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