Mike Young is the author of We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (Publishing Genius, 2010) and Look! Look! Feathers (Word Riot Press, 2010). He co-edits NOÔ Journal and Magic Helicopter Press. Visit his blog at http://mikeayoung.blogspot.com.
(Q: Meg Pokrass) What story or book do you feel closest to?
There are a lot of books that sleep close to my ideologies and heart places, among these: Jesus Son by Denis Johnson, You and Other Poems & New Addresses, both by Kenneth Koch, How To Be Perfect by Ron Padgett, The Dream Police by Dennis Cooper, The Verificationist by Donald Antrim, Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, the short stories of Raymond Carver, D’J Pancake, Barry Hannah, James Purdy, Grace Paley, Mary Robison again, Lorrie Moore, and Thom Jones, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Money by Martin Amis, Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, Ring of Fire by Lisa Jarnot, This Connection of Everyone With Lungs by Juliana Spahr, The Easter Parade by Richard Yates, The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert, the poetry of Frank Stanford, Frank O’Hara, Eileen Myles, and, let’s see, Actual Air by David Berman. This is a very random list scurried up by trying to remember my most memorable and affecting reading and re-reading experiences. No doubt I’ve forgotten books I love. Two books I’ve saved for last: Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen, my copy of which I rarely lend but which I am always eager to lend, which means I am always looking for people I feel certain, rare ways about. The final book is I and Thou by Martin Buber, which I finally read this year after reading lots of Emmanuel Levinas and trying to track Levinas’s development as a thinker. I and Thou is the closest thing to a Bible that I have, which sounds a little melodramatic, sure, but hey: I am melodramatic. And it’s true.
Do you have a mentor?
While I was a student at Southern Oregon Univeristy in Ashland, Oregon, the poet K. Silem Mohammad was like Doc Emmett to my Marty McFly. I mean, he got shot by terrorists in a van for me to go back in time. When the lightning hit the clock tower, he threw himself off the cord in an extravagant stage dive. Seriously though, Kasey is an amazing friend and poet, not to mention one of the smartest people I know. He’s without tire in his curiosity and encouragement, and he’s taught my friends and me so much about language as a conduit for wonder and the importance of keeping one’s brain burning in all arenas. I’d count with him all my friends at SOU as co-mentors, insofar as they are lovely writers themselves and didn’t laugh at me over-performing Lisa Jarnot poems in my kitchen while my face turned red.
From my time in the UMass MFA program, I’d count Dara Wier and Chris Bachelder as definite mentors and different but mutually enlightening teachers. Chris makes craft a visceral thing, and I’ve learned from him to appreciate that elegance can drive one as pleasantly wild as forced derangement. From Dara, I’ve learned how to think about reading, how to read more broadly and thoughtfully and gleefully, and how to drive with a tea jar on your roof. And my friends in this program, who are terrific writers and wits and cooks and dancers and bodies and singers and apple pickers.
Plus there’s the Internet, duh, which has been wildly formative. If were to start listing everybody off the Internet, we’d basically end up with the Internet, which I’m saying is actually a pretty amazing thing.
How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”
Take a walk. Ride a bus. Go somewhere new. Visit a place where you feel defensive because you’ll be alert and notice stuff. Get things stuck in your head and try to unravel them. When you’re on a roll but you can’t remember what should go next, write “blurp.” Trust your weirdest instincts. Don’t try to know what you’re doing until you’re dead. If you’re stuck because you’re afraid of something sounding stupid or sentimental, be afraid of not being honest instead. Maybe change one word, one sound, say “boob” instead of “boo.” Make a mess and clean your way into something good; don’t try to get finicky with the glue. Write one good sentence after another, one good line. Steal everything you hear. Steal everything you read. Steal your own thoughts and feelings back from yourself. Sometimes if I’m writing a story, and I get stuck, I just mimic some small physical gesture someone might do, and then I see how the world and the people in the world of the story might react to that. Of course, if you don’t have worlds or people in your stories, well, you’re probably too creative to get stuck, so good for you.
What are your favorite websites?
Chris Higgs’s Bright Stupid Confetti is an awesome and frequently updated showcase of art: visual, video, writing, more. I like the art blogs It’s Nice That and My Love For You Is a Stampede of Horses, and I like the music blogs Songs:Illinois, Swedeseplease, There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You, Nine Bullets, Skatterbrain, Soul Sides, Obscure Sound. I also like to Wikipedia useless shit, like the history of staplers-knowledge which, once learned, I guarantee to have no coherent memory of at all.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a collection of short stories called Look! Look! Feathers, which will be — as of this morning — officially released this Fall from Word Riot Press. Majorly excited to be working with Jackie Corley and to be published alongside Paula Bomer, who also has a collection from WRP coming out. Plus I’m editing my poetry collection We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough, coming this summer from Publishing Genius Press, along with Rachel B Glaser’s Pee On Water, which is brilliant. One thing I’m never sure about is when to italicize, but I try to act real confident. On the publishing front, Ryan Call and I are trying to get NOÔ 11 together, and we’re getting ready to put out two full lengths next year: Ofelia Hunt’s novel (rhythms of now-cresting I’ve never seen in fiction before) and Jason Bredle’s third collection of poems: hilarious, hard felt, and so-honest-it-should-have-its-own-capillary. Plus we’re doing Evelyn Hampton’s sparkling chapbook and a “coffee table chapbook” collection of “inspiration” from sweet people featuring Evah Fan’s artwork. And we’re doing a second edition of Mary Miller‘s chapbook Less Shiny in February or so. 2010 is going to be hella busy, but at least if I die young, I’ll have something to show for it.
What makes you want to read a story and how soon does a good story capture you?
Some delight and urgency of language, some momentum of event, maybe. If the story’s into event. Also an immediate establishment of a tone or atmosphere that suggests either something viced — with a drip dripping from that something viced — or something mangy and out-of-control, really hurtling toward the hospital for good reason. I guess when event’s the terrain, I am a fan of the listen here, the really for real, the story that asks if you’re sitting down. Otherwise I am a fan of dreamy precision, as in carving as close to your dreaminess as possible.
A good story arrests, obviously, from the first sentence, or from the first couple sentences. Best is when an opening sentence really licks me; good is when an opening sentence does no harm and drags itself to a really killer third sentence or whatever. Which is fine. Then there’s a sneaky and humble kind of story that doesn’t call attention to itself on a sentence level, like doesn’t flail itself around, but really forces you to agree with it. Those stories are good too. Bobbie Ann Mason is really good at that.
Here’s the opening sentence to Charles Hale’s story “Giddy Up Little Baby,” which will be appearing in NOÖ 11 and which is a terrific, hilarious story: “When my best friend, Fast Eddie, returned to town with the news that he had received a DUI while visiting his cousins in lower Alabama, I knew we were going to have to find alternative forms of entertainment.” I love 1) how nonchalant the story is about the hokeyness of “Fast Eddie,” 2) the easy, confident lope of tone and language 3) the almost ridiculous specificity of “lower Alabama,” which makes me feel comfortable, a confidant of the narrator, like sure, lower Alabama, sure, and 3) the understated joke of “alternative forms of entertainment.” What sells me extra hard is Hale’s second sentence: “He told me about his Alabama adventures while we sat in front of the bookstore in camp chairs with a cooler between us.” Camp chairs in front of the bookstore is such a specific and funny place, and the story seems aware — by telling me about it, and not about the weather or something — of how specific and funny it is. So I know I’m in good hands.
Every good sentence in a story buys you about three or four sentences of reading from me. If you follow the math, we’re talking exponential: one sentence buys four, next sentence buys the four after that, and whoa. A few good sentences in a row can buy you the whole story. Other people, depending on their generosity as readers and the luxury of their time, might have different ratios.
What creates likable, memorable characters?
It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about what a bad rap “mimesis” takes among certain of my writer friends. Or, as Gene Kwak called mimesis on his blog the other day, the idea that writing should “twin” the world. I’m of the opinion that writing should do whatever it sets out to do, so long as it does it. That said, language is the site of the enterprise, sure. But the word “poet” comes from a Sanskrit word that means “to pile up,” which is a fact I think should be taken with all its attendant implications. There’s a part of our brains that can’t tell the difference between “He picked up an orange” and someone actually picking up an orange. This is cognitive fact, and also kind of obvious. Hard to ignore.
One thing that I think is done very well by so called “realistic” writing — writing that attempts, in some way, to sacrifice its identity as constructed material in favor of transparently forming a brain world that resembles the actual world — is subtlety. Especially on a character level. I like language that tracks the emotional electricity between people in a really shrewd and thoughtful way. Such emotional interaction is slippery, vague, complicated, hard to analyze, hard to get right. This is where the mimetic abilities of someone such as, say, Ray Carver, become so amazing. He can talk about how a person has a certain kind of face that doesn’t quite square up. And we can know what he’s talking about. And what he’s trying to do is be mimetic. He’s not being flashy in his language. Can’t be, because then the language would start hugging itself and would lose grip of the weirdness that is reality. This is where realism, I think, gets a bum rap. People think “oh boring realism.” Cancer and car crashes, etc. Certainly one might tire of the boring, overcooked, drably huge bits of reality. But the whole point of capturing reality should be capturing the fleeting, the subtle, the weird. Weird means that which comes. Wind that comes in and turns. That which enters unexpectedly and which hangs out uncomfortably. Mimesis isn’t for the duh stuff. It’s there for the weird stuff. And that’s where I think it becomes a very artistic venture indeed.
What would you do if you could do anything tomorrow?
I’d like to see my girlfriend, Carolyn, who’s away at a Buddhist retreat and can’t talk for a week. Definitely. I’d like to see her and I’d like to take her to Scotland.