(Publishing Genius, 2014)
I met Mike Young when he read for the Buzzard’s Banquet series in a Fort Greene bar. Due to a booking mix-up, the room with tables, chairs, and a microphone went to a group of stand-up comedians; the poetry and fiction crowd landed in the storage cellar with a dangling light bulb and a reek of stale beer. Mike kept it fresh and interactive by passing out free black Sharpies(!) and hard copies of his poem. I can’t remember exactly what happened next. My recall was compromised by conditions in the sub-basement. I do remember that we were working with an episode in a series of poems that appear in Mike’s collection, Sprezzatura.
Elizabeth Trundle (Rail): Let’s start our conversation with your version of what happened next. What did you want the audience members to do with your piece “What’s the Strongest Thing You’ve Ever Felt/What’s the Strangest Thing You’ve Ever Felt”? Did we succeed?
Mike Young: Man, that basement did have a lot of smells; it felt like they would go better with stand-up comedians than frail lit folk. But I thought we were all pretty funny sitting down, so who knows. I remember that I made up a story about hanging out in an infinite airport waiting area. And I folded all the poems into it. Airport waiting becomes communal in such a weird, particular way, and I wanted to play with the idea of pushing this subterranean poetry crowd into that kind of together-slumping.
With that particular poem, I asked people to choose which question they cared about more and then shout that question out. Honestly, I can’t remember what happened next, but I remember being interested in what people might choose, and what the summary of that choosing would sound like in a blend of shouting. Eventually there was a poem about how whoever set the lights up at the tennis court has long since left.
Rail: Good, so you don’t remember everything either. I guess that’s the beauty of poetic improv. I imagine a straightforward, live reading of your poems would also be a pleasure; your work here is approachable, funny, and often profound. Why not serve it to us straight?
Young: It’s funny, this question reminds me of a time I went on a music tour with a couple of older dudes. One had a number for a name. The other was an ex-Vietnam veteran and ex-heroin addict. They were both cheerful, haunted dudes. This was before Google Maps. One time the number-name dude and I were trying to figure out directions, and we thought the vet dude was asleep. We said something like “I think we keep going straight,” and the vet suddenly woke up and said, “Never say straight. Say ahead. Never straight.”
In terms of readings, I think it’s a fundamentally weird proposition to have someone standing in front of all these other people who are agreeing to be silent. And then this one person talks and melts and leaks it all out. And that’s weird in all “audience/performer” situations, one face and breath rolling along while all the others are still. But somehow it’s especially weird to me in poetry situations (I almost accidentally wrote “settlements”), so I like to draw that weirdness out. Plus the poems themselves are—this is an overgeneralization, but whatever—trying to be cross-sections and show the internal turmoil and chaos that comes from trying to be present in a calm and collected way in a world of love, fear, and money.
Rail: Reading your poems on the page, I still feel like I’m sitting there on the basement floor, looking to you for the next instruction. There’s a “hey come look” quality to your work; the beckoning is also an embrace. In fact, let’s position the embrace as a huddle, and think of your narrative voice as a coach—you describe a surreal coach in one of your poems as looking “like a chimney with tiny limbs and a bad goatee.” He whispers, “tough love to his team, trying to roost some gung-ho out of them.” Coach, what do your poems want us to do better?
Young: I love the beckoning into embrace! That is part of all my favorite philosophers, of whom there are two: Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. I always return to the idea of the radical alterity of the other, the unknowable other. And I like the communication that exists when you acknowledge that the other person is fundamentally unknowable, but you’re both going to present some communication to exist between you anyway.
In the past, the best way I’ve thought to explain it is to imagine two people laughing together at something and just really being in that laughter together, a laughter impossible to explain to anybody who might come in and take their coat off and ask what’s so funny. Like a friendly way to be impossible together.
It doesn’t have to just be laughter. There is lots of language that can lead to interesting ways to hold silence or non-language together with others. And maybe a team huddle is another place for that.
But I hate the idea of a group disappearing into a single goal, really. I think I would be a bad coach. One time my high school tennis coach was driving us in our van to a match, and this was in Northern California where there are a lot of endless orchards. Pecans and almonds and peaches, rows and rows of trees and trees, fanning out and aligning. And it was a two-lane road, almost empty, but there was a single tractor or farm truck thing way off on the horizon, coming toward us. And it was quiet in the van, a no reason quiet, a tide’s-gone-down quiet, and out of this quiet my coach said, “What if I just swerved over and hit that truck. What if I just drove right into it.” And I think maybe a few of us laughed. But the tide went right back down, and nobody ever talked about it again. Except I think about it all the time.
Don’t get me wrong: he was a great tennis coach. What I’m saying is if I were a coach I would exclusively do shit like that van thing, which is maybe the kind of coach in that poem, too.
Rail: Well, tennis is one of those sports like track and gymnastics, where you actually compete individually, but still belong to the team. And it’s lonely out there on the service line. But of course, poetry is not a sport; at least I don’t think it is. Still, let’s say we’re all in a van, more or less, and you’re the coach, maybe a bad coach, but an interesting one. You’re driving your readers somewhere. When we are with you, we don’t believe in God, we stay awake, and we look closely at what’s passing by in the van windows. We muffle despair with Thai takeout, and we tolerate “bros” at the half-pipe, even if we don’t like the sound of skateboards. Do we duck into your world or do you reach out to us in our own? Where do we meet, and where can we not go together, if anywhere?
Young: I love this question, and I would prefer people read it a dozen times than read any answer I might give. So I will just say I would hope the poems help you stay awake a little longer on the van of the world than you might otherwise. Maybe they weep and shout for a style of encountering that doesn’t try to turn everything into a scene in the music video of your own life.
Rail: All right, assuming everyone has had time to read that last question 12 times, and that they’re still with us, let’s move on to overt praise. I want to describe you as Walt Whitman with access to a search engine. It’s probably the enthusiasm and passion in your language, and your use of “O!” that inspires the comparison. (“Dear aunts of shopping networks in the dark.”) Thoughts on this?
Young: Well, who’s going to turn that down? In real life, I try to deflect compliments, but it’s hard for me to turn down, like, a free pair of shoes, which my friend Drew gave me the other night. Another time my friend Noland sent me a note that said he was including a piece of fake poop with my order because he liked my writing so much, and I put that note in my bathroom cabinet to help me out when my bathroom is depressing me.
But, uh, the actual question! One time my friend Jack and I taught Whitman to a bunch of fifth graders at a summer camp by having them shout Whitman poems at cars. That was fun. I think Whitman really believed everything he was saying about trying to contain everything, and I don’t think I want to contain the aunts or the search engines. I just want them to have their moment. I want to wave at them, not swallow them.
Rail: That is polite of you and much more contemporary: a renter, instead of an owner, of the shopping aunts. This gives you the freedom to pluck at reality on multiple levels. You start with, “here is a real thing that no one has talked about, I think.” Then you use language to transform that “real thing” into something else altogether. You turn a flash flood into a rapper. Relationships have barbers, who do their cutting at night. Google is a “she.” When you set out from that first detail, which “nobody cares about,” what do you push away from and what do you reach for? How do you know when you’ve found it?
Young: Things are always swirling into everything else for me, it’s true, and I am always thinking like “Wouldn’t it be funny if this broke right now?” Like if our social conventions broke, if you ate the avocado the wrong way, if the bus driver started belting out opera.
So when I push out from the details and the noticing or whatever, I try to land in maybe some kind of inside-out place? It’s hard to describe. But every time I loved a computer game as a kid, I wanted to make a level of my own. I liked taking apart hard drives and putting baseball cards in floppy drives. I love the little detail because the little detail is always the thread that pulls everything apart into the beautiful hidden fragile relationships and tentative agreements that everything is made of.
Rail: Yes, I can see that—as if you are exposing the innards of whatever you’re poking at. And then the innards have innards. But it’s not always done by poking—sometimes you hack the surface with a simple shift in voice, when the hilarious life coach gives way to someone who speaks more quietly, maybe to an insider, or a star player, or a true love. We (the team) are just listening in on these conversations. For example, “When I felt your eyebrows under my thumb, which would feel newer?” This line made me think about creative touch, and taking a risk to do something new, that it could be exciting, but it could also be irritating for the person with the eyebrows. You know, ears, toes: out of the sexy box. Bringing this back to your writing, what’s the poetic equivalent to touching someone’s eyebrows?
Young: Wait, ears and toes aren’t sexy? Shit. Eyebrows are sexy though, right? I think eyebrows are very sexy, but it also depends on the person.
The other night, I was talking to a friend who’s taking a nap right now. We were talking about relationships, and how even if you say Lamp and Asterisk (names changed to cradle the hearts) are boyfriend and girlfriend, that’s a woeful shorthand. Lamp and Asterisk are who they are together. In terms of who we are with others, we are who we are with that other. It’s never as simple as saying, “She’s my dad. He’s my tennis teacher.”
And I think that is something of an answer to the idea of who is the insider, the star player, the lover, and I love when sometimes poems forego addressing a vague multitude of readers—the crowd face, as it were—to sink completely into trying to tinker around and figure out the terms of a particular relationship with a particular other. Even if the other is imaginary, even if it’s just about showcasing that process of tinkering.
As for the poetic equivalent of touching someone’s eyebrows, that is a beautiful question! Certainly I’ve shuddered and laughed at particular moves in poems, but have my eyebrows ever been touched? Hmm. It would have to be something that lands below your head and above your lips. It’s a great question. It makes me think of Frank Stanford’s line “He will not weep / He knows / most folks don't keep their word,” but I don’t think that’s right.
Can we all go back and read all the poems again and see where this happens? Can we make more of these tests, the tests of where-touches? It reminds me of this great interview I read with David Linden, who wrote a book called Touch about, uh, touch, duh, including how most of our words and expressions about “feelings” really come back to turning everything into touch (“He rubbed me the wrong way”). Touch: the most underrated sense for sure!
Rail: Yes, touch, and the electric charge. You’ve got me thinking about sub-atomic particles; this idea of tinkering with what’s between people, in some kind of closed or superficially controlled system. Breaking us down into energetic pieces. You write into the bounce: attraction, repulsion, balanced chaos. In your words: “What I mean is terror. We’re none of us the same. We’re vulnerable at different grooves. We’re working with idiosyncratic equipment.” But we are speaking a common language and carrying around shared memories, recognizable details of lived experience. And that’s what you use to lure us in, connect us, make us laugh, or wonder. What if the narrator died in one of your poems, who would you nominate to finish it?
Young: Yes, that’s a great way to challenge the sort of central philosophical pillars I’m working with, which you’ve totally identified in that excerpt. It’s true that we’re carrying around shared recipes and sighing and laughing in recognition and clapping “Yes, yes, yes, I remember that” all the time. And there’s a big difference between the radical alterity of somebody who’s here pulling our socks off and somebody who is never making any new voicemail messages ever again.
Way back when I wrote a poem that goes, near the end, “When the batteries run out, promise that you’ll / melt me in my sleep and stir me up with blue acid.” And that’s a little embarrassingly vain and excessive to me now, especially out of context, but I think it’s what I still believe. So if the speaker dies in the middle of the poem—or if the poem dies in the middle of itself, to be more honest, I think that’s what I’d want. Just stir it up with everything else. Take one of those cans of terrible Dinty Moore beef stew and cut the label up and pour those words out to pad the poem down.
Rail: “To be present to the world doesn’t make you a present to the world.” You said that. I’m not sure I agree. But I wanted to land there.
Young: After I wrote that, I was feeling pretty, like, collar popping, like yeah, slick on you, Mike. Then I googled around and found out that Kanye had already said basically the same thing. That’s my landing!
BOO TRUNDLE is a writer, artist, and storyteller whose work has appeared across various platforms, stages, and publications including The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Risk!, McSweeneys, and NPRs The Moth. Her e-book,Seventies Gold, published by 3 a.m. analog, is available on Amazon.