Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

11 April 2012

Interview #2: Gregory Sherl

In my second interview I speak to poet Gregory Sherl. Greg's latest book is the video-game themed The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail, which just keeps selling out on Amazon, as well as the collections Heavy Petting, and I Have Touched You, which doesn't get enough press these days. I ask Greg about real-life poetics, popularity, and getting off.

ACT: Can we start away from poetry? I know that when you started writing you weren't writing poetry as such (although I thought of it as poetic, whatever that means). How do you decide what you are writing looks like?

GS: I hope we can always start away from poetry. Fuck poetry. What is poetry? I don't write poetry – I write essays, diary entries, false starts that run long enough to false start more than once. I write fucking in the middle, beginning, and end. I write iced coffee with line breaks.

I haven't had the opportunity to do many interviews, but it always bums me out that no interviewer starts the interview with, like, Do you wear socks with your Converse slip-ons? The answer is no, but the shoes get washed often. Or: How does hand sanitizer affect your writing? If I don't have any hand sanitizer and worry my pen is dirty or maybe my hands are dirty and I don't want to touch my keyboard, I just won't write. That's really fucking frustrating. I probably didn't write about three books because of that. Or: How do you take the heart out of germs? I don't know, but please let me know when you find out.

But to actually answer your question: These days it has become easier to define what I'm writing because I've finally gotten to a place where I (for the most part, but I say this all very loosely) know what I am specifically trying to write when I sit down to write. Before, I was just trying to write. Now I'm trying to write with a purpose. Everything is bigger. Everything feels necessary or I'm not going to bother.

You've known me for a long time (since what, 2007, when we eye fucked at The Coffee Pub?) and when I first started showing you my work, it wasn't poetry – it was short fiction – or some form of it (obviously shoddy, most obviously shitty). You are right though, the lines were poetic, though I didn't know it at the time. Thinking about it now, each subsequent short story I showed you embraced brevity more and more. I started turning pages of scenes into half-page vignettes. Then it became a natural transition to fitting an entire lifetime on one page, maybe two, with, you know, some line breaks or something.

What does it mean to you to call something poetic, as I just did with your early work?

I think something poetic is anything pretty enough to look at or read more than once. A woman's wrist can be poetic. A patient singing in my psychiatrist's waiting room is always poetic. Trying to breathe underwater, somewhat poetic until you die. Never burning below the waist: brilliantly poetic. The way I look just out of a shower: My God. There aren't enough pages.

Sometimes I forget how much talking to you involves being teased. There is something about reading your work – and indeed your answers to these questions – that involves anticipation or maybe an active delaying of gratification (I suppose teasing is the simplest way to put it). I imagine this is element of your writing is conscious on your part, but what do you see as the relationship between this anticipation/desire/teasing and your work?

I would like to say that this teasing, as you call it, is a conscious effort in my writing (and hell, normal life, or hell, my entire life), but it's not. I like it though, this idea you've created, a mythical representation way more romantic about my writing than what my writing probably is.

I can tell you I like to sext my way in and out of a poem.

Maybe I am all constant flirts and we are, in fact, foreplaying right now. Can you guess what I'm wearing?

How about now?

Hint: It is less than it was ten seconds ago.

Fact: I am always less than I was ten seconds ago.

Anticipation keeps the reader going, right? Well, maybe that's not true. Good writing keeps the reader going. I hope that's true. Or it should be, anyway. I think. What do I know? I sleep on an air mattress in my childhood bedroom. I am not even that good at drinking beer. I miss cigarettes, so I take Valium and pretend.

Where were we going with this?

Anticipation. Those moments before the orgasm -- the curling of the toes, the embarrassing facial contortions we pretend don't happen but of course do – these are the best moments of any fuck, regardless of how good or bad said fuck is. (Hopefully good – I hope everyone is having really amazing sex right now.)

Getting off is the letdown. Getting to the getting off is what makes getting off worthwhile.

A lot of people who interview you ask you about your interests in so-called popular culture. I am a) no longer sure what the phrase popular culture means and b) not interested in re-treading material you've already covered. But I am interested in popularity, so: How interested are you in your own popularity?

I won't lie and pretend to be above anything, or that my "art" should be misunderstood and not appreciated: I want to be popular as fuck. I want to be read and know that I'm read. I want enough money for healthcare and never have to make my own coffee. I would like something more than frozen burritos. I love getting emails, FB messages, tweets about how someone is loving what I write (I always find this frantically confusing), but I sure as fuck appreciate it. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's a great feeling.

I want to afford to sleep on something that isn't an air mattress. I want to sell out, surely I do, though I don't really know what that means anymore. I'm ready to move on from poetry. I want a display at Barnes and Noble. I want Borders to re-open just to sell my book. I want to write a screenplay for Zac Efron. I want to be able to afford to pay someone to wash my hair in one of those giant sinks daily.

Knowing that you are gaining a larger readership has surely changed the way you approach your work, no?

We won't talk about your love for Hoagland (because you are aware of my lack of love for Hoagland), but Hoagland and let's say Mary Oliver & let's say Billy Collins & let's say Shakespeare's ghost & let's say parts of God can probably make a living based off their poetry sales and reading fees. The idea of a "larger readership" when referring to poetry is an amusing thought. It's sad that it's impossible to survive off words. It's sad that teaching at a college as an adjunct doesn't include healthcare. Look at me getting political as fuck as I write a monthly check I can't really afford.

But let's pretend that I'm gaining a larger readership (I'm not going to believe you because I'm an insecure mess). This might make sense in my new approach of writing. My new poems are weird, almost alienating to the old "Greg Sherl Poem." It's like I'm fighting what I know would work. I don't want to rest, I hope I can be in a constant state of evolution. A lot of my newer poems are getting rejected by journals my older poems would have normally been accepted at. I am going to consider this a good thing. Or maybe the poems just suck.

I don't use the word thigh nearly as much, so maybe that means something.

Since you're feeling political, what other effects has labor had on your work? 

Anything that involves me being away from my computer or a pen and paper absolutely takes away from my writing time. Even fucking takes away from my writing time. Watching The Heat play takes away from my writing time, but goddamn that LeBron James and his disappearing hairline.

Here's the thing though – my longer work days haven't actually affected my creative output. In retrospect, being busier might have actually have a beneficial impact on my work. The less time I have to write means the more intense the writing time I do have becomes. My work benefits from the angst I feel from having to grade instead of writing another poem about octopuses or fucking or octopus fucking. These days my writing comes out in a blizzard, and I don't know where half of it came from or where half of it will end up going. I find that exciting.

Everything seems to be changing.

I am interested in octopuses.

I was interested in the Bible until I rewrote it and made it better (still waiting for someone to query about that collection).

On the other hand, I am also trying to simply stay awake (earlier tonight I fell asleep at the kitchen table, sitting up, which seriously hinders my poetic output).

What I really want to be is a kept man.

What I really want is to sleep past noon, to know Netflix in an intimate way a couple hours a day.

I want to always sleep naked.

I want to live life like it's a hobby I kind of just picked up.

What activity do you wish you did more than you do now?

Fucking. I wish I fucked more. I wish I fucked like a sinking canoe. Or maybe I wish I fucked myself out of a sinking canoe. After, I wish I was held like a life raft.

You're a teacher, now, as well. How teachable is poetry? How teachable is art in general?

There is nothing special about poetry. As poets, we sometimes like to pretend we're doing something otherworldly – something we were destined for. I was born to write this book that 300 people might read, goddammit! I think that's a silly thought. We teach people how to do brain surgery. We can make prosthetic limbs and maybe we went to the moon.

Why the fuck couldn't we teach poetry?

I think the concept of teaching art because it was given to us by some higher god is completely ridiculous. Make someone excited to do something. Make them believe in themselves. Tell them, That right there, art. Make them want to create. It might not be the best art, but it's art. Who am I, or who are you or who is anyone to say what is or isn't art?

I have been taught a lot of things. I have been taught how to create, yes. I think so. I have been taught how to create better, for sure. I have been inspired. I am here talking to you because of past creative-writing professors.

I always tell my students that I don't want the theatre to teach me anything. I feel as though many poets (maybe the ones Garrison Keillor reads every day) want to teach me things when they write, but I don't feel as though you are preoccupied with this. Do you have anything to say about teaching your readers with your artistic production?

I want someone to put down something I wrote and feel better than they did before they picked it up. That's it.

It's so weird for you to say that you want a reader to feel "better" after reading something you've written. Better seems like such an odd word. Can you be more specific? Or maybe I should just shut up...

Never shut up, Aaron. You are a mouth I wish I had known better (& I meant that in the dirtiest way possible).

But seriously, yes, better. Better. It seems that the older I've gotten (saying that sounds ridiculous because I'm turning twenty-seven like tomorrow or today or maybe yesterday, depending on when this interview runs), the more I've been feeling. As in the world gets smaller. As in the world is all connected to one nerve ending, and that nerve ending is connected to my neck or maybe wrists. But then, maybe the age comment isn't necessarily true because I've always been of the feeling (considering I was so overwhelmed at twenty that I took enough pills to go to sleep forever). Maybe the older I get, the more I realize how ridiculous it is to keep feeding myself pain through art when there's so much in the air I'm already forced to breathe.

So, yes, better.

For more info on Gregory, you can read his sporadically updated blog here, or send away for one of his books, or you can google his name and read some of the poetry that he has published in at least two-dozen online journals. For example, this. And this. And definitely this.