A McSweeney’s Books Q&A with Dan Chelotti, author of x.
Dan Chelotti’s debut, x, is funny and melancholic and full of bizarre twists. The poems seem able to fold anything into their forms. Which is fitting, because as far as he can remember, the collection began one day a few years ago on a walk during which a line floated into his head about the merits of leftover sushi. He laughed out loud. “Yeah, I can write about that,” he remembers saying to himself. “I can write about anything.”
Dorothea Lasky has described the book as “a revelation” and James Tate says the poems “spin and jump through fire.” Adds novelist Gary Shteyngart: “O Madonna mia! This poetry it makes me to laugh! Dan Chelotti, I heart you!” The poet recently fielded a series of questions from McSweeney’s Poetry Series editors Jesse Nathan and Dominic Luxford.
McSweeney’s: Did your parents read poetry?
Dan Chelotti: No. My father actually expressly forbade me writing poems. He forbade it so intensely that I had to hide poems under my bed when I was in middle school. It was probably the best thing he could have done to make me a poet. And although my mother didn’t read poems, she was always reading, which made me want to always be reading. And then we would visit my grandparents or my great-grandmother and they all would be reading. Put all that reading in a pot with my father’s irrational fear of poetry, and I couldn’t get enough of poems. They kept me awake at night. They still do.
McSweeney’s: Why x?
DC: x was actually a mistake. An x is what a teacher puts on your quiz when you answer incorrectly. But it is also a variable. I sent my manuscript to a friend and it didn’t have a title, so I put an x. He sent it to you guys, and you read it as x, and you got in touch with me wanting to publish x. But x is not the title, I cried! It’s a variable! But you loved it. And I thought about it, and I started to love it, too. x marks the spot. x is the lover you don’t love anymore (or maybe you do). x tells me this is poison. x is a kiss. x is everywhere. I once read that the little bit of distortion in Radiohead’s “Creep” was a studio error. But that little bit of distorted guitar before the chorus turns a good song into a great one. I wanted to embrace the world with these poems, and what better way than to embrace a fortunate and fated misunderstanding?
McSweeney’s: You have an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Was it good for your writing?
DC: When I was an undergrad, I sincerely thought that I was going to graduate and get a doctorate in Russian. I spent some time in Russia, fell in love with Russian poetry, and when I returned, I was pretty convinced. I had always loved poetry, and so I stumbled into a creative writing class in the fall of my senior year. At the time, I didn’t know what an MFA program was. You mean I can write for three years and you will pay me to do so—and I can learn how to teach while doing so? Amazing! I loved it. I was surrounded by great, caring poets. I read and read and argued and wrote. I would have continued to read and write poems even if I didn’t get an MFA, but because I did do the degree, I was made to live publicly as a poet for several years, and that really forced me to put an extra level of care into my work.
McSweeney’s: What have been the main extra-literary influences on your writing?
DC: The most important musical influence on x is Jonathan Richman. Take the song “Government Center.” Richman makes a song out of absolutely nothing, and it makes me laugh, and it makes me turn it up. Right at the beginning of the composition of x, I was listening to Richman and really loving how he could make a song out of anything, and have that song be light, and funny, and sincere, and elegiac. Why can’t I do that in a poem? That’s what O’Hara did. That’s what Jacob did. That’s what Mozart did. Just write it down, go on nerve. Everything in this world is alive and dying—everything—from Boston’s architectural atrocity of Government Center, to a piece of leftover sushi.
McSweeney’s: How has the Internet changed poetry?
DC: It has changed the way we read and access poetry, for sure. I can go find ten new voices right now, and I can read poems from all of them. That’s wonderful. But I don’t think that the Internet has changed the composition of poems any more than electric light changed poems. Yes, electric light changed poems a lot, but that is the way with poems, they are products of the time in which they are written. They respond and lament and celebrate the times they come out of, and they make the times they come out of timeless—or that’s what the best poems do (go read Blaise Cendrar’s “La Tête,” where he writes about heads and the guillotine and art in 1914). The Internet tricks the world into thinking that the world is made up of facts—that facts equal wisdom—that if I want to know something I can just look it up. If I want to hear a sea shanty, I can just look it up. This is wonderful on the one hand, but terribly dangerous on the other. All this choice manifesting want after want until I am choking on my want, my desire for more choice. This is our world, and poets are responding to it in a million different ways—thank god.
McSweeney’s: Is there anything you would advise a young poet not to do?
DC: Don’t think that poems exist outside of the world. Go to readings, go to conferences, volunteer for presses, read everything. Make friends not because you want something from them, but because you are lonely and want to talk about poems with people. Don’t judge whether you like or do not like a poet based on a handful of poems. Read entire books. Support small presses. If you don’t have the money or space for all those books, support your local library system. Don’t read only contemporary poets. Read George Herbert. Read Catullus. Read Sir Philip Sidney. Read Villon. Don’t be afraid to imitate, and steal from, poets you admire. Be a little arrogant. You’ll learn a lot.
McSweeney’s: What’s the most important question anyone ever asked you?
DC: After I published The Eights, my grandmother asked me why I was so serious in my poems. You have a wonderful sense of humor, Dan. Why don’t you lighten up and be yourself in your poems? When she asked the question, I stubbornly resisted and told her that it doesn’t work like that, or some such defensive nonsense. After I realized that I could write any way I wanted to, dancing around my house to Richman, I knew my grandmother had hit on something key. I couldn’t have written this book, or revolutionized the way I write poems without that simple question. She helped me realize that I could just be all of my selves.
McSweeney’s: Do you practice any other arts?
DC: I’m pretty mean on the kazoo. And I’m pretty good at improvising lyrics at parties with drunk musicians. So, no.
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