An Interview With Writer Evan J. Peterson
Editor Staff, Interview, September 15th, 2011
This interview was conducted both in person and over email with the poet and writer Evan J. Peterson, from Seattle.
Dark night, somewhat rainy. Three writers and a musician with a cast on his arm. How will he play guitar? Never mind. He’s fine. When it’s my turn, I read a story about a purposely removed limb, another rare case of apotemnophilia, and then read the letter that the limb writes back to its former body, and call it a night. Then someone hands me a cup of Frankenberry Cereal. Now I know it’s getting good.
Frankenstein’s monster and bodily handicapping plays heavily in the evening’s entertainment, but that’s only because Evan J. Peterson is there reading from his chapbook titled, Secular Exorcisms, which is more high-art concept-driven performance than any poetry I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of living room event that seems to come from clear out of nowhere, and everyone in the audience, even if there’s only a dozen or so of us, seems to take home more than what we arrived with. It’s the beautiful part of live readings. If you have the performance bug on any level, as a lot of readers do, then you get it. This is the jam. Evan J. Peterson brings the jam when he invites an audience into his work. He’s like a west coast Scott McClanahan or something, only different.
Evan and I got to talking, enjoyed each other’s work quite a bit (which anyone probably could have guessed based on the materials we each chose to read that night), and a few months later, Carrie and I invited him down to feature at our own Portland reading series. He blew away another roomful of people when the evening’s poetry turned into a cabaret-style striptease. With m.g. martin also on that bill, suffice it to say, some people learned the power of performance that night. But I’m repeating myself. You get the point. Evan J. Peterson is a special type of writer — he’s not going to let you forget who he is, and what he writes. So I sat down to pick his brain about where all this may be coming from. I hope you enjoy our talk, which half took place in person, and then finished up over email during the last several months.
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Byloos: How do you see your work as a poet and a writer functioning? As in, is there a kind of master narrative, or concept, or over-arching m.o. that you have in your mind when you sit down to carve out new work, whether as individual pieces or as a body of work?
Peterson: I want my work to be gratifying. I try only to write about things that I’m enjoying processing. I want my reader to reach the end of my poem and think, I’m so glad that I read this. I want people to be stimulated, or at least touched in some way. I want it to be extremely indulgent but not entirely self-indulgent. One of my barometers is asking: who cares (about something that I’ve written). And if I’m the only one who cares, then that’s a problem.
I want to bring a lot of imagination into the realm of poetry — science fiction, supernatural elements; these are things that are lacking in poetry. And I — I like conceptual books and poems that take the reader into a fantastical universe. I want to give my readers an escape from the monotony of daily life. I’m not a quotidian poet. I don’t write about the eggs I had for breakfast.
And I also plan to write prose books that rely on science fictional elements, or fantastical elements. I know that what I like best is reading about very human reactions to absurd or fantastical situations. Rather than absurd people in painfully average daily lives. I have a lot of imagination to share with the world, and I just hope that I get the time and opportunity to present it all. Frankenstein is only the beginning.
Byloos: I first met you when we read together, and you pulled some selections from the Frankenstein’s monster manuscript. Can you talk about that, where it began, what audience belongs to that work, where it should end up in an ideal way?
Peterson: I didn’t read Frankenstein until my mid-twenties, when I was already working on my Masters. At that point, I was working on a cycle of poems about food and co-dependency. And this cross-pollination of eating the person you’re in love with. And after I read Frankenstein, I felt such connection and compassion and belief in the monster, I wanted to give him space and voice to speak to a contemporary audience.
I started wondering what would happen if he survived into the 20th century, in a universe in which the book had been published, and he gets to see and comment on himself in images on boxes of cereal, in pop songs, in cinema — he’s one of the most recognizable, iconic images in pop culture. Ask a child, who is this — and they’ll say, Frankenstein, not realizing it’s the name of the doctor and not the monster. But even so. And few people have read the book and realized that this clumsy, mentally disabled beast that we associate with the title Frankenstein is completely different than the character. The monster is brilliant — he’s smarter than the doctor who created him.
So what does someone like that have to say about the Rocky Horror Picture Show, for instance?
Byloos: That’s interesting. There’s a couple of heavy ironies, or paradoxes built into the concept that are weighty and super interesting. People mistake the monster with the doctor, almost to a tee, and second — his character is mis-perceived, possibly because of cinematic interpretations. Were you initially attracted to that dualism, or was that something that you discovered after working through some of the primary texts behind your manuscript?
Peterson: Oh yes. I started with the relationship between doctor and monster. Duality is certainly a huge part of the Frankenstein myth and phenomenon, as it is a permeating theme in my own book. Doctor vs. Monster. Creator vs. Created. Author vs. Text. Book vs. Film. Science vs. Magic. And, something I strive for, horror vs. humor. I want unease in every laugh and a twinkle in every gasp. The balance tips from horror to humor, then back to horror as the narrative evolves through three acts. We start with the monster feeling as though he’s essentially been raped by Dr. Frankenstein, experiencing every stitch on some level of consciousness before he’s officially resurrected. God only knows what the doctor did to that body while it was incapacitated. I have him wake the monster with Kabbalistic alchemy, lightning, and a kiss. I was working through my own sexual and romantic scars when I found these characters, and I poured my own traumas into them. But in a funny way. Tragically absurd and hilariously traumatic.
Byloos: Do you see a distinction between “disease” and “unease”? I’m curious, based on your last answer before we move on to another question.
Peterson: I do distinguish between the two, though they can be intricately connected. The monster’s unease manifests as an obsession with disease. To me, un-ease is an emotional or mental disquiet, whereas dis-ease is a disharmony of the body or mind. Unease feels subtle and creepy to me, whereas disease feels more like an observable condition that can be treated. Unease can also be a good thing — it may be a psychic sixth sense that lets us know that something is wrong beyond what we observe with our physical senses. I’m now working on my own powers of unease and what they indicate to me, but that’s for another book.
Byloos: Maybe it’s just my perception, but it seems as if a great many of our contemporaries find some comfort in the idea of an over-arching project, a conceptual kind of master narrative that guides the production of a larger body of poems. Obviously, this is part of the genesis of this project for you — but I wonder if you’ve seen this phenomenon as well? Or discussed using the model of production among your colleagues? It seems to allow a poet to write their way into an entire collection of tightly connected works, rather than just writing here and there, however consistently, and then collecting the best of their work into a new book.
Peterson: I’m not sure if the trend of narratively cohesive poetry collections is becoming more common. Certainly, poets have been doing that for…forever. I think we’re just flooded with poets graduating from MFA programs. We’re now saturated with more good books than we can ever read — more narrative poets, more language poets, etc. — but that’s a different conversation.
For me, thematic cohesion has always been something that inspires me to keep working. I also tend to think of poetry books as musical albums, and I love concept albums. Maybe this book is my Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust or Antichrist Superstar. Dear God, don’t let it be Kilroy Was Here.
I always did want to be a rockstar, so I think about that when I’m creating a cohesive project. The concept album narrative is a major part of that. Since music is setting most of the popular cultural trends in right now, I’m interested in that framework of artistic presentation. Sure, some fiction books are trendy, but other than Harry Potter and Twilight, what books are producing their own popular memorabilia? Outside of the geek community, I mean. There will always be people who want an action figure of Oscar Wilde or Cthulhu, but for every one of them there’s a thousand who want a beach towel of that werewolf guy from Twilight.
In this milieu, I think it’s only natural that poets create grand narratives. So then, what do I do with all the poems that I wrote that weren’t good enough to be in the final manuscript, or maybe just didn’t fit my ultimate concept? I plan to gather those in a PDF and give it away for free to anyone who wants it. Like a b-sides record, which I also enjoy the hell out of.
Byloos: As a fellow writer who enjoys reading, as well as someone who attends a lot of readings and co-hosts one, I think about the performative nature of poets and fiction writers. In my mind, it’s essential to one’s career on so many levels. Reading can be taken as the equivalent of playing shows when you’re a band, and how far that goes to develop your reputation and sell albums. But the sound of one’s voice can also be instrumental in developing the way one’s work looks and reads on the page. Those who have seen you know that you certainly value the notion of performance, but can you talk about it? There’s politics wrapped up in this question on a couple of levels, so feel free to go as deep into stuff as you wish, or just talk about the practical side to writing today, and whether or not you see performing your work as vital to your writing as a whole.
Peterson: I’m quite intent to be strong at both performance poetry and page poetry. I feel terribly disappointed–cheated, even–when I see a performing poet who knocks my block off, then I get their book and it’s the same damn poems, and they’re dead and hollow on the page. Stage presence can carry unrefined, poorly crafted, creatively void poetry. Brilliant poets can lose readers to mediocre ones, all because of stage presence. Why should we fawn over someone appealing only to the audience’s sense of social justice, rather than their appreciation of a well-turned phrase? Or someone “brave” enough to talk about their body and sexuality on stage? I’m as gay as unicorn eyelashes, but I don’t want to use queer rights as a talking point in my work. That by itself doesn’t make a well-wrought poem, and I think people are starting to see through it. So I work hard to have a poem impress you on the page first and foremost. Then I can tart it up for live performance.
In college, I was in the live Rocky Horror Picture Show. I learned so much as part of a polished, creative, dynamic cast. Then I was in an electro band, and I practiced my singing and memorization (barely). All of this has fed into what I do with my live reading. I’m lucky that people respond well to it. There are miraculous writers with no stage presence, and in an increasingly media savvy and telegenic culture, that can rob them of the chance to win over readers. O brave new world. I thank my stars that when I get up to read, it makes a positive impression. Believe it or not, I always struggle over whether to get costumed up for a performance or not. It’s one more thing I have to sell to the audience. If I do strap on a rhinestone-studded whiplash brace and paint bloody stitches on my skull, I know that I have to carry that off and give it everything I’ve got. Otherwise, I’ll just be some inaccessible, esoteric weirdo as far as the audience is concerned. People want to be wowed, but they don’t usually want to be confused.
As far as the interplay between auditory voice and page voice, my poems have become steadily less prosey over the years. I started with ultra-talk and humorous, rambling poetry. I’m still mastering economy of words and refinement of lines. But I also find myself arranging words and phrases in consideration of how the timing and inflection will work out loud. Most of my poems are written to be read aloud, and almost all of the poems I perform are precise and intentional on the page (with the exception of “Safe Words,” of course). But that’s also changing. I’ve just released my latest chapbook/zine, Hello Kitty Chainsaw, which intentionally collects poems that are more performance friendly than precise on the page. We’ll see how it’s received.
Byloos: How is the community of writers to which you belong in Seattle? What stands out as being a great, unique element to you that you maybe haven’t found anywhere else? What would you change if you could?
Peterson: I love being an author & poet in Seattle. Organizations hire me to teach and lead workshops. Average people in the greater city community actually care about what I do, rather than responding to the news that I’m a poet with bewilderment. As far as the other writers themselves, I have zero complaints. There is an amazing community here, and I’m so lucky to be in it and respected by my peers. And the resources in Seattle are beautiful. Richard Hugo House, ZAPP, Bent, SPLAB, local small presses, readings everywhere and every night of the week. It’s totally LaLa-Land for me. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Byloos: What’s next for you in terms of projects or directions of focus that your work seems to be taking?
Peterson: My work with the Seattle slam & performance poetry scene has been amazing. I had no idea how nurturing and cooperative this community of writers could be. Far more than the solitary nature of non-performing authors (no offense to them and none taken). Poets like Ela Barton, Tara Hardy, Brian McGuigan, Greg Brisendine, Imani Sims, Elissa Ball (now I’m name dropping, but I mean it! I love these people!)– they’re so focused on their work, yet have been so kind and open to me.
That has changed the direction of my work. With the Frankenstein collection, I’d gotten to a point of only creating impressions and scenes in my poetry, and I had left the idea of poetry with a “message” or a “point” behind. Suddenly, very suddenly, I find that I’m able to create poetry with a message (to motivate, inspire, change minds, what have you) and I don’t feel like I’m just flapping my lips about platitudes and cliches. I feel like I’m not just entertaining and stimulating people anymore. Art heals people. I think the key is to just write, and if a message arises, that’s beautiful. But I’m still not setting out to teach or motivate through my writing, just to tell the story I want to tell in the most interesting way that works.
I’m also writing myths and fables. When I feel like I need to change or heal myself, I create an allegory around it, making sure I get the wisdom out of the experience. I’m using myths and stories to change my life. There’s a new therapeutic movement around this, but I’ve only scratched the surface.
So, what’s next? It’s time to get the Frankenstein collection published. I’m now working on the next poetry collection, which is the opposite swing of the pendulum from the disharmony and decadence of the Frankenstein collection. This new collection is all about fertility and abundance, sex and God, love and mysticism. And werewolves. I had my heart broken recently, so the love-magic book got sidetracked into the poems that became Hello Kitty Chainsaw, but now I’m back to working in the spirit of that collection. A little heartbreak is good for artists. It reminds us to get our egos in check. And I’m definitely still working on my fiction book about codependent superheroes in love. You know how I roll.
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Thanks for your patience on this one Evan! It’s a great conversation with lots of gems. I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did. — Matty Byloos
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Evan J. Peterson lives and writes in Seattle, where he has led writing workshops for Richard Hugo House, Gay City Health Project, and Babeland. A book reviewer for TheRumpus.net, he is also involved with the Zine Archive & Publishing Project, for whom he edits ZiReZi, the zine review zine. Evan’s chapbooks and zines include The Ecstatic Tarot, Hello Kitty Chainsaw, and Secular Exorcisms. New and forthcoming work may be found in Weird Tales, Smalldoggies, Court Green, Assaracus, and Aim for the Head: a Zombie Poetry Anthology on Write Bloody Books.
Links to a few poems online follow:
The Piss Test Cathedral; Bring Me the Head of Cloris Leachman!; Acceptance Speech for a Posthumous Oscar; Smalldoggies Poetry Suite #11
To find more information on Evan, investigate his blog here: Poemocracy.
[RHPS Photo Via: ICYDK]