Dynamite (Bull City Press, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
Dynamite is essentially an adventure story about traveling on the cheap through America. You’ll find poems about train hopping, dumpster diving, wilderness survival, a flooded hometown, sleeping in the houses of strangers, and childhood games turned violent.
Describe your writing process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I like the feeling of motion. So when I write, I usually walk or bike or climb trees first. My ideas and rhythms come more from my body than from my head, and I need to be physically animated––and actively breathing––before I start a poem. Robust breathing helps me write without self-censorship. It allows the process to be somatic, engaging the mind’s intellect but not limited to it.
Most of my first drafts never see daylight twice. When a draft engages me enough to revise it, the real work begins. I revise heavily, meaning hours and hours at the desk. Late at night, I walk and recite my drafts. If I can’t remember one of my own lines, it’s dead––so I bury it, or attempt to revive its basic impulse. Once I have a poem memorized and the breath feels right, I let someone I trust read it. At that stage, it’s usually issues of compression or clarity, or deciding to let it die. But I don’t have a secret formula. Writing is born of hard work. You have to love the work––no, it’s even more: you have to need the work.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Birdcalls” is about a time my brother and I were riding freight trains on the Highline route from Minneapolis to Seattle during a July heatwave. It’s a four-day trip across the prairie, so you have to bring a lot of water. We hid in tall brush in the Midway railyard for a whole day, dodging rail cops when they drove by, and when our train finally came, it didn’t stop––just slowed––so we had to run and catch it on the fly. We were carrying two gallon-jugs each in our hands because we couldn’t fit them in our packs. As we ran the ballast beside the train, we tossed the jugs down into the train-well to free our hands, and then climbed the ladder. But when we looked down into the train-well, our jugs had exploded and all out water was gone. So we started the sweltering cross-country trip with nothing to drink. “Birdcalls” chronicles one of many misadventures we faced on that trip.
(Read “Birdcalls” below.)
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates?
When I was eighteen, I got really into wilderness survival and spent time at multiple outdoor schools, including the Tracker School in the Pine Barrens, where there’s a super intense vibe. On the first day you have to coal-burn a bowl from a hunk of cedar and can only eat what fits in your bowl. Some people stay up all night and eat a big breakfast, some don’t eat much. You sleep in debris huts, make fires with sticks, and cover yourself in ash to stalk animals through the woods. The people who do this stuff are really unhinged. One girl was there for a whole summer worth of classes, but there was a two-week break in the school’s schedule, so she lived in an underground scout-pit and trapped animals for food until classes started up again. This ex-military guy was preparing for the apocalypse, hoping to become completely self-sufficient and adjust to a diet of 1,000-calories-per-day before sneaking across the border and disappearing in Canada’s mountains. Anyway, I learned a lot about survival, and came to see the world through that lens. It’s a severe outlook, with focuses on efficiency, basic physical needs, awareness through the senses, and constantly rethinking what any given object could become. In short, it teaches you how to do a lot with a little, and how to reshape what you already have to make something new. (Good lessons for poetry.) Most of my poems track a survival narrative, or apply a survivalist mindset to a situation or topic, so that’s some of what’s going on in the world of Dynamite.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
I read as much fiction as poetry. Storytelling is central to my work, and I’ve learned a great deal of craft from studying novels, especially novels with adventure stories. I’m thinking particularly of Cormac McCarthy, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Faulkner, Melville, and also Flannery O’Connor’s work, where the adventure is often a stranger’s arrival in a hometown setting.
I read nonfiction on all kinds of topics, especially human evolution, animal anatomy, early works of human art, freight trains, weather, Neanderthals (their anatomy, diet, and culture), and wilderness survival techniques. I love survival guides because they’re written in this flat, earnest tone while describing how to make it through super intense situations. There’s a kind of hypnosis in a calm voice telling you step-by-step how to slaughter an animal or how to last forty days without food while sleeping under a log. The emotion is buried, but its scent lingers on the air.
It’s also worth mentioning that I watch lots of skate videos. I grew up rollerblading and filming rollerblading, and much of my sense of aesthetics comes from this. It’s hard to explain all the links to poetry. Here’s part of it: skating employs rhythm and pacing, as well as pattern and surprise. The beginning of a skate trick makes a subtle contract with the viewer, similar to the contract the beginning of a poem makes. That contract is then fulfilled, manipulated, or entirely broken. For me, the basic aesthetics of skating are almost identical to the basic aesthetics of writing poetry.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my first full-length poetry collection, which has all the elements found in Dynamite, plus a broader range of styles, narratives, and themes, including a long sequence of persona poems and a focus on human evolution––Neanderthals, cannibalism, archeological digs, Harris lines in the bones of excavated skeletons, primitive fire-starting techniques, the development of human speech––all that good stuff.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
When I began writing, I found myself surrounded––accidentally––by the best writing mentors and teachers I could have hoped for. This was at Fairhaven College of Western Washington University, where I had the honor of working with Bruce Beasley, Oliver de la Paz, Stan Tag, and my close writing mentor Mary Cornish. I was lucky. I would encourage young writers to look for mentors and community––bearing in mind that, inevitably, it won’t be how you imagined it. I would also encourage young writers to get the fuck out of their heads. Everyone says read, read, read, and write, write, write––and that’s good advice, but it’s not the whole story. If you want to offer something real, you’ve got to go out and live and struggle and listen and notice things and face the facts of how small and limited you are. You have to grow into yourself, and into the world. Writers aren’t technicians. You have to master your craft, but you also have to be a person. And don’t doubt your obsessions. If you stay true to your basic writing impulses, you’ll find a way to make it sing, and make the song cool.
Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellow, 2015 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow, and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Blackbird, AGNI, Best New Poets, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he holds an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University.
I crept around the dark train yard
while my brother watched for bulls.
Two days deep into the Badlands
and all our water gone. We had a birdcall
for if you saw something and another
for if you heard. A silent yard eight strings wide
with a few junkers parked. The horizon
a dull burn. The rails lit dimly by dew.
I was looking for the water bottles
the conductors used and threw out the windows
with maybe a sip left inside them.
I found one by stepping on it.
I sucked it like a leech. I stumbled
up and down the ballast and found five more,
unbuttoning my shirt and nesting them
against my chest upright and capless.
We had the sandpiper for if you should run
and the flycatcher for if you should hide.
I can’t remember why we had the loon.
I crouched in the space between coal trains,
cradling the bottles and feeling the weight
of how little I had to spill.
I rubbed coal on my face. I felt crazy.
I thought about being found like this.
I tried to imagine what my story would be.
A version with my brother in it.
A version with no brother. I swear
I could smell rain a thousand miles away.
I could smell rain in the soot. I folded my hands
around my lips and made the gray ghost,
which told him where I was.
And also meant stay alert.
And also meant some other things
only owls understood.
(first appeared in Blackbird)