Partyknife, the debut book of poems by Dan Magers published on June 5, has drawn attention not only from the usual lit mag crowd, but also from places far rarer for poetry collections, such as Vice Magazine and a blurb from Sonic Youth maestro and indie tastemaker Thurston Moore, who declared: “Writing poems like these is just as good as starting a band.” Magers is co-founder and co-editor of Sink Review, an online poetry journal, and founder and editor of Immaculate Disciples Press, a handmade chapbook press focused on poetry and visual arts collaborations. He grew up in Kansas City, MO and now lives in Brooklyn. Gina Myers first met him at The New School, where they both were pursuing degrees in creative writing. They recently caught up over e-mail to discuss Partyknife, his contradictory feelings about coolness, the awesomeness of T-Rex, and how he really feels about Billy Collins.
Partyknife appears to be a series of poems written from the perspective of a single persona. How would you describe the protagonist of the book, and where would you say you came up with him?
The poems that eventually became Partyknife started happening in September 2009 on an Amtrak train. I had my laptop and was culling through hundreds of pages of Microsoft Word documents that I call “sketchbooks” (which is where I had been drafting poems or writing out notes and ideas over the course of five years). I started pulling out my favorite lines and quotes of failed poems or just random notes and lines that seemed really awesome to me and started collaging them together into poems that were about the size of sonnets (but not sonnets). I realized that the lines I was pulling were less “poemy,” more like “everyday language”– funny/sad/angry lines and ideas I had written down at work or things overheard or spoken to me by friends.
I don’t think I was very conscious of creating a persona for a long time, probably until after the book was accepted for publication by Birds, LLC and I started getting edits back. I felt like I was just writing poems using a “lyric ‘I’” that was and wasn’t about me. Since I was collaging together new lines with lines that were five years old, it did not feel like I was writing about myself, even when writing about things I had really done or said. I was conscious of how closely both poetry readers and non-poetry readers alike associate a lyric “I” with the author, and I played with that sometimes. Frederick Seidel’s poetry does this, and I was reading a lot of him several years ago though I might have exhausted whatever it was that inspired me in his writing, because I haven’t really returned to his work.
One of the first responses about the book after it published was from a friend of a friend, whom I’ve never met, and who does not read poetry. After she flipped through my book and read a poem, she remarked to my friend, “It would be interesting to know what the author’s relationship is to ‘coolness’.” This really struck me, since if I was asked, I don’t think I would be able to account for my feelings about coolness in a satisfying way. I think my contradictory feelings about coolness acted very much as an organizing force in creating the poems.
Can you explain your “contradictory feelings about coolness”?
I think all I mean is that the book is very much infused with my experience living in Brooklyn during my 20s. You are constantly surrounded by coolness where I live, surrounded by people who are trying to be cool, but are also disparaging coolness. I do this, and I am totally uncool. One also realizes that these concerns are profoundly unimportant, and yet they can take over how you see the world. This might be related to the sometimes detached or aloof tone of parts of the book that some readers have noticed.
I actually have not really thought about this idea of coolness until after the book came out. I don’t think through why I’m writing what I’m writing. So while it is at once probably a generating force of the book, talking about it seems very new to me and probably needs to be developed more.
When I first read Partyknife, I felt a little like I was in on it, having lived in Brooklyn and witnessed that hipster party nightlife scene in my 20s too, but I feel like it captures something people anywhere can grasp or identify with. Through either the writing or editorial processes, did you give much thought to who your ideal audience would be?
One of the most gratifying things that happened when the book came out was how many people would contact me, both writers and non-writers, and say that reading the book made them want to write poetry, or write something. I’m really excited the book inspires that kind of response in people. When I say the book is about coolness, I don’t think that means it’s exclusive. I’ve mentioned coolness, but the book is also about unrequited love and coming to an understanding that your dreams will not come true. It’s those things that everybody relates to.
Besides Frederick Seidel, what other writers or artists influenced Partyknife or you in general?
There are really too many to name. I really love Denis Johnson’s short story collection Jesus’s Son. Whereas Seidel I’ve not picked up in a few years, I am regularly reading through the Johnson book, and even though it’s such a short book, the writing in it is a constant source of inspiration. For a few years after I first moved to New York in 2003, I probably thought about John Ashbery’s poetry on a daily basis. Three Poems is my favorite. Though now I get a sense that I’m constantly trying to write away from him, which probably reflects the impact he’s had on my reading and writing. When I look back at the book specifically, I notice influences by John Berryman and Ted Berrigan, but these didn’t really register when I was writing.
One important non-writing influence is my childhood friend Matt Bollinger’s visual art. With regards to the book, I especially think to Matt’s work that appeared in his first New York City show:. I think the images depicting a band and implying a love triangle really resonated with me, and I ran with them in my own direction.
I also deeply love listening to music, which is one of my favorite things. The speaker in the poems is a struggling-to-failed musician, and I think it has surprised a couple people to learn that I do not play or write music. I’ve only wanted to be a writer. But I listen to music everyday.
With the chapbook press you edit, Immaculate Disciples Press, there is a focus on collaboration between writers and artists. What do you find interesting about that collaboration/why is it important to you?
I’m interested in collaboration between writers and artists in particular because, just in a practical sense, a collaborator usually has skills, abilities, or experiences that I don’t have. If both of us are using our own abilities on a project, the sum will be greater than the parts. We do not publish a lot – usually one or two chapbooks per year. My partner in Immaculate Disciples is Matt – and since we’ve known each other so long and have a good idea of each other’s aesthetic interests and trust each other’s judgements, we’ve published several successful chapbooks. Lately Steven Karl, my co-editor at Sink Review, has come on as guest editor to choose chapbook projects and produce them. We also get help from other artist friends or people who want to hang out and help collate printed pages or bind the chapbooks together. All this collaboration across genres also opens new perspectives in what is possible in writing.
How does being an editor affect your writing? I know through conversations we’ve had outside of this interview that you credit Sam Starkweather and the other editors at Birds, LLC with really helping shape the book. Has either that experience or your work at Sink Review shaped how you approach your own writing or the writing of others?
I think that being an editor of an online literary magazine has shaped my reading more than my writing, though of course those things are intertwined. Running an online poetry journal and writing and editing poetry book reviews (things I also do for Sink) are really good ways to become familiar with the many different facets of contemporary poetry. It is also cool to be able to have a platform to feature poetry you are excited about or book reviews of books that deserve more attention. The poets we publish generally have 0-2 books out, and so it is also gratifying to get to follow talented poets who we’ve helped to introduce to an audience.
What music have you been listening to lately?
I don’t listen to as much new music as I used to, something I always get mildly insecure about. One album I’ve been listening to over and over lately is T-Rex’s The Slider. I will play the album on my commute to work, and then again on the way home. Then sometimes again at home. The album is not really that hard or that heavy, but it really rocks and is sexy as hell. I was playing it while hanging out with a friend, who remarked that I seem to most like the slow jams on the album – “Mystic Lady,” “Spaceball Ricochet,” “Ballrooms of Mars.” Also “Metal Guru” is like one of the best opening songs of any album.
Are you currently working on any new projects or have upcoming readings or publications?
Since I spent so long writing Partyknife, I’m pretty content to not get immediately involved in new writing projects, and to rather just write to teach myself new ways of making poems without thinking much about publishing them. My day job is in book publishing, so I’m familiar with how author-driven book promotion is. So right now I think my main focus is on getting the word out about Partyknife. I feel like that will be my focus for the rest of the year. Probably the best way to keep track of me is to follow me on twitter or friend me on Facebook.
Do you have any words of advice regarding author-driven promotion?
By the time you get a finished copy of your book, you likely will have already spent months, if not years, thinking about it, and it feels like a great time to collapse at the finish line. However, once you get the book, it almost feels to me like a halfway point. No one is going to know more about your book than you, and no one will be more excited about your book than you, which is why it’s important for an author to be front and center. For writers or anyone really, this can feel awkward, having to not only talk about your work (and yourself), but to do so in a way that makes people want to seek out and pay money for your book. It takes a lot of confidence and energy, and will take time away from writing or other things you want to do.
My first chapbook was self-published, so I think it’s something I’ve known for a long time and am comfortable with. But it’s not much different in major publishing houses – they might have more resources at hand (maybe), but a big publishing house with thousands of authors will expect new authors to already have a sense of their audience and to then market to them endlessly.
I’m making it sound laborious, but it really is one of the most gratifying things in the world to have someone you don’t know come up to you at a reading or email you later on and tell you how much your work affected them. I mean, I think that’s why a lot of people become writers. If you can just focus on making these kinds of connections on this scale, you will be much more productive than fretting about how you will sell hundreds of copies of books to people you’ve never met.
Can you tell me how you really feel about Billy Collins?
Ha, poor Billy Collins. I don’t hate him. He can get thousands of dollars to spend an hour reading poetry to a room of Bank of America executives, but I don’t hate him.
I guess it can seem odd for me to talk about how the book is not meant to exclude an audience beyond poets, and then have a book trailer burning a copy of a book by the one poet non-poets might know. Still, we were thinking of what book would serve as the best prop for our book trailer, and when I saw both the cover and title, my first thought was, “yeah let’s set this on fire.” As Jim Behrle said, “If you wrote a book called The Trouble with Poetry, you might be the trouble with poetry.”
Gina Myers is the author of A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009) and a regular contributor to Frontier Psychiatrist. She recently interviewed the author Brian Oliu and reviewed the Alabama Shakes album Boys & Girls. She lives in Atlanta.