Monday, April 30, 2007

Adam Selzer -- a National Poetry Month interview

For the last day of National Poetry Month, I have an interview to share with you.

As you can probably tell from my review on Saturday, I was highly amused by Adam Selzer’s book, How to Get Suspended and Influence People. So amused by the book that I contacted Adam to ask if he’d grant me an interview. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Before we get to my questions for Adam, a little background on why this qualifies as a National Poetry Month event. See, there's poetry inside the book, even though most of the book is in prose.

Adam’s book is about an eighth-grader named Leon Harris, one of the gifted students at his local middle school. One of his friends is Dustin Eddlebeck, a sex-obsessed teen who enjoys writing poetry and reading classical literature. "Dustin would not be satisfied until he'd read every sex scene in classical literature, and he was pretty sure that just about every character in every classic book was having sex with every other character if you read between the lines -- the writers just had to be sneaky about it in the old days." (p. 58)

We learn that Dustin had spent seventh grade writing limericks. One of his works is featured on p. 90 of the book:

There once was a kid named Dan
Who got his butt stuck in the can
But before you say "dumbass"
Remember -- he missed class
(He was really a very smart man)

We're told early in the book, however, that in eighth grade, Dustin has "graduated from writing naughty limericks on the bathroom walls to writing naughty sonnets, which were much longer."

I think that background tells you enough – now for the interview:

1. How long have you been writing poetry? How did you get started -- free verse or forms?

I got my start writing depressing poetry in seventh grade. I had poems with titles like "Death in Life" and "Suspension in Limbo." They were free verse, and generally bad. I wasn't really all that depressed, as seventh graders go; my friends and I just thought that depressing poetry was cool. These days, when I write a poem, it's almost always free verse

2. Have you written a lot of limericks? While you have posted some of your poetry at your site, I didn't notice any limericks in that selection.

Not very many. I have one song, "Your Neighborhood Gives Me the Creeps," that's really a collection of spooky limericks, but that’s really about it. I'm pretty mercenary with poetry - if I come up with a good poem, in any sort of form that isn't free verse, I'll usually try to turn it into a song sooner or later. I did once try to come up with a bunch of "man from Nantucket" limericks without using the F word - dancing around that word is a big part of my job

3. Let's move on to talk about sonnets -- it's a form that seems to work in all ages, at least in my opinion. Dustin uses it to great (and comedic) effect in the two sonnets he composes to be the voice-over for Leon's avant-garde sex education film, La Dolce Pubert.

The first of the sonnets is:

We were weirdos once, and young,
Naked against the dawning of our teen years,
with thoughts we'd never express with a tongue,
about lust, and doubts, and dreams, and fears.
But all was normal, everything, every change,
every thought that kept us up, feeling like hell,
and even though at first it felt strange,
all of the whacking was normal, as well.
Renegade pituitary glands controlled our minds
like the school system only wished it could,
but as we grew older, each of us would find
that it was totally normal, and generally good.
We stood against adulthood's door,
trying to comprehend, and hoping to score.

One can't help but notice that you've chosen to write using the Shakespearian sonnet form (ababcdcdefefgg), both in this sonnet and in the other sonnet in the book, a continuation on the theme of puberty including references to pubic hair, more whacking, and the gradual development of a more adult form.

Did you consider other poetic forms (besides the sonnet) for Dustin before you settled on sonnets? Did you consciously go with Shakespearian sonnets? If so, why?

Shakespearean made the most sense - Dustin was probably more likely to be exposed to that than Plutarchian, and I could probably use it without going into a discussion about the types of poem. People were less likely to look at it and go "wait, is that REALLY a sonnet?"

The first poem begins "We were weirdos once, and young", which reads to me like a deliberate riff on "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young", a book about Vietnam by Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway, the title of which was inspired by a line in a poem by A.E. Housman, who wrote a lot of terrific War Poems. And I can see a resemblance to some of the language or ideas of war poems in this sonnet -- more a war of bodily development and raging hormones than anything else. How much of that was conscious decision on your part, and how much of that is me reading into things?

A bit of both - at the time I wrote that line, "We were weirdos once, and young" was going to be the title of the book. I wasn't trying that specifically to conjure up raging hormones (rage, rage!) but it was sort of in the back of my mind.

The second sonnet, equally funny, includes a line that reads "Our bodies slouched toward sweet maturity". Was this a deliberate nod to Yeats's "The Second Coming", which asks "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" Or is this just my own crazy free association?

Yeah, that's intentional on my part - though probably not on Dustin's. If Dustin ever discovers Yeats, he'll have to go through a Yeats phase, they way he goes through a Ginsberg phase in the sequel.

4. Your second novel, Pirates of the Retail Wasteland involves Leon and Company taking on suburban sprawl by staging a takeover of a corporate coffee shop, but the subplot involves Dustin E. and James Cole [note from Kelly:a French-speaking pot smoker known for his catch-phrases du jour, such as "Bonjour, ass monkey"] trying to convince the gym teacher, Coach Hunter, to kill himself (or at least quit his job) by sneaking anonymous, depressing beat poems into his office.

Adam has been kind enough to share some of "Dustin's" handiwork from Pirates of the Retail Wasteland.

"The Final Pushup"

Oh, Coach, where is thy sting?
At the bottom of the empty bottle
of Gatorade, the last few drops are
turning into crust
like the last drops of blood
in your cold heart,
pumping slowly, like
a 700 pound sixth grader
trying to do that third and
final pushup
wobbling a bit,
and then crumbling on the mat
like a crushed paper cup,
discarded, scattered to the four winds
et ou sont les neiges, et ou sont les neiges.
If it's better to burn out than fade away
like an athelete dying young on the finish line
his heart bursting like a sudden solo
in a Miles Davis record,
then it's better to put your head in the oven
just like Sylvia Plath, who never
did a sit-up to my knowledge,
than to dry up like the last few drops
of aforementioned blood,
sitting in your wheelchair,
trying with the little strength remaining
to sputter "drop and give me twenty"
to the nursing home attendant.
Drop. Sputter.
Drop. Sputter
Drop and give me.

The first lines harkens back to biblical verse (or at least to Christina Rossetti), "O death, where is thy sting?" But it quickly becomes more of a beat poem, with reference to jazz music and Plath and a bleak future in a nursing home. My favorite part? The repetition of the French phrase "ou sont les neiges?" Where, indeed, are the snows?

"ou sont les neiges" is a line from a Villon poem that gets projected on the screen in "The Glass Menagerie." I remember reading that and thinking "wow, how delightfully, shamelessly artsy!"

5. Another poem you shared clearly takes its inspiration from "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg:

by The Same Guy

&emsp I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by gym class.
&emsp &emsp &emsp Starving, hysterical, sweating, dragging themselves around
&emsp &emsp &emsp one more lap in fifth period, waiting for the angry bell.
&emsp &emsp Who climbed to the top of the rope and cried Holy and studied
&emsp &emsp volleyball, basketball, dodgeball, while the floor
instinctively vibrated at their feet at the foul line.
&emsp &emsp Who allowed themselves to be made the subject of paramilitary
&emsp &emsp rage and wailed with joy when the vein in the coach’s neck
twitched and his eyeball also twitched.
&emsp &emsp Who were awash in a sea of squats squats squats and rubber balls
&emsp &emsp &emsp and cried out “Rage! Rage!” against the starting of the
&emsp class
&emsp &emsp Students of the world, I'm with you in gym class.
&emsp &emsp I'm with you in gym class
&emsp &emsp &emsp where we circled in an eternal square dance
&emsp &emsp I'm with you in gym class
&emsp &emsp &emsp where we longed for the days of playing with parachutes
&emsp &emsp I'm with you in gym class
&emsp &emsp &emsp Trying to see up your shorts when you stretch, checking out
your butt when you present the coach with pushups
&emsp &emsp I’m with you in gym class
&emsp &emsp &emsp Hearing the action movie music in my head as the rubber
&emsp &emsp &emsp ball flies toward your head like a missile in the musky air
&emsp &emsp I’m with you in gym class
&emsp &emsp &emsp where the sad coach wailed the lonely wail that begged to
&emsp &emsp &emsp become a cry from the grave.

Is Ginsberg a particular favorite of yours?

I enjoy Ginsberg quite a bit - I like all of the beat writers, really. I like hanging out in dimly-lit coffee shops and wandering the streets of Chicago after dark. I think that most of the beatniks probably would have gotten on my nerves after a while, though.

I ask because you have on your webpage a parody of the complete text of "Howl" entitled "Howl (for Mayor McCheese)", a poem closely related to your loss for the race for Mayor of McDonaldland owing to your inability to identify what Grimace was supposed to be. "Howl howl howl robble robble robble" indeed.

I love "Howl," but I think it lends itself to parody really, really well. I also think there's something about McDonalds and all of the McDonaldland characters that's just hilarious.

6. In addition to writing poetry, you've written a lot of song lyrics. Do you find any difference between writing poems vs. lyrics?

Yes and no. With lyrics, you have to sort of keep in mind that there's going to be a melody behind it, and working in free verse or a complicated rhyme scheme can really mess you up there in the long run. Another thing is that poems have to have an ending, whereas in a song you just wrap things up in the narrative, repeat the chorus, and then end it in the music. Even the most poetic songs (Dylan, etc.) don't tend to work as stand-alone poems, since it's two different rhythms.

7. Your first novel, How to Get Suspended and Influence People, features Leon Noside Harris, a kid with a peculiar middle name and even odder parents. Your own bio indicates that you were raised by wild Iowan orangutans. Enquiring minds want to know -- do you yourself have an odd middle name? Peculiar parents?

Not particularly; my middle name is Richard, after my father, and my parents weren't quite as goofy as Leon's - though my dad shares Leon's dad's fondness for posters with motivational phrases, and my mother share's Leon's mom's fear of the F word (unless it's being said by someone with a British accent).

8. The title of the book gives away one of the plot points -- Leon gets suspended. For the sake of art, as it turns out. I couldn't help but notice that in an interview you did with Bookshelves of Doom, you "battled with a group of censors who took issue with The Basketball Diaries." Care to elaborate?

I should point out that, after growing up in Des Moines, I went to high school in Gwinnett County, GA. My old high school has been in the news a lot in the past year or so because there are STILL people there trying to ban Harry Potter. The movement to police the libraries was going on back in my day - but Harry Potter hadn't made such a splash yet, so the group at the time was trying to remove The Basketball Diaries from the public library on the grounds that it glorified drug use (which it doesn't). But defending the book was a waste of time - if the library found in favor of the book, the group would have just moved on to the next one on their list. These guys were hardcore. I seem to recall talk of attempts to have librarians arrested as "smut peddlars," a term which found its way into the book.

Did that experience influence you in the writing of How to Get Suspended?

Thumbing my nose at those people was certainly on my mind - they've gotten a lot more vocal in the past several years. The movie E.T. could not be made today without a major script overhaul, because the Inappropriate Police would object to the language, which is so mild and used so naturally that most people don't even realize it's there. Considering all the trouble there is in the world, I really don't understand the people whose biggest problems are the use of swear words that have been around as long as any other word in the English language.

9. Ever been suspended? And, if so, is that how you learned there's no such thing as a permanent record?

I got half-a-day in-school for getting into a shoving match in 7th grade. I think I still believed in permanent records at the time

10. In your book bio, it says you're not just a guide for Weird Chicago Tours, but are also a part-time ghostbuster. Details?

In addition to ghost tours, I also assist on ghost investigations now and then - it's fun! We get to run around all over old buildings looking for cool stuff. And we find some cool stuff, too!

In your opinion: Ghosts -- real or legend?

I know enough about science to be very skeptical, but we do run across things that have forced me to keep more of an open mind. I always tell people that there's really no such thing as "good" ghost evidence - even in the weirdest pictures we get on the tours, there's no way to prove we didn't fake it, and there's no way to tell if we're looking at some weird environmental anomaly or some sort of psychological echo or what. All we can look for is "cool" ghost evidence.

11. Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate?

I’ll take good cheese over bad chocolate.

Coffee or tea?

coffee (though I drink a LOT of tea to keep my throat in shape)

Cats or dogs


Favorite color?

dark grey and flat enamel orange (tied)

Favorite snack food?

Jelly Bellys

Favorite ice cream?

Ben & Jerry’s Half-Baked

Water or soda?

soda (though I’m trying to cut back)

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now?

Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs

What's the last movie you memorized lines from?

Probably Clerks II

An enormous thank you to Adam for taking the time to answer all my questions, and for sharing his thoughts on poetry, censorship, and more. I can’t wait for Pirates of the Retail Wasteland.


Jim D said...

Better late than never, I just read your interview with Adam Selzer. It was interesting since I met him at a literary breakfast this past winter. I really need to go on one of those ghost tours!

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I loved this post! I've got How to Get Suspended... on my library bookshelf,and now I'm going to go read it. I have to laugh at Selzer's comment about having believed in permanent records once. I was told that my English folder would follow me whereever I went, even if I went to Japan. Before I graduated from high school, I tried to find my English folder from junior high. They'd thrown it out, plus the 19 pages of my first "novel."

Also, there were a few people I really should have slugged...