Casey Thayer: Interview with Serena M. Agusto-Cox

June 23, 2011

Poet Casey Thayer

1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

I hesitate to identify myself as a poet, having heard too often the response, “Oh, can you recite a poem for us?” Or the reply, “My daughter writes poems too.” I feel the same hesitancy I imagine comedians might experience when faced with this question: if we admit our interest in poetry or comedy, we’ll be asked to prove it, either that, or our efforts will be simplified as something anyone can do. It’s slightly irksome because while I encourage everyone to write, I have difficulty with those who equate my dedication to writing with those who sit down and write poems in their journals. There’s nothing wrong with journal writing, certainly, but I become frustrated with the common misconception that poets don’t work (and often work hard) on their craft.

Instead, I’d call myself a teacher. For the past five days, I’ve taken part in the marches around the capitol in Madison over our governor’s bogus budget repair bill, holding a sign that reads, “Proud to be a teacher.” That’s how I’d like to be remembered and identified, as a teacher who chose a life of public service.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

This sure is a question with very large implications, and I don’t necessarily want to dive into the print versus spoken word debate, but I will say that poetry adapts much more easily to performance than other written forms—it was, after all, historically an aural form—and I do think that spoken word can delight in ways written forms can’t. For me, however, this adaptability doesn’t necessarily mean that poetry is better or more accessible when performed. Personally, when I hear a poem in performance that catches my ear, I need to see it on the page. This could very well be a shortcoming in my ability to stay attentive or process spoken poetry, but I can’t escape the page. The page, that tactile experience of holding a book, allows me to sit with the work, to mull it over at my own pace. That reflection time is what initially drew me to poetry. I don’t find this same satisfaction with spoken word poetry.

At the same time, it might be pointless to evaluate them by the same measure: I classify them as different forms that simply strike different chords. If I’m trying to engage young readers, I forego Ashbery for Taylor Mali. If I’m curling up on my couch, I reach for Sandra Beasley’s new collection instead of queuing up Youtube clips of Saul Williams. I see performance poetry as walking a middle ground between print poetry and hip-hop freestyle and improvisation. It satisfies my need to be engaged visuals and audibly, but it doesn’t replace my desire to see poetry on the page.

To answer your second question, one of the arts’ most-enduring benefits is its ability to foster tolerance, to expand one’s perspectives, and to encourage reflection and non-linear thinking. We hear the ignorance and apathy of younger generations continually bemoaned, but there perhaps has never been a time in our history where more younger people can engage with art: computer programs have opened the door to self-recorded CDs, design programs to DIY chapbooks, Youtube to greater recognition for independent films, the internet to vloggers and the rise of Justin Bieber. As for bringing artists together, I think mash-ups and the popularity of bands like The Hood Internet and GirlTalk (among many other groups) illustrate that we’re hungry for collaboration.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

I move through obsessions like Pam Anderson moves through husbands. Before I bought my current vehicle, I became obsessed with reading up on car buying tips. That died out to a short-lived obsession with meditation that died out to a fascination with Catholic sainthood that died out with an interest in tea. Some might call me directionless, but I’d call myself insatiable. In my poetry, I seem obsessed with the American southwest, although I’ve never visited and only recently began working my way through Clint Eastwood’s back catalog. I’m obsessed with the sound of words, rhyme, and repetition. I seem obsessed with the sonnet, or at least, poems that clam up after 14 lines. I am cursed by my lack of self-discipline and singular focus to have only a surface and superficial understanding of a wide-range of subjects. I can change your air filter, but I can’t find your spark plug. I can tune your guitar, but I can’t fingerpick.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

For me, inspiration comes less from any rhetorical text or how-to manual and more from collections of poetry, though I did find Triggering Town very influential in forming my aesthetic and Bird by Bird served as a good introduction to the world of writing. When I feel directionless, I will pick up a collection of poems, searching for techniques I can steal. I don’t feel any of Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.” Jude Nutter’s Pictures of the Afterlife is especially inspirational, as is Cecily Parks’ Field Folly Snow. Jack Gilbert never fails to inspire, and Sandra Beasley’s work (especially her recent collection I Was the Jukebox) spawned so many poems that I should probably send her a bottle of wine.

As for writing groups, I have trouble joining them. It’s not that I don’t want to commit myself to the work of others or to help them improve (I am a teacher, after all). However, it’s difficult to know whether all the effort of fully giving oneself to a poem in workshop will be appreciated. One time, years back, I responded to a batch of poems sent to me by an old friend with copious commentary, suggestions, praise, and constructive criticism. I suggested readings, enclosed in the manila envelope poems, and photocopies from essays. I never heard back. It was such a deflating process, to give so much of myself and to have that dedication ignored, that perhaps I’ve been guarding myself from that disappointment ever since.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

Poets, just like any writers or communicators, have an obligation to their readers. Unless a poet has developed her craft, obscuration frequently reads as a lack of control. Young poets (and here I’m talking more about undergraduate writers than young professional writers) too often hide behind the John Ashbery defense—if he doesn’t make sense, I don’t have to. He even says in his book Other Traditions: “Unfortunately, I’m not very good at ‘explaining’ my work… I am unable to do so because I feel that my poetry is the explanation. The explanation of what? Of my thought, whatever that is. As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled.” I find that young writers point to this same defense, though Ashbery has already staked that territory. Young poets need to find their own.

All that said, although there are examples of unnecessary obscuration in poetry, this cry of elitist and inaccessibility is often not due to faults in poems but in the inability or unwillingness of readers to engage with poetry. I do think that poets should and should be able to demand more of their readers. Readers simply are underdeveloped critically; they have not been given the tools to appreciate poetry. The way to solve this, in my opinion, is to stress the teaching of poetry by those who know how to crack open a poem for students. In my creative writing courses, I have student boldly proclaim their hatred for poetry, yet when I take them slowly through “To His Coy Mistress,” they sit amazed that way back in the 17th century, boys were trying to pull the same tricks they do now: “C’mon, we’ll be dead soon, so let’s quick have some sex.” The key is to take poetry slowly, to analyze and fully understand each line before moving on to the next. With the short-attention spans bred by twitter, aggregating blogs, etc., teachers may find it very difficult to slow students down. But this meticulousness is necessary in understanding and cultivating an appreciation of poetry.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

Unfortunately, I have never been able to listen to music when I write. Either I end up tuning out the music to the point where it becomes white noise (and thus pointless) or I focus on the music and neglect my work. When I painted, I listened to Beck’s Mutations non-stop, and when I grade student papers, I find that the soundtrack to The Darjeeling Limited, Bon Iver, and S. Carey make good companions. If I did have a top five list, it might look like this: “Separate the People” by Mates of State, “Furr” by Blitzen Trapper, “Heart of My Own” by Basia Bulat, “The Curse” by Josh Ritter, and “Jolene” by Dolly Parton. Any would make good company for a late-night writing session, preferably along with a cup of strong coffee.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

Writing and isolation seem to be lovers or at least good friends. For me, they come as a pair, and I must court both if I want to produce poems I can live with. Because of this, I keep my circle of friends pretty small and tight. I’ve never bought into the idea that my worth is tied to the number of friends I have, though I understand why others enjoy the company of a big group of friends, and I don’t fault them for it. Instead of a large group of friends, I prefer to seek out a few people who understand me and me them, who are committed to me and me to them. Life’s too short to waste on uneven friendships or lifeless conversations over a bottle of beer at the local tavern. That, and since I’m married to my best friend, I don’t have to go far for good company.

I have found that it is dangerous to have too many poets as friends. They are an unstable and unreliable lot. I did enjoy graduate school for all the deep, melodramatic conversations about the nature of the writing-process (and all the beer), and I do find it refreshing when I can talk with someone who can elucidate a position on Bob Hickok. Sometimes, though, friends can provide a good escape from writing. Plus, the seemingly good-natured questions about my work—“Did you hear back from the Walt Whitman book prize, yet?” or “Whatever happened to the manuscript you sent to the Paris Review”—seem to have darker implications when I get them from poet friends.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

Just like a doctor who reads medical journals to stay current on new practices and treatments, I think it’s important for poets to keep a few toes in the current of contemporary poetry, which I try to do by reading literary journals and blogs. Nearly all of my work has been inspired by a line, image, title, etc. of something I’ve read. Beyond that, I try to write daily. I’m not always successful in this.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

My palate tends toward the plain and flavorless: beans and rice, steamed broccoli, tortilla chips. As a special treat, I enjoy aged cheeses, cheese curds, and string cheese. Anything dairy. I am a Wisconsinite, after all. Inevitably, one night a week, my wife and I will be too tired to cook, so we’ll throw in a pizza. Some Fridays, we’ll head up to a local Irish pub across from the capitol in Madison to get fish and chips. I’m a little concerned about how regimented I’m becoming in my eating habits. I fear I’ll turn into my grandfather who schedules his weeks around where he’s eating. I’d like to have exotic tastes and be able to tell good caviar from bad, but I simply lack any real interest in food.

Writer’s block seems to set in whenever I complete something: a manuscript, a sequence, heck, even a poem. I try to stay involved in writing by using those down times to send out work. Even compiling manuscripts, licking stamps makes me feel active. I scour old sheets of notes for sparks and try a variety of “exercises” to spur on new work. I allow myself to fail. Finally, I use that time to recharge my stores by reading. It’s the best cure to writer’s block I’ve found.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

Currently, I am nomadic in where I write, not having space in my cramped Madison apartment for a proper writing environment. My office at UW-Rock County has nurtured the drafts of some keepers along with the medical and law school libraries on the UW-Madison campus. A nicked up, rickety old table in the back of Fair Trade Coffeehouse on State St. has given birth to a few poems. I have scribbled away in the various hidden corners of UW-Madison’s student union and hardback booths of the Rathskeller. I write best on a big table that’s not overly cluttered so that I can spread out, a place close to a stack of poetry books to which I often retreat whenever I hit a snag, someplace quiet, and finally, a place with good lighting and a view of something: sailboats dotting Lake Mendota or the sweeping arc of an old cement building. UW-Madison’s law library has a wall of windows that look out on Bascom Hill; it’s a nice place for absent staring and the distraction that is necessary for any sustained poetry writing.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

Now that I have started sending out my first book manuscript, I have allowed myself to consider beginning a second. I have a number of poetic sequences I’d like to develop into book-length manuscripts, though I know many of the sequences will die before they read that point due to the changing winds of my obsessions. I have a series of apocalypse poems (with an underlying zombie theme) that I’d like to keep developing and a sonnet sequence focusing on “minor gods” (“the silent god,” “the invisible god,” etc.) that I hope turns into something. Also, I’ve been eyeing a temporary jump into prose. I have a creative non-fiction piece about my short time as a night shift parking officer in the works and a few short fiction ideas sketched out.

Finally, I’d like to get more into collaborative writing. I just started a project writing with a friend of mine, Eric Smith, where we take turns trading lines for a bunch of ghazals. Eventually, we hope to turn the ghazals into something cohesive, but for now, it’s been exciting to post a half-finished couplet and wait to see what Eric will add.

Thanks to Casey for answering my questions. Please do check out a sample of his work below:

Aubade

Leaving Hotel Skandia in the grey dawn’s growl

of car horns and red light district litanies—

Oh little boy, you run an ache through my bones.

We trade our hands for luggage, haul off

what I’m carrying home: a bag of salt licorice,

a list of useless Danish words—My ham

is frozen and Spot me. I have nothing

for moments when grief comes heavily

like a mouthful of peanut butter and sticks

in my throat the whole way down.

I choke out an order for two train tickets,

lights flicking off at Tivoli, the terminal

hunkering over us as the clock tower

calls out the hour and keeps on counting.

When I tell you, The stars like your hipbones

shine, and, If you sing, you mold me like

a pastry in my crude translation, I misspeak.

I mean to say that love is hard when we

have only our hands to help. The train car

filled with passengers asleep on one another,

winds its way through tunnels to the airport.

The morning nearer now, we press our lips

together. Where we open, we close.

The city like a book covered in words.

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