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
“Why I Am Not a Tiger” & “Why I Am Not a Tiger [version]” & “There is a Question I Am Forever Waiting to Be Asked”
Matthew Suss (MS): When he says, “bring what you have inside you,” I think immediately back to “Like a Song Unsung” where he ends it saying, “If we are / ever to be together // you must walk out of this matinee with my head held // high above you while // there’s still some daylight left outside of you.” And then there’s, “there’s no light machinery inside me,” which makes me think of the “brainy motor” in “Frank Stanford Sonnet.” There’s none of this inside of me, “no hive / & no honey. // No academy. Nothing like the tiger we found / in the center of the city.” This is a pretty sad poem. You need to help save me now, the speaker’s saying, “We have a wedding to get to… bring what you have inside you” because I don’t have shit left inside of me, and that’s pretty sad and makes the speaker sad, too. It’ interesting that he says, “I have twenty-two muscles in my smile” because it makes me think, why say that? Why say there are twenty-two muscles in your smile. All the sort of work that goes into making a smile that if you think of it like that it seems impossible to ever smile. There are twenty-two muscles involved in making a smile.
Mike Wall (MW): Then it’s followed by the line, “I am never lonely,” which feels sinister to me. The speaker is thinking of the muscles in his smile, and it makes me think that he’s working out his muscles and always smiling, and the more you smile the more people like you.
MS: But there’s nothing behind the smile—or what you think is behind the smile isn’t there. There’s no “light machinery” inside, it’s all empty and hollow gestures.
And “Why I Am Not a Tiger [version]” reprises the kitten from the cat torturing in “Poem Strapped to the Radiator for Making Too Much Racket,” and the many connections with the previous “Why I Am Not a Tiger.”
MW: I like how this poem is looking into the future. “& if I could see myself at thirty / I would tell him / I will be good soon. Alright?” Because it’s looking into the future and he’s telling himself in the future that he’ll be good. Why does his future self need to know that? And he answers himself from the future, and says, “Alright.”
MS: And the fact that he’s saying “if I could see myself at thirty”—which isn’t that far off in the future, which makes the poem even funnier—how do you see yourself even next year? It’s impossible to know. What do you make of the tiger is doing in the poem? I always think of the first poem in James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk called “New Blood,” where the characters find a huge lizard drinking out of a fountain in the middle of the city. And it ends, “‘It’s like a different town,’ one of them whispered. ‘Change is good,’ the other one whispered back.” It’s like there’s some new blood in the city, and that idea of “Change is good” makes me think of the “Why I Am Not a Tiger” poems. Having that exotic element introduced into something, and the tiger feels really out of place.
MW: And the tiger’s at the center of the city and whenever I picture a fountain I picture the center of a city. So it’s like this other element that’s foreign and different and is causing a change to happen. And when I hear about a tiger in a poem—especially in the title of a poem, I always think of Blake, and the tiger’s “fearful symmetry,” which is interesting to think about when seeing two versions of the poem back to back. But the tiger in both Blake and these poems is this unknowable creature that can destroy us.
MS: The tiger is being associated with the academy, the light machinery, and the hive and the honey, right?
MW: If you think of these things as negations, the speaker is hollow, and the tiger is then full of light machinery, it has a hive and honey. You don’t know the speaker, who’s putting on this fake smile over and over working his twenty-two muscles, but with a tiger, you look at it and you immediately know what it is. It’s going to eat you.
MS: The tiger is also really beautiful because it’s a tiger and because it’s in the center of the city. Seeing a tiger in the city would be one of those uncanny moments. There’s a kind of surprising awe but also that terror, which is also the same as God in “Frank Stanford Sonnet.” The tiger is filled with bloody light—or even the bird from “There is a Question I Am Forever Waiting to Be Asked” whose heart is true and nothing like the speakers. You know what you’re getting with animals to a certain extent. There’s a great scene in All the Real Girls where Paul Schneider’s character is drunk at a bar and he sees one of his ex-girlfriend’s because this is a really small town and he’s slept with every girl and every girl hates him, and then have a drunk conversation, and he tells this story about how he once saw birds flying in a V and all the birds just smash into a building. And he’s like, “Have you ever seen an animal make a mistake? I did.” Animals are so true to their nature because they don’t have things that complicate their nature like humans. The bird’s “heart is true / & nothing like mine,” which is kind of sad but really amazing. Amazing because your heart can be broken and you can fuck up and make mistakes and fail and doubt yourself whereas as bird can’t do that because its heart is true.
MW: That sounds like a criticism on the speaker of “There is a Question I Am Forever Waiting to Be Asked,” too, because he’s fucked up and fucked but change is possible.
MS: Unlike the bird who only has one wing and whose heart is true. If you’re heart isn’t true and you’re fucked up, you can go at least somewhere from there whereas the bird is stuck in that attic with one wing, being a bird forever. The speaker can become something else. It can be nothing like that bird. And it can be nothing like the tiger.
MW: It’s interesting that the speaker also builds a toy coffin from the bones of “your hands” and “What I bury / stays buried. // What I see / we’ve seen.” It’s like when we were talking earlier about the most fucked up thing we’ve seen on the Internet. It’s something you will never escape. It’s forever seared into your mind. It’s a part of you.
MS: “We live the way we live,” the speaker says in a “A Map is a Place is a Thing,” and it’s all about coming to grips with who you are. I is what I is.
MW: This really resonates with the speaker talking to himself in the future in “Why I Am Not a Tiger [version]” because there’s no point of talking to yourself in the past.
“One Poem Three Times”
MS: This poem goes really nicely with the poems before this—wanting that change, wanting to be that tiger at the center of the city, to be the lizard with the red tongue, trancing everybody out, and drinking from the fountain without regard to anybody, just doing it for yourself and your own thirst. Not wanting to be that bird with the heart that’s true but totally wanting to be that bird. This poem aches for something to be different but also to a return to the ecstatic state of the poems at the beginning of the book.
MW: In the previous section, those poems are nostalgic and there’s a sense of wanting to stay. But in this section it’s saying it’s time to move on. I hate this place; it’s time to leave. And it’s a really smart and effective penultimate section. This book seems to build upon itself and each section changes in a different way, and the previous section is about longing to stay young, this section is a total refusal of that nostalgia for youth.
“Elegy for Lester Bangs”
MS: It’s really interesting to end a section with an elegy for someone who is such a beacon for music, such a huge bloody light. To end this section with an elegy for him is really bittersweet because it’s like saying a kind of goodbye to an era and welcoming the start of a new one. I mean, the beach is breaking free “up from under / the concrete.”
MW: There’s no future for the punks, and hopefully every punk rocker eventually realizes the futility of that notion or at least how much it also excludes. In order to embrace a greater sense of music and living, you have to lose your sense of idol worship and lyrics that are mostly written half-heartedly by teenagers who are pissed off and hormonal. I mean, they’re great songs but in the end you can’t base your life off of them. And this poem is like a Lester Bangs review because it starts off about music but then ends in a completely different space. It ends up at the movies.
MS: The most interesting image in the poem is “the high beams / inside the stag / will shine / on and on” because again, like the china shop inside the bull, he’s inverting a common idea. Instead of the high beams being on the stag or outside of it, they’re coming from within the stag itself. It’s the stag’s light machinery or it’s bloody light.
MW: So it’s like the moment of death is eternal.
MS: Which is a really beautiful way of saying that your work will live on, Lester.
MW: And the ending is great because it says, “I would rather die / at the movies / than in one.” I’d rather be a participant in the art than in one—a participant rather than a movie star, whom I think are husks of people, they’re not real and people worship them because they’re attractive. And so this stanza is great to me because I love movies and I love engaging with movies and watching them with friends and talking about it. That seems way more exciting and fun than actually being in a movie because if you die in a movie theater, you’re living your life and you really die and it’s better to really die than fake die.
MS: Because then you’re death has real meaning. Hopefully.
MS: First while thinking about coyotes, there’s the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, who is always dying over and over. If you die in the movies you can die over and over, and get another chance. That’s one of the great things about the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote: it goes on forever, it’s infinite. He’s invincible because he fails every time.
MW: It’s also another conjuring of Sisyphus.
MS: Or writing a poem. If you fail at this one, just write another one. Just try again. You’re always chasing the people you love that you fail to live up or you’re chasing this ineffable thing you can’t catch because it’s the thing that’s always in front of you.
MW: I like how that notion is doubled in this poem by the mundane shit that the coyote has to put up with, that all of us have to put up with. You have to audition and be gracious and catch a fucking bus when you’ve still got this goddamn pipe inside you and you’re embarrassed and you’re bumping into people and the radioactive boy has to come to your rescue. And then there’s the King Arthur just interspersed in the poem.
MW: I like to think to the coyote isn’t invincible. I mean, the crowd’s cheering but the boy’s whispering to him at the end, and those can be like the last words as if he’s dying. “You are something so beautiful. / You belong in one of those / Technicolor landscapes / my ancestors dreamed up.” I like how the Technicolor landscapes are from ancestors.
MS: Because Looney Tunes feels ancestral—it feels like so long ago.
MW: It’s like a part of our inherited culture. It’s something that came before us.
MS: That desert landscape and the Bugs Bunny forest are real.
So to be invincible is also to die in a weird way, which is another Zen thing to say. To live is to die. And then there’s The Simpsons in here, too with the radioactive boy— Milhouse plays the sidekick of Radioactive Man, Fallout Boy in the episode where they’re filming the Radioactive Man movie—and the nuclear reactor but also the coyote from Homer’s hallucination when he eats the hot chili pepper. It’s his spirit animal.
To be a “good cartoon” is to have a shadow, which totally goes back to the poems in the previous section. In “Why I Am Not a Tiger [version],” the speaker says, “I will be good soon. Alright? // Alright.” And at the end of “Deep Cut,” he says, “good boy.” This idea of being good is important here. To be a good cartoon is to have dimension.
MW: You have to have worth in order to receive depth to cast a shadow.
MS: The radioactive boy in here is a superhero. He redeems and salvages the coyote. And I mean, the whole thing is—and I hadn’t thought about this until you mentioned the boy whispering the last words to the dying coyote—it’s such a comfort for the coyote to die, and to have someone say those words to someone as they’re dying.
MW: That ending really reminds me of “After Party” and the Five Happiness Buffet, where he whispers “happiness” five times. The whispering—to himself—is comfort.
MS: You have to rip the black dog out of your ribs and kick it until it’s dead before you can give it somebody. It has to be dead to make that transition from you to someone else is like killing part of it. It’s a sacrifice. You can’t give it to them alive. It has to die before it can bloom hollyhocks. I guess that’s what the writing of a poem is if you think about it in a really Romantic—like a really decadently Romantic way—it’s something you give of yourself entirely, and you have to kill it before you can do that, before it becomes Art, which is invincible and immortal—again in that really Romantic way. So the coyote is killed and finally he gets to rest in peace without having to keep chasing that fucking Road Runner. There are so many hours of the Road Runner… it goes on forever.
MW: There’s this movie with Weird Al called UHF and Michael Richards is in it and he plays this crazy janitor, and he gets this Public Access TV show and Weird Al introduces this cartoon—he’s destitute at this point in the movie—and he just goes on and on about how the Road Runner is like this evil tormentor of this terribly downtrodden, pitiful coyote. The language he uses is so great and he screams most of it. It’s this sadistic Road Runner who repeatedly mocks and maims this helpless coyote and he’s screaming into the camera and there are kids sitting behind the camera. But yeah, it’s this never-ending cycle of the coyote being tormented.
MS: And so in this poem, the coyote is given his redemption after he’s maimed by this pipe. The boy then pulls it out like it’s the sword in the stone, to applause, and the coyote’s sighing, “Finally, it’s over. I don’t have to be disfigured all the time—I don’t have to be a bird with one wing.” And going back to the mission of this whole book and to the epigraphs: “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.” The coyote loses at the beginning of this poem but then he’s victorious at the end in a strange because he continues to suffer. He transforms then into something else after he’s dead. In the end, he’s one of the coyote skulls that’s tied around the speakers neck in the last poem in the book, “Amen.” He’s a talisman then. The coyote skull is the talisman that contains and gives you the power to keep going in the face of something that you can’t achieve or destroy or defeat.
(End of Part Six)
* 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.