Gregory Laynor: What’s your favorite color?
Lonely Christopher: My favorite color is red.
Gregory Laynor: I want to ask you about a few of my favorite things, like the clichés in your story “Burning Church”: “Always look on the bright side. It’s always the darkest before dawn. Every cloud has a silver lining. Pink sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Teachers who can’t teach teach gym. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. One good turn deserves another. A stitch in time saves nine. Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it. Great minds think alike. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Time flies when you’re having fun. All good boys deserve favor. Children should be seen and not heard. No child left behind. No stone left unturned. A rolling stone gathers no moss. The early bird gets the worm. A penny saved is a penny earned. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Treat others how you want to be treated. To thine own self be true. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. When it rains, it pours. It’s not over until the fat lady sings.” What do you think of Jasper Johns (or John Ashbery), Dinosaurs, and the gift economy?
Lonely Christopher: To the extent that I think about Jasper Johns, which is not much, I think about the quote: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. AND/OR Invent a function. Find an object.” John Ashbery has been a foundational influence to me because with him parts of speech and vocabularies can be abstract, you can use them abstractly to get to a deeper truth than semantics. The TV show Dinosaurs is important to me because of that “I’m the baby, gotta love me” song. Not sure I can explain that one. I used to watch the show when I was a kid, but I didn’t become obsessed with it until the period when I was in college and hosting a salon called the Gates Platform. One of my friends who frequented the salon told me this anecdote about his youth… where he was, I don’t know, smoking pot in a car in high school or something. And, for whatever reason, that “I’m the baby” song came up on the radio. He was listening to it but during the rap breakdown (“I said jump on the bed / hit my daddy on the head / I run around the house when they tell me not to / I take every chance to make a poop in my pants / ‘cause I’m the baby and I’ve got to!”) he threw up all over the floor of the car. It was then that I began purchasing the show on DVD and furtively sneaking away from conversations about modernism and continental philosophy to watch episodes of Dinosaurs. It felt really shameful that I was sneaking away from intelligent conversations to watch a show about anthropomorphic dinosaurs, but I think that since then I have reconciled my love for the high, low, and middle. I don’t know why you are so impressed by my list of clichés in “Burning Church.” It was done before and after I wrote it. I wrote that story and then soon after went to see the play God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz… and she does the same damn thing. And I was all “Aww, fuck!” But what really bothers me about that passage is that I forgot to include “Those who can’t do, teach” before “Teachers who can’t teach teach gym.” Because of that omission, I’ve never actually read that story to an audience. I’m too embarrassed. I purposely forgot to talk about the gift economy because… fuck it.
Gregory Laynor: I want to ask you about “the embarrassing language of self.” Your poem “Quiet Leviathan” ends: “There is only the image of what I want to be done / and have existed, throbbing in the memory of what / prideful I dare not speak and what educated in the / embarrassing language of self I can’t make a tune to.” What do you think of Gertrude Stein and/or other poets?
Lonely Christopher: I think those lines of mine are about the inability to translate one’s personal and emotional truth through verse, let alone one’s projection of self, which is something that I was struggling with during Crush Dream and it’s something I still struggle with. I don’t know where Stein fits into the question, except her “embarrassing language of self” is very evident in her work in retrospect, but at the time of writing was so coded it was glossed over for decades. We think of Stein as being insanely abstract but her poetry is almost at times diaristic. You just need to decode it.
Gregory Laynor: Or not even that. And then there’s my deleted poem: “How to Do Things with Gregory Laynor”: “Take Gregory Laynor / Do something to him / Do something else to him.” What do you think of deletion?
Lonely Christopher: Well “not even that” is something else. It is a projection. I have a shelf full of Stein criticism and half, at the very least, is pure projection. If we’re doing the in-joke thing, I might as well reference “Lesbianism? Never!” The enterprising reader will discover the reference. The truth of it is that there are themes and, more importantly perhaps, experiences, that Stein wanted to impart in her work. And she did. See Ulla Dydo. We all know now what tender buttons are, what having a cow meant, etc., but it was so encoded at the time that it slipped by as pure abstraction. Like Paul Lynde, to a less campy, more intellectual extent. And I don’t even like Stein for her autobiographical tendencies; I like her for her syntactic cruelty. But that is neither here nor there, is it? Stein was a genius. End of discussion. As far as deletion goes, I think it has a lot of potential. The way you use deletion, Gregory, is sort of more psychological than the general understanding of the practice. And I like that. I like that as much as a lot of things.
Gregory Laynor: In a review of the new edition of Stanzas in Meditation, Christopher Schmidt paraphrases Joan Retallack’s argument that “although Stein’s work contains references to lesbian sexuality, they are not so much encoded or hidden as they are performed in the perversely exciting texture of her writing.” What do you think of performing in perversely exciting textures?
Lonely Christopher: Well, Gertrude Stein never read Judith Butler, she invented her. So this performing/decoding debate is beyond me, in a way. But the description of Stein “performing in perversely exciting textures” is right the fuck on. I didn’t mean to imply that Stein was writing in code and that was the end of it. But we can’t deny that code is involved in her writing. That is why I brought up Paul Lynde. When we look at him now, it’s all so clear that he was performing his own perversely exciting textures through the vernacular of the day. So that part of his presentation could be passed right over by the culture. He was “hilarious” – which, I should think, was an unexpressed euphemism for being faggoty. He was performing his faggotness on prime time television and it was so far over the heads of the general it signified something else, something safer. Stein was not “passing” nor was she “presenting.” She had her own language, she had her own vernacular. You seem to be offended that I imply that she presented lesbianism obliquely in her writing. We find ourselves trapped in this false dichotomy where “tender buttons” means either lesbian nipples or, as Patricia Meyerowitz would have it in 1971, that Stein “used to keep a box full of buttons and that she loved to sort through them.” Of course neither conclusion is the point! (Except, more nipples than buttons, I mean really…) But, I swear to god I mean this, we have not yet figured out Stein yet. And that is one of the reasons why she is fascinating. But the cunnilingus is in there, in Stanzas and a lot of it. We even have Dydo, or maybe it was Janet Malcolm, who will tell us that Stein was sexually submissive, etc., and she found that in her research. Whatever. You have led me on a tangent, you naughty boy. Listen. My work can be understood on many levels. Crush Dream, like much of my latest poetry, has autobiographical information embedded in it. If you know me and my life and stories, you know that a certain poem is about me having sex with a certain boy in a certain bar bathroom, etc. If you know me you know the names I reference, the people in my life like CA Conrad, Richard Loranger, Edmund White, Ryan Doyle May, and my departed mother Susan. Some poems reference Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, William Carlos Williams, Will Shakespeare, and Facebook. So that is one level of the text. But the poems don’t function in a thematic way as referential. And sometimes I juxtapose very autobiographic notes with misleading information in the purpose of a greater thematic cause. And sometimes my constructions don’t make any goddamn semantic sense, but ring emotionally true. My goal was to inject a personal interest into a sort of sideways but popular, accessible grammar. That is why I wasn’t so much thinking about Stein and Ashbery in my writing as I was Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. My poems these days are short and, although sort of abstract, possibly digestible. At the same time, I don’t want my euphemisms or weird tropes to signify something safer – far from it, I want them to rise from the benign or catchy (in terms of representation or prosody) and signify something tremendously dangerous. So all of this shit is going on, I guess.
Gregory Laynor: When you were in Seattle, somewhere between the gallery, Pony, IHOP, and the apartment, we were in the rain, singing Steve Reich’s “Come Out” and “It’s Gonna Rain.” What do you think of Jasper Johns (or John Ashbery), Dinosaurs, and the gift economy?
Lonely Christopher: You already asked that question, but please publish this because your restatement of the question provides new information. When I am outside in the rain I am wont to either sing “Singing in the Rain” or “It’s Gonna Rain.” The gift economy, it turns out, is just a sub-hegemony that is fucking us all up.
Gregory Laynor: I want to ask you about poetry, movies, plays, stories, and other things. What do you think of these? And what do you think they have to do with being gay?
Lonely Christopher: I think every form has its own grammar, so each is good for something. That is why I like to write poetry, movies, plays, stories, and other things. The translation of that concept to paradigms of human sexuality is probably evident. But, for the record, I am not gay. I am a faggot.
Gregory Laynor: Have you seen John Ashbery’s “It Gets Better” video?
Lonely Christopher: John Ashbery invented the glass closet, so I don’t think he’s reaching out to the Glee generation with a video blog. But if I get not to be gay, then Ashbery certainly isn’t “gay.” He’s just some sort of intelligent sea sponge who writes the best poetry ever. I can say that because I know he will never read this because he doesn’t know what the Internet is.
Gregory Laynor: The people are the heroes now. What do you think of conceptual poetry and twinks fucking on a swan?
Lonely Christopher: Conceptual poetry is valuable but, as our friend Jason Zuzga would say, “too clever by half.” As we all know, the conceptual poets have entered a well-earned phase of crisis. I don’t particularly care. The people aren’t always the heroes, but right now, as Nixon’s China sang, I do believe the people are the heroes. We have just got to own up to ourselves. But I really don’t care. I shall dip back into aesthetics all the while trying to find truth in it all. That is why I love the image of twinks fucking on a swan. But I don’t think, at this time, it is possible for any audience to understand what that means to you and me. (For the uninitiated, I am working on a novel called Twinks Fucking on a Swan and have a Tumblr called Pixelated Twinks.) I am always looking for a way to let everybody in on twinks fucking on a swan. And everything else. This is the closest I’ve come to a mission statement, regarding the whole matter (from Crush Dream):
If I can’t bring my voice up toward
a tacit god, if beauty can’t be wrought
from experience, then it is not worth
it, it is a gilt limb smooching and
refusing the word.
There is a continuum with two
confession and dumb language, and
strung hidden between is
Gregory Laynor: After your mother died, I sent you a copy of Michael Moon’s and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Confusion of Tongues.” What do you think of Walt Whitman, Louisa Whitman, and everything else?
Lonely Christopher: I really do thank you for asking about my mother’s death because it means a lot more to this project (Crush Dream, which is part of a trilogy of poetry books called The Death & Disaster Series) than vaguely academic intrigue. I guess this isn’t the interview to go into all of that, but I want you to know that I received your copied pages of that aforementioned text and I read it and I cried and it meant a lot. My life is a confusion of tongues. I had the occasion to take an old friend, who inexplicably showed up at my doorstep after a long absence from town (he is a vagabond), to the site of Walt Whitman’s old house on Ryerson St in Clinton Hill today. He looked at the house suspiciously and asked, “Is that it?” Said I, “Yes, the house he wrote much of Leaves of Grass in.” No marker or anything on that house. A few weeks ago, I stood before the house and read the following poem to a group of tourists (sometimes I read poems to tour groups in Brooklyn). It is the first poem I wrote after the death of my mother and I wrote it because of that package you sent me with the essay about Louisa Whitman’s letters….
there was I pity my son a time
of so much practice and
a quiet trembling fascination
and when a man came forth
under the residual
and his name was death
an abacus rose
alarming and full of leisurely deer
shining tenses everywhere
giving out bones
I don’t think after you
being amongst them
remembering friends I saw
each experience and examples
of woman I saw that each
in amazement and anger
their mouth is a hell mouth
their mouth is an hour
now what my mother told me
of what she saw nearly grown
a red squaw came betide
her at the breakfast time
profuse and half enveloped
tall borne and for all pliant limbs
the gardeners askance
creepily dithering over our
supper of mornings
damages in the rough
shade well and bode
and speak as I spoke
I thought of everything
sometimes we are sorry
but it seems a forthright
you know by the writing
it must amaze in difference
I write a few lines as begin
skin has a mimetic power
what a stupid man
and the balance
this insolvent house
means nothing to the
courage of my love
amidst the humanity
nobody has seen this before
Lonely Christopher is a poet, playwright, and filmmaker. He is the author of The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, published in Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery series from Akashic Books. His latest project is a trilogy of poetry books titled The Death & Disaster Series, which consists of Poems in June (The Corresponding Society), Crush Dream (Radioactive Moat), and Challenger (forthcoming). His new summer Tumblr art project is Pixelated Twinks.
Gregory Laynor is a poet, scholar, and teacher. He is working on a PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle. His reading of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans appears on UbuWeb. He curates art talks and poetry events at the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University. He is a contributing editor of EOAGH.