This is the second installation of a two-part interview with poet Christopher DeWeese; read part one here.
STORY: Can you talk about Alternative Music a bit more? How you are remixing the songs?
DEWEESE: It’s hard, because the premise is I can only do this with songs that I remember well enough that I can almost sing them but not know the words right, and some songs I remember too clearly. Like, I really loved Beck in the 90s, and I can’t do any of his songs because I know all of those lyrics. So he is kind of off limits. It really works well with bands like Live, where you couldn’t necessarily understand what they were saying anyway. I remember the tunes and stuff, but I never really paid attention to what they were saying, because the lyrics were kind of bad, so it’s more kind of like: “hrrr, hrr, brrr.” That kind of thing.
I’m really interested in different processes, and I’m interested in the process of starting with the constraint of this idea of how things sound and how it limits me in a certain way. It’s difficult. It’s a very difficult process, because it’s very specific, but then I don’t want to replicate what they said. That’s not what it’s about. And I also want to somehow be reflective of my personal experience. So there are all these different levels that make it very difficult to get these poems right—which is probably why I’ve been working on it for 7 or 8 years.
STORY: Do you think you’ll go through Octopus Books again?
DEWEESE: Possibly. I don’t really know if they’re into it. This is going to be a very specific project. I’d love MTV books or something stupid like that to publish it, but I don’t know what will happen.
STORY: Do you think, in maybe ten years, when the book’s come out and you’ve kind of stopped looking at it for a bit, you’ll go back and listen to those songs?
DEWEESE: Oh yeah. I go back and listen to them after I’m done writing the poems, because I’m interested to see what the lyrics actually were. And also I have to check to make sure I didn’t accidentally write the actual lyric. I don’t want to get sued by The Goo Goo Dolls or something like that.
STORY: Have there been any cases where you look back at the poem, and you’ve found that you completely change the meaning of the song?
DEWEESE: All of them. All of them have nothing to do with the original meanings.
STORY: What kind of meanings are you pulling from them now, unintentionally maybe?
DEWEESE: A lot of them become little episodes I remember from when I was 16 or 17, playing music, trying to be cool. And some of them have nothing to do with anything. Live—from York, Pennsylvania—their song, “Lightning Crashes,” I did. And the lines from the original song are, “the angel closes her eyes.” And I remember that as, “the bagel closes its eye.” So that doesn’t mean much, but I like it.
STORY: In The Rumpus review by Julie Marie Wade of The Father of the Arrow is the Thought, she really delved into the cover design. One thing that she said was the colors were more feminine, compared to the more masculine words. Was that intentional?
DEWEESE: The designer is this guy name Drew Scott Swenhaugen who works for Octopus. The colors were all him, and I have no idea what he was thinking, but I really liked it. At first he was really into the idea of all text, and he kind of wanted the words to be small and blurry—or a little bit blurry, or a little bit fuzzy. And at first it was almost like a wavy line, and I didn’t love the wavy line. So we went with this thing that’s more vertical, to go with the poems themselves, which have pretty short lines. That was the only input I really had: talking about wanting the title to be broken up like that. He did the colors, and I think he did a great job. I didn’t think about the femininity, but I like that read on it and that’s totally there.
STORY: And without having your name on the front, Julie also mentions that it creates this feeling of interconnectedness between the writer and reader, and all the universe outside of those. Is that something, again, that was intentional?
DEWEESE: I don’t think that was intentional. I also like that read of it. I like the idea that the book is sort of mysterious in some way, that it’s not foregrounding my name really large. I don’t know—I like the subtlety of that, and I really think it’s a beautiful design. I loved her review, and a lot of those things I hadn’t thought of in regards to the cover. But I think they’re all true.
STORY: About the philosophical concepts behind your poetry: something that I’ve always been interested in is the mind-body theory, and whether they are one in the same, or dichotomous. First of all, what is your view on that? And, if you have one, do you think that has influenced your poetry?
DEWEESE: I don’t have any opinions on that. That’s not really something I’ve thought about. It seems scary to me to think about. To me, they are one in the same, mind and body, and I always love the idea of—what is it?—reflexology or whatever, where there’s the diagram of the foot and each part corresponds to these ideas. I have so many friends who have benefitted from acupuncture in terms of mental health problems, and that seems to point out very much that parts of our body are very connected to our mental feelings. I don’t really know if that’s what mind-body theory is about, but I think, for me, it’s scary to think about, and I can’t help but feel like my mind and body are the same thing.
STORY: Paul Klee’s philosophy is prevalent in your book. Do you think your poems are reflective of that, or of your own philosophical perspective?
DEWEESE: I really like this idea that is within what he is talking about, this central problem, which is that we can physically never go as far as we can imagine. We can look at the stars and dream about going there, but we’re not going to be able to go there. Or we can imagine what’s going to happen in 100 years, but we’re probably—I don’t think I’m going to be around in 100 years. So, after laying out that problem, it seems to me what he proposes to do is to acknowledge that limitation within your artwork: that’s where you can transcend. That’s where you can go past the problems of the body and into figurative visualizations or ideas that go beyond what’s possible, and—we were talking about climate change—when I think about these big problems, I don’t think that I logically know the answers to anything. I hope in the future people just keep on trying to imagine something beyond what we know is possible. I think so many scientific advancements kind of happened in art and literature first, almost by mistake. And I hope that we keep on trying to imagine things differently than they already are.
It’s interesting to me in fiction over the last several years, so many people write post-apocalyptic novels, and they’re all very depressing. Like things are going to be bad. It’s going to suck. To me, if I were a fiction writer, I think it’d be interesting to try to write a utopian novel. Like: Can you imagine the way everything’s going to be better, and what would that look like? I mean, maybe it would be boring, that novel—maybe that’s the problem, that there’s not enough conflict or something. It seems to me like that would be maybe interesting. Maybe not.
STORY: Is it a problem that a lot of writers don’t write happy endings? I actually just had this discussion today in a fiction writing class. One of the students asked why we don’t write happy pieces for workshop. It caused an uproar.
DEWEESE: It’s maybe foolishly optimistic, but I think that was Klee’s thing: he thought there was some way of trying to transcend. And, even if you fail, for having tried somehow you have gotten somewhere. Or you’ve at least created the potential to discover something other than just pessimism.
STORY: Right. I think that deep introspection is the root of all creative advancements, in terms of technology and medicine and so on. You need that introspection first, which literature does such an incredible job of showing. Do you think your work and other work like this could potentially lead towards that type of introspection? It seems like it certainly would be possible.
DEWEESE: I wish that were the case. What I think about with my work is that it gives me, personally, the idea that I need to keep trying as a person in various ways to be better, to be more conscious in some ways. I have a young daughter, and I think that’s really changed a lot of my thinking, as well—just thinking that at some point she has to learn about climate change and all these terrible things that are going to seem so horrible to her. Right now, I look at her and she’s just so happy and she has no idea of this stuff. It’s beautiful, and it’s also really sad. So I think I constantly want to try harder in my writing to get towards something. I don’t know that this book is getting there yet. I mean, I’m really happy with this book, but I don’t think it’s going to change the world. I don’t think it has to.
STORY: You mentioned that fresh, innocent look in your daughter: In your teaching of college students, do you think they have more of a biased perspective on the future? Do you think that they’re still innocent enough to interject some type of introspection?
DEWEESE: I don’t know politically where all of my students are at. I think that, in our culture, doing anything with your imagination and trying to create art is pretty subversive, in a certain sense. So many people are being told you have to go to college just to get skills for a job. It’s just this purely professional thing: you need to be able to pay back all these loans you’re going to have. You need to be engineer. Make this money. So many people have all this pressure from their families, or from society at large, just to go into this certain thing, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of my students are going to not necessarily be full-time writers, but I’m giving them access to a thing that they can love: using their imagination to read and to write to sustain them. They might have to have a job for a while they don’t love, but if they can also be participating in this world of writing, that’s going to be incredibly enriching. And I can only use myself as an example. I feel like so much of what life is, is finding context to give yourself meaning. And for me writing poetry and reading and thinking of myself as a writer and this sort of world of writing is what shapes my existence. It keeps me happy. When I think about people I know who are lost or unhappy or addicted to things, it’s often because they haven’t found something to give their lives meaning. The older you get the more sad that can seem. For so many people, their work becomes all that they do, and I like that. Hopefully, my students can have access to this thing that’s free to do. There’s this thing that you can keep on participating in, and I think that is inherently political and inherently powerful.
STORY: Something that I’ve been really interested in lately is the writing community, and how to build that on a local level and on a digital level. How important do you feel it is to build a community within the actual humans surrounding you and on the Internet?
DEWEESE: I think it depends on where you are, what you need. Some people are totally happy just being on the Internet with other writers, and I think the Internet is so amazing in that way. I remember I graduated from undergrad in 2001, and had just gotten introduced to the Internet while I was in college, really. Then I moved back to Washington state. I had been in creative writing classes in college, so I had this local community of writer friends and really loved that. All of a sudden I was by myself and not around any writers. Being able to keep up with people on email, and then submit to online magazines and find conversation there, made it so much less lonely. It can be incredibly lonely. And the Internet is so incredible for people to find that. And then also—you’re right—having a local community is really enriching, as well, if you can build it. You need a lot of energy to sustain something locally.
STORY: Do you think that having an academic presence all the time helps that, with students and professors?
DEWEESE: Oh yeah. I think that’s a great thing about universities and colleges. For most people who teach creative writing, their job is to create a literary community on campus and show students what that’s like, and bring writers to campus and stuff. I think it’s incredibly important.
Kaila Young is an editorial assistant for Story. She is also co-editor of The York Review and writer for Susquehanna Style.