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
“The Day the Ambulance Came”
Matthew Suss (MS): The previous poems in the book have a sort of abandon to them where they just don’t give a fuck. A recklessness. And then you get to this poem, things touchdown in a really different way. This is like the real talk section of the book. And part of the power of this poem is what it’s next to and what comes before it. The difference is so stark and yet it still retains that personal mythology—“The Day the Ambulance Came” and “The Day I Wrote You Off.” These days become monumental moments. This poem feels really direct and addressing a person whereas many of the other poems don’t feel this way.
Mike Wall (MW): It’s definitely describing a “he” to an amazing degree. It’s a really careful poem. There’s none of the grand pronouncements from the poems in the previous section.
MS: Even when he says, “The bed is his brain,” that comes off really different than, “God is not an organ.” This is a really quiet poem. The book’s dynamics go up and down. I love books that are consistently one thing but this book goes up and down.
The poem gets so weird and kind of grotesque at the end with, “Sophomore / skinned daughters of the cul-de-sac trot // the pavement, pitiless of the architect of those ugly / new houses, watching from a window, his pervert suit / shining like a motorcade of headlights.” The phrase “his pervert suit” is totally hilarious but also totally pathetic in a way you can’t control. I see it as a full body cast or someone who is paralyzed and they can’t move, so you’re just placed in front a window and you can’t help but watch everything go by. The loudness is its content, not its style like the previous poems.
MS: This is another totally quiet poem that makes itself really insistent by including the word “awkward” in almost every stanza. This is another poem that sort of hints at what’s behind it. You don’t really know what’s going on with the detectives in the poem. You either feel like you’re not in on something or that there’s something more to it that you’re reading to figure out. This is a very specific story that is being told through impressions.
MW: I don’t know what the detectives are doing either because there doesn’t seem to be a crime committed. I think of the detectives more as the readers of the poem trying to make sense of the awkwardness. A crime or an accident. Something happened.
MS: The poems in this section I feel like they’re talking around something in hushed tones. There’s something at the center of these poems that’s not being said.
MW: I just think of Steve Albini throughout this with his whole punk rock ethos that everything is to further and is only a part of your love for music. Like using your student loan money to buy a stereo to listen to music. And “the drum machines // never sounded / sweeter / than they did // coming out / from over the radio.” Big Black used a drum machine. My friends in high school all used drum machines to record because no one played drums. Mostly I think of Big Black when I hear drum machines though. This poem is a snapshot of a kid in undergrad.
MS: The poems in this section are dealing directly with death in a way that is less abstract than poems from the beginning of the book like “Final Boy” and “Final Girl,” which deal with death in a more imaginary, fantastical way. And the language, too, is more overflowing and keeps going and keeps making all these clever connections. The poems in this section have sobered up. They’re not punchdrunk anymore.
“Blue Heart Plastic”
MS: Hospitals feel so fake because they don’t look or feel like any other place. Because when you’re there, you’re taken out of reality it’s like you’re put onto a TV show. It’s just so foreign. And the idea here is that every one in the poem is an actor and the whole situation takes on the absurdity of a comedy or the melodramatic tragedy one of those dumb hospital dramas. “Burn Victim #4 and I fight like kid sisters / and drop the script before I even have a chance / to show her the house I grew up in.” And even though this poem is a weird narrative, it’s also the impression of when you’re in a hospital for a long time it feels like this is the only place you’ve ever been. He says, “Was I born in a room just like this one,” have I known anything beyond the people who are in here with me?
So I don’t know. I construct out the little details from this section what happened: something involving a spinal injury that has paralyzed this person. And I like that each of these poems in this section don’t explain exactly what happened. To explain what happened would just miss the point. You have to write these poems around this trauma. Because what happened isn’t really important, what’s important is how it’s dealt with. “I’m not young but I am fine and I can / twist my spine just so.” It’s about being thankful for what you have, and the next three poems are so beautiful and radiant because of this.
“The Street Sonnet”
MS: This sonnet is a prayer. Or it’s like the song before the last song on an album that’s like a big build up towards the end. It’s contains the most plaintive moments while it also uses the language of a fairy tale, “And if this world were a vein the boy and girl / would belong inside this vein that is the world. / Inside the vein there would be blood and the boy / and the girl and they could be alone inside of the world.”
MW: It also sounds like logic proofs to me. If A then B then if A and B then C and if A and B and C then ABC.
MS: I love that at the end, “My heart becomes the street the night.” These poems become not a monument but a witness to whatever this all is. Because, “The world won’t be a girl / in the street at night until my heart becomes the street.” There’s that conscious effort, the realization that the speaker can make something happen. It’s like magic. It’s like a spell. This poem is conjuring something through its incantations and then it makes it happen at the end because you can do that in a poem. A poem is a poem, it’s not life.
“Teenage Victory Poem”
MS: This is a perfect poem to end this section because it’s returning to a memory. It’s like when you read a story that has all its events in the present and then it goes back in time and leaves you something to remember and allow you to connect that memory with the present of the story. This poem ends this section on a similar note. It goes back to some of the reckless abandon of the previous poems in the book.
MW: But this one blends it well because it’s slower and there’s a melancholy behind this piece. But maybe it’s also the realization that the characters have that their actions significantly affect their future. Their youth is fading and they’re growing up. There’s this great juxtaposition where the father comes into the poem—“spilling their paperwork across their pornography / while her father woke up across the city / just in time to green the garbage men.” That’s so fucking sad. Young kids fucking and they’re slowly becoming their parents. Their parents wake up early enough to bring the garbage out to the garbage men. It’s the two things: young and wild or old and mundane.
MS: The previous poems in this section are like a night and this poem is dawn. And I love how the story is told not narratively but through impressions. I totally get the sense from the beginning—you hear crickets at night—and it’s like moving through this night. But then “Teenage Victory Poem” is seeing the sun after fucking all night. I think about any night when you’re up all night and you see the sun and that sun is lonesome.
MW: I also see the opening of The Simpsons there, too, with the nuclear reactor. This poem definitely feels like a transition out of this and into a new section.
MS: The way it’s told is very careful and sober. There are no fireworks in this poem.
MW: I think this poem really honestly talks about sex. I don’t know if the other ones directly address sex the way this one does. This poem uses sex in the normal ways of loss of youth as well. It’s like sex is the act that most people experience that’s the turning point from children into adults, and it’s definitely in this poem. So this poem just seems like a huge transition in this book. In the poems before youth was wild and crazy and it was all anticipatory. And in this poem the sex is actualized and it’s like oh shit, what do we do now. It becomes way more complicated after sex becomes realized.
MS: It’s the same thing with death, too. When you haven’t experienced someone close to you dying, you can’t anticipate that or how it’s going to change. You can’t anticipate how sex is going to change you or change your relationship.
MW: And this poem can also be about death with this line, “the six-pack rings wrapped around / their wrists shocking the sleeping salesmen.” If you wanted to read it, you could read as if they were slitting their wrists. A kind of Romeo and Juliet thing. “The two of them made some great / noises together.” Or not anymore!
MS: This poem makes me think of that movie All the Real Girls. It just has that golden feeling to it of the lonesome sun rising over the local nuclear reactor. Perfect.
“There is a Question I Am Forever Waiting to Be Asked”
MW: This is the first time he uses the word “bird” in the book. It’s not the first bird—in “Frank Stanford Sonnet” there is a hawk and a starling—but it’s the first unnamed bird.. I feel like being part of the contemporary poetry world you have to encounter birds, it’s forced upon you for some reason. So I consciously avoid using birds if my poems, and if I do include a bird in a poem, I cut it out. I have only other animals like wolves, which come up a lot. And animals I like to see are like crocodiles and rhinoceros and Alligators.
MS: What animals are in this book?
MW: The black dog in “After Party”; crickets and cicadas.
MS: Squirrel skulls. Foxes. Dogs. The tiger. And the coyote at the end of the book.
MW: I really how concise and fulfilling—self-fulfilling—each part of the poem is. You get to the end of the stanza and it’s mostly like a complete, and then the next stanza builds upon that. And you get to the end and it’s so triumphant.
MS: It’s a kind of resigned poem. “When my enemies / decode this / it should only say / good boy.” It’s nice to come back to the decoding that’s happening in “Ciao Mein, Morning Star.” We keep coming back to that poem but I think it’s because it contains all the DNA of this book.
MW: I love the title “Deep Cut,” too. It’s hilarious to me because “deep cut” is a reference to songs on records that nobody likes or they don’t play on the radio but they’re still amazing. The true fans really like. But there are so many jokes about listening to deep cuts on records that’s just intrinsically hilarious to me now. And so the title just evokes happiness when I see it and this poem just fucking kills. And it’s a buildup poem, too. I love the ending because it’s just like a fuck you to everyone else. I just think of someone with a rubric trying to decode something and they finally get it and it mocks them for taking so long to get to this. What you want to find, you’re not going to find.
MS: In Ben’s thesis he has this section where he explains where all the poems come from, and I remember telling him that one of my dreams is to see videos of porn stars eating candy, and he’s like I’m totally writing that poem, and he dedicated it to me in his thesis, and I love it for that connection but I love it for lines like, “May my greatest hits / be written in vaseline.” That’s one way I want to feel after I’ve written a poem.
MS: It’s interesting how many poems in this book are dedicated to people or written about people. In the last section of the book there is, “For Robbie” and “Clayton Allyn,” and there’s “Elegy for Lester Bangs” and “John Berryman Drunk Dial,” “Frank Stanford Sonnet,” and “Confessional Poem for Mark Leidner to Read.” The Acknowledgement page at the end of the book just sort of keeps going with this and contextualizes these poems even further. All the names of people who are important living or dead are together and are all part of the same constellation, which feels like there’s no other way.
MW: So many people separate their influences. Like, “My influences are…” and it’s just this litany of authors. And then they say, “I’d like to thank my family and friends.” It’s like, no, those people are all the same. You don’t need to split up famous people from your family and friends. If you loved their work, it should be your family and friends.
“Poem Strapped to the Radiator for Making Too Much Racket”
MS: Thinking about this section and the affinities these poems have, the previous poems in this section are really impressionistic: give an image and let it stand on its own. “Fat boy broke / his leg chasing / the ice cream truck” It’s like a haiku, you know. This is like the haiku section of the book bringing back the Zen poetics from earlier in the book.
MW: These poems feel like some sort of dark meditation where he’s getting away from the “I”—I mean, the “I” is still present but it’s not the same “I”—there’s more distance. Before the “I” was vulnerable, but in these poems the “I” is untouchable.
MS: The poems in the section before totally change the poems that have come after. These poems in these last two sections again feel really different than the total, crazy energy of the beginning. They’re darker and colored by death. It’s interesting that ice cream shows up here again. In “Because We Must,” the burned down Dairy Queen was dealing with death in a kind of positive way—how do we make something good from this terrible situation—whereas this poem ends with torturing cats. There’s no light.
MW: It’s interesting that this poem is called “Poem Strapped to the Radiator for Making Too Much Racket.” It’s making too much noise and it needs to be punished.
MS: Yeah, it’s subdued. It’s another quiet poem that isn’t showing off like the poems at the beginning of the book do in a way with their pyrotechnic check out this shit language.
(End of Part Five)
* 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.