Dorian Geisler’s beguiling debut collection solves the problems of audacity — with audacity. A darkly uncanny romp through everyday American life, Geisler’s understated poetry and minimalist aesthetic conveys a burgeoning landscape featuring Main Street America in all its often-questionable Americanness.
Kazim Ali writes, “Geisler’s poems are populated by individuals who cannot help but commit that most dangerous and un-American act: to think and think hard about ordinary and extraordinary things with unapologetically low-brow critical rigor. As they ransack familiar mundanities, I find myself shocked to be so endlessly fascinated.”
Geisler is a graduate of UC Berkeley and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently studying law at the University of Michigan. He has taught at the Millennium Art Academy and Arcadia University, and his poetry has appeared in the Believer, Hayden’s Ferry Review, LVNG, and the Berkeley Poetry Review.
Geisler recently spoke with McSweeney’s editors Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan about Flowers of Anti-Martyrdom, the thirteenth collection in the McSweeney’s Poetry Series.
McSWEENEY’S: What was the genesis of this book?
DORIAN GEISLER: I think this is the book I wrote when I stopped trying to write any particular book and just wrote what came out. Of my mind, I guess.
McSWEENEY’S: Why “Anti-Martyrdom”? How did you come up with this, and how did the concept end up in the collection’s title?
GEISLER: So, a martyr is a morally perfect person who dies prematurely and is remembered indefinitely. An anti-martyr, on the other hand, doesn’t care if she is remembered. In fact, she is most likely to act secretly. She may be skeptical of grand narratives that canonize generally.
An anti-martyr is emphatically not morally perfect. In fact, her moral imperfection is often glaringly obvious, maybe even the first thing you notice. However, in opposition to the martyr (who is “not long for this world”) the anti-martyr is exactly long for this world: she is a survivor. As a survivor (and one who belongs), she stays in the world and acts. And that’s the thing: moral imperfection is actually what saves her from perfectionism, from the moral perfectionism that makes martyrs — and ultimately connects her to the world around her, in an accepting, rooted (semi-ridiculous) way.
McSWEENEY’S: The subject matter of Flowers varies considerably, but the style is remarkably consistent. Have you always written in this style? If not, how did it develop? Any major turning points?
GEISLER: In many ways it was process of elimination. I didn’t really choose the style. But the more honest with myself and with everything I became, and the more openness and intensity I brought to the writing, the more it just sounded like that.
The poems came in a sustained way over a series of months. They all follow a certain idea, or tone, or form, or whatever you want to call it. Once I understood that form — and it was an incredibly solid, limiting form — I could pour all my intellectual/creativity energy into it and poems would come out until the form was — at least temporarily — exhausted.
McSWEENEY’S: Can you say something about the actual process of writing? Do you write by hand? a computer? Morning or night?
GEISLER: Writing makes me incredibly anxious so historically I have had to have extremely loud music playing in headphones and elaborate rituals of entry and exit to the writing process. This is usually in the morning, in a place that is at least a minimum distance away from where I call home and want to feel happy and relaxed.
McSWEENEY’S: Any strange/singular writing rituals you’d be willing to share?
GEISLER: I’m trying to get away from loud music. Basically, I think poetry, especially a short poem—which I sometimes think of as a sort of “miniature”—can be in danger of being precious. Of course, sentimentality, too, is a danger. I think for me, loud, transgressive music was a ritual element that helped prevent preciousness or sentimentality.
McSWEENEY’S: Do you see the poems’ aesthetics linked at all to the current American zeitgeist?
GEISLER: I sure hope so! Zeitgeists are a little slippery, though. I remember in workshopping these I once workshopped the poem with a chalupa in it. And people were like, “What’s a chalupa?” Now, I don’t know what exactly a chalupa is, but I did feel like if there was a chalupa in the book, it would be a good thing.
McSWEENEY’S: Many of these poems have a conversational tone. Were you imagining the speaker addressing anyone in particular?
GEISLER: You know, originally I thought of these as stories/thoughts someone might write on a bathroom stall in some public place. So — the original hypothetical audience was people on the toilet, basically.
McSWEENEY’S: What is your greatest fear as a writer?
GEISLER: I think many writers, including myself, fear seeming ridiculous. But I think ultimately that is just a fear to be embraced. I think I am a little ridiculous, as a writer. I’m just banking on other things being as absurd as the writing is, honestly.
McSWEENEY’S: What’s on your mind as you edit? Do you find a consistent aim or objective from poem-to-poem?
GEISLER: Editing is hard. Writing, I was just trying to surprise myself. I sometimes think, or tell myself, “Poetry is smarter than you are.” So I try to follow it, and I know I’m on the right track if there’s a surprise, or there’s an undermining of some (dull) assumption I didn’t realize I was making.
McSWEENEY’S: What spaces are available for American poetry to evolve into (in terms of style, subject matter, etc.)?
GEISLER: I think it’s really hard to be transgressive now. People have seen everything (internet, free time). It’s gotta be about building things up now, finding a tradition (or sub-tradition) and carrying it on. But that is hard as we as a culture are coming to an awareness of more and more negative things, some of which have remained at least partially hidden until recently. If I may mix two bad metaphors, I think this last year or so has been a coming out party for many of the skeletons in our cultural closet.
McSWEENEY’S: To what extent are these poems derived from (direct or indirect) experience? Where do the characters and scenes come from?
GEISLER: To me, it feels like my subconscious is a bag. And I just reach as deep as I can into it … and then pull up whatever’s there.
McSWEENEY’S: These poems manage to be both strange and familiar. Can you say something about how that dynamic functions in your poetry?
GEISLER: Yeah, I’m trying to defamiliarize. But I think that is also just the most fun part. It’s like a little transcendence ride up, and then a nice little safe fall back down to the familiar.
McSWEENEY’S: What type/s of experiences do you hope the reader has while reading your poems?
GEISLER: I hope she laughs! And I hope, too, maybe she feels “caught” or described or implicated somehow.
McSWEENEY’S: How do you see repetition and tautology (e.g., “an umbrella-shaped umbrella”) functioning in your poems?
GEISLER: I think those are fun. And surprising. And inverting of expectations somehow. I’m just trying to expand consciousness in almost cutely small ways, like most poetry is.
McSWEENEY’S: What are the greatest challenges for poets today?
GEISLER: There’s so much poetry published today, and poetry is so hard to put in conceptual boxes (if it’s done right). And that means that finding new books to read can sometimes be hard (especially if one is in law school). I think some kind of Netflix or Amazon-type algorithm would be extremely hard with poetry, complex as it is.
McSWEENEY’S: Speaking of law — you’re now trained as a lawyer. How does this dimension of your life interact with poetry-writing?
GEISLER: It doesn’t interact that well! I think it makes me emphasize vitality, and freshness, and irrationality in particular — as a counterpoint to the law.
McSWEENEY’S: Are you working on a new collection at the moment? If so, is there anything you can tell us about it?
GEISLER: Yes, I more or less am. It’s tentatively called You Want It Too Much. I want it to be a little more constructive, I guess.