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
“Dead Bird Tattoo”
Mike Wall (MW): The title is doing some strange work in this poem, at least for me. “& yet here I am / with you // not rotting,” I see that the dead bird tattoo saying that. I’m just picturing this really weird tattoo that somebody got on their arm of somebody holding a dead bird, and it can’t rise because it’s dead and static, “a suburb before—” Because that’s what suburbs are, they’re static, always the same everywhere. The word “suburb” sets off so much. The suburb never rots because there are always new families moving in when families move out. Never fucking changes, static.
Matthew Suss (MS): I feel like these are quasi-suburban poems in this book because the kids and the people in these poems are trying to get out of the suburbs while still always having one foot in the suburbs. Everything else is conspiring against you as you’re trying to fight so hard to get out of that.
MW: And you have to fight to not return to it when and if you get out of it.
MS: It’s something you have to try really hard to get out of because it’s always there. To be static is not the best thing. You want to be able to be rotting, and to rot. That’s what’s so exciting when he says, “if we are ever to be together you must walk out of this matinee with my head held high above you.” There’s that potential of you not might make it, which is exciting. And it’s important that it’s a werewolf in “Like a Song Unsung” and not a vampire or something that’s immortal. The werewolf of the Universal movie monsters is the most human monster because it’s the most fallible because it can die.
MW: The werewolf is the most easily accessible because the other monsters take a lot of weird science and backwards mysticism to get to.
MS: The werewolf is the suburban monster. That’s why there’s Teen Wolf. There’s no Teen Frankenstein¬—well, there’s teen vampires now but they’re not important.
MW: They’re bullshit.
MS: They don’t have feelings. Werewolves have feelings, too many feelings.
“There is No There There”
MS: “There is No There There” reminds me of the suburbs: there’s no substance there. The suburbs exist but they don’t really exist, they don’t matter. This poem also plays into the whole first section of the book in defining the setting of the book. The whole first section situates us in the universe of the book. Within these first poems is what you can expect the rest of the book to talk about and to take on and transform.
MS: “I just work here” is such a great opening line because it’s so colloquial but it’s totally fucking existential because it’s just an anonymous static place. But he’s “always naming streets / after the people I love” to try to make this place his own.
MW: I love how that line disrupts “I just work here” because he has the power to name streets but the “I” is just so jaded and disenchanted because the naming is just a psychic thing for him, it doesn’t change anything in reality because the streets are already there.
MS: I associate places with people. It doesn’t even matter where they live. This is the city where the person I love lives, this is their city, their neighborhood, it’s theirs. That’s the hopeful thing because you don’t want a place to be empty. “Hope is how I assassin // past drunken stadia // unshot by the sky. // Dumb from song. / Missing everybody.” It’s bittersweet.
MW: It’s bittersweet, yeah. But how else are you supposed to feel? If you’re in that mood of just “I just work here” and you’re thinking of all your friends, just listening to music, trying to clear your head.
MS: That’s always how I feel when I’m listening to music.
MW: There are so many songs I listen to where I name streets after the people I love.
MS: This is probably going to come up a lot while reading this book but: U2. Here it’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The streets don’t have names? Give them names. Make them yours. Intensify the experiences you’re having. I always get so mad at people when they say that art is an escape. It’s like, no, art is not an escape, it intensifies the experiences you’re having, it takes you further into life and it makes life bearable.
MW: Unfortunately, this is where I depart from this book. I hate U2.
“Start Cutting Back Today. Quit Tomorrow.”
MS: Thinking of the book in terms of sections, the first two poems in this section really bookend it nicely, because it mentions a lot from the previous poems. Even the title, “Start Cutting Back Today. Quit Tomorrow.” makes me think of “Ciao Mein, Morning Star,” when he says, “a mind out of time and almost brave.” It’s like I want to do this but I don’t want to do this other thing. I want to do both. I want to become something else but I can’t.
MW: I love the universality of the doom in this poem. “An arm is a arm.” It’s like we’re all fucked and it doesn’t matter who gets the drugs in their arm, just as long as it’s somebody’s arm.
MS: And then there’s the clinic again that’s mentioned at the end of the first poem, “Gymnasium of the Sacred Heart.” He says, “Before I exit the clinic / I pull the IV out of the dying boy’s arm / & jam it into my own.” I mean, the speaker is dying, too. This is what I love in poems. There’s a really histrionic aspect to this because it’s hilarious that you’re taking an IV from a dying kid’s arm and jamming it into your own. Because his injury is that he shot off his hand with mouth and “now I want to come home. So let me / come home.” It’s the idea of wanting to leave home but then always wanting to return.
MW: It’s the comfort of your childhood and your youth and you want to return to that place and then it’s horrible.
MS: And so you return to it in poems where it’s safe to go back and deal with it. You also get a real sense of texture of this place from the first section of this book. You get parking lots, gymnasiums, high school, the city—the city of silver—the suburbs, streets, the clinic, shitty gas stations or whatever. It’s like the margins of this town or city—you hang out in the parking lot because you don’t want to be at your house.
MW: It’s like the dregs of a place where you’re burying the squirrel bones behind the gymnasium.
MS: It’s all totally a physical but it’s also a psychic space. In “Like a Song Unsung,” he says, “I hid the rest of the bones behind the / school because // I didn’t want you to see me for what I was.” I think he’s talking about difference between who you are and what you desire, and that’s a totally psychic space. Because “I want a clawfoot bathtub of what I want.” It’s like, I want what I want because it’s what I want because that’s who I am. And who he is someone full of love despite everything.
MW: Love doesn’t always have to equal the same thing. It can be a head full of squirrel skulls.
MS: I love that these poems also love horrible things because it doesn’t really matter what you love. All that matters is that you love it hard. If you love Lady Gaga, it doesn’t matter, you just better love her, you just better really fucking love her, you know. Whatever you love is okay.
MW: And this book reflects the hope that if you love something intensely you will find someone who loves the same thing as intensely and as strangely as you. Because that’s the battle of life that we’re all trying to be victorious in. Maybe.
MS: But then the rest of the book totally complicates the poems in this first section. But again, I think this is a really effective way to begin this book because it begins in a large space. But I also love how this book has really short and small sections. There’s a kind of magick in its structure, something maybe numerological and definitely sigilisitc. The cover of the book with its broken star is a sigil; the different stars throughout the book, separating the sections are sigils, too; and most importantly, the poems are sigils.
To go back to “Ciao Mein, Morning Star,” the nonsense is coded but it also could be a sigil, since you’re taking a shape or a word or a number of words and you’re making it so it’s obscure so no one else knows the meaning except you so you can make it magick and make it happen. I totally believe that poems are sigils. That if you write it, it happens. It’s one of the mystical dimensions of putting things into words and putting words together.
MW: Pulling shit out of your mind and making it real.
MS: Most art is like that. You’re making a deal with Satan to make something happen.
“Because We Must”
MW: I like how the end is specifically called out as a prayer: “A prayer, now / & at the hour of our death— // Fill me with yr light inside this car. / Fill me with yr light.” A death prayer to end the poem is so fucking awesome.
MS: I mean, there are other elegies in this book, too for Lester Bangs, Frank Stanford, and this poem sort of begins that gesture towards death and how you respond to death. This poem is so deathy and I love that because it’s a really funny poem also—“Everyone died warm / & no one was alone”—is hilarious. I’m dying in the Dairy Queen and yet everyone is together. It’s important that this place burned down.
MW: Do you think he’s conjuring Dylan Thomas at the end with the prayer? “Rage against the dying of the light.”
MS: Definitely. You saw it, so it is. I think it’s totally there. This whole book is like “Do not go gentle in that good night.” Have a good time. We had a good time.
MW: I don’t know why but how Ben uses the word “warm” is so amazing. Everyone died warm. The other time he uses it is in “Ciao Mein, Morning Star,” when he says, “all warm skin warm.” It feels so amazing how he uses such a simple and common word.
MS: He uses it in a strange way in “Because We Must” because you don’t usually think of people burning down as being warm, you think of them just in horrible pain. They’re dead but they were warm. It’s looking at something bad happening through the lens of okay, what’s the best way I can look at this? How can I transform this moment to light?
MW: Using the adjective “warm” instead of “burned” makes it more appealing.
MS: And he’s saying we must look at this way—“Because We Must”—because what is the alternative? The alternative is they die and suffer a horrible death burned in this place and that’s it. Tragedy. But then there’s that other aspect, too—“We had a good time.”
These poems straddle that line of being so specific and universal. Like, “The kids from the federal / tanning booths have burned / down the Dairy Queen again.” Again. They’re always going to do this. That Dairy Queen is going to burn down every time. You rebuild it and it’s going to burn down.
MW: It’s like Sisyphus.
MS: It’s an infinite loop. It’s youth. Kids burn down shit. That’s the only way to make something new and yours.
This poem is also doing something different than he’s done in the other poems so far. This poem is in three discrete sections that aren’t narrative and linearly connected, especially the third section with its direct language. It gives the poem as use. It straddles the line between useless poem and serving a purpose like a sigil or a prayer. A prayer is fucking important.
MS: I love reading these poems aloud in order because I’m starting to see words coming back. Like “feathered” which is also in “Gymnasium of the Sacred Heart” with the boys with feathers for lungs. This is like if I’d look at your poems or if you’d look at mine, you’d see the same fucking obsessions over and over. Things recurring. That’s like really surprising when you’re trying to put together poems or make a book. Like oh shit, I’m writing about the same thing, which makes a book really exciting, to see how things change from beginning to end or recur in different ways. Because the way words and images recur in this book is really beautiful. I feel like I’ve already seen the arrow in this poem somewhere else, the broken bones, the arms, and the skulls. I also love how the final boy is a twist on slasher films with the final girl who always survives in the end.
MW: And the threes come up again, too—“the final girl the / one my neighbor drowned / three separate times / in three separate rivers / in a body I could never / call my own.” And three and three is six.
MS: How does the Pixies song go?
MW: “If man is five and the devil six then God is seven.”
MS: And the seven sections of the book all include seven poems, so there’s a kind of Pixies divinity happening here, too.
MW: The book of revelations also gives the devil the number six and I’m pretty sure God is seven. And then also seven is prime, and lucky sevens. If you ever go to Vegas, you’ve got to believe in seven. And it’s nice because these poems don’t follow a set pattern or structure but the book as a whole has a consistent, overall form. The book itself is the form that’s trying to contain all the things that he loves and wants in a clawfoot bathtub.
MS: These poems are very different than every other poem in the book because together they create their own alternate world that takes its cues from slasher movies. These poems are also voiced differently instead as two characters that speak to each other. But they also bring back similar ideas from the poems before: the whole boy / girl, me / you relationship that grounds many of the other poems also grounds these two poems.
MW: This book is also always about music. Sometimes I like to read through the poems and not pay attention to what the words are saying but just to listen to the beats.
MS: “…he filmed me from the waist up his / whole system was nervous was a saint / operating on a surgeon with a box cutter.” Yeah, the language just sort of washes over you sometimes ecstatically, and it’s able to do that because it’s working so tightly.
(End of Part Two)
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.