Zero Experience – Andy McGuire
The Agency tells us the world is our oyster.
They say optimism is an art,
The slice of the pie chart that remains cheerful
Through starving. Temping is all about potential.
You can’t stop a fire that doesn’t start.
All of my matches were made in China.
I’ve hit my head too many times
Dancing in the dark. The odd Friday afternoon
Francine serenades our frayed platoon
In the crude theatre we call the copy room.
She has a history of using colourful language
In the workplace. Being let go is a refrain.
I dream of her doorbell
But a gulf of grey separates her cubicle from mine.
Too many people are sitting in this oyster.
Management will have to put up a sign.
(Coach House Books, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.
Frequently in Country Club you play with, and invert, popular idioms. You get great mileage from “the world is my oyster” in “Zero Experience,” and some of my other favourites include: “This always happens/ When I buy a fish a river.” (“Music Row”), “There’s plenty of fish in the barrel” (“Butchers Holler”), and “Things are not as they kick and scream to be” (“Shotgun Infinity”). Seafood obsession aside, could you speak a bit about your interests in playing with idioms? Have you come to praise or bury them? In what ways, if any, is your interest in idioms tied to your focus on writing about Florida?
Popular idioms and verse are the expired table butter of the vernacular, the lazy river of language, anathema to poetry. I rewrite and recombine them because it gives me great pleasure. The pleasure has to do with reclaiming such familiar phrases as sites of discovery. It’s a bit like the reverse gentrification of common usage. Repurposing the clichéd. I’ve never thought about my interest in idioms in relation to writing about Florida. Both, I would say, are forms of non-sequitarian violence.
Continuing on that idea – the idioms, not the weird fish stuff – Country Club centres around poems about the wonderful and weird State of Florida, and the style of your poems – playful, winking, often shirtless, somewhat unhinged – seems perfectly suited to the subject. Which came first, Florida or your style? Were you writing in this way before you let Florida into your heart, or did Florida transform your writing? Or both?
The qualities you mention existed in my poems before my Floridian escapade. But something did happen there. The strange exuberance in my work flourished. Florida let my playful, winking and slightly demented poetic tendencies off-leash. I felt like I could write this way with impunity. The leathery Ohioan I saw every day at the pool led my spirit-animal entourage. When you embrace the power of not caring, everything rhymes with orange.
Even non-sequitarian. The poems in Country Club contain humour, rhyme and sex – sometimes all three in the same poem. What kind of a Serious Canadian Poet are you? Do you worry they’ll take back your membership card? Which, if any, of the three elements of your work has made you most nervous when reading your poems in public?
Good comedy delivers a healthy dose of newness the way the rewired idioms do. In my poems I usually aim for what Freud calls the laughter of unease. When you read a great line by Oscar Wilde—for example, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”—you smile and then realize the joke might be on you. The ability to amuse, confound, inspire, intrigue and provoke all at once is the incredible intelligence of humour. Plus, it just feels good to make someone laugh. I like doing that at readings. Firing up all the pistons (humour, rhyme and sex) usually produces the desired result. I have found that most audiences are happy to take those multiple medications. In the end, I want my poems to be enjoyable, even if that means enjoyably bleak or astringent. Of course I want them to be other things as well, but I do care deeply about other people’s pleasure. Someone recently accused me of writing delightfully upsetting poetry. They compared my poems to pickled eggs made by Miranda July. I lol’d.
Sticking with one of your three pistons, rhyme, when did you start using rhyme heavily in your work? How did embracing rhyme affect the nature of the poems you were writing?
For a long time I thought that rhyme was something “serious” poets avoided. Serious rhyme was a revelation for which I blame Frederick Seidel. His rhymes feel like malfeasance. I’m especially drawn to the delinquency of perfect end rhyme. No matter how subtle or brazen, successful rhyme is an agent of new realities, relations and possibility. You can spot the Florida poems in Country Club from the neighbouring state. They are the ones rifling around in sandboxes of metre, rhyme and repetition. Florida held a mirror up to those poems, is all.
In “Toronto” you refer to book blurbs as “the lower back tattoos of literature”, and you reinforce that assertion by having no blurbs on the back cover of Country Club. As a fellow non-blurber, I salute you. What is it about blurbs that turns you off? Is there anyone you’d break your no-blurb rule for?
There are books that I think might benefit from laser blurb removal. It’s just so humiliating to ask someone whose work you admire to consider praising your book. I might break my vow of blurb celibacy for some praise from Frank O’Hara. I like those odds.
My understanding is that your second book is already well in the works, with a blurb from Frank O’Hara’s ghost, and all. Could you tell us a little about it, and more generally where you see your writing going from here?
My second book will be a collection of top-ten poems. A portable flotsam honking its heart out at the intersection of culture, categorization, ranking and linguistic slippage. Beyond that, I’ve been amassing poems for a third collection and also just finished my first novel. At some point I hope to record the new album I meant to make three books ago.
It seems like Andy’s just going to keep writing books, and not songs, until he feels some love. Maybe if you buy his book it’ll give him enough confidence to venture off and write a manatee-themed power ballad. You can pick up a copy at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Coach House Books website. Or, if you wish to upset me in a very un-delightful way, from Amazon.
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.