Mike Young is a boy with a persimmon-shaped heart who lives in California and likes words like cherimoya. He co-edits NOÖ Journal and Magic Helicopter Press and a full-length book of his poetry, We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough, is forthcoming in 2010 from Publishing Genius.
But the reason I begged an interview is that his recent chapbook, MC Oroville’s Answering Machine, made me homesick, an unexpected yet welcome side effect for an American expat. MC O, set in Oroville, California, will show you the wild, lesser known side of America – a side that I obviously favor – through a cast of funny (in both the ‘ha ha’ and ‘queer’ senses) characters who illustrate the unlikely things people choose to care about, the wacky, beautiful and cruel things we do to each other, and the simultaneously amazing and mundane ways we pass the time. Mike once summarized it for me as “violent, BBQ sauce prose poems” and he made me so hungry I felt like biting his lip.
“A lot of the ‘characters’ or people in MC O think of God as this dude they’ve only ever seen on a billboard, a picture of him and some text: BRB. DON’T DO ANYTHING I WOULDN’T DO.”
AS: MC Oroville’s Answering Machine to me felt like West Coast, Sunday afternoon BBQ, music blasting, friends acting stupid on suburban backyard beers (probably at the house with the coolest parents), lanky girls in jean miniskirts and dirty blond hair that smells like charcoal smoke and tell the truth: you owned a skateboard, huh?
MY: Guilty as rolled. First an orange banana skateboard and then something with a wolf on the bottom of it. You’re also right about the girls, plus or minus a few tattoos. Some of my friends drove rice rockets, and some walked home in their PE shirts to play online MMORPGs. Daniel owned an antique saber from the Spanish armada. His van, which was green, could go and sometimes stop. I don’t think Oroville counts as the suburbs. Sometimes the heat feels like the inside of a pasta lid. One day Kevin was late for soccer practice because he had to clean up all the peaches that had spilled off the cannery trucks. Outside play practice, Sandra grabbed my hands and said they looked really soft. She was one of the people I was supposed to kiss in the play. I’m not sure I ever hung out at the house with the coolest parents, but think maybe about sitting Indian style in the gravel of a jungle gym and drinking Keystone, talking maybe about dead people on and around the levee. Maybe six or seven people from my graduating class went to university. Some went to community college. Most got jobs or joined the military. A lot of times I was worried about not having a nice raincoat, or having to take the bus, or bringing tiny sandwiches on pumpernickel instead of buying pizza and putting ranch dressing on it, but one day I realized that the shirt I’d bought for $0.50 at the thrift store made me look like Gideon Yago from MTV. Since then I’ve been a major asshole. Then again, I remember one day in junior high where Dustin took his shirt off on the bus and punched his own brother. Ashley always wanted me to sing American Pie. We always want our local mythology right there on the top of the lake, so we can skip a rock over it and see how it flutters.
MC Oroville is a real person, though MC Oroville’s
Answering Machine is not biographical.
AS: What exactly influenced MC Oroville? I feel like I want to know, but I also feel like that question is completely unoriginal. Answer it only if you really feel it and\or you want to make me feel better about myself.
MY: Gummo and Eminem. Alan Jackson and Flarf. The whole thing sort of started out with me writing blog posts about Oroville because I missed all my friends in Ashland, Oregon, most of whom I liked better than the people in Oroville, or the concepts I’d made of my friends in Ashland, which I liked better, my imaginary better friends who are always yodeling or shaving right beyond wherever I’m fucking things up at the moment. Waiting for any bus/people on any bus. D’J Pancake and Frank Stanford. Tom Waits and B.H. Fairchild. The Kathleen Edwards song ‘Six O’Clock News’. Sunset, which in the foothills of Northern California is a blind horse with a yellow tongue. Dogs that swim for no reason. All those Hmong kids who hung out by themselves at lunch, whom I played soccer with, who always talked in a language that wasn’t for anybody else. It’s hard not to wonder about everybody all the time. One time, I think the afternoon before the Super Bowl, it was drizzling and I was out trying to take pictures for photography class. I walked by the park with the memorial train engine in the middle of it. This couple was there, not talking. The guy had a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He kept rubbing his elbow. The woman would sort of lick her fingers and then twist her hair. I should’ve taken a picture of them, but I felt like an asshole. If your life is a slow go-kart crash, if your life is a man who hides inside the bathroom at the Army Surplus Store, if your life is trying to get a ride from anybody at the laundromat, then, I don’t know, there is such a thing as being lonely and coping with it by pretending you are actually in a movie with all lonely people ever.
The real people of Oroville.
AS: Some references in MC O made me think, a) What is the fascination with The Home Depot, dude? and b) Does Mike Young believe in God?
MY: Home Depot, the roundabout, the Indian health care center: things come to town on the wings of public funding and elicit hankering. You’ve got to stare at something. You’ve got to have a say, a hand on your hip, a grumpy hock. You’ve got to defy collective will at least a gasp. I have always wondered about the motivation of saying something about something you weren’t asked about. I like to hear those people very much, the ones who weren’t asked. A lot of the “characters” or people in MC O think of God as this dude they’ve only ever seen on a billboard, a picture of him and some text: BRB. DON’T DO ANYTHING I WOULDN’T DO. What a lot of sawdust that is. God is just some little guy with a shotgun collection and all the cheat codes. If there’s a design to anything, it’s somebody on the lam, running away with their arms full and shit spilling off. When it’s April and finally done snowing and I walk to the bus, sure: I’d like very much to believe someone is playing pattycake with the sky. But I get the feeling that feeling is it. I think I’ll probably leave town with a bad cough more often than I’ll thank God for anything.
“When I kill myself, I’m gonna swallow a hammer.”
AS: You’re also a musician and while your poems aren’t rhymes, they are often so perfectly melodious they make me want to shake my ass. What sort of distinction do you draw between song lyrics and poetry?
MY: Songs are better for autobiography, for some reason. If there is some really true thing I’d like to say over and over again, then songs are better for that, too. Poems are good for meaning lots of different things at the same time. With a poem, your head can sit there on the language. All that said, it’s true that I’m not interested, usually, in language that doesn’t have a sense of melody, a sense of sound glop. Very opposite from Robert Grenier: I love speech. And I love saying moonbat and making a moonbat happen to a certain part of your brain. I love a lot of language theory, but most of the stuff that’s popular with so-called language poets doesn’t seem very up on cognitive science. I like pop hooks and cognitive science.
AS: How do you feel about everyone’s poetry right now, in general? Recommend me some shit you love.
MY: Here are some names: Johannes Göransson, Heather Christle, Natalie Lyalin, Dobby Gibson, Kevin Davies, Katie Degentesh, Jennifer L. Knox, Matthew Dickman, the poem Terminal Moraine by Steve Healey. Anything by Daniel Bailey, of course, whose book THE DRUNK SONNETS, I’m putting out in October. I think poetry’s healthy as ever, healthy as Catullus, healthy as Delmore Schwartz. As a reader, I think I am very greedy. I like poetry that respects both the slipperiness and the significance of language, both the solemnity and absurdity of anything we do. I like when poems change subjects a lot. I like ideas and canyon fire. Give me a poem that can ollie without spilling anything. I like laughing and feeling a sort of inside-out-sigh, like expanding in all directions at once, sweetly and hopelessly.
AS: Do you cringe when called a poet?
MY: No. I like to write poems. Poets are people who write poems. That’s all it is. People who have so much “humility” or “modesty” that they want to kill themselves with a grapefruit spoon: not very fun to have in the car. When I kill myself, I’m gonna swallow a hammer. Fuck false humility. People can call me whatever they want. Maybe except when I’m wearing a cowboy hat.
AS: Why don’t you and Daniel Bailey update Hickory Assbags anymore? I loved that shit.
MY: Thanks! And good question. We should do more. I’ll put the word out.
“Like you’re not allowed to have sex with a person until you both can look at each other and crack up without having to say anything at all.”
AS: I’m camera-shy so I very much admire (read: masturbate to) your video clips, like the readings you did for Noo Journal’s Rad Poetry fundraiser, for example. How important is the performance aspect for you? are you a ham? an exhibitionist? do you talk a lot during sex? Examples welcome.
MY: I think I’m a ham and an exhibitionist, yeah. Both those things. But I hate to talk during sex! Is that weird? I like to pretend sex automatically confers telepathy. Like you’re not allowed to have sex with a person until you both can look at each other and crack up without having to say anything at all. I think that’s immature of me, or overly romantic or something. Anyway, performance gets you a lot closer to whomever. Since pretty much everything I do writing-wise tries to connect with another human being, performance is good because it puts that writing a lot closer to those human beings. I think that’s a relief. When I get to read poems or sing songs in front of people, instead of in front of my stove, I feel very relieved, and that relief makes me feel warm and entertaining. I understand writing things just for yourself, stuff you don’t show anybody, but I think many people who claim that writing for others is somehow less “pure” or less “from the heart” misunderstand the urge to connect with other people, or underestimate the ability of language to make that happen. Whatever. I like to make people laugh. And more! I like to give people sounds they want to answer with other sounds.
Gave Ani good times. Repeatedly.
AS: To sell me your book, you sent me a poem with a personalized note. Besides wanting to fuck me (obviously!), you seem to be conscious, ethical, self-aware. Your promotion – either for yourself or the writers you publish through Magic Helicopter Press and Noo Journal – never leaves a bad taste. In other words, I feel like you wouldn’t give our first-born to papa Satan in order to get a novel published unless we’re talking Dan Brown-style raking it in. Is this something you think about, like do you have a personal code of ethics?
MY: Thanks, I’m glad you think that. Promotional ethics is something I worry about a lot, yeah. I worry about coming off with a hair gel kind of taste. It’s tricky. I want to share the things I like with people, and the more people I share that stuff with, the better I feel. My personal code of ethics is probably to respect the alterity and unknowability of the Other and to try to love the fact that I will never understand another person and to love the process of trying to understand them. Somewhere along there comes the process of sharing and the awesomeness of people responding positively to this sharing. Still, when you want people to like what you do, you never really believe anyone likes what you do. So I try to just make sure everybody’s having fun.
MY: Sam’s a tough motherfucker. We’d hug it out, though. We’d neither one of us want to hurt a good pillow, yo.
AS: I get gangsta while editing. Like I’m all, who does this sentence think it is? Imma cut a bitch! Do you ever shit talk things that can’t talk back, like sentences, food, pets, your cock maybe? Call him Lil’ Mikey? No?
MY: When I played tennis in high school, sometimes I would get so mad that I would go crazy and scream shit that I didn’t hear myself screaming. It’s hard to describe. Like I would get so mad that words would just come out, and then I’d have to ask my teammates, who’d be laughing, what I just said. It was stuff like “Ass suck fuck snitch!” Or “Truck sucking fuck knocker!” These are bad examples because my subconscious rage is, without a doubt, way better than my interview wit.
AS: What sort of drugs do you have to do for the energy to publish books, a journal, write, make music, blog, take pictures, do readings and on and on? Dot you have a ‘day job’? (Tell me, it’s okay. I promise not to call you there.)
MY: Right now, I go to grad school, where I teach either freshman composition or creative writing, depending on the semester. The last two summers I’ve taught twelve-year-olds at a summer camp, which is a lot of fun but way more work than teaching at a college level. All that foursquare sweat, yo. My drugs involve a lot of walking around and not watching TV. Also I don’t go to the gym because I burn a lot of calories by involuntarily wiggling my foot with intense anxious energy at all waking times.
Ani is pretending this dedication was accompanied by a) an offer to publish
her ‘poetry manuscript’ and b) an engagement rock the size of a meteor.
AS: Being a pro interviewer, I like to end all my interviews with an existential type question. But I’m sort of ummm, busy, re-watching the love song you dedicated to me-me-and-only-me! and I can’t think of one right now. What existential question do you ask yourself most often and what is your usual answer?
MY: “Is this okay?” and “I don’t know, probably not.”