Poetry’s Radical Leap: An Interview with Kai and Anders Carslon-Wee by Cate Lycurgus

December 30, 2016

Kai Carlson-Wee is the author of RAIL, forthcoming from BOA Editions. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and his work has appeared in Narrative, Best New Poets, TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, Blackbird, and The Missouri Review, which awarded him the 2013 Editor’s Prize. His photography has been featured in Narrative Magazine and his poetry film, Riding the Highline, (co-directed with Anders) won the jury award for Innovation in Documentary Short Film at the 2015 Napa Valley Film Festival. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.

Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellow and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Prize. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Best New Poets, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Narrative Magazine, which featured him on their “30 Below 30” list of young writers to watch. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he was runner-up for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. He’s received fellowships from Bread Loaf, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Camargo Foundation, the Ucross Foundation, and Vanderbilt University. He lives in Minneapolis, where he is a 2016 McKnight Foundation Creative Writing Fellow.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: To begin, I want to ask about your latest project, a collaborative chapbook, mercy songs, recently out from Diode Editions. Though I’ve read each of your work across journals or in individual volumes, I was surprised how the voices melded and simultaneously how much clearer your distinct sensibilities became. Can you talk a little both about how this chapbook came to be and what you learned through the collaboration?

Kai Carlson-Wee: Sure. Anders and I have spent our whole lives together, so in some ways, working on mercy songs felt more natural than working on our own projects. It was very intuitive. We just sat down with a bunch of poems and started from childhood. I would add one, then Anders would add one, and we arranged and adjusted things based on theme. To be honest, the book came together in less than an hour. It was surprising. The poems just fell into place. We wrote the acknowledgements, tweaked a few lines here and there, and submitted the book the next day. I mean, when we were younger we used to rollerblade together and work on all kinds of skating-related projects. We built ramps and rails together, we made videos and took photos of each other doing tricks. We even started a few clothing companies together, one called Bluff and the other called Saven. We made bleach-dyed t-shirts and peddled our wares at skateparks and local shops. We did the marketing ourselves and put all the money we made back into the projects.

Years later, we both went off and did our own things: I started traveling around Europe and the West Coast by myself, Anders did wilderness survival on his own. It was good to get some space, but I think we felt more comfortable with the adventures we went on together. There’s a special kind of bond brothers have when they risk things together, when they struggle. It’s hard to describe, but it’s visceral and very intense. It goes deep. I think it comes down to this primitive feeling that we would be willing to die for each other, and as much as we have our dynamics and issues (as everyone does), the strength of that bond is stronger. I think the main story we’re trying to tell with mercy songs is about that bond. About the ability of brotherhood to endure, and to survive in the face of what Ginsberg calls the “incomprehensible prison.”

It’s interesting you mention the voices ‘melding,’ because we wanted the poems to complement each other and create a harmonic effect. One of the dangers of working collaboratively with someone is that the voices clash and the poems sound like two people talking past each other, pulling in different directions. But if the voices try to meet each other and have a conversation, then I think the contrast can be harmonic, and you get something closer to song. That was the hope, anyway.

Anders Carlson-Wee: Collaboration seems to run in the family. Our parents are both Lutheran pastors and have served churches together. When Kai and I were little, we listened to our parents grapple over sermons, brainstorming the best ways to weave personal narratives with Biblical text, and discussing strategies for breathing life into tired parables. We watched them work in unison in the sanctuary, trading roles as presider and preacher; serving communion in tandem, taking turns dispersing the sacraments. And although we tried our best to ignore their preaching, I think we both noticed how our parents’ styles differed, and how their personalities complemented one another. So we had that model of collaboration from the beginning.

In 1995, our family moved to northern Minnesota, which was a traumatic cultural change (from a liberal town to a conservative one). Kai and I struggled to make friends and simultaneously started rollerblading every day. As our love for skating grew, our bond deepened, and soon we spent all our time together––skating, watching skate videos, arguing about skate aesthetics, designing and building a skate park in our garage for skating in subzero winter temperatures. (We were excited on days when the high temperature was above zero because we didn’t have to wear long underwear.) From 1996 to 2001, Kai and I skated together virtually everyday. We were featured in skate videos and magazines, and rode for sponsors. In 2002 and 2003, we made two hybrid skate video-documentaries at an abandoned copper mine in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, which focused on innovative tricks and wonky obstacles. The videos were sold internationally as part of the Life+Plus series and became known for “those wilderness sections.” Kai and I have also traveled a lot together, and everywhere we’ve gone we’ve camped outside, rooted for food in dumpsters, shot photos, filmed documentaries, and gotten mixed up in strings of misadventures.

By the time Kai and I were both writing poetry, collaboration had become an integral part of our lives and our brotherhood. A project like mercy songs was only a matter of time. We first constructed a co-manuscript about a year and a half ago, which became Two-Headed Boy (recent winner of the 2015 David Blair Memorial Chapbook Prize, forthcoming from Organic Weapon Arts). mercy songs is our second co-manuscript. Both books are built with a back-and-forth structure—one poem by me, one poem by Kai—like the call-and-response form of prayer. The poems aren’t co-written; rather, they’re organized to offer a dialogue. As a reader, you get to hear stories of common experiences from two points of view. When Kai and I first talked about putting together a co-manuscript, we were both like, “Yeah, that could be really cool.” But we weren’t sure what the project would offer. Now I’m convinced that our co-manuscripts create an experience that Kai or I—working alone—simply couldn’t achieve. Same goes for our poetry film projects: Riding the Highline would have been impossible for one of us to create without the other. The biggest thing I’ve learned through these collaborations is that Kai and I have an extremely rare connection. Again and again, I hear people express a desire to have such a bond—a partner-in-crime in the writing life, or any life.

CL: From the outset, the collection puts the speakers at heightened attention, listening for the trains. Maybe from watching Riding the Highline, I imagined a train yard until the moment the father’s snores return, and for a second find myself surprised he’s there. But family—whether protecting it, calling for it, running from it—surfaces continually, in both subtle and overt ways. “A version with my brother in it/ a version with no brother” the speaker in “Birdcalls” writes, for example, yet there’s obviously no version that exists without one. No version you’d want to write, that is. I, too, understand the push-pull of family; growing up with a severely disabled parent has resulted in similar feelings regarding my own brother—a resilient closeness, a dependent closeness. As Kai described the story of mercy songs as one of brotherhood, Anders one of a call-and-response prayer, I’m reminded that when it comes to divinity, one another may be the closest approximation we can make. Given the dialogue, I wonder about audience, or in the words of the parable perhaps, who is brother? And how does mercy define the story?

KCW: Well, the poems in the chapbook definitely have a Biblical strain, and as Anders mentioned, both our parents are pastors and we grew up with sermons and prayers in the air. Every week we sat in the front pew in church and watched our parents profess their faith. We sang in the choirs. We knew all the hymns in the Lutheran Book of Worship by heart. Our parents have similar preaching styles, which is sort of a personal narrative style. They typically read a passage from the Bible, consider the passage, tell a personal story from their lives, and then weave it back into the sermon. Family is a common theme. We often heard stories about ourselves, our relatives, members of the wider community. Our parents would often encourage us to think beyond the strictures of gender, class, age, religion, etc. and I think we grew up with a sense that in order to tell our own stories, we needed to tell the stories of others. One didn’t exist without the other.

It’s funny, because Anders and I have both traveled alone, but every time we travel together we get mixed up in crazy scenarios. Once, we were hitchhiking to Chicago and took a string of the most insane rides imaginable. These two teenagers picked us up and told us about a cocaine-induced heart attack one of them had suffered. Another guy tried to kidnap us in his car, twice. This guy named Ed picked us up near Wisconsin Dells with six little Saint Bernard puppies in the backseat. He was tweaked out on meth and ranting about George Bush conspiracies and the puppies were dying of starvation. He told us our job was to find food and water for the dogs while he drove us farther and farther off-course. We drove down nameless back-country roads. We stopped at McDonalds to buy hamburgers for the dogs. Eventually, we ended up in a dirt field in the middle of nowhere and he told us to get out of the car. He had a gun. He had plastic-wrapped baggies of drugs in his socks. Bleeding sores all over his face. We honestly thought he was going to kill us. But then nothing happened and it turned out fine. He dropped us off back on the highway and we hitchhiked our way into town. I don’t know, maybe it’s easier to find meaning in a story like this if another person is there. The brother is the witness to the “real.” He’s the one who puts his fingers in the wound. He’s the one who makes the story true, if that makes sense. The brother is the human element here, as opposed to the father (who exists in the poems as authority), or the spirit (who exists in the poems as music).

When I think about mercy in relation to the book, I think about a conversation I once had with a homeless man in Minneapolis. He was telling me about being in prison and how the purpose of prison was to be forgiven. Not to forgive yourself, he said, but to be forgiven by the universe. He said the way he did this was by listening to sounds in the walls. Heat-pipes, doors closing, florescent light bulbs, things like this. He said the forgiveness came in these background noises, and after he was able to hear the sounds, find beauty in them, he felt redeemed. I thought this was an interesting idea, and the title poem grew out of that conversation, but it also relates to the ways we attempt to heal ourselves communally, through poetry, music, and prayer.

ACW: Family is definitely central in my imagination. When we were young, our family road-tripped from Minnesota to a Lutheran camp in Washington State every summer. Along the way, we camped in the Badlands in South Dakota, at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, along the Bitterroot River in Montana, and on the shores of Lake Chelan in Washington before catching the Lady of the Lake (boat) up to the camp. While at the camp, our parents taught Bible Study while we ran wild at the abandoned copper mine (currently being removed), and on weekends, our dad would take us camping and teach us his Eagle Scout skills. These were huge month-long adventures, and they forged an unbreakable bond among the five of us. We also moved a couple times growing up, which forced more dependence on our nuclear family.

I don’t think this intense reliance and focus on the nuclear family is necessarily healthy––while there can be a fathomless well of love in a family, there’s also a sense of entrapment, of being forced into a familial role, and of isolation from others. I’m tempted to say that this imbalanced focus on the nuclear family––and the loneliness it seems to build in communities––is deeply American, but I’ve seen it all over the world. When I was walking on foot down the coast of Albania in 2012, I befriended four brothers who invited me to sleep in their front yard. They lived together in one massive house they’d built together, with four separate apartment units (two on the second floor, two on the third), each with the same balcony. All four were married and all four had children. Plus the four brothers worked together, running a carpentry business out of a high-ceilinged first floor workshop. The tight bonds of family seem to have a universal gravity and consequence. As Kai brought up earlier, there are certain people––certain types of relations––we, as humans, are willing to die for. These relationships are often familial or romantic, but not necessarily, and I think stories about such relations are the most intense and compelling stories. I’m particularly drawn to stories of familial love, such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

In mercy songs, brotherhood is the central dynamic, and the book begins there, with the two childhood poems. But as the story goes on and the journey takes the brothers away from home, there’s also a fair amount of portraiture of others, which, I think, is a repeated gesture of reaching outward in the book. That’s a good place to start talking about mercy. To me, the word “mercy” is in conflict with the word “judgment.” These are both human concepts, and I think mercy is a newer, more complex concept that requires deeper and more profound compassion. In Biblical terms, “judgment” is an Old Testament concept, associated with a wrathful God; it’s rooted in hierarchical thought: the powerful pass judgment on the weak; and also in the idea of “leveling”: one wrongdoing requires one punishment that is the “equal” to the wrongdoing. “Mercy” is the New Testament’s primary revision to that old story, and is a concept that doesn’t have much of a foothold in society, even today. “Mercy” is the idea of accepting “others” through a process of seeking to understand (i.e., compassion), which requires a radical leap forward in human evolution that I don’t believe we’ve finished leaping. But we have a word for where we’re hoping to land: empathy.

For me, the title mercy songs speaks to the idea that the frontier in human evolution is art. I believe our poems, stories, paintings, movies, dances, and songs are the vessels by which we can take that radical leap into profound empathy. It’s not a new concept: humans have been learning and expanding through the arts since their inception, long, long ago.

CL: And the cover itself portrays that leap. It is radical, and I’m intrigued by ways in which different writers, or different people in general, make that jump. Regardless, it seems to require a certain amount of listening, as the ex-prisoner told Kai, and an uncomfortable step. In hearing of your hitch-hiking dangers, I can’t help recall the parable of the Good Samaritan—maybe a twofold example of explicit re-casting of neighbor, brother, other, etc. and growing through the art form of story. And a travelling tale, at that! Why/is the journey necessary for your poetry? Especially given the tensions between empathy and vicariism, or imagination and appropriation, what are the necessary considerations one must make in entering both physical frontiers and the frontier of empathy?

KCW: The journey has always been important to me. Ever since I was a kid reading books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Hatchet, the idea has resonated. I mean, it’s one of the primary human myths, what’s often called the “monomyth” or the “hero’s quest,” if you’re into Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung and that stuff. The Lord of the Rings is based on the monomyth, so is Star Wars, Moby Dick, and almost any other road trip story you know. It’s a clean, natural progression: a person leaves home, discovers new things, is challenged, experiences transformation, and returns. It implies a natural beginning and ending, and the arc is similar to the cycle of human life. Since I started writing seriously in 2001, it’s been the only narrative structure I’ve been interested in tackling.

As a kid, I used to invent these stories about a character named “Lionwhip.” He was a lion who had a whip-like tail and could summon the power of lightning. He criss-crossed the galaxy going to war with wizards on distant planets. I would dictate these stories to my mom who would transcribe them on long sheets of printer paper. Even as a four-year-old, without having traveled much, and without having been exposed to many narrative options, I was already trying to write epic travel stories about struggles between good and evil. I think kids are drawn to stories of quest and supernatural potentials, not because kids are simple and don’t know any better, but because they understand these stories intuitively, on a deep human level. When you look at the Bible, for instance, it’s full of these stories: Jonah and the Whale, Cain and Abel, Chariots of Fire, Joseph and the Dream Coat, etc. These stories are as wild as any comic book you could read, and many of them involve journeys.

At Stanford, I teach this class called, “The American Road Trip,” where we look at different versions of travel narratives. We’ll look at photographs by Robert Frank and compare them to stories by Flannery O’Conner. We’ll look at novels like The Road by Cormac McCarthy and compare them to films like Badlands and Thelma and Louise. After a while you start noticing all these thematic connections and realize how important the road is to American identity. There’s a Louis Simpson poem I love called, “American Poetry,” that goes: “Whatever it is, it must have / A stomach that can digest / Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems. // Like the shark it contains a shoe. / It must swim for miles through the desert / Uttering cries that are almost human.” I like the idea that American poetry is this vague creature swimming through the desert, eating things up. The shape it takes is unclear, but the essential quality is the migration, and the industrial, spiritual utterance. It’s a very beautiful poem.

Anyway, when I was in my twenties I started to travel a lot. I got in the habit of carrying a journal wherever I went and I jotted things down obsessively. I even had a leather “journal pouch” I wore on my belt like a holster. This was around 2004, and it was sort my way of documenting the world, of saving the essence of all those fleeting experiences you get on the road. The more I traveled, the more I ran into people who wanted to tell me stories, who used storytelling as a kind of social currency. I was always sketching fragments of landscapes, characters, snippets of quick conversations. I had started out writing imagistic stuff in the mode of Robert Bly and Jack Gilbert, but the travel poems became something different. They developed a sense of immediacy and urgency, and I liked the way they would move from the narrative to the metaphysical so quickly. They could switch from one place to another, remain visceral and engaging, and at the same time go deep. If there’s a specific writing philosophy I’ve developed over the years, or a specific style, I think it’s this version of travel poetry, a poetry of momentum and immediate experience. I’m down with the monomyth, but I’m much more interested in reinventing the journey story for myself, in spinning a unique version.

In the Carlson-Wee family, both sides immigrated to America from Norway in the early 1900s. They were fishing people in Norway, and poor, and they settled on the Minnesota prairie and worked on farms before eventually joining the Lutheran movements and becoming pastors in the Hauge Synod. Growing up, we heard stories about this often, and almost every American family I know has a version of this narrative. The story of America is a story of immigrants. The country was founded with expansive ideals in mind. I’m thinking about European immigrants here, but Native Americans were often nomadic and resisted ideas of property ownership. The journey was a constant part of their cultures, and although Europeans determined a lot of what this country has become, there’s a shared identity surrounding the road. It’s a place where the differences among Americans fall away, and the soul of the country emerges. Some versions of the American dream are illusory and have become co-opted and commercialized, but the road is still there like it was fifty years ago or a hundred years ago. During the great depression, our grandfather hopped freight trains to work on the wheat fields in South Dakota. When my brother and I do it now, there’s a connection. It brings us closer to the family roots, to a common American past.

ACW: Real empathy demands full-bodied listening. In order to feel it, we essentially need to hear another’s story—but that’s not a passive act; truly hearing a story means engaging all the senses, allowing us to “walk in another’s shoes,” as they say. Traveling isn’t necessary for art or empathy, but it has been paramount in my personal development of empathy—and more important, my travels have taught me how to receive grace from others. When I was bicycling across the country in 2009, I was taken in by a stranger, Lee, in Wyoming. Lee took me to his home, introduced me to his friends, his wife, his daughter, showed me his gun collection, told me about his life, and fed me cheeseburgers. He offered me a place to sleep, and as the two of us put sheets on the bed, he told me about serving five-years in prison after murdering a man who he caught raping his six-year-old niece. He said he pleaded guilty and was happy to serve the time because he believed he’d done the right thing in protecting his family. I listened carefully to his words, looked directly into his eyes, and noted his gestures. Later, when I was alone, I said what he’d said, while gesturing the way he’d gestured, attempting to embody something of his story, his persona. This wasn’t easy for me: Lee was a conservative war veteran from Wyoming who had killed men—both in and out of service—who worked as a tattoo artist (a trade he learned in prison), was in a second marriage, had a daughter, and lived in a town of 1,000; simply put, I had little in common with him. But I thought about him often, and remembered his words, his mannerisms. Sometimes, on walks alone, I’d whisper things he’d said to me, trying to imagine what it was like to be him. Years later, I wrote a poem called “Moorcroft” about the encounter. My poem isn’t so different from the parable of the Good Samaritan—both tell a travel narrative with an “unlikely hero” who helps someone in trouble. The difference is that my poem is from the perspective of the traveler in trouble, formally constructed as a letter to the unlikely hero. I used this structure because I felt that a third-person perspective would allow readers to maintain distance from the encounter, while taking on Lee’s perspective might be too jarring, too far a leap. So I chose a middle ground: a letter written from the perspective of the “lost traveler,” which (I hope) allows readers to relate to the traveler first—and since the traveler is willing to listen to Lee’s hard story, readers might be willing to listen too.

On my travels, I’ve had countless encounters like this one. Not all as intense, but all sharing the rawness of strangers with conflicting worldviews wrapped in moments of odd, unexpected, complicated grace. I slept in the homeless encampment in Whitehorse, Yukon where I met a fingerless man who asked for my help lighting his cigarette; I slept in a historic 1880s homestead in Indiana where volunteers wore bonnets and buckskin and performed the daily chores of frontier life; in Tennessee, I was taken in by a sect of the Twelve Tribes—a Christian cult whose mission is to recreate the first century church from the Book of Acts. Those are just a few examples. But I haven’t figured out how to write about most of my travels. In my twenties, I spent a total of more than three years biking, hitchhiking, train hopping, and walking cross-country. Every night, I slept outside or stayed with strangers. I ate from dumpsters (which I still do), at soup kitchens, food banks, and was fed by generous hosts, with wildly varying lifestyles and beliefs. Everyday was a miracle. Everyday, strangers helped me, and each stranger was a unique embodiment of grace. Every voice, a new music.

Thus far, I’ve only managed to capture a thimbleful of this magic in my poems. Most of the pieces I draft don’t work at all. Sometimes it feels like a failure of imagination, other times it feels more like an issue of craft—of finding the right containers for conveying my experiences. Recently, I’ve been working on some new types of “containers,” and they seem to be expanding the imaginative world I’m trying to build in my work. The more I write, the more I find that writing problems are mostly formal: we don’t lack things to say so much as the right ways to say them. That’s not an endorsement of formal poetry—it’s an endorsement of craft—more specifically, of studying craft and language, which ultimately helps you find the “containers” that will lift up your words, your stories, your feelings. If the container you need doesn’t exist, understanding craft will allow you to invent it. (And I’m using the words “craft” and “container” to represent not just basic things like linebreaks and metrical foots, but ANY formal choice: perspective, tone, voice, rhythm, image, narrative structure, and on and on forever.)

CL: I, too, find myself more centered when in a liminal physical space—perhaps when in motion one must tune close to the spirit to do that balancing work. And often long to set out on my own; however, while the road is still there, for women or people of color it wasn’t/isn’t necessarily available in the same way. In thinking about this, how do you see gender or race operating in your work? What sort of definitions or complications of masculinity inform the containers you create?

KCW: This is a question that comes up a lot in my classes. As Americans, we’ve got all these stories of men on the road, living out some romantic fantasy, chasing down a dream, but there aren’t as many stories about women or people of color. In popular culture, there’s less of a visible narrative, and I find this weird because in my personal life, traveling around the US and abroad, I’ve run into just as many women and POC on the road—searching for new scenes, adventures, taking just as many risks as anyone else. I’ve gone train hopping with women, I’ve gone backpacking with women, hitchhiking with women, and I know plenty of women who have done this stuff on their own. There are different and perhaps more severe consequences women and POC face on the road, but that doesn’t mean the road isn’t there for them or that their stories are any less American. There’s a really good essay about this by Vanessa Veselka called “Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters,” where she highlights the way these narratives differ. She says that when men head out on the road they are viewed as adventurers, seekers of destiny; while when women head out on the road they are viewed as victims, as people who need to be saved from harm and death. The man is on a quest, while the woman is in danger. When you compare characters from stories and films, you can see this pattern pretty clearly. Into the Wild vs. Thelma and Louise. Jesus’ Son vs. Wendy and Lucy. The stories are similar in their redemption/tragedy arc, but they differ in tone. The men are seen as autonomous anti-heroes, while the women are seen as naive victims of circumstance. They are all vulnerable characters facing destruction, but we laugh about Fuckhead and swoon over Christopher McCandless’ idealism, while we worry about Wendy and feel the oppression of the patriarchy drive Thelma and Louise off a cliff. The difference here is real, but I think this stereotype is changing. When you read books like Wild by Cheryl Strayed or Tracks by Robyn Davidson you can see this shift. Films like Spring Breakers and American Honey. Photography by Justine Kurland and Amy Stein. In poetry you have books like Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright and the forthcoming book Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora. All these narratives signal a shift in the way we view gender and race on the road. The experiences are there, but the cultural narrative needs to change. In my own work, I try to include characters and voices I’ve met while traveling and reflect at least some of the real variety. I don’t know if I’m addressing gender and masculinity in any direct way, but the men in my poems are interested in re-inventing mythology, rather than subscribing to it. Since I started writing, I’ve made a serious effort to write poems for my twenty-year-old self. I want to write poems that speak to a newer generation, rather than an older one. I don’t really think of this as a political stance, but I’m interested in new narratives that work to dismantle the old. New voices. New styles. New forms. If there’s a story that hasn’t been told much, I don’t see a problem, I see opportunity.

ACW: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree that road narratives of women and POC are severely lacking in pop culture and literature—while in reality, these stories are abundant, alive, and wild. It’s not that the stories don’t exist, it’s that they’re silenced and underrepresented. Travel narratives are universal in human storytelling, and they belong to everyone. And while white male travel narratives are drastically overemphasized, this seems to be shifting in our time. To offer a few examples, C.D. Wright (as Kai mentioned) gives a lyrical travelogue (Deepstep Come Shining); Eduardo Corral gives us sensory enhanced/deprived and magically-infused poems of borderland crossings (such as “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”); Miriam Bird Greenberg gives us gritty, post-apocalyptic road journeys in her debut chapbook All Night in the New Country; and Ocean Vuong writes: “No one knows the way to heaven / But we keep walking anyway.” (“No One Knows the Way to Heaven”). Also, I’m stoked to read the forthcoming debut collections of Javier Zamora (Unaccompanied) and Miriam Bird Greenberg (In the Volcano’s Mouth)—look out for these two books! As usual, pop culture lurches behind, but we see some small strides there as well, oftentimes pushed forward by literature. For example, the Harry Potter film series (2001-2011), with its male lead, has been followed by The Hunger Games film series (2012-present) with its female lead. I think we’re approaching a tipping point of awareness regarding the lack of diverse voices in literature, and realizing that this lack manipulates and diminishes a faithful representation of the human condition—something that limits us all. In the coming years, I hope we’ll be hearing a much broader range and scope of human song.

CL: I know that all of these experiences make their way into your writing, so could you share a specific adventure or moment that was formative for you as a writer?

KCW: This isn’t so much about traveling, but it involves movement and it had a huge effect on my writing, so I’ll talk about here. When I was nineteen, I was living in San Diego, working as a telemarketer and trying to make it as a pro skater. My friends and I lived in a weird suburban area called Mount Helix, across the street from a run-down middle school. One day at sunset I was bored and decided to climb up the hill behind the school. I sat down in a clump of dusty grass, and when I looked to my right, I saw this large black tree stump covered in ants. There were thousands of ants running all over this thing, rushing into holes. I sat there for a while and as I watched them moving together I started to physically follow them underground. My eyes were actually under the ground with them, and I could see all the networks and tunnels they moved through. I went deeper and deeper down, and at some point I lifted my head up to look at the sunset. When I did this I could see all these green lines stitching the living world together. Everything was moving and physically woven by long waves of green. It sounds super trippy, but I was stone cold sober, and I was picking up sights and sounds from miles and miles away. I could hear cars on the interstate ten miles off. I could hear ocean waves crashing on the beach. Conversations from dislocated bodies. It only lasted a minute, but it was a much larger reality, and it changed the way I saw human connections. Of all the things I’ve done in my life—skating, art, music, film, etc.—poetry brings me closest to that larger reality. It goes the deepest. It vibrates at a similar kind of frequency. Bob Dylan apparently said, “The purpose of art is to stop time,” and I think about this often. It’s obviously not as simple as a sound-bite, but for me, the experience of poetry is about recognizing the world so exactly that I’m able to leave time behind. It’s less about stopping time, and more about jumping the boundaries of it. When you read a good poem (or if you get lucky enough to write a good poem) you can feel this happen. Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for telling stories and deriving meaning from your life, but that’s not poetry. They are the way in. They are the ants to follow. You can see them moving here and there, starting to make a pattern, but at the end of the day they’re just ants. We’re just people. These are just words. The motion and the way they relate to each other, that’s where the magic happens. I’ve said this before, but poetry is not just about identity and storytelling. It’s not just about decisions of craft. Poetry is about a larger vision of life. It’s about the green waves. It’s about transcendence.

ACW: In 2009 I spent four months bicycling across the country. I had essentially no plan, nowhere to be, no one to see. I also had no money (I lasted the entire four months on 200 bucks). I was dumpster diving for food and camping out at night or staying with strangers. The physical effort of biking 60-100 miles a day was exhausting, but also oddly meditative, with a sort of full-body focus, and the breath and repetition of prayer. I was so hungry, I could feel food become fuel right after I swallowed it. I knew my camping gear so well that I could set up camp in pitch black. I entered a kind of altered state. And in that altered state, as long as I kept moving, I could perceive more deeply—the cornfields, the roadside plywood signs selling homemade pie, the gestures of hands, and the voices of everyone I met: it was as if I was listening to the music the world made. In the middle of that trip I ran into a bicyclist on a backcountry road sixty miles outside Omaha, Nebraska, and asked him if he knew the best route into town. He said, “Follow me, I know how to dodge the semis.” He turned out to be a 70-year-old bodybuilder (his wife had passed away), and he still competed as an ironman. When we got to town, he invited me into his home and started pulling out an unbelievable amount of food, of all varieties—everything from shots of maple syrup to Greek salad to chips and beer to T-bone steak (not to mention a whole pharmacy of vitamins). “Eat this first,” he said, pushing a bowl of sliced kiwi toward me. Then he said, “I know what you need, and I know what order you need it in.” That’s the kind of encounter from my travels that has really stuck with me, and has influenced my writing: these moments of radical hospitality offered freely by perfect strangers. These rich scenes of daily life, heightened by the looming threat of the unknown “other,” and the immense vulnerability in that leap of trust—not necessarily trusting each other, but trusting in something (if nothing else, trusting your own judgment); scenes flush with gorgeous offhand dialogue and all the tenderness and complications of human interaction, and the odd feeling of becoming a temporary family for one another, if only for a night. As a writer, after moments like this, I think to myself, if I could just capture a sliver of that.

CL: A sliver of transcendence—I know that’s all I’m after, in this life. Let’s say you met someone who’s never been exposed to poetry. What is the one sublime snippet you’d give him, the one poem you’d share?

KCW: It’s an obvious choice, but I’d give her Leaves of Grass. We’d take turns reading sections from Song of Myself out-loud in a Minnesota cornfield. That’s as good as it will ever get. Then I’d take them to a Dublin pub and read Yeats as we wandered the Liffey. We’d go hiking in the Northern Cascades and read Snyder. We’d go walking through the foggy streets of San Francisco reciting the quotable lines of Howl. We’d listen to Dylan as we drove down Highway 61, then we’d cruise over to Butte, Montana, and read Richard Hugo at the ruined mines. For me, this is where poetry connects. This is where it establishes itself in the body. When you can breathe the same air, see the same landscapes, imagine the words through your own experiences. To really understand a poem, you have to fall in love with it. You have to make it a necessary part of your life. My method has been through traveling, and so I’d share that with someone else, but the important thing is to pull the dead language away from the page. Find a way to make it real, make it urgent. The sublime stuff doesn’t happen in a book or a classroom, it happens when the words are alive in the world.

ACW: As I’ve heard you do, Cate, I like the idea of sharing a poem I can recite, flushing the air with words and making the offering direct—person to person—rather than having to point to paper. That makes me want to memorize more poems, and makes me think about the importance of memorability in poetry. Memorability as a way to help people hold onto those transcendent slivers in this life.

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

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