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
“Frank Stanford Sonnet”
Matthew Suss (MS): Frank Stanford is another one of those figures like Rimbaud—young and dead and amazing, and this is maybe my favorite poem in the book. It’s hard to talk about because I love that it’s a dream—“I dreamed I saw Frank Stanford / Last night & he said unto me” and I love that “unto me” because it’s perfect and hilarious and how Gods speak to men. “Shut up for a second so we can both / Be blinded by that bloody light // From the brainy motor / I call God’s love.” This is an image that moves and is hard to pin down. What is the brainy motor I call God’s love? You can think about as how the brain itself moves but then there’s a transcendental quality to the image because it emits blinding, bloody light. Or it’s this sort of mutagenic machine that’s both transcendental but also rooted. There’s a painful thing going on here, too. The light isn’t pure, it’s not a white light, it’s bloody light. It’s painful. The Sublime is terrifying and beautiful at the same time. There’s a total pain and overwhelming pleasure to be blinded by something totally annihilating.
There’s also a sort of blues to this poem with “He said. He said he got so alone sometimes / He believed God had a heart.” And then there’s the ending—“This morning / I found seven cicadas in my mailbox,” which is an image of duende that happens without explanation or precedent but yet it’s communicating something beyond thinking about it.
Mike Wall (MW): I love that notion of something reaching out from your subconscious and reassuring you about what happened in a dream is real. It’s an affirmation and manifestation that something happened, and it was a dream, yeah, but it wasn’t just a dream. It was more.
MS: The poem is a Ouija board where you’re making some kind of contact. Or a séance. These poems invoking these dead people are total séances because he’s trying to communicate with them and bring something back.
MW: The automatic writing in séances.
MS: There’s that amazing séance scene in Peter Mendak’s The Changeling where the medium’s assistant keeps flipping the notebooks pages where the medium is scrawling her communications with the dead. And she’s digging into the page with her pencil and it’s totally violent and frantic because communicating the dead is violent. And here, the medium’s pencil is literally her antenna to God, to the afterlife, where she’s receiving signals. And in the scene glasses break and lamps explode. And for “Frank Stanford Sonnet” it’s great that there’s a manifestation of something real—the cicadas—at the end of the poem that is significant and that you can then read and read into. If there were three cicadas in the mailbox the image wouldn’t contain the same resonance. Or if they showed up anywhere else besides the mailbox, it would mean the same thing at all.
MW: The cicada is an interesting insect to pick because they come every seven years. Like when I was living in Iowa, there was one summer there where everywhere you went there was fucking cicadas. It was like an invasion of cicadas. But that doesn’t happen very often, I think it happens every seven years but I could just want that to be true. But they’re also a form of locusts, which reminds of the plagues, so they’re a kind of sinister image in that way also. You’re dream is confirmed but is it a good thing it’s confirmed?
MS: So we have the cicadas but we also have crickets in the poem, “The Crickets,” and more seven hearts is mentioned again in the next poem, “Bar Fight #2.” This all comes back to Lorca’s “Song of the Seven Hearted Boy”:
Seven hearts are the hearts that I have. But mine is not among them.
In the high mountains, mother, where I sometimes ran into the wind, seven girls with long hands carried me around in their mirrors.
I have sung my way through this world with my mouth with its seven petals. My crimson-colored galleys have cast off without rigging or oars.
I have lived my life in landscapes that other men have owned. And the secrets I wore at my throat, unbeknownst to me, had come open.
In the high mountains, mother, where my heart rises over its echoes in the memory book of a star, I sometimes ran into the wind.
Seven hearts are the hearts that I have. But mine is not there among them.
The lines “I have lived my life in landscapes / that other men have owned” is really going back to what we talked about earlier: living in a place that is not yours. You need to find a way to own where you are and who you are. And part of getting out and becoming your own person is running into the wind, and this book is totally a running into the wind.
“Bar Fight #2”
MW: I want to point out the threes in this poem: “Part mutilation. // Part victory. Part garden.” This resonates with “Ciao Mein, Morning Star,” when he says, “One-third-dog. / One-third-man. One-third- // star.” It seems to be doing very similar work here.
MS: The construction is interesting because it’s saying that things aren’t just one, they’re many. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra said that humans are “a sausage of angel and beast.” You’re animal—a dog—but you’re also a divine being, a celestial body—a star. Because people are made from the stuff of stars—“My God, it’s full of stars!”
MW: And in “Bar Fight #2” it’s mutilation, victory, and garden. Mutilation can be part of the victory, and then a garden is life, life giving. You can have victories in gardens.
MS: You can have mutilations in gardens.
MW: And you can mutilate a garden.
MS: You can garden a victory. A garden of mutilations. A summer loving torture party.
But I like this poem because it’s kind of loopy, too. It’s less calculated. “One-third-dog. / One-third-man. One-third- // star” makes a kind of more obvious and direct sense than “Part mutilation. // Part victory. Part garden.” There’s a bigger distance between those three images than the previous three images in “Ciao Mein, Morning Star.”
MS: This is another poem that’s totally driven by the image. It’s making a sense out of the image. The image is leading the poem wherever the image wants to go. The dog is all of a sudden stuck in the ribs, which is a very Lorca image—these poems in this section are the Lorca section of the book. The language of these poems is infused with Lorca. And then he pulls the dog out by the roots and kicks it until there’s that bloody light and the dog blooms hollyhocks—another echo to the hollyhocks in “The Birthday Party.” And I love this next line, this move: “I picked them / for my mom.” So sweet.
One of the things about these poems is that they’ll introduce a place like the Five Happiness Buffet but then at the end of the poem there are the five repetitions of “happiness,” so it’s doing that great thing where something is allowed to be itself but also has another resonance that’s beyond it. That’s the kind of image you want, that they can stand as themselves—like the seven cicadas from “Frank Stanford Sonnet”—but then it’s doing something more than just being itself. It exists in two simultaneous dimensions. The five times he says in a way has to match up with the Five Happiness Buffet because it’s sort of like a ritual or a mantra and it has to be five in order to chime with the stars.
I’m always like, Someday I’m going to write a poem that I can give to my mom. And it will probably come out of kicking something to death. I mean, it will need to be something from inside me that I destroyed until it was something new and presentable.
MW: It’s another one of those moments of transformation that are throughout the book. Like the bus ride in “The Day I Wrote You Off,” which such a quiet poem whereas this poem is much louder and more violent. The transformation is violent here.
And this section of the book is its own journey, from “The Birthday Party” beginning the section to the “After Party,” which ends the section—from birth to afterlife.
“A Map is a Place is a Thing”
MS: I think of this poem as an ars poetica. It’s giving some insight into the purpose of the other poems in the book. It’s a kind central poem in the book because it’s making big claims and saying huge pronouncements. It’s one large and sweeping like skywriting.
MW: It sounds like he’s talking about writing poetry: “We have no idea. No book of legends. / No land. No map. We bracket sections, // combining longer and shorter lines.”
I also like how predetermined the poem ends: “We live the way we live. / The world changes us.” I struggle with that in my life and in my own writing. I always want to be something else and I always try desperately to be a better writer, to be substantial in everything I write. And it’s like oh no, I just like horror movies and comic books. We live the way we live and that’s totally cool. You have to let it go. The world changes us.
MS: I could see Rumi writing this poem or another mystic poet. It’s another very Zen poem. I like poems like that. I want poems sometimes to make confident statements like this, to be confident in what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter if what the poem is saying is true or not, all that matters is that it’s being said confidently as if it is true.
“Confessional Poem for Mark Leidner to Read”
MS: Why do you think Ben put this poem after “A Map is a Place is a Thing”?
MW: I think he wrote this poem because he’s jealous of Mark Leidner. I’ve talked to Ben about going to two MFA programs with Mark Leidner and feeling overshadowed. I’m pretty sure he wrote this poem out of admiration for Mark and “A Map is a Place is a Thing” is to kind of offset that poem and give it something to bounce off of.
MS: When he says, “Our truth is marching off / into the ocean // or a small room / with now windows,” maybe the truths from the previous poem are marching off because truth is unstable. You think you know what’s going on and then all of a sudden everything is shaken up—“a riot is born // & once again / we are skins versus skins.” There is a confrontation happening in these poems in this section with “Academy Fight Song” and with that crazy fucking poem, “Turn Off My Face” and even this poem. These poems in this section feel really aggressive. They want to fuck up what’s already established in the book. There’s guns and torture in these poems. They’re getting dirtier in their tone.
“Pop Song Aught Seven”
MW: This poem reads so viciously. It’s all the right moves. I like all the colors, too: black, red, blue, white. This is also technically the middle poem in the book, and again there’s the invocation of seven in the title, so that’s pretty amazing, too.
MS: The poems in this section are the punk poems. Like punk when you think of fuck, man, and the poems in this section are also anthems, too. They’re waving their flags and standing up for what they believe and what they want to say and not giving a fuck.
And the end is a kind of refutation of all the tight, catchy endings of the poems previously in the book. It’s a messy kind of fuck you. “& I don’t mean / to fuck anyone / over // but / I can’t be clever / all the time.” I love that it feels like it gives up on the end of a poem.
MW: Yeah, he’s saying he’s not a fucking dancing monkey. It embraces that punk notion of sometimes it’s just about yelling as fast and as loud as you can.
MS: I also think of these poems as pop songs, too. They’re catchy. So the poems are working with both of these elements. How do you fit the noise in with the catchiness? How do you turn these poems into a Jesus and Mary Chain song? How can you add mess and feedback to really tight poems that are short and punchy and get you immediately?
“Turn Off My Face” MW: This poem is all noise.
MS: I remember when he brought this poem into Dara Wier’s workshop. I don’t think anyone was confused but maybe just surprised. It was really funny. It’s like the poem that’s unanticipated from the rest of the book in terms of its style even though it fits in the same universe as the other poems and within the same constellation of obsessions.
MW: I saw this for the first time in La Petite Zine and I was like, oh my God this fucking gold. This is Ben Kopel at his purest. It’s an amazing pop punk song. There’s so much Ramones in this with the “gimme gimme.” I just watched that crappy Ramones movie way too many times when I was young with all those weird, slow punk love songs.
MS: It’s a total weird, slow punk love song. That’s a perfect way to say it.
MW: This poem pulls in so many of his influences and just leaves them in that language. It doesn’t try to transcribe them into the language of poem. It’s just “bang zap bang.” I just see an old Batman fight. The poem is so tight but the language is so messy. This poem is a total dance party, too. He directly references a mosh pit and a circle pit. This is what I think about from the first stanza, that this is about being in a pit and just losing it. There’s a famous Iggy Pop interview on some British TV show where he’s talking about the influence of music and he asks says the interviewer, “When the power of music hits you, it’s so overpowering and so overwhelming that you can’t feel anything and you don’t want to.” That’s what I think of when I read this poem. When you’re a pit and you’re getting the shit kicked out of you and you’re kicking the shit out of people, you don’t feel it, you don’t think about, you don’t hear anything except the music. It’s like this poem is perfect. That’s the turning off of your face—losing yourself in music.
“Academy Fight Sonnet”
MS: It must have been interesting to figure out what poem will follow “Turn Off My Face” in the book. How do you get out of that poem? How do you exit? And “Academy Fight Song” seems like the perfect way with its repetition of “You can… You can… You can…” and by the fact that’s it’s a sonnet and we’ve seen sonnets before. Like, “Now we’re back to our regularly scheduled program!” But he’s easing us out carefully.
The poems brings up the split between the mind and the body again at the end when he riffs on The Smiths “Still Ill,” saying, “Does the body rule the mind or / does the mind rule the body? / I don’t care.” Morrissey says, “I don’t know” but Ben says, “I don’t care,” which is better because it doesn’t matter. It’s all just one song.
“Do You Want New Sincerity or Do You Want the Truth?”
MS: This poem is interesting because the lines, “the china / shop inside / the bull” and “the bird / house inside / the bird” both have the same qualities as “The world changes us” from “A Map is a Place is a Thing.” They’re both inversions of common sayings. And the poem is also referencing Dean Young’s idea that as poets, we don’t build birdhouses, we build birds. But I also love that the poem ends with the lines, “still alone / alone & still / singing” because after all that’s come before you just have yourself. Going back to “Ciao Mein, Morning Star”—which is the Rosetta stone of this book—when the girl is gone and you’re alone, you still have to sing because if you don’t you’re fucked.
MW: Whenever I hear that line “bird / house inside / the bird” I think of “Bird House in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants.
MS: I think of Kafka’s aphorism, “A cage went in search of a bird.”
MW: I also really like, “Fuck, man / here I stand / punchdrunk” because it’s coming after these two previous poems and the speaker’s still punchdrunk and squibbed.
MS: There’s that great scene in Punch Drunk Love where Adam Sandler’s character goes to Hawaii after this girl he’s into and he finds her hotel and they’re making out on the bed, and he’s like, “I’m looking at your face and I just want to smash it. I just want to smash with a sledgehammer.” And she’s like, “I want to scoop out your eyes and suck on them.” And he’s like, “Okay. This is funny. This is nice.” It’s perfect.
MW: These poems are totally like Ben taking the corded phone and running to go beat up somebody.
(End of Part Four)
* 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.