review + interview /// Heavy Petting by Gregory Sherl

Posted By jatyler - 25th September 2011

Gregory Sherl is going to be huge. Plain and simple. His chapbook I Have Touched You won Dark Sky Books’ first chapbook contest and is a whirlwind of sex and want and loneliness and worry. Poems of panic or panicked poems. Then comes Heavy Petting, the inaugural perfect-bound release from Katherine Sullivan’s YesYes Books and the first full-length collection from Sherl, which is as much a torrent of poetry as I’ve never seen – lovely with bitterness and obsession and angst and the most earnest love. And because Sherl is not only awesome but accessible, we get to ask him some questions and report out at this Monkeybicycle hub:

In Bob Hicok’s foreword to Heavy Petting he says, of himself: ‘I made Greg Sherl write poems by telling him he was writing poems.’ Help us detail your side of this MFA conversation – what was this exchange like for you and what did it do to your writing?

The exchange that Bob explains in the foreword was exactly the exchange that happened. He called me into his office and he was like, “You’re a poet.” My thought: “You might be famous and important and people line up to take your class, but you’re fucking nuts, man.”

Still, I sat there holding my awkwardly red, chapped hands and listened to him tell me why I was a poet, not believing him.

I left that meeting confused. When I signed up for his poetry workshop, I did it because my friends were doing it. I had a spare class to take, so I figured why not. I had no idea who Bob Hicok was (I believe he knew this and was probably amused), and I had no idea what poetry was, either.

I had a lot to process.

I will say one thing: I have always felt the compulsion to write. So much so that it hurts sometimes. It sounds cliché (and is) and countless writers feel this way (and they should!), but it’s true. It wasn’t until I discovered poetry that I first started enjoying the actual act of writing. It used to be a chore I couldn’t stop doing—writing shitty short story after shitty short story—and then I discovered these poems, these sequences of lines that sometimes made sense but sometimes didn’t, and then, out of nowhere, I started enjoying the process, the discovery, the creation.

Bob Hicok raves about your poems – even dissects one in his foreword – what does that feel like as a poet, for your first collection, to have such an introduction from such a poet?

It started out as a joke. A “Hey, let me ask my poet hero to write a foreword for my poetry book that maybe twenty people will read.” Did I think he would say yes? No fucking way. But why not go big? You get one first full-length, you know? One. Why stop at a blurb, let’s get a fucking foreword. In a way it made sense. In a way I owe the book to him. If I had never met Bob Hicok, do I think I would have written a book that eventually might have been published? Sure, maybe. But would it have been a poetry collection? Doubtful. Almost impossible to say yes to that. This book starts at the beginning of my life as a poet. Poems in this collection, poems like “Notes on a Candy Cane Tree” and “Tampa,” these are some of my first “realized” poems. They happened in Bob’s workshop. They happened because of him.

What does it feel like? It feels like the most important part of the book. To me, it feels like the book wasn’t a proper book until Bob wrote those few words in those first few pages.

If we dive into the thematic movements of Heavy Petting, many of the poems are either overtly or covertly concerned with food or the consumption of objects or relationships. For instance, from “Opening Credits”’:

We kiss with our eyes closed.

I say You look like the kind of girl who should be on the cover of a box of cake mix.

For foreplay, you show me the knobs on your gas stove.

Or in ”Burnt Lemon Cookies Smell Bad”:

Like: even when I love you I get lonely. Eating Cocoa Puffs

gets lonely. Getting lonely gets lonely.

Or in “Fall Down the Stairs, I Will Catch Your Lonely Head”:

I say I love you like waterfalls love

shampoo commercials. There are only 5 calories in a serving

of Crystal Light. We drink like marathon runners. We drink

each other, drink each other like our fingers are straws

Can you talk to us about how this theme comes into your writing and what intentions it has (or you suppose it has)?

I used to have a joke that I couldn’t write a poem without referencing cereal. Why is this? I thought about it for a while until I realized how blatantly obvious it was: I really fucking love cereal. I eat it almost daily. Sometimes twice a day. The things that happen most in my life are the things that show up in my writing. I am from the school of “write what you know”. Rinse. Repeat. Write more.

Now, this school of “write what you know” has gotten me into a lot of trouble, and I am starting to steer away from this. You will see this a lot more after The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail and Monogamy Songs (a few projects are currently in the works, in very early stages, and they are very, very different than what I have been producing these last few years).

These days I am very excited about the future. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

Also, thematically, there is a studied focus on relationships, but always between a narrator of the poem (its voice) and an unseen third party (consistently referred to as ‘you’). Are we intended to be your ‘you’ in these poems? Are you targeting us, the reader, the audience? Or is there another reason for the ambiguity here, the openness to our own interpretation?

I want to say yes to all of this just because I don’t know how to answer these questions. I want my writing to target whoever is going to feel something after reading the book. If you felt something from a poem, a line, a word—then I was targeting you. And thank you for feeling.

Ambiguity. Sometimes emotions are so ambiguous, who knows where they came from or why they were there. Sometimes lines just show up and I didn’t ask them to show up but they showed up anyway. They might mean nothing to me, but they might mean something to someone else. Something good, I hope. If that’s the case, then I’m happy and I believe my poem is happy.

One other large thematic focus in Heavy Petting is that of meta-fiction (meta-poetry?) – references to the book itself or writing or poetry. For example, in “Fiction”:

This is what you tell me: you’re writing a book

about forever. My children are in the pages, their

children’s children.

Or in “I Read That in a Book”:

There are too many love poems

on my hard drive, so I’m murdering miss you with a chainsaw,

dropping it from an eight floor stairwell, watching every

letter that smells like you scatter like links from a broken

necklace.

Or in “Master of Fine Arts”:

In Poetry Workshop, they tell me not to use pop culture references in my

poems. I cross out lines about necking with you in the backseat of my car

while listening to “La La Love You” on repeat. I cross out: Natalie Portman’s

hips are boss, but your hips are more boss.

How do you want this meta-fiction/poetry to function in your poems, and where does it come from?

I find myself constantly talking about myself. This is a bad habit. It is also probably very annoying (I apologize, I think). Anyway, some of my favorite pieces of pop culture are very self-referential, very self-aware of what they are and where they come from (Arrested Development, Kevin Smith, Adaptation, Bret Easton Ellis, Bukowski, Bob Hicok, etc.), so I’m sure much of my own writing was and will always be affected by this. I like the idea that whoever is reading my book is aware that they are reading my book. It is an object, an experience, I hope, and I never want to take myself so seriously that I have to disappear while the reader is having that experience with the object I created.

Remember me, reader, as selfish as that might sound.

I have always been so fascinated with the process of craft, or how something became that something. So, why not accomplish two things at once: Explain how that something was created while experiencing the thing that was created.

As you mentioned earlier, beyond Heavy Petting we can look forward to your novel(la) with Mud Luscious Press The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail and your forthcoming title with Future Tense Books Monogamy Songs. Can you give us a little sneak peak of each, or tell us what differences and similarities we can expect between Heavy Petting and these upcoming titles?

One of the first lines from The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail: “They think about your hair/while they’re inside their wives, think about/your dimple while they try to repair the axel/on their wagon.”

One of the first lines from Monogamy Songs: “K and I are always high-fiving after we fuck.”

There are so many differences between the two collections (so many!), but what I can say about The Oregon Trail and Monogamy Songs is this: they are both love letters. The Oregon Trail is a love letter to a computer game, a never ending fleeting moment from my youth, and Monogamy Songs is a love letter to love, this feeling of now, this hopeful feeling of forever. Love letters in the form of line breaks and page-long paragraphs about video games and a pretty girl whose name starts with K.

These are what these future books are, and I hope everyone who reads them truly enjoys them.

Thank you for asking me these questions, J.A., it was very kind of you.

I hope you all enjoyed reading them, at least a little bit.

Thanks for talking with us Greg! Heavy Petting is really a beautiful book full of beautiful poetry and I could ask a million more questions, but instead, I say to you, readers of this review + interview series: buy the book, digest it and start a relationship with Gregory Sherl, then email him some questions of your own – I’m sure, if I know anything about Mr. Sherl, that he will respond quickly and in kind.

Buy this book here. Read more about / from Gregory Sherl here.