Mike Young has been in the lit game for years, he started running Noo Journal in 2005, which greatly helped the growth of online literature. He has two other books Look! Look! Feathers and We are all Good Enough if they Try Hard Enough. And now he has a very original book of poems called Sprezzatura. The book is hard to describe, so I asked Mike Young some questions, his answers are really amazing.
Noah Cicero: What other books of poetry influenced Sprezzatura?
Mike Young: It’s funny because the first books of influence on Sprezzatura that float to mind aren’t poetry at all. While I was writing most of these poems, I was riding buses in Baltimore and Western Massachusetts and thinking about the ideas in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick and You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier. Highly recommend both those suckers, especially Gleick’s. It has telegraphs and quantum physics and search engines and dictionaries and ambiguity in it.
The barnacled looseness of Jason Bredle’s monologic poems was big too. All his books, but maybe especially Standing in Line for the Beat and Smiles of the Unstoppable. Then there were the exuberant sentence claps of Frank Lima’s Inventory and the splattered anger of Linh Dinh’s Some Kind of Cheese Orgy. Anger isn’t something I’m good at, but Dinh is good at it.
And finally, I’d say Jeni Olin’s Hold Tight: The Truck Darling Poems and Geraldine Kim’s Povel were huge for this book. With Olin, I wrote this about her book: “I read her poems sometimes while drinking coffee but always felt like I was drinking coffee. Except the coffee was also Kool-Aid and Percocet and wine coolers and a recovery smoothie.” With Kim, I wrote this: “A splurge of diarytastic and spastic elbow dancing and early webcam kissy faces. Kills genre with a plastic sword. Pairs nicely with 8 bit GIF art. I really feel like more people should read this book.”
Noah Cicero: What was the first book of poetry you ever read that made you feel like, poetry is awesome and I want to spend time writing these things?
Mike Young: In high school, I discovered these online poetry message boards that were connected to the Alsop Review, and from there I discovered Frank Stanford, who was huge in my transition from caring about “poetic song lyrics” to caring about line-by-line, eyelash-by-shotgun page poetry. And then all the usual suspects: Eileen Myles, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, shapes of lips, Egyptian pyramid spaceships, etc.
Noah Cicero: In the first poem Sprezzatura you say life is not an argument? Can you name other things life is not? And two things life is?
Mike Young: It’s funny because the line “The world is not an argument” showed up first in a song I wrote for my friend James Haug after seeing a sign in the window of a hair salon that said “No Dogs Allowed,” and then for some reason I started thinking about how the world indifferently asserts itself; it doesn’t worry about proving itself; it continues with or without proof. And I thought about a bunch of other things the world is not in that song: a tennis match, a county fair, a pillow full of horse’s hair, a bowling league, a guy named Steve at the pool swimming laps. Now with your question I’m trying to think about the difference between “life” and “the world,” and I’m at a table with someone eating grilled cheese who said “Life is not a bag of chopsticks.”
Obviously, it’s impossible to say what life or the world is, as opposed to what it’s not, which is part of why we keep waking up. In the song, the chorus is all about wanting to say what the world is, and my favorite two are “I’d like to say the world / is a rowboat full of apples / drifting toward an island / that doesn’t have a shore” and “I’d like to say the world / is a joke about a ghost / delivered by your murderer / who’s funnier than most.”
Then the two chorus endings are: “But the world is the world / and I’m sleeping near the door” and “But the world is the world / and I want better dreams.”
Noah Cicero: In “Turn Right at the Bridge you Make by Lying there” you state “It’s a safe bet to blame ghosts on infrasound?” If I were going to blame a ghost how would I do that?
Haha, that line actually comes from a story about this scientist named Vic Tandy. Warning: I’m going to get this story a little wrong, but I’m going to tell my version of it and not look it up. Basically Tandy was this British scientist who worked in a spooky old castle lab, and all his assistants insisted that the lab was haunted. Being a good British scientist, Tandy was super annoyed by this superstitiousness, and he decided to figure out what causing all the fuss, and he realized there was a machine in the lab that was vibrating at the exact right frequency to rattle human eyeballs and cause them to see these streaks. And obviously they felt anxious about this, hence the scary part of seeing ghosts in addition to the seeing part. And this frequency was infrasound, below the frequency of noise we have the ability to hear. Seeing instead of hearing.
As for actually blaming ghosts, it probably functions at a level of ineffectiveness somewhere between blaming yourself and blaming the moon.
Noah Cicero: In “American Idyll” you say, “There are mothers who text. / And there are mothers who do not text.” My mother can’t text and she doesn’t even know how to turn on a computer. Does your mom text? What operating systems can your mom use? Mac, Windows, Linux?
Mike Young: My mother is very anti-texting, and she uses Windows. She could probably use a Mac if given the opportunity. When I was a kid, I made her two computer programs in QBasic to help her with her daily life. One was called Menlo Manager, and it was about helping her manage rental properties, and the other was called Plant Plotter, and it was about helping her plan her garden.
Noah Cicero: In “What Yo Personality got to do with That Lunch Meat” you wrote, “Should I explain mucus to him like a friendly website?” What is the most friendly website you have ever been to? To me WebMd is a really friendly website. It helps me live and feel better and it downloads quickly, all the links actually lead somewhere, I like it. Answers.com to me is the most unfriendly website on the internet: it takes forever to download, it has a million popups, none of the answers are even worth having, Miley Cyrus sticking her tongue out like a dead deer hanging from a rope is the focal point of their website. Anything that reminds me of a dead deer hanging from a rope is not chill.
Mike Young: Totally agree with you on the dead deer rope unchillness. Friendly website is a great question. I put that question to the group at the table because I’m not sure how I would answer it, though when I wrote that line about mucus I was thinking about being a friendly website, like I was wishing I could be a friendly website instead of a person, which is something I often think about, and which led to me to later imagine an awkward website being best friends with an awkward tree.
What the group at the table said is that certain websites try to be friendly, like Netflix, but none succeed.
Noah Cicero: In the poem “What’s the Strongest Thing You’ve Ever Felt” you wrote, “When I say we drove through the woods, I would like you to feel like maybe you have died.” What does it mean to “have died?” Like they had a near death experience and returned or they died and had a beautiful peaceful sleep and then returned? Why did you write “maybe?” Seems funny, like the narrator is so unsure of their own poem. How do you feel when making a metaphor?
Mike Young: Oh this is a great question! For that line itself, I think it’s about that lack of sureness you point out. And you talk more about that lack of sureness in a great way in your next question, so stay tuned everybody who’s reading this because the next question is also really good.
So anyway, as for that line itself, it’s not the same as just feeling like you might be having a dream, though it’s a feeling that could potentially show up in a dream. Basically what it means is you have all the normal sensations and feelings, but you’re not sure if you’re dead or not. There are certain woods that give this lack of sureness, even when you’re not asleep, which is part of the reason I moved back to the West Coast.
As for what I feel when making metaphors, I thought a lot about that question, and I ended up typing a huge answer after drinking a lot of coffee. While it doesn’t directly answer your question, and in fact it ends up talking about a whole different line in a different poem (the end of the poem “You Must Motherfucking Change Your Life”), I swear I wrote it after reading this question, and I hope it’s interesting to read:
Sometimes it’s about phrasal energy. You say “Isn’t it great to get that out of the way?”, and it’s not about the context of that phrase, whatever “that” refers to. Instead, it’s about the mechanism of the phrasing itself, the energy it directs. Not about the carrots you dump into the dicer but watching and feeling the blades whip. Except less violent, let’s hope, because most of the phrasal energy I’m interested in is about weird sharing, clicks into personal crannies, sitting in between acknowledged unknowable alterity. And some phrasings seem particularly suited to that space for my ears and mind and eyes, they have a glowing whir. Like the phrase “Isn’t it great to get that out of the way?”, the idea of a “way,” paths being cleared, the metaphor that proposes for living by. (Some grand ol’ George Lakoff hubblety-wubblety).
What I hope, I think, is that someone reads that line in the chugalug of the poem, and it emerges in a surprising place, not the normal spoken conversation context that phrase usually appears in, and it turns from a phrase of utility into a phrase of pure energy. The dicer turns from a dicer into something unnameable, something that can only be nearly summed up by a close observation and appreciation and accounting of all its energy, a doomed awe of schematics, and that this—I’m not sure what to call it, “witnessing” seems lofty, but “taking in” seems wrong—this gawking comes up the next time the reader encounters the phrase “Isn’t it great to get that out of the way?” (or one of its composite parts) in real life, and they’re removed for a second from the context of that phrase, the work of it, and language suddenly isn’t working, it’s not “at work,” it’s not toiling away, it’s suddenly there for a second for a different kind of energy, way outside the paradigm of “work,” and being in this energy with the language for a second brings you into being in that energy with other people too.
And if there’s ever something to try to not reduce with final, tool-ish, let’s-move-onto-the-next-thing naming—but instead to witness and appreciate and attempt to account for in all its complexity, while acknowledging your inevitable falling short—it’s another person.
Noah Cicero: In “Is This a Poem for the Year 2219” it says, “Sometimes I try to make sure the best songs in my iTunes have the most plays, but I don’t know why?” I like how it says “Is This” in the title, I like how the narrator is always unsure of their poem? Do you feel unsure all the time? It is funny to “feel unsure” because it implies even though we as humans, even animals do this, have to choose all the time, because time keeps happening, which means we keep happening, we feel unsure all the time, personally I have lost faith in my decision making skills, but I keep doing things, only because time keeps happening. In a lot of Hindu literature people sit meditating for thousands of years sometimes eating only air or standing on one foot. Would you like to do that? Do you have faith in any of your choices? Alan Watts says it doesn’t even matter what we choose, because whatever is happening is happening, and we can’t ever know if we made the right choice anyway, because there is no way to check if we got the right answer, like an alternate reality machine where we can check how our alternate possibles came out. I find it really funny that everything just happens, and we all keep existing doing things, like right now I am writing an interview in a Starbucks while listening to synthpop music while in Las Vegas and I’m like, “Wow, this is crazy. I am human and this is wild.” Do you ever feel like this? What situations would cause this feeling?
Mike Young: See this is the really good “question” I was talking about. And it’s obviously more than just a single question, haha. I think I am totally in sync with everything you’re talking about here—this is the kind of thinking I’d feel awesome for Sprezz to stir up in people. This wondering about choice, the feeling of choice, the “whoa-I’m-here” feeling, and I think when a day is at its best, everything in the day elicits this feeling. And it’s funny because it’s a complex, privilege, complicated, fucked up feeling, but also a beautiful feeling, a pure transparent observer, a node through which life passes, being the air being eaten, the foot and the standing, etc. etc. And Sprezz is maybe more than anything about how that’s a feeling that gets interrupted in good and bad ways by love and fear and money, and you try and fail to gracefully contort to allow those things to pass through too, but they don’t, they get stuck, and you get sunk, and complexities pile up, and the world piles up indifferently too, indifferent because it’s nothing but difference, and there you go and go until you don’t.