Justin Bigos: Reading your latest book,Sympathy from the Devil, I feel like I’m under the spell of a young poet who is drunk on words, who revels in the sheer delight of making shit up, combined with an older poet who is acutely aware that the poems being uttered are artifice, and ultimately surrender themselves in language (“We don’t stand a chance in our own vocabulary”). It’s a tension I admire very much. Can you talk about the voice in this book – if you do indeed hear it as one speaker – and how this voice got in your head?
Kyle McCord: Man, this is a difficult question. I think the most honest answer is that all of the voices are different, and all of them are some exaggeration of me. I’m the befuddled director, the dog lost in space, the broken-hearted dilettante being comforted by Satan. I’m hesitant to make that statement because there’s obviously always a limit to the type of self the poem can capture. Because poetry demands abbreviation, there’s a weight on the poet to distill the images, people into discrete perceptions. The self is no exception, which is one reason why it’s often erroneous to associate the speaker with the self. It’s too limiting.
I wouldn’t make the same argument—that the speaker was some permutation of me—with my previous two books. They weren’t personal in the way that Sympathy from the Devil is. The voice and some of the balance between the surrender to language and the poem’s self-consciousness that you’re hearing probably finds its source in two competing impulses:
After my first book came out, I went on tour for three weeks with Keith Montesano. Keith’s book Ghost Lights, which I highly recommend, bloomed from a completely different universe than mine. Keith’s tutelage had been under Christopher Bakken then David Wojahn. In all his poems, you could hear these small echoes of Larry Levis, who he loves. During my MFA, I read Ashbery, Lorca, Ruefle. There was always someone who wanted to talk about post-modernism or the New York School. I really fed on a type of poem that I now sort of imagine had itself as an audience. That’s the best way I can describe it. And that’s a type of poetry that I still love.
Anyway, at the end of every reading, Keith would read two poems he’d written for his wife Jess, who he’d married the year before. They were these incredibly lovely, short poems, and, beyond the fact that they were hard as hell to follow, they were the kind of poems I began to feel I desperately wished I’d written.
The backstory on Sympathy from the Devil is awful, and if you know me, you’ve probably heard it. I traveled to a residency in Australia that ended up being a scam. The owner of the residency wouldn’t let the residents leave, so I eventually bribed a bus driver to drive me and another poet back to a bus stop in the middle of New South Wales where we were eventually rescued by another bus traveling to Sydney. I was writing the book in hostels in Sydney and Melbourne for a month. These were the kind of places where the police would break into one’s room in the middle of the night looking for guys who’d assaulted someone down at the pub.
At that point, I felt like I needed the kind of emotional crux that I heard in Keith’s poems, but I still wanted my poems to be playful and ironic. The voice in Sympathy from the Devil is often trying to convey an outlandish experience with a shadow of sincerity that is quite genuine. James Tate once told me that the best poems make you laugh and cry. He failed to mention that it’s nearly impossible to write them. It’s hard to write a poem where the speaker can discuss both making a silly hat for Sparkles and the idea that people you know might really be in hell right now and that you might be one of them. Resolving, dissolving, and intertwining this desire for play and pleasure with the demand that a poem has to mean something to me and arise from some lived experience decides so many issues in terms of voice.
JB: I like that you refer to yourself as the “director” of the poems. There is something theatrical at work in most of these poems, and although there is much observed absurdity, we sense a mind putting it all together, rearranging it, stepping back and reconsidering the rearrangement, all while the camera is rolling. Very French New Wave of you, Sir! Do you find film an inspiration for your writing? The film Love Liza, which is one of the strangest and most beautiful films I have ever seen, shows up in one of your poems, which declares, “I think it’s impossible to remain alive/ without idolizing beauty even a little. Even if there comes a day you can’t/ even detect the smell of gas on your own fingertips.”
KM: I’m so glad you’re a fan of that movie too. If anyone you know questions Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s genius as an actor, tell them to go see that movie. I don’t think Hoffman’s character’s friendship with Jack Kehler’s character is something I would have believed if I saw it on the page, but on screen it’s perfect. It’s such a weird and dour premise, but the movie evolves into this study on how broadly and quietly tragedy can evolve amidst the backdrop of a film.
Film is huge for me. During college, I took a class in documentary film from a filmmaker for Frontline. A few years later, I took this class on Soviet film. If you can imagine this: 30-40 students huddled in a drafty student lounge in Wisconsin each Thursday, watching Eisenstein, Vertov, or Mikhalov. It was one of the most popular classes at Beloit.
Mostly, what I learned from studying film in that context was how and why and when to bump perceptions against one another. For example, I love the opening to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, but the Coen brothers found a way to make me love it more by contrasting and connecting it with this incredible montage of shots from West Texas. The Coen brothers don’t need to pop on screen to say, “There’s dangerous people out here, ya’ll. And there are more kinds of death than you can imagine,” because they know how to capitalize on the associative power of montage, something Eisenstein really pioneered. I think that’s a big part of poetry’s capability too.
While I was revising the book, I got exposed to a whole different set of films that migrated into the work. Antichrist, The White Ribbon, and Monster’s Ball all get a shout-out. “Childhood with Hypnopompic Overture” is based on Lars Von Trier’s opening to the movie Europa. I wrote “Portrait of Satan in Southern Arkansas” after watchingWinter’s Bone, which if you haven’t seen, you must go rent. A good movie can teach the possibilities of structure and how and when to violate expectations in a way that I think would be difficult to learn from any other medium.
JB: At the risk of turning this into an interview about film – which would be so easy for me – I will second the praise of Winter’s Bone, though I’ve struggled to get into Haneke. And, yes, I can certainly imagine a class in Wisconsin huddled together watching Russian cinema – I had a similar experience in Pittsburgh when I took a German cinema class, and where I fell in love with the New German Cinema, especially Fassbinder. I like that you bring up montage, and I wonder if we can also think of your poems in terms of collage. I was reading Lynda Hull this morning, and came across a poem titled “Utopia Parkway” There is an epigraph connecting the poem to an art work by Joseph Cornell called Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), 1945-46. Heard of him? I looked him up online and his stuff looks fascinating. Something he once said is, “Collage = truth.” What do you make of that? Is collage something you’re interested in as a poet?
KM: I saw you had that poem about Fassbinder in Ploughshares, which I still need to check out!
I have a poem based on a Joseph Cornell piece in Informal Invitation to a Traveler. I wrote much of that book in the Des Moines Art Center, and that season, the museum had the box on loan from Chicago. I was fascinated, so I checked out his collection the next time I was at the Art Institute. It’s incredible the range of feelings each of his boxes produce, but all of them have this nod toward a type of order that’s being reimagined by the box’s contents. I’m very much a fan. So, you’re spot-on about the line of influence.
I’m not sure I could weigh in on truth (that’s a tough word to wrestle with), but I can say that I think there’s a well-meaning falsehood to linear representation. For example, I often feel like poems that try to capture a particular time and place—a White Sox game with one’s dad in 1988 or the street where one fell in love for the first time—often bend more quickly than they imagine toward a type of coherence that likely didn’t exist. Good elegy doesn’t really do that. I’m thinking here of James Wright’s “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” or any of Levis’s elegies. Collage resists expected methods of ordering, which perhaps is more true to lived experience. That much I certainly believe.
I am into collage, and I think that’s begun to morph into bricolage. I’m digging deep into my French history courses here. As a writer, I’m consistently balancing between the urge to revise and consider and the impulse to do something reckless. Dean Young has a terrific book on the subject. To me, collage involves a considered arrangement, which is the large majority of what we do as writers, but bricolage demands writers take from what’s at hand, what’s immediate. It’s even better if that object or event doesn’t seem to want to belong in a poem. When I find a poem gets so big that it can’t accept a mechanical bull or a flower pot falling on someone’s head or the abrupt appearance of Michael Bay, I try to add those things. I think it’s that kind of egalitarianism that often keeps me honest.
JB: Who is Michael Bay? (And please don’t tell me to “Google it” – you will hurt my feelings.) My question does betray a fundamental ignorance of popular culture, one my students and younger friends often tease me about. And I suppose I simply don’t care. But based on what you’re saying about bricolage, I wonder if my poems may be missing out on the opportunity to be more engaged with the world as experienced by those around me. Do you have any advice for me? What happens to a poet who only watches movies from 1983?
KM: I would never demand you Google Michael Bay, Justin. That’s a promise you can bank on.
The good news is that I would never suggest that viewing Transformers 2 is a prerequisite for good poetry. In fact, it may be antithetical. I feel like I may be singing a similar refrain throughout this, but knowledge of pop culture is just another tool in the box for me. I would make a similar argument for versatility with Greek and Roman mythologies, familiarity with historical events, and knowledge of foreign languages. You don’t need any one or all of them to write a good poem, but it certainly helps to have a little of all of them.
I actually suspect that I might be of the minority opinion in considering pop culture a valid form of reference. At dinner one night with Dara Wier, James Tate, and my fellow UMass students, I remember debating the merits of Daffy Duck in Hollywood. I can’t say any one at the table was fully sold. I still get a little leery of inserting Lost or Denny’s in a way that I don’t when addressing the Pegasus or adding in Ancient Greek. So, I’m not wholly without skepticism either, but pop culture can be good fuel for a poem, especially when the work is tongue-and-cheek enough (as often it is in Sympathy from the Devil) to explore that type of material. Anyway, even if Return of the Jedi is the final movie you made it to the cinema for (and I know it isn’t), I wouldn’t count it as a handicap. I’d much rather read a sonnet on Tchaikovsky than Justin Bieber; though, I admit, I might be tempted to read both.
JB: You alluded to Dean Young’s poetics book The Art of Recklessness, a book I also greatly admire. And toward the end of Sympathy from the Devil there is a poem dedicated to Young, titled “The Poem is Not the Anatomical Heart.” It’s one of my favorite poems in the book, and I can hear some homage in its tensions between daily, ordinary crap and what seethes unruliest inside us. Is this homage? What has Young’s work meant to you?
KM: One of the poems that means the most to me is Young’s “Poem Without Forgiveness.” While I was in seminary studying ancient languages in Richmond, Wendy sent me that poem. I’d read Embryoyo and Skid while I was at UMass, but those books didn’t really unfold for me until I read that poem. Maybe I read that line in the poem “Some piece of you/ stays in me and I’ll never give it back” as ars poetica. It was like bits of the world were embedded in Young, and they jutted out into the poems—the hilarious, the juvenile, the heartbreaking, the unspeakable. And he was letting you have all of it as the reader. That had never occurred to me until that moment.
Perhaps I’m waxing a bit sentimental here, but when I read that line, I was just glad someone had the heart to write it. When Young got ill, Wendy and I read that poem at a reading we held where the proceeds went to his health fund. We also wrote and dedicated two poems to the event. “Poem for the Anatomical Heart” was my dedication; Wendy’s poem “Ruptured Heart Theory,” which is so wrenchingly good, is over atDrunken Boat if anyone feels like having their breath taken way. Anyway, when I think about how to generate energy and authority in a poem which includes such a swarm of tones and everything from crucibles to cannibals, Dean Young is one of those voices I consistently return to.
JB: You seem to have a real attraction to the epistolary poem. Your previous book,Informal Invitation to a Traveler (co-written with Jeannie Hoag), is a series of epistolary poems written between two fictional personae. In Sympathy from the Devil, the speaker is often addressing someone, named or unnamed. Sometimes you use a delayed tag to reveal that another person is speaking in conversation. For example, one poem ends, “A city is hopelessly lodged in the girl’s eye, and every branch/ which does not bear fruit surely burns, her father tells her and returns to his paper.” Can you talk about your attraction to dialogue inside poems, or poems that are entirely epistolary?
KM: You’ve stumbled upon a dark secret here, Justin, which is that I actually wroteSympathy from the Devil as an epistolary book. When I first wrote the poems, I wrote each of them as a letter to someone I knew. After writing in the epistolary form for two years, it felt strange to be just a voice in space shouting down at whoever was passing on their way to The Dress Barn or Costco. It helped to imagine someone different reading the poem each time. I always knew I’d pull out the names as soon as I revised the poems, but it helped to envision friends, family, sometimes total strangers who I’d shared some brief connection with.
I think what I really love about epistolary writing is its interiority. It’s an issue that I don’t think gets enough page space in poetry. I’ve been a reader and/or editor now for four different magazines, and as I read, I find myself more and more attracted to poems where there’s a sort of orderly mystery that emerges. You can find it in “Walking through Woods on a Snowy Evening” (Whose woods are they, Bob? Why are you stopping?) or “Blueberrying” (What’s turned the world so desolate?). I once read a poem for The Beloit Poetry Journal where the first part of the poem was a series of dull landscape images—birds doing whatever, some rocks, a fairly ordinary simile about the sea. But the last line of the poem was “I was wrong about you. I was wrong about so many things.” Suddenly, I was involved in the poem (Why were you wrong? What were you wrong about?). What was said was so mysteriously broad and dangerous that I felt compelled to reexamine the poem. Epistolary poems give the writer more of an excuse to access this kind of interiority because they are seemingly only responsible to their correspondent. The reader is obliged to accept that they are glimpsing inside another world (which is what poetry is anyway) where completeness may not be a possibility.
I love dialogue because it allows me to vary syntax and, like you pointed out, do some handy tricks with tagging. I’m not big into leaving out punctuation, though I admire poets like Merwin or David St. John. I often find a writer can only do some many double-meanings or deflations of expectations with linebreaks before the trick becomes a little hollow. But dialogue! It’s pretty easy to pull the tagging one way or another and still make it sound like natural speech, which is a goal. Because the syntax is variable, I can augment or weaken that iambic echo that’s often behind the poem. In the case of “The Soft Machinery of the Dark,” dialogue let me echo the ghazal form a bit by bringing in that self-critical voice at the end. There’s so much dialogue can do in a poem, and I love any effect that I can multi-purpose.
JB: Funny you mention the ghazal. The last poem in the book announces a “Kyle McCord” as the speaker, and I thought in that moment how the announcement sounded like the makhta, the final, signature couplet of the ghazal form. And so I thought the whole book, in a sense, was being authored by a single, multi-faceted self. How did you ultimately decide on the structure of Sympathy from the Devil? And when did you know you had your title, which I think is perfect for this collection?
KM: You’re too kind about the title. After nearly a decade of working as a poet, I do have a confession and an accusation that I’ll voice here: I don’t think I fully understand how to structure a book, and I’m nearly certain that most other poets I’ve met don’t either. I get the general principles: strong poems in the front, strong poems in the back, weaker poems excised (preferably) or in the back third (if one must). But what about when you get beyond page ten? What does one do then? I get the feeling that so much beyond that point is intuition or guess-and-check.
Most of the advice I’ve heard about structure seems wholly contradictory or certainly not hard-and-fast. For example, Tessa Rumsey once told me that the first poem should teach the reader how to read your poems, or at least get them started. If you read her books, it’s clear she loves a gentle entry into a book. I’d always adhered to this ideal when arranging a book. Then about a month ago, I interviewed David St. John about his new book The Auroras. It’s a terrific book. However, contrary to my expectations the first poem is syntactically jagged and shocking. It gives the first section a unique feel. When I brought up what Tessa had said, David’s response was more or less “Sure, but I didn’t want to do that.”
I think it’s a bit of a chicken and egg issue. Should pieces that have content or rhythmic similarities go together? Should one poem go before another for chronological reasons? Should the last word of the book be one word or another? The answer I often hear is, “Well, it depends on how you envision the book.” But I can’t envision the book until I’ve put it together! And then it might not sound the way it should. Anyway, this is a real bane for me as a writer, but it’s a bane I enjoy struggling with.
So, I always turn to other writers for advice when it comes to final determinations about arrangement. I owe big thanks to Wendy Xu and Ezekiel Black, who were so generous and thoughtful in picking through my suggested order. Wendy suggested some particularly bold moves—putting together the two poems that begin “To Me at Twenty-Six…”, closing the book with the current final poem, keepi