Congrats on your new chapbook!
To begin, can you talk a bit about this chapbook's inception and how this (first HAD) chap came together?
The God of all gods, Twitter. I remember some time back in October getting a DM from Aaron asking if I had anything of roughly chapbook length that was ready to go, and I immediately put my phone down and didn’t look at it for almost half an hour, I was so excited by the potential implication of what he might really be asking that I wanted to stew in it for a while. Of course, I said yes, even though what I really had was a recently-kinda-organized and sprawling project that was double the length of a long chapbook. I spent the next day or two just being absolutely ruthless, tossing out pieces left and right, praying I could trim that thing down to 30-40 pages. After that, Aaron and I cut even a few more pieces, he doodled the cover (which I love), and Danny Caine worked his magic.
Did you find yourself starting from a large pool and trimming into a chap? Or starting with one nugget/poem and building from there?
Absolutely the former. This thing was monstrous, a behemoth, unwieldy, and had sections—sections! In one version it even included a long poem (maybe ten pages?) that was more or less one giant cento to close. I thought of it as the little montage some imagine we see at the end of our lives, a heartbeat-length remembrance of all the moments, the people, the words and peculiarities we valued most in our waking, walking time. That might still be in the cards for something later.
In an email you sent me late last year, you mentioned this collection "spawning from a poem about Peter Piper becoming disenchanted with capitalism" and I feel like that's such a strong elevator pitch for your work — tongue twisters and surrealist fables dancing with workplace misery and the corporate grind. I guess this is less of a question and more of a comment? Care to elaborate this mentality/philosophy/approach?
There’s a terrific scene in the movie School of Rock when Jack Black yells about “The Man” to a room of fourth graders. Here’s what he says: “The man? Oh you don’t know the man? Well, he’s everywhere!... And the man ruined the ozone, and he’s burning down the Amazon, and he kidnapped Shamu and put her in a chlorine tank, okay?… So don’t waste your time trying to make anything cool, or pure, or awesome, ‘cause the man’s just going to call you a fat, washed-up loser and crush your soul.”
The Tall Man has been so many things, but I think what he is most of all is “The Man,” he is a personification of capitalistic fervor. We live in an age of burnout in a capitalistic system characterized already by burnout seeking success which comes at the cost of…more burnout. The Tall Man’s stamp of success is exhilarating, but it’s empty at the end; he knows only how to take, how to let someone love him, but not how to give that back.
I’d amend my statement now to say that the collection is both Peter Piper’s disenchantment with capitalism, and capitalism’s subsequent therapy session, during which it reaches the conclusion that it’s blind and alone.
I love to ask this question with books/chapbooks: how old is the oldest piece in this chap and how recent is the most recent piece?
The oldest is technically a three-way tie between Pickled, Come on Down, and The Lives of a Tall Man in a Special Coat, all of which I wrote during 2019 in a class with Nathan Hoks. The newest is the titular poem, Claustrophobia, Surprise! I wrote that one starting from the title late this past summer when a friend uttered the phrase at lunch and I nearly spit out my drink because I loved it so much.
Claustrophobia, Surprise! is such a great title. It seems to embody this Evan Williams animation, energy, shock, terror, sarcasm, etc. Can you talk about how you decided upon it? Were there other working titles in the conversation as well?
Thank you! I wish I could take full credit for the phrase, but it came from my friend Claire. The minute she said it (in an entirely different context), I knew that was the title. Most of that certainty was just the sheer oomph it seemed to possess, both in a comedic and serious sense. It’s the kind of phrase that, if it’s timed right, makes you guffaw. Or, it’s the rapid, irrational onset of feeling trapped. When I was younger I had really awful claustrophobic panics, mostly caused by my friends—who were all more physical than I was growing up—dunking me in a pool, starting a surprise wrestling match, and the like. When they’d sneak up on me, there was always a moment just before the attack when I knew exactly what would happen, exactly how it would make me feel, and that there was no possible way out of the trap. All of the poems in the book were written between 2019 and 2021, which, as a series of years, has felt pretty much exactly like that moment before panic. There’s of course *gestures around* the state of the world and the historical moment, but the same period of time has seen me through college toward graduation this June, and bit by precious bit I can feel the “real world” sneaking up on me like one of my friends, ready to pounce, I can feel that panic rising to a fever pitch.
Some earlier titles included Pickled, One Blade Wanted a Pompadour (for a time, the book took less of an aim at corporate structures and more at anthropocentric ones—the titular poem from this time has been axed), The Tall Man by The Tall Man, and in one very early version, Evan Williams by Evan Williams by Evan Williams (which was meant to be a clever one-up of Roland Barthes’ Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes—I think we can be glad this one was shelved).
"The Tall Man" is your newest piece in HAD, and "Ted" was your very first piece in HAD, so: The Tall Man and Ted walk into a bar…
They have a lot to talk about. They are both full of want, but for different reasons. Ted seems stuck in a position he never fully had agency over, while the Tall Man has brought himself to this point through a string of mistakes. The Tall Man will want Ted’s input on his life, and Ted will flail his arms wildly as if to say “You’re joking, can’t you see I’m having a situation?” The Tall Man will order them pints of blackberry cider, mostly because he thinks this will help him to extract information from Ted. Ted will drink it cautiously, all the while thinking how much he’d love to have the easygoing confidence of the Tall Man. The Tall Man will offer it to him, and this will alleviate Ted’s need for birds. Then the Tall Man will give up his title and shrivel up. Ted will be the Tall Man, easygoing, confident, and another man will walk into the bar. His name will be Ted. Ted will be frantic, so in need. With his old need gone, the new Tall Man will sense his inability to give of himself to anyone, and understands how lonely he will become as a result. So he offers to relieve Ted of his need. On and on, until the bar runs out of drinks. The Tall Man and Ted are one another, each at a different point in life.
I see that your release day HAD page has a gold backdrop instead of typical white?! Does this mean that rather than a standard skull, does a chap signify a GOLD skull?
Yes. It’s actually a similar principle as the golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When eventually HAD develops their first township, I’m allowed to cash it in for a small hut built in the shape of a skull with a loft arranged such that I could have a writing desk gazing out either eye. Invest as you see fit.
Outside of Claustrophobia, Surprise! what are you currently working on?
Most dear to me is a collection of linked prose poems and essays I’ve recently finished polished about my experience as a man with anorexia that drives at the intersection of hyper-masculine bravado, violence, and the fragility associated with anorexia.
On the lighter side of things I have three main projects underway: one, a novella-type work about the son of the Village Idiot striving to earn his father’s title. The second, a book of poems dictated entirely by logical if, then thoughts, but taken to such an extreme as to be nonsensical; it’s tedious and I’m deeply attached to it. The third, a book of surreal prose poems loosely about love featuring pears, Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame, and nuclear strategy.
Outside of your own work, who/what have you been reading/watching/listening to as of late?
Anything and everything from Dorothy, a publishing project. I’ve just read Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk and Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest, both of which I loved. Mark Leidner’s work has stayed on my desk lately, as has Etel Adnan’s and Jesse Ball’s. Some other recent favorites: Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow, Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Moon Bo Young’s Pillar of Books, plus anything by Max Porter, Anne Carson, Nathan Hoks, or Zachary Schomburg.
I’m terrible at watching anything at all, if I’m honest. I never get more than a few episodes into a tv show, and on the off chance I’m able to decide on a movie to watch, I probably won’t finish it.
Musically I’m all over the place. My current playlist includes Courtney Barnett, Sammy Rae & The Friends, Little Simz, Autoheart, Saba, DOECHII, Kero Kero Bonito, Miranda Lambert, and even a spate of songs from Angel Du$t’s album Rock the Fuck on Forever (Thanks, Tucker).
Can you close us out with an Evan Williams / HAD writing prompt? It can be as abstract or as detailed as you like.
I’ll give ya one that’s actionable and one that’s inane.
- Part of the process of Claustrophobia, Surprise! was taking groups of poems, between three and eight, usually, and writing favorite lines, images, even single words in a large prose block without punctuation. Then, rearrange. Cut words, cut lines, cut spaces, until you’ve created a cento of your own work.
- In caves, water drips from the ceiling to the floor, and will slowly evaporate leaving only the calcium salts, which then accumulate drop after drop until it’s an uneven, bulbous and beautiful stalagmite. Write a poem in the style of stalagmite formation.
Lastly, do you have any final words of wisdom / thoughts / shout-outs / HAD advice / insights as to when the next call for subs will be?!
I’m fresh out of wisdom, so I’ll take some from Sabrina Orah Mark: “It’s impolite to love no one.”
I’m most parts gratitude lately, and feel so lucky to have friends to read my work, friends to recommend music and books and to talk with me about both and then some, and most wonderfully, friends that make my life feel more expansive. That’s a rare thing, I think.
And as far as HAD tips, I got nothin’. But hey, I really really really love prose poems with tricks of scale and barely explicable leaps in logic and anything that makes me feel the way I do the moment before a panicked bout of claustrophobia (surprise!).
+ an "Evan's Favorite" from the archives
(originally published March 14, 2021)
After Mathias Svalina
In the beginning God wondered
where everything that wasn’t
there yet came from, but
God couldn’t think of a good explanation
so they just proclaimed I did it.
And the first human asked When?
And God said Just now.
And the first human became
aware of themself and
instantly got a terrible headache
and said Ow. Jesus. Why would this exist?
And God said You just need some ibuprofen
And the first human said Oh yeah, but then
they remembered ibuprofen didn’t exist yet,
and also that they weren’t supposed to be a human yet.
Just as they were turning back into a singularity
a melody got stuck in their head. The one from
the song that was playing in the grocery store earlier.
The annoyingly catchy one that the first human
was ashamed to admit they liked.
They racked their brain to remember the lyrics
but their brain wasn’t there because they
were a singularity now.
So then they expanded
into hydrogen and helium and
all kinds of other elements and
stars and planets and
all kinds of living organisms
and then they became aware of themselves again
and decided they liked being called human.
This time there were a lot of them
and they would get cold and hungry sometimes.
And sometimes when they saw each other
cold and hungry, they would wrap each other
in blankets and make each other soup,
but sometimes they wouldn’t help each other
at all. They’d just say you should work harder
as they ate food grown by their underpaid employees
on land they inherited after their great grandparents
stole it from someone else.
And sometimes the first human who was cold and hungry
would get so angry at the first human who was hoarding wealth
that they would spend all day fantasizing about beating
them to death. They would get so angry they’d forget
to drink water. Forget to love themselves.
Forget about the time their partner surprised them
on a Wednesday night with a bouquet of their favorite flower—
pansies—and some Chinese takeout. Forget about how
for a few hours they both pretended the rent wasn’t due
the next morning, and binged The Good Place on Netflix
and made love and fell asleep on the couch.
After all that forgetting the first human
fell to their knees and cried out God
I feel so lost and confused, please
help me remember.
And God said
This is the story of a girl
who cried a river and drowned the whole world
and while she looks so sad in photographs
I absolutely love her