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
MS: These poems now are for people who are alive. And they’re not in the past tense. This is a totally optimistic poem and it’s very pretty—“the click and ah / of the air conditioner”—it’s like that sigh, the coyote’s sigh, “gives him hope / for a better tomorrow / in America.” This poem is looking towards the future. This poem is so pure.
MW: An air conditioner to me is like a luxury item.
MS: It’s a miracle.
MW: Like on those really hot days and you’re totally drained, you get into your car and you feel disgusting and you’re at that point where you’re like this day is sick and I want to die, and your turn on your car and the cool air blows on you and you’re okay again.
MS: Or I remember when I was young, you’d just go to the movie theater to get out of the horrible humidity and heat. I associate movies with like total comfort. Like a blanket. If it’s a movie, it makes me feel safe. Any movie I watch makes me feel safe. Even if it’s the most horrible thing, this is really comforting because it’s been shaped and created and there’s a beginning and an end and I can watch it again and I can live in this world.
And then “the possibility / of a Dixie cup / filled with water / from a Japanese glacier” is totally Zen, too. This is maybe the most directly Zen moment in the book. It’s not just any kind of glacier; it’s a Japanese glacier. It couldn’t be a Greenland glacier; it’s got to be Japanese. It has to tap that haiku tradition on the shoulder.
MW: And the Dixie cup is always the right amount of water.
MS: Something huge in a small space. Like all these poems are referring also to the writing of poems: a poem is a small place to put big shit. Because you can fit anything into a poem, right? I mean this poem is eleven really short lines and it’s like fucking Shakespeare, man. Like when Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.” That’s like writing a poem or existing inside a body. Like your brain isn’t that big and yet it contains God and all consciousness.
“No Surrender Sonnet”
MS: Here the sonnet begins to open out. The other sonnets are closed while this one is in couplets. There’s more breathing space between the lines, and again it starts with “&,” which makes me think this poem is just a continuation—like the Road and Coyote—of what’s come before and it’s not a beginning or an end, it’s always in the middle, always happening. And when he says, “There are pieces of someone all over // the highway & still Frankie Lymon sings / about something called love.” You still have to sing—like Brecht says in one his plays, “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing / About the dark times.” You have to do it anyway to keep going.
MW: And sometimes you hurt the people you love.
MS: I love the end of this poem, too: “shanty-town, shanty-town, shanty-town” invoking Eliot’s shantih mantra at the end of “The Wasteland,” which is calling forth peace but in a different way, calling “this place / by its one true name,” it’s one true nature.
MW: I really love the lines, “Reaching back // into the back seat to hit me hard & / to see my face & to know my number” because that threat was always hilarious to me and I never understood it but I loved it when people would say, “I’ve got your number.”
MS: It’s a total Ben Kopel move to say “to know my number” and then to say, “so we can call this place by its own true / name—shanty-town, shanty-town, shanty-town.” The language is working on multiple levels. That’s a hallmark of his poems in this book.
“Suburban Field Recordings”
MW: This is a great friend-poem. I love “Field Commander Kopel” here. He just doesn’t hide. He’s like well, here are the people I love and here are their names and here is me.
MS: Again, the end here is really great where he says, “and he swore to St. Julee on his stepbrother’s / biography to fail each day closer to the bone than he / began, with a flare gun shoved in his sock and his hand / stuck in the till.” To take that risk as if you’re always on the way out with something valuable, that you’re trying to get away with it.
MW: But he swore to fail and his hand is stuck in the till. He can’t get it out. It’s stuck in the way you can’t get it out but it’s also stuck in the way that it’s always there. You’re always stealing and trying to get away with something.
MS: It’s like in that episode of The Simpsons when Homer promises to take Marge to the opera but he’s at work and he tries to get this soda from a vending machine that’s not giving it up, and so he reaches in and he grabs it and then he gets stuck. So he’s there for a while and he manages to get on the phone and call Marge and then he sees a candy bar in the other vending machine and the same thing happens and he gets both hands stuck. Then the fire department comes and they say, “Sir, did you trying letting go of the candy?” And he’s like, “No.” And then he tries letting go and he’s able to get free. The only reason he was stuck was because he was hanging on. The whole desire is to just hang on. You become stuck because you want it so much and that his hand is in the till because he wants it, and he want give it. No surrender. Which is a great way to almost end the book. It’s great that the book doesn’t end here or that this even the penultimate poem because this poem is like a pageant with costumes and characters. It’s been fashioned where everyone are themselves but something else, too. I think of this poem like when Charlie Brown dresses up for Thanksgiving or puts on a play. They’re themselves but heightened also to a mythical level: Zack the Lion and St. Julee.
“Song of Joy Sonnet”
MS: There is the eternal optimism of these poems but then you can’t forget the poems that came before this in the section starting with “The Day the Ambulance Came.” The “spine so soft” comes back and I love that this poem is right here before the end of the book. If you end this book with a poem like “No Surrender Sonnet,” it would not feel right. Like if these two sonnets were switched it would be a negation of the things that came before, like, “Oh we made it past that. We survived.” That’s not how it works.
MW: To forget the mistakes of the past dooms you to repeat them.
MS: And this poem reprises the playful language from the poems at the beginning of the book. “I stand disco-napped, tagged and bagged.”
MW: And there’s another instance of a numeric sigil here, too, with the “twenty- / eight chambers pumping seven quarts of blood.” There’s a hyphen after “twenty,” which makes the last line of the second stanza, “eight chambers pumping seven quarts of blood.” And I like how eight becomes seven here. The seven is brought back into the end because he gets away from it for a little bit in the poems before. But it’s reprised here.
MS: I see the end of this poem—“You will wake up and / you will run. You will run and you will rise. / Like the sun. Like a star. A nova. An idiot”—as a prayer or a spell.
MW: It’s extremely hopeful.
MS: Sort of. It seems like it’s hopeful but if you think about the previous poems—there’s some kind of spine issue—“no back should be born with a spine so soft.” So you can think of the spinal injury as literal or that your backbone or nerve gets broken.
MW: And this book is sort of like that where the “I” gets broken throughout. The “I” is battered and at times sounds broken but there is a rebuilding and a rise. There’s a constant fight to get up back like the invincible coyote.
MS: Or it’s like that Chumbawumba drinking song, “Tubthumpin’” that just endlessly repeat, “I get knocked down but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down…”
The thing about this poem, too, is the prayer is towards an “ill friend.” So he’s saying, you will wake up; you have to. It’s so insistent that it wants this rise to happen. “You will wake up and / you will run. You will run and you will rise.” It’s like we’re in church.
MW: I know this is terribly but I just see Forrest Gump running and his shackles are breaking off and flying off and he runs across America a thousand times or whatever. Like an idiot. Again, this poem is just this joyful praise and prayer and hope that we get up and rise and that we’re a star and a nova and we’re an idiot. It doesn’t fucking matter. I get up every day and psyche myself up to go to my shitty job so that it will end and they will give me money, and that money I can use to buy things like I love like movies and poetry books. And I will rise like a star and accomplish nothing like an idiot. That’s life. That’s what everybody does. But you have to say these things to yourself.
MS: I love that he’s saying “you” and not “I” here. He’s telling his ill friend, which is the same as saying it to yourself, too. You do.
MW: His ill friend could be Robbie turning on his car and the air conditioner, hoping for Japanese glacier water in his Dixie cup but instead getting in an accident and breaking his spine, and then he has to be told to rise like Lazarus.
MS: Amen with a period is a perfect way for this book to end.
“When I die / I will die // Escaping / Nearly blooming”—almost brave but not quite blooming. Not like the dog from “After Party” that blooms into hollyhocks, which is interesting because then the dog stuck inside his ribs is purer than himself. It’s like a parasite or something that’s feeding off you and you’re feeding. It’s a growth. It isn’t you but it’s part of you and it contains parts of you. So he himself “nearly blooming” and then the Technicolor landscape comes back with the “methane / Fed sunset.”
MW: I didn’t realize how much smell is in this poem. And then the sunset as if the sun is heating the methane. And then “Straight past / The slaughterhouse.” It’s also cinematic, which is a call back to “Elegy for Lester Bangs,” when he says he’d rather die at the movies than in one, and this one is “When I die / I will die // Escaping…” “Cinematic.” This poem—and it’s ending—also reminds me of “Like a Song Unsung” when he says, “I hid the rest of their bones behind the / school…” and in this one he’s fine with the audience seeing him for who he is. It’s cinematic and he’s good with wearing “A pillowcase / Full of coyote skulls / Tied loose” around his neck even.
MS: He’s wearing it proudly like a medal. This is what you win when you win. You win a pillowcase full of coyote skulls.
MW: And they’re not internalized like the squirrel skulls in his head in “Like a Song Unsung.” They’re worn around the neck. Nothing has to be hidden anymore. Everything is externalized. It’s almost a movie—it’s cinematic, it’s meant to be watched.
If I had a pillowcase full of coyote skulls, I’d show them off. Because it seems like an award like to a hunter. Like Predator with the skulls that are trophies.
MS: So these skulls could be your friends that you carry around or your enemies.
MS: And yeah, it has a sort of pathetic aspect to it, too. I mean, like I’ve experienced all this and all I get is this dumb t-shirt—I live my life and all I get is a pillowcase full of coyote skulls. So it’s like that’s all, right? Yeah, that’s all, but that’s enough.
(End of Part Seven)
* 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.