W. Todd Kaneko and Amorak Huey
Orchestrated Selves: A Two-Way Interview with W. Todd Kaneko and Amorak Huey
Poets W. Todd Kaneko and Amorak Huey both teach at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, where their offices are across the hall from each other. Here they talk about Kaneko's new book The Dead Wrestler Elegies and Huey's new chapbook The Insomniac Circus.
Amorak: Hey, Todd. I'll get this started. So, you have a new book of poems. How's that going for you?
Todd: Yes—The Dead Wrestler Elegies dropped in November from Curbside Splendor. It's cool to see the book in my hands. I had this ridiculous idea of writing a sequence of elegies for dead pro wrestlers, and then Curbside Splendor made it even more crazy by wanting the thing to be illustrated. But now that it's published, I'm kind of geeked at how all that ridiculousness has turned into a real book. And speaking of ridiculousness—your chapbook The Insomniac Circus is also a brand new release. What the heck got you thinking about writing poems about the circus?
Amorak: So, yeah, a book of circus poems. Honestly, it came about sort of by accident. I was doing the 30 poems in 30 days for April thing that poets do sometimes, and it was somewhere around 18th of the month, which meant I'd exhausted all the things I expected to write about. I was casting about for inspiration, and the title "The Sword Swallower Wonders What's the Point" arrived in my mind, and so I wrote a poem that pleased me to go with the title—and then I think the tight rope walker was next, and then I was on the path to a project. It was a lot of fun to write, and I think that if the project is successful to any degree, it's because it came into being a poem at a time. I wasn't trying to do what Richard Hugo talks about in Triggering Town, where you come up with a topic like autumn rain and force yourself to stay on topic long past the point where you have anything new to say about it. I would come up with a title that made me happy, and then write a poem to go with it. And then, eventually, I felt done, and it turned out to be chapbook-length.
The Dead Wrestler Elegies is another of those "project" books, where there's a clear unifying subject to the collection: you know, dead professional wrestlers. It also traces a sort of narrative arc about the speaker and his parents, about love and loss and figuring out how to navigate masculine identity in this world. How much of this project would you say was planned and how much caught you by surprise as you wrote?
Todd: I remember seeing those poems start to come across the email transom—because we were trading poems back and forth that month, right? I remember the sheer delight I felt at seeing the titles and then just being kind of blown away at the poems that followed, how they start with that delicious pun and then transform that pun into something heartbreaking and real. "The Human Cannonball Takes His Best Shot at Redemption," for example—that poem delivers the Cannonball's persona declaring his lack of fear in a voice tainted with regret, and then when we get to that last line—"it's not the force of the trauma but the angle / you need to worry about"—we're like hell yeah because that outward movement at the end that brings the poem's inner conflict into focus, kind of the opposite of a punchline, if you think about it, right?
I think something similar happened to me in terms of the process of discovering the poems in The Dead Wrestler Elegies. The book was basically drafted in three thirty-day poetry challenges, each one more hellish than the previous one. I was committed to writing a poem every day for a month and I needed to figure out how to get that work done. Every poem started with research: while there was a lot of watching old wrestling matches on YouTube and researching wrestlers from the past, the challenge was to write poems that aren't one-dimensional, poems that are about wrestling but do more work beyond just being a wrestling fanboy. The many stories of the speaker and his recently deceased father was the main surprise I found over the course of the writing—my process allows for writing loose and haphazard and eventually tightening up once the poem finds its way. From there, the speaker's persona took shape as I continued writing poems off the subject of grief for his father, which I hope brings greater value to those stories in that Hugo-esque way you're talking about. The wrestling is the trigger, but poems have to move beyond their triggers to find depth. So yeah—knowing how to find the triggers for each poem was laid out for me as a way to survive the poetry challenge, but it was being able to find those surprises that made poems out of the triggers, which has kind of become how poems happen for me. What about you? Has the April poetry marathon we do every year changed how you think about writing poems?
Amorak: One of my favorite poems in The Dead Wrestler Elegies comes at the end of the next-to-last section, "Selected Legends of Andre the Giant." Just from the title, you know the poem is going to kick ass, because: Andre the Giant. The poem is a really successful version of the Wallace Stevens poem that every poet is duty-bound to write at some point, 13 ways of looking at something or other. So many fun moments in this piece: "Andre the Giant stole fire from Heaven, / hid it in his mouth, fed it to monkeys / one lick at a time until they learned / to pronounce his name." And the way it ends, yikes, so potent and poignant: "Now, he is the constellations. / All of them." So the poem sings and zips on its own, for sure. But I also really like the way it informs the whole collection: these are selected legends. This is not the whole story. We can never tell the whole story. Language cannot capture all of life – only selected portions. Andre the Giant is too big to fit entirely within one poem. So this poem tells us to read the book that way—this is part of the story, sections of the story, versions of the story. But not the entire story, not the only story.
I love thinking about how process informs product in this way. As a reader, the details and arcs in The Dead Wrestler Elegies feel inevitable: this is the story and it could have been told no other way. But of course as writers, we know the way a work ends up on the page is a mysterious blend of happenstance and effort and coincidence and accident. What if you had selected an entirely different set of legends? That poem offers us 13 numbered sections, scattered between No. 13 and No. 137. It's a reminder that this is only one of many possible poems. Which YouTube wrestling link led to which other link and what emotional reaction that happened to trigger for you—and then the resulting domino effect of one poem leading to and informing the next. The dominos fall backward, too, as one poem you write suddenly changes how a previous poem looked, and maybe you revise it accordingly, or maybe it just looks different in the light cast by its new neighbor. The April marathon forces us into this mode of doing the work, of being receptive to poems and where the language leads us. At least for me, I can't come close to holding 30 poems in my head at once, so when the month begins I have no idea where it's going to end up. That's the macro level—the same is true on a micro level; that is, when starting an individual poem, I have no idea where it will take me.
Todd: I like that: language cannot capture all of life—only selected portions, which is kind of why poetry needs metaphor, right? We can't capture the world's entirety in straight language so poetry resorts to that circuitry and wizardry of metaphor to relay a more individuated sensual experience of the fragments in the hope that they help the reader to assemble the whole, in the hope that poetry can recreate the macroverse in the microverse, and through that process of warping and juxtaposing and cooking up a delicious metonymy, the writer can be led to some new knowledge or experience that wasn't anticipated. That's a lot, but there it is—what I really mean is "Fuck yeah! Poetry!"
But that's how poems often work for me, anyways, and perhaps for you too. I think we see this throughout the chapbook. The persona poems bring to life not just the characters' inner conflicts but also those of the reader, all through inference, through an interrogation of the micro to reveal or spark the macro. And we get a whole family of performers there too—the poems don't really interact with one another, but they are all together under the big top that is the book's title. I think that's one of the great beauties of The Insomniac Circus, the way that the different personas come to the page individually to perform their traumas of the psyche/spirit/soul. It's a circus of inner conflict because we already know what the poems' exterior actions entail because we already know those acts. The trapeze artist is weightless and graceful by definition but the coarse, earthy images tether him to his unique memories and interiority. We know the clown's act, but those jokes give way to so much secret shame and agony under the greasepaint. We are at once surprised by the defamiliarization of the circus archetypes we know and then refamiliarized by the universality of their conflicts. And this dark interiority is something that occurs throughout the many persona poems you write—here and elsewhere—what is it that attracts you to writing in personas?
Amorak: Persona poems fit perfectly into this conversation because they're both a process and an outcome. As a writer, adopting a persona frees you from some restrictions—autobiography, memory, fact, the self—and forces you to consider others: empathy and its limitations, and the responsibility you take on when you speak for another. Persona comes from the Latin for mask, and in the end, isn't every speaker of every poem a kind of mask? No matter how confessional or true-to-the-facts a poet is attempting to be, the self on the page is an orchestrated self, an invented self, a partial self—selected legends, right? It's as simple as the way in our lives we are not the same person while making a presentation to our boss as we are in a bar with our friends or at dinner with our grandparents. We wear lots of masks, all of us, all the time. For me, writing in persona offers a kind of liberty—because the speaker isn't me, it frees me up to explore the harder truths about hope and fear and desire. In some ways, this is the explicit subject matter of The Insomniac Circus: peeling back one mask, the circus performer, to examine the self beneath. Only it turns out, of course, that the mask covers a variety of other masks.
Your book is kind of about the same things: the performance and showmanship of professional wrestlers and of masculinity. I think about this excerpt from "Bronko Nagurski Beat Lou Thesz That Night": "… men always invent things / when they have something genuine / to say." Or this bit from "Crusher Blackwell Says There's Something You Should See": "I have seen men mangled by mythologies / they have invented for love." So much of life is invention—and sometimes that has a cost. This strikes me as a core theme in your collection.
You have said elsewhere that the father-son relationship in your book is fiction (and of course we talked about this while you were writing the poems); I also read a review of the book in which the reviewer seemed to assume it was an autobiography-in-verse, which is a pretty common assumption for many readers of poetry. Do you think that when a poet writes in persona without being explicit about it, we're trying to have it both ways? Lending our work the voyeuristic appeal of memoir without being accountable to any particular set of facts?
Todd: Yes to the orchestrated self, to the many different masks we wear when we sit down to write and the many freedoms from the self we enjoy in doing so. I don't think that poetry owes anything to nonfiction, necessarily. A poem doesn't have to be accountable to any particular set of facts outside of the reality it sets for itself, which might be in a fictional mode as rightfully as a nonfictional mode. And while I think that poetry should be accountable to a lot of things, I'm not sure that its adherence to facts are among my top concerns. Nonfictioneers have been embroiled in this conflict for years, but for me, poems are more about finding empathy, protecting that which is sacred, and producing doorways into emotional and physical experiences for the reader than they are about reconciling factual and emotional truths.
The fiction writer Ron Carlson says that he always writes from personal experience whether he's had them or not. Yes—the father/son relationship in the book is a fiction. Ditto that for the stories about the mother. We have this thing called the biographical fallacy that tells us that the speaker of a poem is not the same as the author. We've been taught this since 7th grade or so, but we are quick to dismiss or forget about it because of the way we read for meaning in a poem—looking for facts or nonfictional moments is an easier way of thinking about meaning than looking at emotional or artistic truth. My father is alive and well in Vashon, Washington, but the experiences in the poems are real to me—we live very far apart, and I only get to see him about once a year and sometimes I miss him a lot. We are very distant, geographically, and we don't always talk about emotional things, so we find other ways to talk about what's important to us—movies, sports or whatever. The poems' speaker is my facsimile experiencing emotions that I'm probably going to be feeling one day when my father inevitably passes, which I know is a pretty dark thing to be forecasting. So for me, the stories are a fiction, but they are also incredibly real to me. Fiction and reality are not incompatible terms, the way I see them.
I think about these poems in The Dead Wrestler Elegies as performances akin to those we see in professional wrestling. In the old days, performers went to great lengths to preserve the reality in which pro wrestling operated, creating a fiction that masqueraded as reality much in the same way that stage magicians create the illusion of magic. Pro wrestling creates art by blurring reality and fiction. We know that the violence is staged, but we also know that sometimes staged violence can get out of hand and become real. It's the story of a fight masquerading as a contest between competitors, which isn't much different from the way that a magician and his assistant work to achieve a similar effect to engage the audience with the action on an emotional level. The result is that the wrestling fan wants to believe in the violence of a wrestling match as much as the viewer wants to believe that a gorgeous woman in a leotard can transform into a tiger, as much as the reader wants to believe that the speaker of a poem is the author. We are not being hoodwinked or duped into falling for some kind of falsehood—as you say, under our masks there are just more masks all the way down to the bone, both on the page and in our real lives.
All of this is to say that we have been talking about how poems work and how we write them. But what about finishing? How does a poem end for you? How did you complete this manuscript in its final days, and how did you know it was done? Do you have more circus poems in you or have we seen the final performance? If not the circus, then what else?
Amorak: One of the most common questions my students ask me is "How do you know when a poem is done?" My flip answer, which is also the real answer, is that you don't. You write it and revise it and poke at it as long as you can stand doing so, and then at some point you decide it's time to let go. Push the poem from the nest and see how it flies. I am an impatient boy, so I'm often overeager to call something done, but the more I write, the more aware I become of my tendency to lie to myself, the more willing I am to wait with a poem until I feel its pieces click into place—the pins of a lock aligning so that something opens up. The more you read and the more you write, the more comfortable you become with uncertainty.
Putting together a manuscript is similar to writing a single poem, in that there are infinite shapes and possibilities and no certain way to know it's done, and as Frost says, the book itself is its own final poem. I wish I could say there was some magical moment when I found the key and knew this chapbook was done, but it was more a case of worrying at it and worrying at it, alternating distance from its pages with total immersion, until I felt I'd reached a stopping point. I sent it out and sent it out, and it was rejected here, runner-up there, finalist somewhere else, until finally Margaret Bashaar at Hyacinth Girl Press gave it the home that had been right for it all along. And even then, I wrote two more poems for it—one of which didn't end up making it in, the other of which is the opening poem in the chapbook. More circus poems? Maybe someday, of course; it's fertile territory. But for now I've moved on, and if you want to read more circus poems, I'd point you to Erin Keane's Death-Defying Acts, which is the definitive circus-poem collection. I'm grateful that I didn't read it until I was mostly done with The Insomniac Circus, or I'd likely never have begun the project because Keane has already taken on this subject so beautifully.
In Brian Oliu's recent review of The Dead Wrestler Elegies in Diagram, he pointed out that "the book could never end; a new wrestler is found dead every few months." Wrestlers are always dying, but of course, so are we all. Do you feel like the publication of your book marks some kind of stopping point for you, or will you continue to explore this specific subject? Will there be a second edition, or a second volume, updated with new dead wrestlers? The last poem in the collection certainly suggests such a possibility; titled "Gene Kiniski Says It Is Not the End," it closes with this line: "I'm a man. This is only the beginning," which I think is a perfect way to end this book—at once optimistic and ominous, proud and humble.
Before I give you the last word here, I wanted to say thanks for having this enlightening, thoughtful conversation with me, and thanks for writing your book. It's fun and tender and smart, and I hope it's a huge success for you. Another of my favorite pieces in the book is the elegy for sumo wrestler Yokozuna, which closes thus: "Somewhere there is a bed for each of us, / a box that will not open no matter / how hard a man might push." And yet push we must.
Todd: Thanks so much for this conversation, Amorak. I feel like I learned a lot about both our poems here. And thanks for the nice words about The Dead Wrestler Elegies. It's cool to see that the book is working the way I hoped it would. I'd like to say that I'm done writing about pro wrestling, that the fever has run its course and I've moved on to other subjects. I have moved on to other subjects, but I'm still writing elegies for wrestlers too, poems for those newly passed as well as those long since gone. I'm not sure that I'll be assembling them into a full length book any time soon, but I do have this (not so) secret desire to complete a trifecta with books of fiction and nonfiction about pro wrestling, if the rest of the world agrees that it would be a good idea. But really, my plan is to keep bumbling through my poems, essays and fictions and seeing what materializes. I'm not sure how else to go about working.
I do think there is still plenty of room for other writers who are working in similar territories, though—like you say about the circus, it's fertile ground for subject matter. I would love to see a pro wrestling sub-genre grow in contemporary literature. Pro wrestling poems can be the new nature essay or bird poem but with more drop kicks and broken teeth. That could be fun.
I'd like to finish by pointing out something I admire about The Insomniac Circus, and it's something that I see in a lot of your work. The book is fraught with so many different kinds of danger for the reader in that they give us easy entry and then trap us. "The Clown Fishes for a Compliment," for example, starts with those jokes, which helps the reader feel like she is in familiar territory without it being easy. The reader has his guard down and then all of a sudden there's the family violence, the poverty and the dirt and all that agony giving way to forgiveness at the end. And as the clown tells the "you" how great they are, the reader has to go back to the title and wonder about the sincerity of his words, his trustworthiness. I'm not accusing you of being dishonest—it's quite the opposite, actually, the way your poems defamiliarize emotion until the moment it's delivered to the reader. I'm so taken with the way that the poems in The Insomniac Circus take the proverbial soul laid bare and dress it up in all these colorful costumes to play with our funny bones and the hairs on the backs of our necks, and then strips it naked when we don't expect it. Sometimes we get just a teasing glimpse and sometimes we get punched in the heart. But I am always left astonished in these poems, marveling at the beauty they reveal and the rhetorical sleight of hand you use to deliver it. That book is magic and everyone should read it.