fortunate not to have much debt and that helps me feel free in life. I am a very selfish person and I make most of my decisions motivated by my desire. I really enjoy being alive but have a very weak will to live. The only thing in life that makes me feel constrained is the fact that I am being forced to live it. But even that passes and I have a quiet little life. It’s not the social roles that make me unhappy sometimes, it’s the repercussions of not abiding by them that gives me a little bit of hurt some days.

The other night I sat at Starbucks outside. It was really cold. I was wearing a black stocking cap, a coat and gloves. I was reading your book, shivering drinking coffee. The sun was setting and I stopped reading your book, put it on the table and looked at the moon. How does it make you feel that people are reading your books, drinking coffee in places like Ohio?

I bet you could guess that it feels pretty amazing to read a description like that. I wish everyone who read my book would tell me when and where they read it and what they did afterwards. It's easy to forget things like that happen, personal moments for people reading your work, at least it is for me. I feel so concerned with how many copies I've sold, reviews, and stupid shit like that. I don't really think about how or where someone reads it. I don't have any solid memories of when I've first read any of your books, but here is something. One time I got this really emotional email from you out of the blue, and my [French] boyfriend who sometimes reads over my shoulder was like "Who zee heck iz zees?" I tried to explain to him the short version of our up-and-down friendship and he was so confused so I stopped and just handed him The Condemned, which was on the floor by my bed. The next time I saw him he wouldn't stop talking about you and your book. He called you “Noah Cicero, the American hero in Ohio.” Seeing him be moved by your work like that made me feel really moved. It was like I got to read it for the first time, a second time.

I want to know what you think about the current literary scene. I don't know what to call it, Internet literary scene, under-30 literary scene, just-out-of-college literary scene, HTML Giant scene, I don't know. The other day I was watching a show on a bluesman from the south in the 1920s. The bluesmen weren't on the radio, and a lot of places didn't have electricity then. So the bluesmen were so excited to get a record and find a place to play it. I kind of feel like our movement is something like that. We aren't famous, we aren't everywhere, we aren't celebrity culture. And it is really exciting to find writing like Sam Pink's or yours. Like it is a message across the landscape of America, "Hey, I'm here too. Can you hear me? I feel." I really like stumbling across good writing online. I feel like there is a community to it. A real living thing. it still seems really pure too. Money hasn't corrupted it. I like the openness of it, rich, blue collar, poor, rural, everyone seems to be invited. It is not only writers but fans of the writing, who might be artists, sculptors, or musicians that I've met. Like last Saturday I partied with people who I would have never met if it wasn't for this online writing scene. And several of us lived an hour away from the location where we partied. It seems to be a social movement in a way, in the fact that it is bringing people unknown to each other together. People that would have never met going literary sites, looking at where people live in their bios and emailing them. It isn't as structured as religion or a political movement, but there seems to be some kind of movement taking place. Could you describe what you think of the movement and how it has impacted your life.

Yes, well, damn. I think I've said before I never had any intentions to be a writer or a poet. I went to film school. You were the first writer I ever emailed out of the blue, to test out just how accessible things really were. And then you came to visit me. That was four, maybe more years ago. I think we were both in places in our lives that we really needed emotional friends, we both felt alone enough that a little connection like enjoying reading things of yours off the internet was a good foundation for a long friendship. Since then, my life has totally changed in a way that I would never have predicted. My two closest girl friends are probably Leigh Stein and Catherine Lacey, both of which I found online via writing and then made immediate friends with in New York. Now though, we don't talk about literature all that much. The three of us rarely get together without it being the three of us and we gossip like crazy late into the night. We do talk about books a little, but we talk about our sisters, our mothers, the mistakes we've made, the people we kiss, where we buy our clothes, difficult choices, etc. I really don't like to imagine my life without them. I met Matthew Savoca because we just were always in the same publications together and were kind of thrust into a friendship and now he visits me all the time and we are serious BFFs and I also would hate to think of my life without him in it. There are other people, too. When Blake Butler comes to New York, my whole week revolves around his visit, because I see him so seldom, but he helps me through my life more than people I see everyday. There are so many people like this for me. This little writing community that has sprung up is heavily criticized and annoys the shit out of some people, and other people really like it. For me, I don't think of it as a movement, not because it isn't one. From my vantage point, these are my friends, the kind of friends that shape my decisions, and my happiness. I like to go to AWP when I can, not because really of the panels and the book fair, although those are nice, but mostly because its a rare opportunity to see all these people who care about me and whom I care a great deal for, get together, get drunk and hang out in someone's hotel room, telling bad jokes and feeling happy. But OK, it's obvious, I'm just a tad sentimental about shit, so maybe this is an obvious reaction.

I feel this is important information future lit teachers will need to know when discussing Everything Is Quiet. We were all taking the other day and discussing where we gain weight first. Personally I gain weight in my belly, terrible place to gain. My girlfriend in her legs, which intensely pisses her off. And my roommate in her ass, lucky bitch.

When I gain weight, first it is in my breasts, and then shows up in my belly a little. I always have really ridiculously skinny arms and legs. Last year, for no reason other than a twenty-five-year-old hormone surge, I gained about twenty-five pounds. Then this year I lost about thirty, again, for no good reason. All the sudden my body one day was like "Hey, you're childbearing age, put this on your belly to protect a baby," and then again another day "Oh shit, yer not gonna have a baby yet, huh? OK fine I'll bring this back in a few years when you settle down." It probably helps that I don't drink a bottle and a half of wine everyday anymore. But whatever, I don't generally care that much about how fat or thin I am. I have noticed, though, I get hit on more when I am fatter, and by nicer people. And if one more person tells me how "healthy" I look now that I lost a few pounds, I'm going to punch them square in the nose with a handful of keys.