2015 Contest: An Interview with Poetry Winner Mark Baumer
Mark Baumer lives in Providence, RI. He works in a library. His website is thebaumer.com.
Interview by RYAN BOLLENBACH
Black Warrior Review: In one of the stanzas of your winning poem ‘b careful’ you write: “It feels illegal the way I write sometimes.” I find this line speaks to both the humor and the implied danger (the fugitivity) in the poem. What do you see as the relationship, if any, between humor and fugitivity in your poem, or in poetry in general?
- For a long time, I believed my writing would never win me anything.
- This felt okay.
- It’s much easier to float alone in the middle of the ocean if you learn how to build a floating device out of your own thoughts. I was always under the assumption these ocean thoughts weren’t very good at playing with other people’s thoughts.
- I forget what exactly I was trying to say.
- In grad school, I once told a professor I wanted to be more serious about not being serious than any other poet who has ever lived.
- Back then it felt important that my brand of anti-seriousness be more serious than anyone else’s seriousness.
- Another time in grad school, I realized poetry was maybe just a burning barge of burning tires and novels were giant lopsided cruise ships so I made a conscious decision I would write something that felt like a jetski. Unfortunately, for a long time I searched within myself for a solar-powered jetski or something that would run on something besides gasoline and those don’t really exist.
- I guess my point is that I somehow ended up on the burning barge of burning tires which is both funny and terrifying.
BWR: I feel like part of what gives your poem so much inertia is that, rather than explicitly describing the place your speaker inhabits, you create the universe of this poem using the white space that takes the reader from one stanza to the next. In writing the poem, how did you approach developing that sense of movement from one stanza to the next?
- To be honest, I sort of don’t know what I’m doing.
- When I was an undergrad, a playwright told me I was a poet. I laughed and said, “No I’m a baseball player.”
- If I had it to do over again, I would have written a poem on every baseball I touched.
- I went to grad school for fiction writing and everything I wrote I kept in a folder labeled “great american novel?”
- At some point I was complaining to my girlfriend about how the unpublished novel I was writing wasn’t long enough and she laughed then said, “Oh I thought you were a poet.”
- The next day I started sending my stuff out as poetry.
BWR: There also seems to be a cutting relationship to tradition in this poem, at least in that the speaker seems to be preparing the reader to enter some kind of received way of life. These pressures feel very visceral to me. I wonder what kind of pressures, physical, intellectual, or conceptual, leaked their way from your day to day life into the words of this poem?
- There’s a way we’re all supposed to talk.
- And there’s a way I wish we were all supposed to talk.
- Then there’s the way I end up talking when I try to talk the way I wish we were all supposed to talk.
- If you combine all three with each other you get something very special and alarming.
BWR: After reading the line “Unlearn everything you know about silence you’ve ever experienced” I found it difficult to think about this poem without unlearning in mind. I think this poem does that work, partially because of the agility of the speaker’s associative mind. I’m wondering to what extent you used improvisation, or a purposeful looseness, in this poem to perform the unlearning the speaker suggests?
- Unfortunately, like a lot of people (and men especially), I have a really strong desire to tell people how to live their lives.
- This is not good.
- I remember once yelling at a guy because he left his automobile idling outside a coffee shop.
- He was like, “Don’t yell at me while I’m idling.”
- And I was like, “Please breathe your own tailpipe so earth doesn’t have to.”
- And he was like, “I don’t care about earth.”
- The only thing I can do is live my life.
- If someone sees me living my life and they’re like, “Oh hey he’s doing it pretty good maybe I will blink like him,” then okay.
BWR: I saw online that you have a novella, ‘Holiday Meat,’ coming out on Quarterly West. I’m wondering whether you find writing prose and poetry to be similar or distinct processes?
- I mostly write what I write.
- I think I’ve always written what I’ve written.
- Sometimes I’ll think, “I bet the world will believe me if I tell them this is a poem.”
- Other times I’ll think, “Maybe everyone will believe me if I say this is novella.”
- A few times I’ve thought, “I wonder if this is a viral video?”
- I’ve done no viral videos.
- “Holiday Meat” includes things I wrote when I was still drinking coffee and trying to do a great american novel.
- It was edited after I sort of began listening to the people who told me I was a poet.
BWR: How do you navigate writing in multiple genres in your daily practice?
- Sleep for eight hours.
- Drink a cup of water.
- Meditate for twenty minutes.
- Do as many pushups as possible or one pushup as slow as possible.
- Run for at least twenty minutes.
- Take a cold shower.
- Get dressed.
- Make tea using schisandra berries.
- Blend a bunch of fruits and vegetables.
- Drink tea and smoothie.
- Call grandmother.
- Ride bike to work.
- Do work tasks until lunch.
- Meditate for twenty minutes.
- Do more work tasks.
- Leave work.
- Go to a lonely place.
- Write/edit for an hour.
- Submit something.
- Stop at grocery store.
- Buy fruits and vegetables.
- Go home.
- Eat massive amounts of food.
- Lay down on the floor.
- Look at cell phone until asleep.
- Sleep for eight hours.
BWR: What are some good lesser-known books (or chapbooks) you have you been reading lately?
- The best-least-known book I recently read way: “How to Good-bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday” by Hiroyuki Nishigaki
- It’s basically just this guy telling these other people on a message board that their depression will disappear if they constrict their anus 100 times a day.
- Literally, the first half of the book is just conversations sloppily copied from a message board.
- But constricting your anus is very powerful.
- Sometimes instead of looking at my phone when I am bored I will clench my anus.
BWR: What lies in your writing future?
- “b careful” is actually part of a longer manuscript titled “Be careful.”
- The manuscript feels close to being done.
- But I’m not sure how to end it.
- It sort of feels like it could go on infinitely.
- I also have a manuscript called “business kittens” that was recently rejected.
- I’m trying to figure out where to send it next.
- I try not to do simultaneous submissions.
- One unpublished manuscript per press at a time.
- I have this Franzen erasure project I keep forgetting to finish.
- Also, I keep meaning to call some more agents.
- I should probably just stop writing and chill, but sadly I haven’t figured out how to do this yet.