Category: Interviews

Comic Oil

East Village comic and writer Chris Sifflet touches on the essentials, including politics, the future of crappy celebrities, Steve Fossett, and what it would be like if Sarah Palin didn’t look like Sarah Palin.

12th Street: At 12th Street we work to promote literature as an engine of democracy, with fiction, poetry, and non-fiction as “oil” to that engine. Where does stand-up comedy fit in?

Chris Sifflet: I heard Jerry Seinfeld talk, after George Carlin’s death, on Larry King. He was talking about politics and how comedians tell the truth, and he said “comedy is a little truth and a whole lot of lies.” I think now, especially in New York, comedy has kind of taken a shift. I only go for honesty. When I first started it wasn’t about that, now I’m totally honest, I talk about stuff that actually happens.

12th Street: So you swing more toward the non-fiction realm?

CS: Yeah definitely more toward non-fiction.

12th Street: Do you think stand-up fits in with poetry?

CS: I do think it fits in with poetry, I think it fits in with music too. Poetry and stand-up are very much aligned. The both can be improvised: poetry slams, things like that. It just depends on the comic.

12th Street: What would you be doing if you weren’t a comedian?

CS: I’d be a nurse. My mother was a nurse and my Dad’s a doctor. My parents would have conversations at the dinner table, you know, my Mom would be telling my Dad, “Oh yeah, I opened a man’s chest today and grabbed his heart and had to pump it, and then his eye starting spurtin’ blood, so I had to close that, but then his nose started bleeding so I had to close that.” So it was basically like a cartoon where she was plugging holes and blood would keep spraying out somewhere and it hit her face. That was, like, every conversation she’d talk about. Like removing light bulbs from people’s—

12th Street: Okay!

CS: And that was everyday, man. So that’s partly where my humor comes from. The very dark, graphic conversations my mother would have with my Dad. Strangely enough though my Dad’s afraid of blood.

12th Street: Your Dad’s a doctor—

CS: He faints when he sees blood.

12th Street: So what kind of medicine does he practice?

CS: Internal Medicine.

International Bookseller (of Mystery)

Want to be a bookseller? I asked an international sales representative from Harper Collins what it’s like. He’d just gotten back from a month long trip, back in time to watch the Minnesota Twins lose. I caught him during the 6th innings.

12th Street: So how does one become a sales representative for Harper Collins?

Austin Tripp: Well, you start, typically, as an assistant to a rep. There are other scenarios, but this is most usual. I started my adult working life working for a printer making books, and did sales for them, and then moved to New York to be an assistant. I wanted to travel somehow, and this seemed right. It is very corporate though; I wasn’t ready for that.

12th Street: You don’t feel like a salesman yet.

AT: Oh, I do, I am. Just the other day I sold a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves. Singapore and Thailand are my favorite. The business is great in both, but I like the culture. Both are very different—Singapore is so clean, and while they have atrocious human rights violations, they make decisions over there with the people’s best interest in mind. Thailand is just nuts.

12th Street: So you like the antibacterial hand wash in Singapore offered by the beaten one-eyed slave.

AT: Love it! Seriously: no litter, no spitting, and no durians on public transport.

12th Street: Durians?

AT: It’s a fruit that smells like ass.

12th Street: Aha. So, how much of Harper’s sales goes to Asia, and how does that compare with international sales as a whole?

AT: Asia compared to the rest of the Open Market (outside of US, UK, Canada, and members of the traditional British Colonies) is pretty large. Actually, it’s the largest. It could be an important percentage for a writer, but not their primary concern, unless their book has specific appeal to a country—say you are Malay or something.

12th Street: So, how does Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows do against something like Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment on Its Ear?

Sincerity, Sentimentality, and Country Songs: An Interview with Mike Young

'On the Road' / c. 1936

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.”

Bardology and Bicycle Sex: An Interview with John Reed

John Reed has attracted his fair share of controversy. His novel Snowball’s Chance, in which Snowball brings capitalism back to Orwell’s Animal Farm, generated criticism—and praise—from the right and left alike. His latest book, All the World’s a Grave (ATWAG), a pastiche of the lines from five of Shakespeare’s plays, is just as contentious. The subtitle “A New Play by William Shakespeare” says it all: Prince Hamlet goes to war for the daughter of King Lear, Juliet. When Hamlet returns he discovers that his mother has murdered his father, and married Macbeth. Visited by his father’s ghost, and goaded by the opportunistic Lieutenant Iago, Hamlet is driven mad by the belief that Juliet is having an affair with General Romeo.

12th Street: It has been said that we Brits are gluttons for punishment. After the reception your book Snowball’s Chance received from the Orwell estate, was it a natural progression to take on, as George Bernard Shaw quipped, “Bardolatry?”

JR: Hmm, I didn’t think about it like that. Maybe I do have it in for the Brits.

12th Street: Thank you. Was personal enjoyment one of your influences when deciding to take this project on, or was it something else?

JR: Oh, sure, I had a blast. I feel, on some level, that writers just do whatever they want and make up reasons later. That’s why some of their rationalizing seems so retarded to other people.
It didn’t hurt that Emily Haynes, my editor, liked the idea. I can’t say that was the single impetus, because I had taken a stab at the project in college—[and] not gotten anywhere—and written the first act in 2003. To be honest, even though Emily liked the idea I was suspicious of it, and I confess that I wasn’t compelled so much as I was consumed. Not an act of will, but an act of abandon.