Posts Tagged ‘Manoleria’

An Interview With Daniel Khalastchi

Nearly three years ago now, I talked with Danny about Manoleria in an interview to be included with Tupelo Press’s Reader’s Companion, released on their website concurrent with the book’s release. It was one of the most interesting conversations about poetry I’ve ever had, even as, or because, the conversation drifted as much to Springsteen and Mobb Deep as anything. I’m excited to have the opportunity to put that interview before you again today, and encourage you to check out the rest of that Reader’s Companion if you have a chance. We’ll conclude our feature of Danny’s work tomorrow, with new poems from his aforementioned manuscript, Homewrecker. — AS



AS: I’d like to begin with a discussion of disruption — of the body (by unnamable, alien force), of rhythm (by in-line caesura), of dinner (by men with axes), all the forms it takes in this collection. Each form of disruption is a creative or propulsive force, the first and most present radicalism in Manoleria’s poetics. I’m invested from the very beginning in your distinctive use of spatial caesura, and am particularly interested in understanding its technical importance to you. In fact, to start there, how does disruption — whether technical, narrative, metaphorical, or otherwise — operate for you as a compositional force?


DK: Disruption, indeed, is something I think about often when writing. The poems in Manoleria came from a time (in my life, in the world) when I felt very disrupted. When these poems were written, I was living in Provincetown, finishing my fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center — I was far away from the people I loved, the fear of securing a job and health insurance overwhelming me on a daily basis, and I was listening to news pour in from my small kitchen radio about a collapsing housing market and a seemingly endless parade of recently uncovered secrets about war, torture, and extraordinary rendition. As a person living in the world, I didn’t know how to react, and as a writer I wasn’t sure I could react.


When I did begin to write, the poems took the form of a recurring narrator who was (quite literally) physically destroyed while the world, the people around him, took little notice. Not such a subtle metaphor I realize, but to me this felt like the best way to examine the utter catastrophe I (like everyone?) was witnessing at the time.


As the poems became more and more sonically driven, it became important to me to bridge the gap between what I heard in my head (a stutter, an uncertainty) and what the reader would encounter on the page. I began experimenting with space, with caesuras, and with punctuation that arrived when the audience didn’t expect or want punctuation, or wasn’t sure how to handle it. Big inspirations to me during this time were writers/artists like D. A. Powell, Caryl Pagel, Nas, Claudia Rankine, Gertrude Stein, Matthea Harvey, Bruce Springsteen, John Berryman, and Mobb Deep.


Music has always been an important part of my life, and to be honest I’m not sure where I’d be without music. That said, I heard Springsteen say in an interview once that he gets away with certain things lyrically that an author/poet would not because he has, “the music raging underneath.” On the page, however, we only have our words and the way we present them — since I didn’t have instruments/a rumbling beat surrounding my poems, I felt it was my responsibility when writing Manoleria to create that “rage” through hiccups/gaps/gasps/delay/disruption. My goal, then, is for you (as a reader) to hear/read the poems the same way I do — so that we (and pardon the terrible cliché here) hear the same song, even if we hear different singers, from different speakers, in different cars, driving down different highways.


AS: I want to pick up later on these comments about music.


However, let’s follow this for a moment: “Not such a subtle metaphor,” you say, and certainly one of the most striking aspects of this book is its unapologetic use of physically grotesque description — of violent forces working their way through the narrator’s body, and of violences imposed on the narrator from without. Whether metaphorically, psychologically, or purely in terms of imagery, there is nothing subtle in the presentation of Manoleria’s main current. It is pure voltage. And, in the wake of the visceral experience of reading these poems, I’m inclined to think that subtlety is overrated.


Psychological terror is something I’m accustomed to in my reading of contemporary poetry — it’s the physical element foregrounded here that I have encountered much less frequently.


What’s interesting to me about it, and to bridge this back to disruption somewhat, is that for all that the world is unflinching around the disruptive force that the narrator might logically become, so too is the narrator entirely calm in the face of all that afflicts or disrupts him. It’s as though there is a mutually derived accord between the disruptive force and the would-be disrupted audience that above all else remaining calm is necessary in these circumstances. As a reader, I find this sort of in-narrative agreed-upon equivocality to be rather calming. I wonder if you could speak some to the impact of an equivocal (or dogged, or numbed) tone on these poems, and your experience writing them?


DK: These are wonderful questions, Andy. While I’d love to give you an impressively original/mind-blowing answer, the truth is that the poems in Manoleria were written with a kind of disturbed apathy because that’s what I saw going on around me at the time.


What I mean to say is that when these poems were shaking loose from my typewriter, we (as a country, as Americans, as humans, etc.) were involved in a war, in torture, in an election cycle that was just beginning to dominate every aspect of the news, in an unemployment crisis, in a healthcare crisis, in an educational crisis, and no one seemed to notice or care.


Now, obviously, that’s a gross generalization — people noticed, but it didn’t seem to me that anyone (including myself) was doing anything about what was happening. When I began to think about writing during such a politically charged/definitive time in our history, I was hyper aware of my limitations (or, perceived limitations): I came from a supportive, middleclass family; I graduated college, went to graduate school, was being paid (at the time) to do nothing else but write in a cottage on the shores of Cape Cod. Since I was in such fear of coming across as (gasp!) pompous/naïve/presumptuous, I wanted to present these poems (this narrator, these terrors) in as much horrific-nonchalance as possible. Maybe it was silly of me, but the thought was that if I could make readers feel the grotesque, if I could bother them by how little the world around the narrator (and the narrator himself) appeared to care about what was happening, maybe the meta-connection to the present state of our crumbling existence (not to sound hyperbolic) would somehow suddenly become more viscerally apparent.


In the absence of all this politically charged rhetoric, I think maybe the poems in Manoleria remained “calm” or quiet because in the face of such glaring and obvious wrongdoing, shouting doesn’t always seem to help. Sometimes, I drive down the street and watch as kids push each other on sidewalks or listen to students on campus use potentially hurtful language as they attempt to make their friends laugh. As an outsider, I am reassured when someone stands up for himself or herself. When a person can vocalize a defense (“Hey, stop pushing me,” “That word is offensive, you shouldn’t use it”), this seems to signal a strength that suggests a recognition of borders/boundaries/ respect/power. What bothers me, however, is when no ones says anything — when we watch the kids bully each other for sport and then seem surprised to hear of a school shooting; when I walk past a homeless vet being ushered from underneath the awning of a sandwich shop and don’t ask the students taking pictures with their smartphones why none of us have enlisted.


I fear, here, that I’m not fully making sense, so I’ll leave you with this thought: It’s uncomfortable to watch people not be able to defend themselves, but it’s potentially more disturbing to realize they don’t want to. That discomfort, that personal/social disruption (to come full circle) is something I’m very interested in, and I hope the poems in Manoleria bring that to light in some way.


AS:It’s safe to say that Manoleria does bring some of that personal discomfort to light, and in such a way as, for instance, a pedagogical theorist would find sound (if you’ll pardon the comparison): that is, this book forces me to begin an interrogation of my own response. Confronted with violence, I remain calm — feel, even, calmed. That’s a situation few readers would claim comfort in recognizing.


But let’s return to the thoughts about music (as an underpinning, as an aspiration) that you brought up a while back. There are multiple tracks I’d like to head down on that subject. Leaving aside the obvious — artists are constantly inspired by and in conversation with other artists, living and dead, in and out of their own discipline, in the same way that they are engaged with, say, landscape or memory — what impact has music had on your writing, in this book and in other writing?


I think, for instance, of the titles taken from Mobb Deep songs in your extended sequence, “Send Weight” (a series not included in Manoleria but published in Thermos) — and you mentioned both Mobb Deep and Nas as presences in your daily life as you wrote Manoleria. Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) is legendary for the coldness in his line from “Shook Ones, Pt. 2,” when he says, “rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone.” And while the coldness is coming from the opposite end in your figuration of violence and non-response, it seems like one place where you might easily have found an example.


Does much of your inspiration stemming from music come from content, as here, and as in your interest in the social situations handled in Springsteen’s music? Do you find hip-hop beats or flow in the current of your own poetic rhythms? Where does music enter technique for you?


DK: I’ll say, first, that I’m overjoyed we are able to discuss Mobb Deep and Springsteen in an “academic” interview. Second, these questions are incredibly interesting to me, and I’ll do my best to rein in my response.


Music, to me, is the most important aspect of poetry. The rhythms, the cadence, the sonic bravado (or lack thereof) of any given poem are what allow a reader (this reader?) a clear shot at the heart. While some poets rely on music to push/pull their pieces in new and engaging directions (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dora Malech, Michelle Taransky), others use it more sparingly to signal shifts I find utterly breathtaking in their subtlety (Denis Johnson, Zach Savich, Marc Rahe . . . the list could go on). I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes the music of poetry is a knocking 808 drum machine, and sometimes it’s silence. For me, word choice and rhythm happen so intrinsically that I do my best to avoid attempting to disguise or analyze it. Like a rapper (say, Prodigy in “Shook Ones, Pt. 2”), when I write there is something in my head that is driving me towards certain words and their combinations. While I don’t have a slick beat thundering in my headphones, I do have a feeling (in the case of Manoleria, a feeling of destruction/political upheaval/uncertainty, etc.) that I want to say something about. If you think of that feeling as a beat, the full “music” of the piece comes together when lyrics/poetic lines are laced on top. What I mean to say is that Prodigy, with that grimy beat from “Shook Ones…”, wasn’t likely to say “kiss you on the cheek, hug you tight cause I love you.” The beat, the feeling it created, allowed him to lyrically represent the violence he felt and saw growing up in Queens. The sound let him let go, and I think I try to allow that same thing to happen to me when writing.


To say this more succinctly, and to go back to the Springsteen quote I mentioned earlier, while I don’t have a beat/“music raging” underneath my poems, I still want my poems to sing. The rise and fall of each syllable, each gerund, each moment of punctuation, is there hopefully to help the reader feel/hear/connect to whatever it is I’m trying to get across — I’ve never stabbed anyone in the brain with their own nose bone, but I understand the anger Prodigy was surrounded by in his youth; my dad never worked in a factory, but I understand the backbreaking labor Springsteen’s characters go through on albums like Darkness on the Edge of Town. Those songs, those musicians, move me — I guess I use music in my poems to try and move the reader in a similar way.


In an attempt to answer this question specifically, I should state more exactly that music plays a direct role in my writing. Every morning, I get up and spend an hour or so reading hip-hop blogs, listening to new rappers, new songs, and new flows. Although it sometimes feels that the rap genre (like all art forms) is “played out,” or that there can no longer be a fresh way to present the same formula (beat, 16 bars, chorus, more bars, more chorus, etc.), I’m always inspired by what I hear. The drive, the determination of some of these artists reminds me to “stay hungry,” as they say. They get me excited about word play, about language, and about what it’s like to have a voice with something to say and a world around you that doesn’t necessarily want to hear you. (Sounds a lot like contemporary poetry, huh?) I go back and forth with musical genres and styles — some days I’ll only listen to Tommy Dorsey, others Springsteen, still others Jimmy Witherspoon. But most days, I stick with hip-hop, and I take walks or drives around town when all I do is listen to one song over and over, focusing intently on how the artist was able to pull me as a listener in and out of the track. How they maintained control. How they kept me from “switching the channel” — how they kept me in it. (As a side note, this week that artist/song was Freddie Gibbs’ “National Anthem.” If you haven’t listened to this, you should. Right now.)


I once heard a rapper (I forget who) say that rapping was like boxing — that every time an artist picks up a notepad or gets in the recording booth, they have to believe they’re the strongest/most well trained/hardest person in the world. If not, and they get in the ring with someone else who’s more hungry, more tough, they’ll just get eaten alive. I don’t mean for this to sound like I believe, in any way, that poetry is a competition, or that I want to be better than my peers — what I mean is that through music I’ve learned that a certain amount of confidence is necessary, and that taking risks and chances with my word play/presentation/disruption (we’ve come full circle again!) keeps me from falling in to the “only twelve notes a man can play” thought process that (at times) seems to inundate all art forms, poetry not excluded.


My final point is a small one: Springsteen is the greatest poet who has ever lived. But maybe that’s something we can talk about later.


AS: There are many avenues to take out of that response — including: Springsteen as the greatest poet, how and why? But I’m most interested in the issue of confidence.


I think we would agree that artists must move with confidence — even something beyond confidence, a non-acknowledgment of confidence — through whatever ground they deem necessary in order to achieve the rhythm/music/form/content that constitutes meaning for them in writing poetry. That there is no terrifying realm of consciousness that should be held outside the materials of a poem. But for the reader — even the serious and seasoned reader of literature — that is not necessarily true. There are territories that a reader might justifiably not wish to engage, for whatever reason. Leaving aside the question of how much a writer owes to an audience, I’m interested in hearing from you about some of the territories you found, as a poet, difficult to traverse — and where you might expect readers to encounter restraints and limits in themselves. I ask because there is evidence in the music of the Manoleria poems of deeper disruptions than the sort we discussed earlier on — things you must have had to reconcile with yourself in order, as your narrator does, to press forward.


DK: I may have said this before, but as a writer I find great comfort in discomfort. For me, there is so much in the world that is upsetting and utterly frustrating (poor education, wars, political issues, etc.) that while I may choose to avoid these to an extent in my daily life (I’m not one to picket, to proselytize my beliefs in any particularly public forum), my poems are a chance to get in the face or the head of another person (of myself?) and say, “Hey — isn’t this fucked up?”


I don’t mean to be crass, but hopefully you see my point. Certainly there are many territories I wish not to (and don’t) write about — I avoid (for the most part) writing about my family’s history (escaping Iraq) because it’s difficult and I don’t feel I have the right to write about this. I also avoid writing direct “confessional” pieces because if I wanted someone to know about my failed attempts at living my own life, I’d leave my journal on a public bus or start a blog.


Maybe the bigger question here is how I expect my readers to deal with the issues/images/violent dismemberment that occurs throughout Manoleria, and the truth is I simply hope they trust me. I worked hard at avoiding “shock value” in this book. I’m not writing to show how weird my brain is, or (honestly I’m shaking my head here) to be funny. Poetry — and I stress that this is a personal opinion — is not meant to be stand-up comedy. Too often contemporary poetry feels like the poets are out to try and amuse their friends at a bar where everyone is wearing skinny jeans; like poetry has become easy, in the sense that (strangely?) it is suddenly a hip thing to do, and if a person makes a few jokes and breaks a few lines, they’ll have a book done in no time. I don’t want Manoleria to read that way. I want the discomfort, the moments where a reader would rather turn away or close their eyes, to be somehow balanced with a more engaged, purposeful stillness. Maybe that’s why so many of the poems in the collection are “narrative” — it was very important to me when creating these pieces that the reader not feel like I was saying anything just to say it. I wanted there to be a feeling of deliberateness — perhaps that leads to the “calm” feeling we discussed earlier — and I’m thankful that the editors at Tupelo saw that in the book.


When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that they owe their audience everything and nothing — they just have to remember that the reader only has what the writer leaves on the page. After that, misinterpretation/alternate readings/etc. are fair game. Hopefully Manoleria doesn’t ask too much of the reader, but also doesn’t ask too little. Hopefully that impulse to want to cover one’s eyes from the proverbial car-crash of images, but still peek through to see the wreck’s aftermath comes from a quiet voice somewhere in the collection telling everyone: there, there — yes, this is happening, but it’s okay.


AS: All right, so you called Bruce Springsteen “the greatest poet who ever lived,” and there’s a part of me that’s inclined to agree, largely for temperamental reasons. What I want to know is what you mean by that statement? How would you justify that claim?


DK: Listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town front to back four times in a row. Listen to The River (all of it), and then put on Nebraska, turn off the lights, and spend three days only eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the floor of your apartment. Make note of the control. The ability for one man to assume the voice of a country (its politics, its people, its economic diversity/frustration/limitation/need), and then try to give me another writer who is able to achieve anything close in a total run-time of roughly 159 minutes. Then we can talk about justification. Am I right? (I get all hot and bothered when I talk about Bruce — maybe my claim can’t be justified, but Springsteen is the one who first showed me what was possible as a writer, if I just opened my eyes; if I just looked out the door, the window, down the stairwell. If I just saw. In fact, I get a very similar feeling every time I listen to Nas’s Illmatic, but maybe that’s a conversation for another time.)


AS: I’ve encountered a question many times with the primary word “responsibilities,” but I feel that an artist’s primary responsibility is to the art, so I want to frame this slightly differently: What do you see as the possibilities of the poet in public conversation? I mean primarily political conversation, but interpret as you will. Who are some poets who have recently advanced these possibilities for you?


DK: Every poet has different responsibilities, and maybe every poet also has different possibilities. That said, I think a poem has the chance to cause action — whether that’s a fiery riot by a critical mass in objection to political tyranny, or a sudden understanding of what to say to a lover and how to say it. In other words, if we can get poems out there (which is easier now, in some ways, with online journals, etc.), they have the possibility of (gulp) changing the world. For me, as I’ve mentioned before, I feel this change, this call to action, often from musicians/hip-hop artists, but there are also many poets/writers who have greatly advanced what I understand to be “possible” on the page. I’m not one for lists, but I will say that the writers whose work I return to regularly for this reason are Roberto Bolaño, Leonard Michaels, Claudia Rankine, Dan Beachy-Quick, D. A. Powell, Jack Gilbert, Robyn Schiff, John Berryman, Vinnie Wilhelm, Inger Christensen, Mario Bellatin, Matthea Harvey, and James Wright. Obviously I am forgetting people (James Galvin, Suzanne Buffam, and others) but these writers/poets all show me, every time I pick up one of their books, that there’s no limit to the power of language. I owe a lot to all of these writers. It’s that simple.


AS: Finally, since you finished writing Manoleria, what are some books you’ve read, films you’ve seen, experiences you’ve had (etc.) that have altered the context of the book for you in some way?


DK: After finishing Manoleria I went on a pretty big TV series kick that I’m honestly still trying to work my way out of. I didn’t have television for a good stretch of the last four years, so I’ve worked pretty hard to play catch up when I can. One show that has made me think about (albeit in different contexts) the themes raised in Manoleria is the beautiful and amazingly under-appreciated Friday Night Lights. Aside from the strange dip in season two (possibly because of the writers’ strike) I think FNL does a terrific job of highlighting the struggles of everyday Americans, everyday people. Like Springsteen, the show touches on everything and everyone — it covers how economic class is driving our country apart, investigates how bad political decisions are impacting our educational system, examines (daringly, by contemporary television standards) the role religion plays in social/personal decisions and actions, and shows people finding a way to survive in the face of obvious hardship and adversity.

 

While I hope Manoleria doesn’t read as a “family drama,” the themes I’m discussing in the collection are not unique to my poems. Friday Night Lights seems to have similar aims, just with pretty actors and a sexier drawl. If you haven’t seen it, it’s highly recommended.


I’m not sure if that’s the answer you’re looking for. Obviously the election of President Obama, the book The Dark Side by Jane Mayer, my move to Milwaukee, and other experiences/events/etc. have all altered the way I look at Manoleria — but isn’t it more fun to talk about television?


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Daniel Khalastchi: First-Book Conversation (Re-printed)

We first published this conversation, on this blog, two years ago this week. What I find most interesting in re-reading the conversation this week is the fact that many of the concerns Danny expresses in the past tense in his wonderful public letter are posited in the present tense in these answers. I’m grateful for both. — AS



TH: How has having a first book out changed how you think about your writing?


DK: I used to think (when I was young, silly, naive, etc.) that having a book out would mean finally getting that Bentley I always wanted and having jobs thrown at me left and right. Yet, to be more serious for a second, I think I actually thought it would give me the chance to really explore poetry in ways any writer who hasn’t gotten their foot in the door may not feel able to.  But in truth, it’s made me more nervous about both the act of writing itself and my personal connection to the global megaphone. I find myself asking more frequently now, “what do I want to say/why would anyone care to listen to me/how come I suddenly have all these gray hairs?”


Writing has become more stressful, but I’m not sure I would change that.  Once Manoleria entered the world, I realized I had to stand behind it, and I had to keep moving. It’s easy to write a bad Danny Khalastchi poem. It’s been more difficult to write somewhat-bad-but-also-somewhat-interesting/possibly-good Danny Khalastchi poems since the book was released, and that’s what I’ve taken away most from the experience.  I don’t want (as a writer/artist) to ever be complacent. I’m proud of Manoleria, but I also know nothing is guaranteed.  Like many other poets with a book, I have to dive right back into the “prize” system. I’m back to getting rejection letters and small notes of “we like this but we can’t take it,” etc.  Though it would be nice to be like some of my fiction writing colleagues (money, agents, cocktail parties with jokes about astronauts!), poetry is the real art. It lasts. Since Manoleria came out, I’m just trying to make more things that will continue to do just that.


TH: You seem to be a various and prolific writer. Is Manoleria a capsule of a specific time, or of a specific mood returned to in the midst of many other projects?


DK: It’s strange to admit this as often as I do, but the initial draft of Manoleria was written on my typewriter while I had a residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  I had maybe a month left on the Cape, and I remember waking up every day with the weight of a brick-filled laundry basket pressing on my kidneys.  I was anxious and afraid that the time I had that winter/spring would (possibly) be the only time in my entire life where someone afforded me the opportunity to do nothing but write.  I read and wrote a lot that year, but everything seemed stale and young and (for lack of a better word) repetitive.


While my own writing was lying flat and shaved in my mind, the news from around the world was doing just the opposite to my body. A new election cycle was starting, we were in the middle of wars on multiple fronts, and information was coming in daily about torture and what these things truly (right word?) meant about being an “American.” Suddenly, I was energized. I wanted to try writing about these things, and I gave myself (possibly for the first time in my writing life) complete freedom to do so.


I had a painting by the artist Justin Richel over my desk, and I wrote every morning and afternoon poems that I didn’t really look at for three months. When I finally did go back and see what had come out of that specific time in my life, Manoleria was there. All packed up. All ready to go. I’ve worked on many projects prior and since completing that collection, but the actual writing of Manoleria was as uninterrupted and focused as I’m likely to ever get.


TH: How do you see your work in what’s happening now in poetry? Are there other first books out there that you feel like yours is friends with?


DK: The closer you read and pay attention to the “aesthetics” of a given press or “school” in contemporary poetry, the more you can become frustrated with what appears to be complete and utter writing towards the middle.  There is a lot of slapstick poetry in the world today, and that’s not something that really gets me excited.  Having said that, there are many first books that I would hope Manoleria could friend-request on Facebook and get a kind acceptance.  I’m thinking here of Arda Collins’ It Is Daylight, Shane McCrae’s Mule, Srikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors, Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies, Jericho Brown’s Please, and Nick Demske’s Nick Demske (a book that I’ll argue from the top of any building you put me on is not reckless humor—that book, and author, have serious heart).


I also think here of the work of Dora Malech, Caryl Pagel, Marc Rahe, Suzanne Buffam, and Robyn Schiff whose books/chapbooks/and individual poems continually inspire me and my writing every time I think/read/head to the typewriter.


TH: What poems or lines from your book feel the “youngest” to you, like they most show your development (though you remain fond of them)? Why/how?


DK: Juvenilia shines brightest when you least expect it to, and it keeps humming and glowing no matter what you try to do to eradicate it.  There is part of me that wants to answer this question by simply saying now, today, the entire book feels “young” to me. But I have a flair for being dramatic. To pick a single line or poem from Manoleria to illustrate this shockingly youthful ignorance may be hard, but I can do it. For instance, “Audible Retraction” is a poem I appreciate for its detail/drive toward the disturbing, but the last two lines (the rhyme of “flesh in my teeth and screw in/whatever’s in reach”) seem forced and heavy. Like I was more excited about the sounds than the image. In fact, I’ve never read that poem in public for that very reason.


I have other examples of where I believe I missed the mark in Manoleria, but in the end I think it’s okay that some words/phrases/poems/sections/structures feel young. It’s my first book. Maybe my only book. It’s a collection of poems from a specific time in my life and the world, and it reads (for better or worse)—I hope—like a documentation of that era.


Public Letter: Daniel Khalastchi

Dear Reader:


I.


When I was 16, I was in an accident. My mother had given me the keys to the first brand-new car she’d ever bought—a two-toned, maroon and tan Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Explorer—and she waved as I reversed down the driveway, watching me pause at a stop sign near the end of our street to push a cassette tape into the in-dash player, hands swarming away from the steering wheel in an attempt to locate the volume control.



II.


When I was 16, I was in a band. Our name was Heatherwood—the same name of the street I was driving to that afternoon, the street where our drummer, Phil, lived with his cigarettes, his long hair, his empty basement that we furnished with macramé owls and other pieces of 70s kitsch paraphernalia that we bought at Goodwill one afternoon after we learned the word ambiance in our English class. There were amplifiers in Phil’s basement. Guitars. Small relief windows we covered with paper; a rust-colored pole that sent light electric pulses down through our All-Stars if we touched it while someone upstairs was watching the television. There was also a microphone hanging from the rafters, its dead-black cord snaking the length of the bare cement floor until it rose in a slow arc, connecting to the back of a battery-powered tape recorder.



III.


When I was 16, I had a plan. I was sad and unattractive and I had trouble reading. I didn’t do well in school, couldn’t stand in a crowd without breathing in fits, and I was experiencing increased myopia but refused to wear glasses. The world was to me unfocused, unconcerned with misdirection, and I had to meet a doctor twice a month to talk about my sleeping problem. During one of those sessions, a receptionist asked me why I never smiled. When I got home that night, I told my mother before dinner that I wanted a guitar and I promised to be happy.



IV.


When I was 16, my friend Sean—the singer in our band—stole $110 that was hidden inside a lamp in his parents’ living room so he could buy The Velvet Underground’s boxed set, Peel Slowly and See. We listened to those songs after school. In my bedroom. While we drove around the streets of our Midwestern suburban sprawl-scape. We listened on the weekends while our friends played sports. We listened at work. In the parking lot outside the Quick-Trip on High Street just west of downtown. We listened while we walked the sidewalked blocks surrounding Heatherwood, dressed like idiots, some of us with sideburns drenched in mascara so they would finally look full. We listened to those songs and we felt unsettled, and we stood in a circle and screamed out light.



V.


When I was 16, I learned to play three songs on the guitar: “Sweet Jane” and “Run Run Run” by The Velvet Underground, and a song by the band Cake from an album called Motorcade of Generosity. I practiced those songs whenever I could and wherever I shouldn’t. The first time I played them for my sister, she asked me who Jane was. The first time I played them on the floor of the Synagogue, the rabbi asked me if I was tall enough to take out his hearing aids without him having to bend over. The first time I played them in front of Phil—his left foot lightly throttling the pedal of his bass drum, his hands cracking rim shots as he fumbled for a beat—I got a menacing erection and buried myself for an hour upstairs in his bathroom with a hair-dryer.



VI.


When I was 16, I recorded my band playing The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” on grey Maxwell high-bias cassette tapes that I purchased with my mother at a membership warehouse store called PACE. In Phil’s basement, our amplifiers faced each other. The sound moved like weather, untuned and annoyingly significant. We repeated and repeated and repeated that song, the words a loose dialogue between our ignorant bodies and our spirited teenage angst: you know, children are the only ones who blush/ and life is just to die. Hours of this, recorded week after week, the song giving us something to say and those tapes proving we said it.



VII.


When I was 16, I wanted to be heard. The audience was small—a few friends in a basement—but at the time, it felt like a metropolis.



VIII.


When I was 16, I was in an accident. I had a tape of my band and I was dressed like an idiot and I was in a new car and that car was my mother’s and I was driving my friends and we were going downtown and I had the stereo blaring and I wanted more volume and it was us in the speakers there in October and the traffic was restless and I saw a yellow light and I entered an intersection and pointed to a billboard and looked down for the equalizer but I couldn’t find it and when I looked up we were hit by a semi.



IX.


When I was 16, I stood outside a gas station and called my father collect from a payphone to tell him that I was alive but he needed to pick me up. My mother’s car was compacted, the windows shattered out and sparkling like the aftermath of a perverse and frightening party. When my father arrived, I watched him smoke a cigarette for the first time in my life. My friends wanted tacos but we were driven straight home. I went in my room, found another tape worn hard in my walkman and pressed play.



X.


When I was 16, I wanted an outlet. I was anxious and naive and I fell asleep most nights giddy with a dark-hot irrational belief in possibility. Though it was always my first love, perhaps it’s no surprise that I stopped playing music. Band relationships became difficult to manage, I didn’t know how to find my way into the “industry,” and I never had much talent for writing a pop song. After high school and college I stopped gigging with bands in favor of spending more time alone in various apartments across the Midwest reading stories and poems and calling myself a writer. I was accepted to a masters program. I received a fellowship. I wrote a book, helped start a publishing company, became a professor, got a very stable job, became very single, panicked and wondered if it had all been a mistake. I stopped generating work I liked, and I stopped liking what I heard from others. The noise was too loud, so I went inside. I lived in that silence. I felt no release.



XI.


When I was 16, I was in an accident. Now, at 33, I try my best to avoid them. As a “professional” writer, I am depressively aware of the ways in which I am playing things safe. I am too concerned with how my writing is supposed to sound, and I think too much about who will actually read it. I spend large portions of my day devastated by contest results, worrying about which judges know which authors, preparing for rejection, and constantly reminding myself to get better at self promotion. I am thinking so frequently about jobs and popularity, am so paralyzed by the small but at times competitively toxic world associated with the art I’ve chosen to make such a large part of my life, that I rarely take the chance to simply drive head-on into the proverbial traffic of literature with the type of reckless energy I had when I was young. It seems now that I’m afraid of wreckage.



XII.


When I was 16, I knew that if I wanted to be heard I had to play the music—even if those willing to listen were just a small group of friends gathered in a basement. Though it certainly isn’t easy, for the last few years I’ve tried returning to this model. With my most recent manuscript—a collection of poems called Homewrecker—I forced myself to move away from such heavy consideration of what is currently trending in the world of contemporary poetry. My goal with this book was to write poems I wanted to read, and poems I was excited to share, and now some of these pieces will appear on this wonderful site. I am sincerely thankful to the editors of THERMOS (and to Andy Stallings specifically) for giving these new accidents a home. I am also thankful to you, reader, for taking a moment to listen to what music can be made in the crash.


Marc Rahe on Daniel Khalastchi

Today we begin a week-long feature of Daniel Khalastchi’s poetry at THERMOS. Marc Rahe introduces Danny below, and you can scroll down beyond this post to read four poems from Manoleria, his first full-length collection of poems, and from our first issue. — AS



AN INTRODUCTION TO DANNY KHALASTCHI


If Daniel Khalastchi’s poetry has entered your horizon, and you’ve found your way to THERMOS, I’m confident that you are one who does not need me to point out that Danny’s poems share thematic concerns with those of such and such, or that he has made formal choices similar to those of that other poet (in their later work). You’ll notice. Or not, and it won’t even matter. Danny’s poems are beautiful, intelligent, and moving. Your attention will be drawn.


What I thought could be more interesting is to write a few sentences about Danny as a kind of introduction. For instance, did you know his high school team was the Screamin’ Ceasuras? Not a fact. And that during season 1 of Battlestar Galactica he played the part of Starbuck’s awkwardly tight tank top? That’s only true in as far as the imaginary is true.


Of course, true imaginings are the fabric of Danny’s work. For example, these lines from “National Growth:” from his book Manoleria – a book largely inspired by daily listening to NPR’s Marketplace – in which the speaker reports his human condition,


            “…A/ row of haired carrot// tops sink straight through/my nipples. Their roots// grab
            for vessels/ for spine and I bite// my lip while they steady/ their hold. Somewhere a//
            radio plays soft/ news of a shooting. A couple// comes near holding/ drinks with umbrellas.
            I// feel such weight lay/ heavy my stomach. See red// heads of lettuce where/ I was told
            I have ovaries.”


Did you know the juice from those carrots contains more than 30% of the inflation and parasites needed in a daily diet? Plus, it gives you improved night vision. You know that’s not right. But you can hear the truth.


Another truth is that, as with Michael J. Fox, the secret to Danny’s success is that he’s living 25 hours a day. In addition to being a prolific writer, he’s also the Associate Director of the Frank N. Magid Undergraduate Writing Center (the new cross-discipline undergraduate writing program at the University of Iowa), a professor, a managing editor and co-founder of Rescue Press, a publisher of both earthwords and Ink Lit Mag, an executive board member of the James Gang (a nonprofit community building organization), and an instructor at both the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and the Iowa Young Writers Studio. But there’s no reason to read about Danny; you can read Danny, here in THERMOS and elsewhere. I imagine it will be to your liking.

THERMOS 1: Daniel Khalastchi

Daniel Khalastchi is one of the poets we started THERMOS to publish. His work has meant a lot to me over the past 6 years, as has his enthusiasm for our journal. When he sent these poems, it was the first I’d seen of the work that would make up his first book, Manoleria, which came out with Tupelo Press a couple years later. I was and remain amazed by the poems’s intensity, their strangeness. He insists they’re not nightmares. They populate mine when I read them, just as their stuttering rhythms take hold of my syntax for days. It’s powerful stuff, and we’re pleased to feature Khalastchi’s work throughout this week. — AS




Manoleria:


I am in a boat.   I am wearing a
red life jacket, goggles, a neck-
lace of worms.     Most are dead
but one   pulls at my beard line.
As  we  move  out  to  sea,  I  am
handed  a  box  of  small  crack-
ers.     My ankles are hooked to
lead weights with sturdy linked
chains, and my feet are piled in
quick  drying  cement.   The  air
feels  weak on my  fresh shaven
back. Handing me a nose-plug,
they  tie  my  wrists  to  the  port
bow  with  hair.          My  mouth
is taped over and I make to shut
my  eyes.       Before  I’m  thrown
to  the  water,     I’m  given   two
holes   in  my  windpipe;   asked
to   stay  up  as   long  as  I   can.



Went We.     Inside.     My Colon A Tree:  (Diagnosis)


Went we.   Inside.   My       colon a tree.   Broom heavy with         light.
With     heavy cut     leaves left.   Standing             the spill of. My le-
vee.   My                 leaving.   My find young             ulcers. Tall kick-
ing             in.   Skirts.   Legs     white.     High       stockings stored.   Up   low
were my.   Enzymes.   And you.       Curtained the colon.   Red     salad your.
Shoulder.   So long.   So     roll.   So     still we waited I   was dis.   Eased
clean.   Under my sternum.     Here         was the.   Mandarin.       Orange
deep water breath     here.     Was the steady fed.     Crate where they   saw
through the     inside of     this.   Hot future to get     it.   Out.   Get it out.
Get.     It.     Out.



Set Rough Your.     Hold My.     Ribs Stayed Calm:  (Surgery)


Set rough your.     Hold my.     Ribs stayed         calm.     In.       Open cream
the.       Bandage ready the.     Damp     crane.     Of your.   Neck.       watched
me.   Wash.       Down the         water. With rocks my       stomach. Treading
my.       Stomach walls   settled then         you were.     Here       by me     we.
Counted to       the.   Threes of. Our       knowledge. One. ce you cracked.
The blood was still.       Talking the lines of its.   Measure I.   Heard you fall
to   my.   Body was music.



Manoleria:


My left  wrist is tied to a bumper.
My  right,  to  a   horse  drinking
water.   The car and the   animal
face opposite directions.    There
are two women with flags raised
high  in  the  night.    The engine
revs  and  the  horse  is  mounted
by  a  jockey.       Counting  down
from  ten,  the  girls  heavy  their
breath.   The    moon   is   hidden
by  lights from a city.    When we
start to pull away,   even I am ex-
cited.


First Books: A Conversation with Daniel Khalastchi

A number of THERMOS contributors have recently published first books. Here’s a conversation with one, the inexhaustible Daniel Khalastchi, whose Manoleria was published this year by Tupelo Press. He’s had work in THERMOS twice (our first and fifth issues), and co-founded and edits the wonderful Rescue Press.

TH: How has having a first book out changed how you think about your writing?

DK: I used to think (when I was young, silly, naive, etc.) that having a book out would mean finally getting that Bentley I always wanted and having jobs thrown at me left and right. Yet, to be more serious for a second, I think I actually thought it would give me the chance to really explore poetry in ways any writer who hasn’t gotten their foot in the door may not feel able to.  But in truth, it’s made me more nervous about both the act of writing itself and my personal connection to the global megaphone. I find myself asking more frequently now, “what do I want to say/why would anyone care to listen to me/how come I suddenly have all these gray hairs?”

Writing has become more stressful, but I’m not sure I would change that.  Once Manoleria entered the world, I realized I had to stand behind it, and I had to keep moving. It’s easy to write a bad Danny Khalastchi poem. It’s been more difficult to write somewhat-bad-but-also-somewhat-interesting/possibly-good Danny Khalastchi poems since the book was released, and that’s what I’ve taken away most from the experience.  I don’t want (as a writer/artist) to ever be complacent. I’m proud of Manoleria, but I also know nothing is guaranteed.  Like many other poets with a book, I have to dive right back into the “prize” system. I’m back to getting rejection letters and small notes of “we like this but we can’t take it,” etc.  Though it would be nice to be like some of my fiction writing colleagues (money, agents, cocktail parties with jokes about astronauts!), poetry is the real art. It lasts. Since Manoleria came out, I’m just trying to make more things that will continue to do just that.

TH: You seem to be a various and prolific writer. Is Manoleria a capsule of a specific time, or of a specific mood returned to in the midst of many other projects?
DK: It’s strange to admit this as often as I do, but the initial draft of Manoleria was written on my typewriter while I had a residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  I had maybe a month left on the Cape, and I remember waking up every day with the weight of a brick-filled laundry basket pressing on my kidneys.  I was anxious and afraid that the time I had that winter/spring would (possibly) be the only time in my entire life where someone afforded me the opportunity to do nothing but write.  I read and wrote a lot that year, but everything seemed stale and young and (for lack of a better word) repetitive.

While my own writing was lying flat and shaved in my mind, the news from around the world was doing just the opposite to my body. A new election cycle was starting, we were in the middle of wars on multiple fronts, and information was coming in daily about torture and what these things truly (right word?) meant about being an “American.” Suddenly, I was energized. I wanted to try writing about these things, and I gave myself (possibly for the first time in my writing life) complete freedom to do so.

I had a painting by the artist Justin Richel over my desk, and I wrote every morning and afternoon poems that I didn’t really look at for three months. When I finally did go back and see what had come out of that specific time in my life, Manoleria was there. All packed up. All ready to go. I’ve worked on many projects prior and since completing that collection, but the actual writing of Manoleria was as uninterrupted and focused as I’m likely to ever get.

TH: How do you see your work in what’s happening now in poetry? Are there other first books out there that you feel like yours is friends with?

DK: The closer you read and pay attention to the “aesthetics” of a given press or “school” in contemporary poetry, the more you can become frustrated with what appears to be complete and utter writing towards the middle.  There is a lot of slapstick poetry in the world today, and that’s not something that really gets me excited.  Having said that, there are many first books that I would hope Manoleria could friend-request on Facebook and get a kind acceptance.  I’m thinking here of Arda Collins’ It Is Daylight, Shane McCrae’s Mule, Srikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors, Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies, Jericho Brown’s Please, and Nick Demske’s Nick Demske (a book that I’ll argue from the top of any building you put me on is not reckless humor—that book, and author, have serious heart).

I also think here of the work of Dora Malech, Caryl Pagel, Marc Rahe, Suzanne Buffam, and Robyn Schiff whose books/chapbooks/and individual poems continually inspire me and my writing every time I think/read/head to the typewriter.

TH: What poems or lines from your book feel the “youngest” to you, like they most show your development (though you remain fond of them)? Why/how?

DK:
Juvenilia shines brightest when you least expect it to, and it keeps humming and glowing no matter what you try to do to eradicate it.  There is part of me that wants to answer this question by simply saying now, today, the entire book feels “young” to me. But I have a flair for being dramatic. To pick a single line or poem from Manoleria to illustrate this shockingly youthful ignorance may be hard, but I can do it. For instance, “Audible Retraction” is a poem I appreciate for its detail/drive toward the disturbing, but the last two lines (the rhyme of “flesh in my teeth and screw in/whatever’s in reach”) seem forced and heavy. Like I was more excited about the sounds than the image. In fact, I’ve never read that poem in public for that very reason.

I have other examples of where I believe I missed the mark in Manoleria, but in the end I think it’s okay that some words/phrases/poems/sections/structures feel young. It’s my first book. Maybe my only book. It’s a collection of poems from a specific time in my life and the world, and it reads (for better or worse)—I hope—like a documentation of that era.