Kai Carlson-Wee on the Beauty of Not Really Knowing Who You Are
Kai Carlson-Wee was born and raised on the Minnesota prairie. His poems have appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Linebreak, Forklift Ohio, and Best New Poets 2010. He currently lives in San Francisco, California, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
Well, I try not to say I’m a poet. I try to avoid it. I say I’m a skater. Or I say I’m a teacher. Or that I spend my time looking out windows at trees. You know, it’s funny, but this question actually makes me very nervous. I mean, I’ve been writing seriously since I was 19 years old, and I’m 30 years old now, so that’s 11 years of writing, but it’s only been the last year-and-a-half that I’ve actually been able to call myself a writer. I don’t know why this is. I mean, what makes it so painful for a poet to admit that they spend their days looking at trees? Saying you’re a poet has all these romantic connotations, you know, and every time I tell someone I’m a writer I see this film-roll of judgment start playing itself out in their brains. They think you’re a poser. A self-ordained dandy. One of those faux intellectual hipsters who hangs around coffee shops quoting from Blake — “To see the world in a grain of sand” — that sort of thing. I don’t know, perhaps it’s a symptom of a larger disease.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
By far, my biggest struggle has been mental illness. At least in my 20’s. Before that I was struggling against the cultural landscape of Fargo, North Dakota — a blighted contemptuous wasteland of flatness, and soybeans, and railroad dungeons, and wind. If you’ve ever seen the movie Fargo then you maybe get the picture. Maybe the absolute tip of the iceberg. I mean, people are so insanely violent up there, it’s absurd. But regardless of Fargo and the dread of the prairie, I had my first mental breakdown at age 17. Then, at 22, I had my second. It was a weird thing. I was walking across the footpath of the Washington Avenue Bridge (the same bridge Berryman jumped off in 1972), watching the tugboats and river below. I was talking to my friend about Pistachio ice cream (of all things) when suddenly I felt my ego collapse and my brain trickle down through the base of my skull like these glittering pieces of sand. For the next few weeks I could barely read books. When I picked up a newspaper the words danced around on the page. They wouldn’t stay still. It was like watching a swirl of gnats in the air. I was weirdly aware of how vacant my head was, how drafty and hollow my skull seemed to be.
I started seeing a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, which basically means that I go through a cyclical course of depression. I have a few years of normal, then one year of bad, usually precipitated by a serious mental breakdown. It’s like turning a speedboat propeller on inside your brain. Or, at other times, it’s like turning the bulk of your life (your feelings and memories, ego and dreams) into silver and delicate pieces of tin, then standing on the prow of an out-riding steamship and watching it all float away. Neutral Milk Hotel has a song called Two-Headed Boy that captures this nicely. But essentially, you begin to feel that there are two different people inside you, two different lives. One life of progress and one of defeat. Both are infected and torn in the body and chained to each other by fear.
I know this is figurative language I’m using, but I don’t want to make it seem cool. I don’t want to romanticize this stuff for a second. It leaves you feeling useless, unable to write or relate to things normally, socially awkward, selfish, barely able to leave your bed. I wouldn’t wish this kind of thing on anyone. But weirdly enough, and mostly in hindsight, it gives you a reason to write down the words, to value sanity, to value the normal procedural shifts of your brain. Because you realize how quickly your thoughts can dissolve, how fickle and precious a beautiful line really is. So in a way I suppose it can help with the writing, but only because of a shift in perspective, a contrast in feeling. Never the actual slog of depression itself.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I would say, Be careful what you wish for. Haha, no, I would probably say, Great, you are one of the lucky ones. I mean, I don’t want to act all indulgent and say that being a writer is any great thing. It isn’t. It sucks just as much as the next thing. I mean, you spend your days aimless and generally frustrated, blocked-up, staring out plate-glass windows in coffee shops, sitting around in your underwear, watching the tree shadows move on the glass. Nobody cares about your poems. Nobody stops to consider you sitting there, dutifully scribbling notes. Nervous, unsatisfied, desperate, lonesome, obsessed to the point of disease and regret. Usually stuck on a few troubled lines about childhood nobody cares if you get. You exist in a bubble, a dreamworld of boredom, and you spend your life nameless and working alone. Most people want to romanticize the writer. They want to say Whitman and Dickenson and Poe. They want it to be like the Beats in the ’50s, or the expats in Paris all drinking with Pablo and strolling the shores of the Seine. They want to invent a new language, be famous. But then they start actually doing the work. Day after day, they start sitting there lonely and watching their friends pass them by. So they start to get anxious, and they head off to law school, or med school, or whatever they head off to do.
I mean, in Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says that if you want to be a writer, you must ask yourself one thing and one thing only: Are you willing to die for this? Would you physically fail to live on this earth if the ability to write were withheld? If the answer is no, then you better find a day job. If the answer is yes, then you better get to work. I know this is paraphrase, and the advice is a little extreme, but there’s a reason that so many poets die young. There’s a reason that so many writers are drinkers, or crazies, or toeing the lee-side of sane. It’s because the work is difficult and painful, and you have to be willing to suffer like this — alone and obsessed with the past — to produce.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
The story of my family’s immigration to America is somewhat interesting. Both sides of my family come from Norway. On one side we were farmers and on the other side we were fishermen in the Lofoten Islands up north. Both sides were poor and both sides immigrated to the United States around 1903, in the wake of this terrible storm. Apparently, there was some sort of miniature hurricane that crashed down the coastline obliterating villages. Hundreds of people died, wreckage lay strewn on the beach, boardwalks were ruined and whole crews of fishermen drowned. On my mom’s side, the side that lived in the north, my great-great-great grandfather, Olaf, had gone out that day with his brother to fish. They sailed out into a stretch where the mackerel and cod liked to feed on the drift. They have these currents and funnel-type maelstroms up there. Rivers of flow underneath. I think they had drifted too far from shore when the storm-waves decided to hit. The clouds came down. The rain fell sideways in sheet-walls that blocked out the sun. I mean, the shit got intense. Crew ships were going down, people were clinging to oars. The boys’ boat got flipped over and the two of them were sitting there, clinging to the gunnel-wall, rising up, picturing death. And you gotta remember, they were just kids at this point. I think my great-great-great grandfather was 14 and his brother was 16, something like that. They were barely in high school, probably just having crushes and things. So you can imagine how crazy this scene must have been to them, even though they were apparently used to the sea and to fishing all day by themselves. But anyway, there they were, floating there, trying to decide what to do. The older brother said he would swim back for shore, try and get help. They saw an island nearby rising out of the foam. They could see it emerge. So he pushed off and swam back and never returned. He swam off in darkness and drowned. I mean, can you imagine that moment? Apparently my great-great-great grandfather got scooped up by a crew-ship that didn’t go down in the storm, and when he came back alive, to their town on the island, my great-great-great-great grandmother told him he needed to go to America, to seek out a new life, new opportunities, etc. So he was sent to America out of grief, which is the story of so many American immigrants: the hope for the future, the grief for the past. The whole thing was tragic and buoyed by some kind of mystical sense of belief. It was very American. And in a way also very Norwegian.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
No, not now. And I’m very proud of this. I was talking about this before, but I have Major Depressive Disorder, and every couple years I lose my mind and get depressed. Over the course of the last 10 years I’ve been on a whole slew of brand-name medications, including, but not limited to: Prozac, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Lexapro, Klonopin, Seroquel, Abilify, Ativan, Trazodone, Halcion, Sonata, Lorazepam, Valium, and a handful of naturals and offshoot generics. Some of them are for depression, others are for anxiety, insomnia, disassociation, things that they used to call demons or madness. Possession, perversion, ‘the blues.’ I mean, it’s funny, but the word melancholia is such a deceptively beautiful word, it sounds like a garden of moonlight is blooming inside your mouth. What a joke. I’ve probably wasted at least four years of my life in the dregs of this boring disease, so I don’t want to sound like I’m talking it up for effect. I’m not. I just don’t like to hide from it. I don’t like those years to contain me. I mean, for a long time I felt like I’d never be free of the weirdness and deep sense of sadness and guilt. But a big part of killing depression is naming it, calling it out for the way it divides you, letting it come when it knocks at the window, treating it more like a friend.
What is your fondest memory?
Probably my first memory, which is an eerie memory of a red carpet. I remember it only in fragments: a large room, a deep red carpet, a woman who was probably my mom walking through with a vacuum. Not turning it on exactly, but moving it, sliding it over the carpet, standing it up in the closet to rest. There was an oversized window behind her, and a ripple of fear in the air. The woman leaned down and her face was all black. Her eyes were too dark. I could tell there was something unsettled. A problem, a menacing mood. I remember a train whistle off in the distance. That sound. The woman disappeared. I was standing on the carpet and feeling this sense of amusement, foreboding, and shame. When I asked my mom about this many years later, she told me we did have a house near the train tracks, and that an entry room next to the kitchen was red, but the carpet was imagined, she said. She said we had rag-rugs and hardwood floors. I think I was two years old at the time. I guess this isn’t exactly my fondest memory, but it’s one of those things you can’t shake from your head. It’s an image that haunts me, that feels so weirdly removed from the rest of my life.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Keep my eyes open.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I really admire work that feels real, that feels lived-in and sculpted from moments of time. I like writers who have developed a unique and identifiable style, and who have done so in a way that feels pulled from the vein. I’m thinking of people like Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Robert Bly. Poems by James Wright and Jack Gilbert are definitely pulled from the vein. Bridget Pageen Kelley, Roberto Bolaño. People who have carved out a space with their words, a persona, a visceral texture and style.
It’s a strange thing to talk about because it’s become this taboo to discuss in the workshop — the life of the poet beyond the page, the sense of a poem being lived-in or not. I mean, ever since New Criticism came along we’ve pretended that poems are not about things. That they are not about real people, not about blood. They are only the words in the service of craft and the structure of something that’s ‘made.’ You know, poets get so caught up in the mess of post-structuralism, the mess of identity, of license and craft. The off-shoots of Ashbery and O’hara and Koch. They get invested in this off-beat McSweeney’s-type irony somebody somehow convinced them was hip. It’s weird, but I’m simply not interested in this. I don’t give a shit about the post-modern narrative. I want to write poetry that forges itself from experience, from real life suffered and ground in the bone. I don’t want to write poems that see themselves only as poems, that dance in the mirror or stand up like jokes. I want to write poems that live in the world like sculpture, that exist here as dark slabs of heat-hardened metal, like elm trees, like freight-trains, single and thoughtless, a unified, visible truth.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
This interview with Harmony Korine:
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Okay, I’ll tell you a little story. This was during a time in my life when I was 19 and living in East San Diego. I had a job as a telefundraiser at a place called The Sanderson Group. We made phone calls and tried to sell tickets to concerts to benefit various charities. We raised money for blind kids. Money for homeless folks. It was weirdly suspicious, and the people who worked there were barely two steps from the grave. We had a crackhead, a meth-head, a crazy old prostitute. Ex-cons, people who had generally failed at life. I mean, all you really needed was a voice and some charm and the right kind of person would give. It was mainly a statistics game.
But I would spend a few hours every day at The Sanderson Group, talking to strangers and hearing these crackles of static come in through the phone. You got to hear all these voices, these snippets of thin conversations and randomized noise. Some of it was static, but sometimes a nugget of drama would slip through the line. Like, for example, you would hear a guy saying something like, I wanted them all to remember. Or a girl saying, No, she was giving him head. And then the conversation would fade, and you would be left there to fill in the gaps.
So anyway, I was working this strange occupation, listening to things. And this one day after getting off work at the Sanderson Group I was walking back home near the edge of a school where a few giant trees had been cut. It was the end of the day and the sun was beginning to fade. The birds were beginning to drift in the breeze. I was tired, so I sat by this tree-stump to rest. I was looking out over the strip-malls and cars when I noticed the tree-stump was covered in ants. Hundreds of them. They had set up a colony inside, and they moved in these patterns of vertical streams, either into or out of their holes. At first I was just kind of shocked at the sight, but then I kept watching them streaming and climbing and something went wrong with my brain. I was suddenly able to follow them under the ground, through the actual dirt. I was sinking down under the earth with them, passing through chambers and layers of sand. And I wasn’t just imagining this, it was actually happening. I was there with them, feeling it perfectly, orbiting, fully immersed in the ground. But then I decided to lift up my head again, to look at the strip-malls and various things in the street. When I did this I noticed that everything flowed on these infinite rails of green. It was like a river of green light was riding through everything, linking them, pulsing and moving together in one massive ongoing chain. I could suddenly hear all the cars on the interstate, the traffic downtown, the waves on the beach. I was 10 miles inland, but I could still hear the waves, and I was suddenly floored with deep understanding that everything lives in this timeless and intricate balance of motion and speed. The world is moving. The pulse of existence is beating and feeding us all. It was a beautiful, humbling moment, and I suddenly wanted to die. Not because of the terror, but because of how lovely it was. I wanted to drift out and die in the wake of that beauty, and float there along with the green. But then the vision began to fade. The feeling dissolved, and I stood up and walked down the hill to my house. In a way it just all felt connected — the phone calls, the tree-stump, the movement and speed. To quote Denis Johnson, “I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
What are some of your favorite smells?
Well, let’s see. I love the smell of lilacs. I love the smell of Magic Cards. I have a serious reaction to the smell of a yeasted sponge (for making sourdough bread). Actually, and this will probably gross people out, but one of my favorite smells is the smell of a cast, like, when you break an arm or a leg and they put you in a cast. I broke my wrist a few times when I was younger and every time I wore a cast I got obsessed with the smell near the palm. It gets very sweaty and oily and for some reason I couldn’t stop smelling the smell. It became like a minor addiction. I needed a whiff every couple of minutes. It was odd. But what else? I love the smell of gasoline. I love the smell of red pines in Northern Minnesota, white pines, douglas firs, cut ponderosas. Old leather belts. Dry eucalyptus. Smashed rocks. Pavement. Train tracks. Mowed grass. Heather beds high in the Northern Cascades. I love the smell of a just-opened bag of Doritos. I love the smell of a work truck from the 1970s. Things my dad smelled like. Play-Doh. Hot rain. Good cappuccinos. Now that I think about it there was this girl in the sixth grade named Alley Sellers who wore a perfume called “Sunflowers” by Elizabeth Arden. I was in love with her, of course, and we talked on the phone and went out on a few awkward dates. We went to the movies and that sort of thing. But it’s a common perfume and I smell it sometimes when I’m walking around in a crowd. It’s like instantly I’m right there at 13 years old, in love again, feeling that raw love. Totally bizarre. The olfactory heirlooms. I could go on and on here.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
To be honest, I would be slightly dubious of the ‘all expenses paid’ part. I feel like anytime I have to pay for a ‘life experience’ I’m not really getting one that matters, that will change me. I think we have this terrible misconception in our society that the more money you make, the more opportunities you’ll have, the more luck you’ll encounter, more convenience you’ll find, etc. The best experiences I’ve ever had have been due to a crisis or quick change of plans. Something unknown. For example, I suppose the best ‘vacation’ I’ve ever had was a few years ago when I hopped a freight train with my brother Anders from North Minneapolis to Seattle. We were looking for adventure, I suppose, and there were reasons we didn’t want to stick around town with our parents in West Minneapolis. So we packed up our backpacks and jumped on a train near the Lowery Avenue Bridge. The funny thing was, we had filled up these four plastic milk jugs with water, but when our train came it didn’t slow down at the bridge. So we had to jump on it moving, running along, and we both had these big gallon jugs in our hands, so we threw them up over the well-wall and climbed up the ladder and jumped on the train. On the floor of the well were the four-gallon water jugs, busted and already drained. So we were riding this high-liner, watching the sunset, cruising out over the soyfields in North Minneapolis, knowing the whole thing was fucked. But we couldn’t get off. No, this was our train. So we ended up finding elaborate ways we could hydrate ourselves on the ride. It was totally nuts, we were licking at puddles of rain. Duct-tapping crushed plastic pop bottles left in the ditch. We took water from sprinklers, from spigots on trailer homes. I don’t know, the rest of that story is completely insane, we were stalled out in Staples, box-swapped a few times, stalled out in Minot with two trucks on fire and half the town taken by flood. It looked like a warzone. But we made it to Seattle in about five days. And the whole thing was weird and spontaneous and free. So, if I needed to pick an intended experience, it would maybe be something like this, something free. I mean, the best things in life are always free. Everyone knows this, but it’s crazy how quickly a life can be dumbed-down and polished by comfort and greed. By bland satisfactions, simple conveniences. Poetry is always free. I mean, a clean sheet of paper, a window, a pen. Nobody pays for it. Nobody cares. That’s probably why it’s so valuable.