This is the transcript of a conversation we recorded in Amherst, Massachusetts, while reading Ben Kopel’s annihilating first collection of poems, Victory, aloud over the course of four days in October, 2012. We talk at length about every poem in the book and about werewolves and feelings; Black Flag and high school; suicide; God, duende; fucking and kissing and shit smashing; numerology; failure; death; Zen mysticism; Kafka; Looney Tunes; porn; Predator; Steve Albini and Lester Bangs and King Arthur; All the Real Girls and suburbia; blood blood blood blood; Punch Drunk Love; breaking down and breaking up; U2; The Smiths; The Stooges; The Clash; sigils and séances; ice cream and punk and raging against the dying of the light. – Mike Wall & Matthew Suss
“Gymnasium of the Sacred Heart”
Mike Wall (MW): This is one of the first poems Ben showed me in print. He was pissed off about it because there are the paintings—it’s like a poem and a painting—there’s the naked hockey player—all those naked pictures of that guy. That really pissed Ben off and I thought that was hilarious. Like he was offended that a penis was rubbing up against his poem.
Matthew Suss (MS): He told me something similar. Like, “I can’t show this to my mom now.”
MW: That might have been it. I thought he was just embarrassed—
MS: Probably that too. Every time he read his poems to himself in admiration…
MS: That’s what he’s doing right now. He’s doing this exact same thing right now. He’s reading his book outloud, recording it and then he’s going to listen to it back and jerk off, listening to his own voice, reading his own poems, trying not to disturb his neighbors by jerking off so hard to his poems. Yeah. It’s probably not far from the truth. He’s probably jerking off.
MW: I mean, that’s what we all do.
MS: It’s true. To write a poem is to do that.
MS: I showed this poem after I read it in Conduit to a friend of mine who lives in Montana and she said, “That poem was a blast to read. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a poem.” And it’s like yeah, these poems are a blast to read because they’re not like poems that are chores to read. You want to read these poems.
MW: Yeah, there’s like an excitement and it’s anchored in—it’s always anchored in youth for me. There’s this fun, young voice behind all of it. I remember when I first read this and thinking how—I just thought it was about punk rock kids in high school and it just seemed perfect, every move. This is who I wanted to be in high school.
MS: Yeah, and I think that’s the thing about them, too. It’s like—when I was talking to him the other day and he was like, “The greatest thing about having the book out is that I’m getting all these random messages from people. But when I meet people at readings, they think they know me.” And he’s like, “I just made all that shit up.” And I’m like, you probably didn’t make it all up but I know what you mean. It’s not like an equal equation—the poem = you. I think that’s really on about the kind of ideal about the high school experience. I mean, when I read these poems I don’t see my own experience in high school so much as actually what happens but what I was feeling in high school I see it happening. Or like when you watched movies like Dazed and Confused or something, you see a kind of similar thing or even like something shitty like The Breakfast Club. It has that same kind of condensed, youthful, rebellious whatever happening.
MS: So I was wondering. What do you think of this as the first poem in the book? Like we didn’t read the epigraphs… The Alan Dugan from that poem where he’s wrestling the angel—Jacob wrestling the angel—where he says, “You can’t win, you can’t draw. Sometimes you can’t even lose, but to even train up to such a fight is victory.” And then there’s this new one he added—the version of the book that I read before didn’t have this Patti Smith one, “I’ll give you one tip: use your fists.” I like that both of these having fighting—there’s a lot of fighting, there’s a lot of fight songs in this book.
MW: Yeah, I think largely this book reflects a lot of—I don’t want to say I know how he feels—it seems to reflect a lot of struggle—this is sappy but you have to overcome a lot of shit in life just to make it to thirty. This book is all about fucking fighting and coming out on top, which is what I think this book does. Even though the title is grandiose in its name and it seems over the top, it’s not. I totally agree that this is victory. It’s amazing.
MS: Yeah, I love that you can read it both ways. I read like exactly that, that it’s a victory, like this Alan Dugan is saying, even just to try is to win. But then the title is hilarious too because it’s so big and these poems are so tight and condensed. But it’s just hilarious to name your book Victory. It has that double quality that makes the title even better. Because it’s totally absurd but also totally true. It’s totally a youthful thing.
MW: Yeah, to like err on the side of caution. Then it’s like, Oh no, that’s a fucking joke. But it’s like, “Nope, that’s not a fucking joke.” And I’m fucking right there with you.
MS: It makes me think of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil or other titles like that.
MW: Totally. But getting back to the question of this being the opening poem. It sets a tone that the rest of the book follows.
MS: It’s one of those poems that balances—like there are a couple different kinds of poems in this book. There are like the long narrative poems and the really clipped, short things. But this one sort of balances those two nicely and it definitely sets a place for the rest of this book. It’s equally grounded and grand.
MW: Grounded and jumping off.
MS: So this poem is like one of the other kind of poems. It’s totally—or not totally—sonically driven. The sound is propelling it whereas the previous poem—there’s like a narrative happening—but this one’s more on that [sonic] side.
MW: Yeah, and the narratives, they almost come across as prayers. I definitely feel that in the first one but yeah, “Duende-Tripper” is like when moves into—I don’t know about call and response but…
MS: Yeah, the end of this poem seems so inevitable, it’s just like building towards that, and it’s like they’re songs.
MW: It does seem like he’s writing song lyrics.
MS: “My darkness it expands to fill the space provided like a melody.” Every word is building the next one. There’s always in these poems, within the line itself, there are echoes and yeah, call and response from one word to another. And this is picked up in the next poem, it takes this even further.
“Like a Song Unsung”
MS: I love the lines with—I have a soft spot for werewolves. I’m always trying to find the perfect werewolf poem and trying to write the perfect werewolf poem.
MW: I often try to write as a werewolf.
MS: It’s youth again. When you think about Teen Wolf or other werewolf movies, it’s about transforming into something that’s scary and inevitable that you can’t control.
MW: Even Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolfman—how just terrible he felt and trapped. And how he had to deal with how awful he was. He hated himself but he couldn’t kill himself.
MS: In American Werewolf in London—one of my favorite movies—he does not want to be a werewolf. He gets himself killed in the end. He can’t deal with it. And everyone has to go through that when they’re growing up—their werewolf phase, which is their life. How do I deal with being a monster, which is the same as being a human? A lot of these poems come back to that in oblique ways. How do you deal with what you’re given and can’t control? How do you overcome it? Or, how do you fucking fail and still be okay?
MW: I like how Ben compounds that line even more—“a werewolf in a city made of silver”—it’s like the werewolf is even more confined, like any false move…
MS: Everything is out to get you. It’s totally like when you’re a teenager you feel like that. Everything is just shitty and nothing is going your own way, and you’ve got fucking pimples on your back, and it’s like I can’t win. But these poems have great endings. One of the affinities I feel with Ben is I try to write poems that have endings that do something. I think he said in an interview that he tried to make this book all killer and no filler, and it’s yeah, that’s what I want to do too. The books I love most do that. Every poem is great, every line. Even though the poems in here are so tight and short, they’re really generous. I can read these over and over and feel like something great is happening to me.
MW: Yeah, there’s a joy. I don’t want to generalize but most of the time you start off with something awful: everything sucks, this is fucking terrible but then it ends with “there’s still some daylight left outside of you.”
MS: Going back to The Wolfman, it’s like so tragic because he’s like “If we are / ever to be together // you must walk out of this matinee with my head held // high above you”—like she just cut his head over victoriously and is holding it above—“while there is still some daylight left outside”—cut my head off—destroy me—before it’s night, before he turns into a werewolf. His head is full of plastic fangs and sheet music and squirrel skulls. “I hid the rest of the bones behind the school because I didn’t want you to see me for what I was.” I connect with this because I feel like the poems I write don’t connect with the person I am, and how do you reconcile what you write with being something else and someone else, and doing that with your writing and not being afraid to try to do that.
MW: Yeah, and that especially evokes shame. It’s so great to bring that into a poem. To be able to say, I am flawed and I am fucked up and I don’t want you to see it, but I’ll do it anyway and I’ll write about it.
MS: There’s that tension there completely. The poem is called “Like a Song Unsung.” It’s like a song that’s not being put out there even though it is. You want to keep things hidden so that they remain vital and when you show it to other people—or to yourself—you put those things in jeopardy, and how you try reconcile that I think is the poem.
“Ciao Mein, Morning Star”
MW: Roller-skating is something I definitely did in junior high. And “You: roller skate skinny” is a particular kind of girl. I think of every girl I’ve ever seen in roller skates. And in movies. Like in Boogie Nights and I think of Gummo, too. And there’s the scene where Chloe Sevigny is jumping up on the bed with electrical tape on her nipples, and that’s roller skate skinny to me. I might be making too far of a leap there.
MS: The girl in this poem becomes a very archetypal girl for the rest of the book. This book is filled with skinny—thin-skinned and skinheads and skinny fisted sons and shirts vs. skins—skinny is here.
MW: The descriptions of the body is important in this book. This poem ends with “Me: a box of blood.” That’s how the speaker pictures himself.
MS: I always see it just under the bed. Like have you seen Sam Keith’s The Maxx? Ben and I watched this a few years ago because we love The Maxx, and I love the shark who just says, “Blood blood blood blood blood” as he’s chasing after Maxx. But then Julie’s mother kills the rabbit Julie found run over by a car, and Julie saves the dying rabbit in a box underneath her bed, and she’s like kept awake by the rabbit’s whimpering while it die. I picture that every time I read, “Me: a box of blood.” A feeling like you’re just stuck, which is really different than the rest of this section of the poem that’s really kind of radiant. “High on Christ and some kind of kindness we too cross kites.” Whereas the first part of the poem is like: the end. I’m always really satisfied by the structure of these poems. It feels really right to begin this poem this way with an exclamation of trying to communication something—“Whiskey tango foxtrot.” It’s totally coded.
MW: Yeah, I mean WTF is the first line.
MS: I love how this poem begins nonsensically and coded—“how strange it must be to sing your own name.” You’re in a situation where you can’t say what you mean or you don’t even know how to do it anymore. You’ve sort of forgotten yourself. I see this as sort of a breakthrough poem—an opening where you’re reclaiming something that’s your own, even if it’s pain. The first three lines are like the static before the music comes back.
MW: I also feel like this is the ultimate unrequited love poem. I really pay attention to that second section and maybe I should read the first section more closely. But just the juxtaposition of the last two lines just creates this imagery of that sexy fucking temptress in my mind—“You: roller skate skinny”—and then “Me: a box of blood” is just this horrible, monstrous box of blood you keep under the bed to hide from people, and it’s like these two warring things coming together to kiss against cars.
MS: Yeah, the box of blood is the shit you can’t hide because it’s you.
MW: How do you take the title of this poem?
MS: I take the title as part of the static of those first couple lines. But it’s also a kind of goodbye and a hello. “Ciao” is both of those. And “morning star” is like an address, a term of endearing, like you’re addressing something. It’s elusive but it connects to the coded language of the poem but also to the aspect of address.
(End of Part 1)
* Matthew Suss lives in Chicago.
Mike Wall’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Jellyfish, Interrupture a Journal of Poetry and Art, iO: A Journal for New American Poetry, Ghost Proposal, TENDERLOIN, and The New Megaphone. He is the promotions editor at Slope Editions and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.