Posted By jatyler - 19th March 2012
YesYes Books came out heavy swinging last year with Gregory Sherl’s debut collection Heavy Petting, a book both beautifully produced and staggering with delicious poetry. YesYes Books also released their first chapbook Please Don’t Leave Me Scarlett Johannson, which, as it turns out, was merely the tip of the poetic iceberg from Thomas Patrick Levy, now that 2012 has brought us his first full-length collection I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone, a tremendous book of poetry that begs and wants, that drives and pushes and hammers. And while not everyone may have had the chance to grab a signed copy of this new book at AWP in Chicago, thanks to the power of internet we can all share a little more insight into this collection and Thomas Patrick Levy’s writing:
MB: As we mentioned above, your chapbook from YesYes Books released last year and is now included in I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone. Can you open this interview by talking to us a little about how long it took to write the full collection and how you went about the final editing and ordering of the book?
TPL: I’ve been working on I Don’t Mind for a good two years. I don’t think of myself as the kind of writer that heavily revises his work, but this collection has had an interesting coming together. Many of the pieces in the book’s final section, A Perfect Archway, began as a series of questions and answers. I put together a chapbook of these poems, which was never published, and then I abandoned it.
The poems in IOWA and Please Don’t Leave Me Scarlett Johansson were written independently of each other, but at around the same time. And the smaller sections of the book were originally written as pseudo-short stories that I never intended to do anything with.
Katherine Sullivan – the incredible publisher, workhorse, and therapist of YesYes Books – asked me for a manuscript I think early in 2011 and I didn’t have one to give her. I put together all the different parts of the book and began to realize that they are all different parts of the same narrative. My intention was never to have them all together, but once I saw the sections together in one place, I realized they belonged together.
Katherine edited a few pieces out and after I completely rewrote the final section of the book she helped me restructure and reorder quite a few of the pieces.
It’s pretty incredible when I think back on it. I had thought for so many years about what my first book would be. None of the things I had imagined happened exactly how I imagined they would yet the book is exactly what it is supposed to be despite my expectations. What I mean is, I couldn’t be happier with it. And I’m so grateful to Katherine for helping me realize the potential of these pieces. I think without her a good deal of it would have been abandoned because I had lost confidence in it and wouldn’t have pushed myself to rework what needed reworking. As writers I think it’s important to have someone you can trust read your work honestly like this. To tell you when something isn’t working, to push something that needs pushing, etc…
And, I have to thank Alban Fischer for the best cover I could have possibly imagined. I’m not sure how but he managed to make the formless vision of the cover I had in my head into the actual cover of the book. I think it’s one of the sexiest covers I’ve seen on a book in a while.
MB: Agreed. That cover is fantastic. Switching gears a little, while I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone is labeled as a poetry collection, many might (and could) read these works as flash fiction. In your mind, what is the difference between prose/poetry and flash fiction, and what makes I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone a book of poetry?
TPL: Katherine and I have had some discussions about this in the past. We originally, I think, discussed labeling the collection “lyrical prose.” But, and I don’t remember why exactly, ultimately decided to leave it as “Poems.” The pieces in this book are poems. But they are also fictions. And they are partly memoir. I couldn’t tell you exactly how to define prose, poetry, flash-fiction, etc… I don’t read all that much criticism or analysis or whatever – and by “all that much” I mean basically none at all – so I really can’t speak to the specifics of these genres and how one goes about defining the category one places a work within.
There are so many incredible writers putting out work that blurs the line between genres. Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Amelia Gray, and Brenda Coultas are a few of the writers who come to mind and have certainly influenced the writing in my collection in a direct way. All these writers categorize their work in their own way – poetry, stories, fiction, lyrical prose, etc. – yet their work feels to me as if they are very much similar. One can of course argue either way, and for each similarity I can draw between the work of these writers, I could find as many differences.
I think that ideally, I would prefer not to label work at all. But that seems to me a bit idealistic and, maybe, pretentious. Coming out with a statement along the lines of “my work exists outside of your genre’s confines” feels ridiculous and gross to say. For the record I did not say that on the record. It was an example.
I think the rule is how a collection feels. When I read a collection it doesn’t actually matter to me whether it’s called poetry or fiction or flash fiction or memoir. I feel that these things are in a way all essentially the same thing. To me, as the writer, my work is poetry and fiction and memoir all wrapped up into small paragraphs. Make of it what you will. I’m sure some fiction writers will be appalled at statements like this – and poets as well.
MB: In so many of these poems there is an amorphous ‘you’ that is addressed (and sometimes begged, pleaded with, cursed) but never identified. Who is this and/or where does this person come from in your writing process?
TPL: The “you,” in any piece of writing, is always of interest to me. It doesn’t always work but sometimes it does. There was a chapbook-length draft of the final section of I Don’t Mind which removed “you” entirely and replaced it with a “he” and a “she.” The draft didn’t make it to print because it didn’t work.
The “you” in my writing comes from the real world. As I said previously my writing is as much memoir as it is fiction. I draw from the events of my day to day life and make things up when I feel making something up is appropriate.
There was a time when I felt that writing – specifically poetry – should be factual. I think I took the cliché “write what you know” a bit too seriously. And having to adhere to this rule, which I imposed upon myself, did terrible terrible things for my process and the work I was producing. At some point a few years ago I began to own the fact that as a person in the real world I am tremendously uncool. Once I realized that I was uncool, I had nothing to prove in my poetry and this allowed me to start making things up in my writing. And I feel that a writer with no restraints can go wherever he or she feels like going.
So the “you,” I suppose, is a kind of muse. It’s, as you said, a sort of blob that takes on whatever traits I feel like giving it. “You” can be a woman or a man, a therapist, a punk rocker, a child, or even Scarlett Johansson. And the “you” of I Don’t Mind is all these things individually and sometimes all at once.
I think there’s a real freedom in mutilating the personalities of your characters in this way. The “you” serves whatever purpose I need it to serve in that moment. Perhaps this is something that could never work in a collection of fiction or a novel, but I think it serves the purposes of I Don’t Mind.
MB: Your imagery is often surreal, and builds (beautifully) by playing opposing images, items that conflict or are not usually connected, as in ‘Iowa’:
‘When I run out of seagulls I make corn from my gun. The whole yard is white with shit stain. You say IT RAINS A LOT. You say YOU’RE FULL OF CANDLE WAX. You make a tiny bed of kernel crust. You wake and make a flock of seagulls from the wood of an ear of corn.’
Can you tell us a little about how you navigate this style / approach?
TPL: I think it’s almost a little boring and obvious to say at this point, but perhaps not: to me, the most interesting and effective image is an image which is completely unfamiliar. All the writers I admire have the ability to make something plain feel fresh and interesting. When I am writing I consciously attempt to be confusing. This might make me sound, in some way, insincere, as if my work is an attempt to just confuse my readers, but that is absolutely not the case. For me, the goal is to confuse just enough to create the freshness.
My good friend Nick Strum – one of the YesYes Editors who did some work on I Don’t Mind – was explaining Keat’s concept of negative capability to me. Again, I’m plain dumb when it comes to criticism and things, but Nick Sturm is absolutely not dumb when it comes to criticism and things and he said that this concept I am trying to explain is negative capability. That seems pretty awesome to me.
MB: In I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone there is also a constant sense of unattainable want, of inexplicable need, as in ‘Foam’:
‘When we woke up on an island we thought we were dreaming. I said I WANT TO SWIM IN WATER SO CLEAR IT LOOKS LIKE YOUR BELLY. You made me promise never to leave you and even while we were naked in the sand I knew I couldn’t keep this promise.’
Where does this urgency come from in this collection?
TPL: This question is outright brutal. I have deleted my response so many times. I’m not sure how to answer it. I want to say that all these wants are born out of my actual wants.
I’m sort of a nut. I am quick to anger and I’m wrecked with insecurities. I hold them together some of the time, other times I do things like furiously clean the kitchen or all I want to do is break the bathroom wall into a puzzle. Mostly I can reconcile my character flaws and channel them towards writing rather than the people I love, but unfortunately the people closet to me are the most likely to be the source of my hostilities.
This is the central conflict of my life as a person and thus the conflict which is present throughout I Don’t Mind.
MB: Lastly, you are touring quite a bit for I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone in the coming months. Can you give us the low-down on where we can find you and who you are reading with?
TPL: Katherine has worked so many hours putting together what is now a mammoth, CROSS-COUNTRY, book tour which is taking place over the course of the next five or so weeks. The tour semi-officially began with the Sixth Finch & YesYes Books Presents! reading at AWP (videos now available via yesyesbooks.com) and stops through Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Then we head back to Chicago, Akron, Cincinnati, and Muncie. We’re still planning additional dates, and we work on the fly because YesYes Books is a crazy nuthouse in that way. We have some prospects together in Louisville, Blacksburg, Northern New Jersey, and Brooklyn.
We also have so many incredible writers coming out to read with us. Here are just a few of them, in no particular order: Nate Slawson, Emily Kendal Frey, Matt Hart, Kate Lebo, Phillip B. Williams, Jane Wong, Jeff Hipsher, Jonterri Gadson, Nick Sturm, Andrea Kneeland, Meg Pokrass, Diana Salier, and Amelia Gray. It’s really incredible to have such an awesome crew of writers coming out to read with me. A lot of them are also going to be promoting their own books, which were just recently released. It will be an awesome tour.
Come one come all to these readings and support the great work of Thomas Patrick Levy and the upward trajectory of YesYes Books – or at minimum, dip into the lit stores for your own copy of I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone, a book that will not disappoint. Get your copy of I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone here, & read more from / about Thomas Patrick Levy here.