I first met today's interviewee at a lovely and fun reading we did in St. Paul, Minnesota for Pindeldyboz. A teacher and poet, he is now celebrating the release of Happy, a Memoir. Tell me if this doesn't grab you: "His freshman year of college, Alex Lemon was supposed to be the star catcher on the Macalester College baseball team. He was the boy getting every girl, the hard-partying kid who everyone called Happy, often without even knowing his real name. In the spring of 1997, he had his first stroke." You can read more about Alex Lemon here.
With each of your books you've worked with a different publisher. What's your experience been like with each one?
My publishers have been wonderful; and each editor I've worked with has treated me with an incredible amount kindness. I'll always feel indebted to them--they made my books stronger. They all have strengths and weakness, but at the core, they are all amazing editors because they love good books. And the big difference between working with a large publishing house (Happy, Scribner) and a non-profit (Fancy Beasts, Milkweed) or even a smaller for-profit press (Mosquito, Tin House) is how much more time and energy everyone spends on the business part of publishing.
What do you teach at TCU? What do you have your students do on the first day of class?
I teach literature and creative writing courses and now and again I teach a Freshman Seminar in Composition. This year (two semesters) I taught the Creative Nonfiction Workshop, 3 sections of Intro to Creative Writing, and two sections of a composition course I developed called The Literature of Decay. I loved that class---used Mary Roach's Stiff, The Road, Komunyakk's Dien Cai Dau, St. Lucy's Home For Girls Who've Been Raised by Wolves, an issue of Lapham's Quarterly and a Sarah Manguso book.
First day? Hmm--depends on if I know the students from previous semesters. If I don't, maybe an ice breaker. Have them pair up and talk. When they come back, they have to introduce the person they were speaking to by telling the rest of the class what they'd want for their last meal.
Why'd you go from poetry to memoir?
I've always written prose--my graduate program at the U of Minnesota had all the students work outside of their chosen genre--but I've always thought it was terrible. It just took a long time for me bring it out.
Are there other genres you'd like to explore?
Sure--all of them. And I'd like to make films.
Who's your favorite MLB catcher?
Joe Mauer. But before him, and still a close second, is Pudge Rodriguez. The Molina brothers are also unbelievable.
How much did you rely on your journals or records for Happy?
Tons--both journals and hospital/medical records. Also pictures, writing, art and tapes I made during college.
What do you think you would have done with your life if you hadn't returned to college after your brain surgery?
I have two answers because I misread this the first time.
With no brain surgery? I would have done something with the visual arts: I was very interested in getting my MFA in Ceramic Arts, spent most of my time making thrown wheel sculptures, crazy-assed tripod things--like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
With surgery and no college. I probably would have been a butcher. It was my first job after I started taking care of myself again. Maybe I would have become a lifer--all of them were missing at least one whole finger, and lots of nubs. But in the end, it wouldn't have been good for me.
Are you reading your reviews? Do you have a philosophy for how you take those?
When someone sends one to me I'll read it. No philosophy, really. People are going to say what they're going to say. I love unicorns and you hate them. That's the way it is.
On that note I read a review of your book on Amazon where a reader had an issue with some foul language and rough imagery in the book. How would you respond to that criticism? It seems like you would purposefully evoke that type of imagery and if someone just didn't like it, they're missing the point.
You answered it perfectly; thank you. If they don't understand why the book is like that, they're not "getting it" and their issues are their problem. I think it's terribly sad--and speaks to large problems of perception in our culture.
Does anybody still call you Happy? How do you react?
Yeah, lots of people from college still do. You know, I'm fine with it now. I was (and still am) surrounded by great friends and strangers and, for most of them, it was a nickname that was rooted in affection and good times. I was the one didn't know how to let anyone in--to talk about what was really going on inside me--my sadness and love and fear and hope and pain.
Poetry seems like a tough genre to break into in terms of publishing. What do you tell aspiring poets who are looking for a good first (or second or third) publication?
Read and write constantly--and get comfortable wearing that robe of failure. Being a writer is really about failing, and failing and failing--continuously and forever--with each revision, maybe, just maybe, a fraction better than the previous.
What's your favorite poem of the moment and why?
It's finals here at TCU--so I'm reading, and have been reading student work for weeks. My favorite: "Do Not Die in Fires: A Survival Guide." On a recommendation from the poet Dobby Gibson (an old friend who ended up on a flight of mine this year), I got the new Arda Collins book but I've hardly had time to glance at it. G.C. Waldrep and D.A. Powell have written poems that I've gone back to dozens of times this year.
We originally met at a very fun reading in St. Paul--you don't have to name names but have you done any disappointing/disastrous readings and how'd you deal with the situation?
I just did a reading at the Fort Worth Public Library. It was at 6. The place was crawling with families and kids and well-mannered members of the population. The excerpt I had planned on reading has a lot of foul language, and for the first time, ever, I felt like I didn't want to swear into the mic. So, instead of dropped f-bombs left and right, I said "Cuss" or variations of it--like they do in the movie "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." I'm not sure how it went, but the it was a 90 degrees outside and the AC had busted and when I finished I was a sweaty beast.
How does it feel to be the 254th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?