January 2012

Brad Liening


An Interview with Nate Slawson

Nate Slawson could be the poet laureate of a tiny city-state with no official borders and a dozen or more national anthems everyone knows by heart. This is how I think of him, though he actually lives in Chicago where he teaches and acts as the publisher, editor, and designer at Cinematheque Press, which makes beautiful books "where text, art, and film converge."

This is also a pretty good description of Slawson's first full-length book of poems, Panic Attack, USA. Though the book traces love gone both right and wrong (and then very wrong), its subject is also all of the art that moves us in our daily lives. Panic Attack, USA is stuffed with the language of American culture -- our books, movies, and music make up the unifying texture of these poems, reveling and finding meaning in both the high and the low before racing ahead and gleefully obliterating such arbitrary distinctions in its great rush of turbulent feeling.

Nate Slawson and I carried on an email conversation over a month or two, talking about love, Superchunk, and T.S. Eliot.

Panic Attack, USA opens with a fifteen-poem sonnet sequence that traffics in teenage love and angst. I'm always curious why people choose the forms they do. What made you choose the sonnet as the form for the content? Or did it go the other way around?

The "Teenage Sonnets" re-evolved into their final form (non-sonnet sonnets). Some began as coupleted sonnets, others were four-line poems from a separate but very similar sequence. Each of the sonnets took a different route to form, even as I edited, fidgeted, and fudged: some were always close to sonnet-like and stayed close, others went on wild adventures. But once the function of the sonnets as tiny stories became clear ("traffic[king] in teenage love and angst," as you say, which is an apt description of the contextual movement; I'd add they're about getting naked in all the ways one can get naked), the form became. And is there a more appropriate form for teenage-ness than the sonnet?

Piggybacking off of that, those first fifteen poems are mostly single sentences, giving the poems a similar aesthetic look in addition to a long emotional arc. Did you conceive of these as all being part of some larger story?

The two different sequences (plus some orphans) I culled the sonnets from totaled around eighty poems. There was a story -- a ridiculous story, a never-ending story -- that played out in those poems. But I had to stop. I was writing in circles.

These poems are by turns funny and sad. You treat heartbreak like it's ridiculous. "Hotter than Dracula" springs to mind. How do you view the use of humor in your poems?

Life is funny and sad. It's beautiful and heartbreaking and wondrous and disturbing. Love is bliss and madness, sparkling and deadly. Sadness, when there's some funny, can be sadder than saddest sadcore.  

I'm attracted to popular culture in a lot of forms -- books, music, film -- as are you. Something that crosses my mind once in a while is that people may dismiss a poem as being unserious or lightweight because it has Bruce Springsteen or whatever in it. Frank O'Hara made brilliant use of pop, but it's a different world. Ever worry that it'll be construed as just a fashionable pose, the use of pop?

For sure, I'm attracted to works that make mention of popular culture because they are actualities that populate our experiences. I like actualities. I love the appearance of films in films; I think every great filmmaker since Godard in 1960 has done it. Truthfully, I don't think the world is all that different from the days of O'Hara, Ashbery, Godard, and Truffaut. I mean, it is, but I don't think the incorporation of popular references makes a work derivative. Though I'm sure some people would prefer not to. But I don't prefer some people.

There's a lot of savagery here -- pills, blood, violent river baptisms, biting -- and a strong sense of place. One would think you've been prowling the streets of cities of the Midwest getting into fights. There's a question in here somewhere.

A whole lot. Teeth keep getting knocked out by one implement or another. Would it bolster my cred if I just let your statement stand as is?

Yup. A lot of the poems in the "Panic Attack, USA" section seem to pine almost tenderly for love, affection, though they're still wrapped in danger, like sincere love notes sent from Looney Tunes hell. True or false?

True or false that they're love poems? Fucked up love poems? Let me ask you this: Does your heart, when it pumps its bloody music, ever pump hardcore? Does it throw itself into another heart just so it can feel something more than what it's feeling?

I'll let those questions stand as is. But related to that, there's a line in "Six Flags Panic Attack" that feels representative: "& the night, shit, / the night could go either way." I feel that this is true in all of these poems, that their very instability is something that drives them forward...

It's amusing sometimes what some people make of movement in a poem by separating the parts of the sum. Like context is this, deeper context is this (goodness me, someone shoot me if I'm going deep), sound is this, etc. You know? Like a poem is an equation or something? "Dammit, Nate, you forgot to multiply X by the inverse of Y." So I would wholeheartedly agree with how you feel these poems, that the events and happenings, no matter how unsteady their grasp on understanding is, are driven by a making-sense-of. Or something.

But these poems aren't reckless; in fact, they're highly controlled. There's also a deep sense of personal history that's entwined with popular history. "My Band Will Be Named Your Name" captures that juxtaposition for me.

Rollicking should be controlled; so many amazing writers way smarter and way better than me know it, do it, speak it. Not just writers, though, but musicians, filmmakers, playwrights, painters, NASCAR drivers, barbeque champions.

That poem also displays your penchant for naming and renaming, ascribing common nouns as identifiers for auditors. "You're bible" for instance, and later, "I name you doghouse." It's almost like the speaker is trying to fix something elusive in place through the power of language.

This is akin to what we're talking about regarding popular culture. A noun renamed by another noun initiates a different making function than the adjective-plus-noun construction. And I love my adjective-plus-noun constructions -- they're essential to language --but there's something interesting about nouning a noun or nouning a verb or vice versa.

I was having a conversation with a friend recently about poetry that's deeply allusive. Eliot or Pound or other Modernists were so allusive as to become elusive or straight-up foreboding. How necessary is it for people to catch the references to, say, Jawbreaker in your poems? How does it change our understanding of what you're saying?

When I read The Waste Land for the first time, I was in my final year of college. It was my first experience with Eliot, and I read the poem a couple of days before we were going to talk about it in class. Since that day I have re-read, read about, and studied The Waste Land probably more than any other poem. But I can remember what it felt like to read it for the first time, when I had virtually no idea what the poem was doing or what Eliot's notes meant. I can remember where I was sitting on campus, what the weather was like, which four girls I was in love with; the poem did things to me and the world stopped for just a little while.

That's a roundabout way of saying any references I make have nothing to do with enjoying or understanding a poem -- unless you're into Superchunk and want to talk to me about the remastered vinyl re-issue of Foolish.

Later, your poems present themselves as essays, each exploring heartbreak through pop and, increasingly, religion, which shift I found tonally and totally interesting. You were serious before, of course, but now, dude, you're really serious. It's like the speaker's confronting the fact that his body is falling apart -- heartbreak in a literal sense, right? And then what?

Heartbreak is serious business. And in the latter part of the book, those poems start to fall, fail -- as in words and phrases start to run-on full force. And they're earnest. And they're loud. And they dance for something felt in the gut inside the gut. Like heartbreak, right?

I want to ask something really stupid here. In "An Essay on Evangelicalism" you write that "love is worse than fascism" and yet your poems constantly circle back to yearning, an almost addict-like craving, which is entwined with lots of pills and booze -- love as submission, capitulation, taking your no-fun marching order -- and a wish to "align our skins / like woodgrain." We can't really help it, can we?

I think love is a diesel-fueled oscillation of feel. The painful bliss, the blissful pain, the blissful bliss, the abject numbness -- we need them all. And craving and yearning mean coming back again and again to my heart my heart my stupid, stupid heart.

A lot of these poems later in the book give me the sense that things we love may threaten to consume us -- substances, maybe, or how pop culture ends up devoid of real meaning, or, in one of my favorite moments, your love that "grew into a great white shark"...

I've noticed there's a lot about wanting to be eaten, too. To be enveloped, tucked away in the tummy of love. Which is awfully threatening, at least to me. Spaces and places and people have a good chance of freaking me out. So maybe it makes sense?

Speaking of places and places, the title of the last section, "Very Very Agoraphobia," does something a lot of your poems do, which is mess around with parts of speech, substituting nouns for adjectives and so forth. You touched on this earlier, but do you approach such language disruption sonically, or is there a unifying thesis at work?

Everything is sound, first and foremost. Perhaps second, too. And some words just sound better while making just as much (or just as little) sense. Plus I'm sure I'm just stealing ideas from someone(s). Osmosis rules.

There's a huge emotional arc that stretches over these poems. When you write, "I can't feel my life / no more not like I used to" ("Birthday Poem"), it reverberates back through all the previous poems, all the way back through the teen sonnets. How important is this overall narrative to you? I ask because I think it's interesting the way in which people handle narrative across a collection versus individual poems.

If I become-reader, I hope the book works as little poem-stories -- poem-stories that can be read from front to back or can be read in a Choose Your Own Adventure order that still holds true to the narrative core. Because that's all there is, a core. The book isn't a poem-novel or poem-novella or other such highbrow object. It's a jukebox. Or it's a six-disc CD player full of silly little EPs.

There's hardly a lot of resolution here -- readers are left with a lot of pieces to sort through, though there is a sense of perseverance. Any advice on how to weather what's alternately triumphal, hilarious, and crushing? I'd like to know.

Not really. Because I'd also like to know. I'm not somebody who knows things; I only play one in poems.