Mike Young lives up to his last name, and is more prolific than most. He often wears cowboy shirts.
12th Street: You told me something this summer that has stuck out in my mind: Some people write poetry when they should be writing country songs. Can you talk more about this?
Mike Young: The country song is a terrific format for a certain kind of emotional distillation. Like if you want to write about dead people, failed dreams, steel wool, alcohol, ghosts. If you want shifting narratives and wordplay. Self-deprecation, even. Country music has all that in spades. And I’m not even talking about good country here. Just mainstream country like you’d see on GAC. Go listen to “Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk” if you think L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry doesn’t exist on the tobacco farm. Tony Tost can speak much better about this (and less glibly, probably), but I am totally not kidding.
What I really meant when I talked to you, though, was probably that there is an undercurrent of honky-tonk emotional angst sort of tucked away, embarrassed, beneath the flashy crust of today’s popular, cutesy, post-avant, soft surrealist poetry. What if these poets just sat down and wrote a dumb country song about how much they miss high school? Or, like, how much they love beer in the afternoon? Eighty percent of the poets I know love beer in the afternoon. So do country stars. What I’m asking for, I think, is more unabashed sentimentality, in both poetry and the afternoon. DFW is right: irony has pervaded/perverted culture. Let Dr. Pepper make their sly, ironic commercials; if you really want to be subversive and shit, acknowledge sentimentality and “take it back.”
12th Street: NOÖ Journal publishes both poetry and political writing (as well as fiction). Is there such a thing as political poetry? If so, who writes it well?
MY: All poetry is political, to some degree. BARR has a really sentimental rap song called “Half of Two Times Two” that I’m going to quote now:
“and politics is not necessarily
just guerrilla fighters, prime ministers
and who cheated in the primaries
it’s also who am i in relation to you
who are we in the way we can see ourselves
in relation to the other kids”
As for political poetry, then, here is a list: Sharon Mesmer, Juliana Spahr, Gary Sullivan, Eileen Myles, Carl Sandburg, Anne Boyer, Drew Gardner, lots more.
If anxiety is the major force of our contemporary condition, a lot of poetry–including my own, mostly–sort of tries to escape that, fly off into magical thinking or bewilderment or whatever. These poets awe me because they don’t escape anxiety. They revel in it, jump right into the muck of our cultural noise and dig legitimate, visceral globs out of it, with fully pulsing anger and wit and exaltation, etc.
Also Benjamin Buccholz is a poet I’m publishing a chapbook of soon. It’s called “Thirteen Stares” and will be released through Magic Helicopter Press in November. Ben was a soldier in Iraq and I think he engages the anxiety of that experience (plus lots more) in an amazing way.
12th Street: What are you reading?
MY: New issues of Hobart, Opium, Jackie Corely’s book of short stories The Suburban Swindle. Read Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians for the first time recently. Also Leni Zumas, Josh Furst. Going back to Ashbery some. This short novel by Forrest Gander called As a Friend. For new poetry: Jason Bredle, Sam Pink, and this great chapbook called Open Night by Aaron Lowinger.
12th Street: What would you rather be reading?
MY: This makes me think of who I wish were still alive, actually. I’m going to Arkansas in the middle of October for the Frank Stanford festival, and I wish Frank were still alive, writing short poems or a sequel to Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, or maybe, I don’t know, Ozark flarf poetry.
12th Street: Have the current political & economic climates affected how you write poetry? Or how you view poetry? Do you ever think of poetry in terms of relevance?
MY: Times feel exhausting and oh-well-ish. Scary and maybe sort of enchanted, like how we’re all impressed by special effects destruction. All my friends make jokes about 2012, the Mayan apocalypse. My friend Heather Christle said that bewilderment is the new sincerity. I agree with Peter Gizzi that poetry, whether advertently or not, narrates the human condition. I think no matter how snarky you try to be, poetry will always find a way to make a spiritual goal out of what you’re doing. As in the edification of the spirit, as in this connection of everyone with lungs. I think I’m being really sentimental in this answer. I think I’m being aggressively sentimental, like someone who is about to fall in a pit screams a lot.
Mike Young is the co-editor of NOÖ Journal and founder of Magic Helicopter Press. A chapbook of poetry, MC Oroville’s Answering Machine, is forthcoming from Transmission Press. Recent work appears (or will) in Nerve, Saltgrass, Shampoo, Coconut, NO COLONY, and Online Writing: The Best of the First Ten Years. He lives in Massachusetts.