Wenderoth's newest book, <i>If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep</i>, is a dark and peculiar volume you might keep in the same drawer with your <i>Faces of Death</i> tapes and the <i>Flowers of Evil</i>. I talked to him about his new poetry collection and...
Joe Wenderoth’s newest book, If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep, is my favorite of his since the cult classic Letters to Wendy’s—a novel written as comment-card replies to Wendy's over the course of one year. Everyone I know who read Wendy's ended up wanting to get an excerpt from it tattooed on his or body, and I imagine a good number of them will want to do the same with Wenderoth's newest offering.
There’s a strange energy lurking throughout this collection of poems, which over the course of 96 pages folds together bizarre but mindful meditations on disembodiment, performance, poison, reality TV, fatal accidents, agony, and negation. It feels ritualistic in a way, a dark and peculiar volume you might keep in the same drawer with your Faces of Death tapes and The Flowers of Evil.
Recently, Wenderoth was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his new book via email.
VICE: Right from the title of the first poem, "Satan Is Real," there's a very cryptic, almost occult-like tone to the feel of this book—even maybe a Lynchian menace… How did the framework of this project come together, and over what time?
Joe Wenderoth: I think I know what you mean by that word, "occultish," but I'm not sure. I think you are speaking to the fact that brevity and ambiguity, when they mate, produce an offspring who is full of contradiction. So brief… and yet so difficult to engage. Celan wrote brief and ambiguous poems, of course, and was subsequently accused of dissembling, if not occultism. His response:
As for my alleged encodings, I’d rather say: undissembled ambiguity… I try to reproduce cuttings from the spectral analysis of things, to show them in several aspects and permeations at once…. I see my alleged abstractness and actual ambiguity as moments of realism.
I also think of a statement Dizzy Gillespie made: "The longer you play, the more you should be aware of the superfluous in your playing." I would like to believe that some of these new poems of mine are more aware of the superfluous in my playing. While I am all for eliminating the superfluous, and even perhaps for a kind of distillation of what I have to say, I am not for dissembling what I have to say. I intend for what I have to say to be as clear as possible. But that's exactly Celan's point: The ambiguity of what the poet has to say is not circumstantial—it is essential. It cannot be vanquished. To vanquish it would be to remove completely the poetic from the poem. So the art is in bringing clarity to a poem without losing the ambiguity essential to its subject.
But maybe you meant something else by that term.
Do you sleep well?
Mainly, I'd say yes. But I can explain. It does seem sort of offensive to answer yes to this question. It implies thoughtlessness, or the ability to achieve—easily, regularly—thoughtlessness. It's that period between lying down and falling asleep, between thinking and dreaming. This is the hell space insomniacs know so well—that stretch wherein the autonomy of the will must be abandoned. How does a person abandon the specific concerns of their own personhood? How does the person abandon the person? But this abandoning must occur… or sleep does not come. It is a kind of defeat—a daily defeat—if you look at it that way.
I sleep well because of drugs. Without drugs, I had problems. Sometimes I was an insomniac, but more often I was just in pain. It was hard to keep still in pain. With the drug regimen, I sleep pretty well, but it causes me to sleep a bit more. I take a nap every day in the afternoon. I think I look forward to the abandoning of the autonomy of the will. It's never that far away, and I'm always aware of that fact. When I was younger, I was less aware of it, and could even forget about it completely. Now I have a nice rhythm to my abandonings of myself. Keep me from my afternoon nap at your own risk. This makes me think of a person as a kind of vehicle—I could opt to have a faster (and more desperate) model, or I could opt to slow myself down. I'm sure I could get speed prescribed to me, and on it, I might be more "productive." I guess I don't do it because I think the desire to be productive is something only had by those who haven't been taught anything by the certainty of sleep.
I like the thought of sleep drugs in relation to this book, because reading it feels kind of like taking Ambien to me. There’s often a performative aspect to many of the pieces, like “Darkness,” which outlines a plan to have your entire life filmed and played in a theater after your death, or “Idea,” which describes an infernal-seeming, nearly living kind of book. It’s sometimes creepy—almost haunted. Do you ever scare yourself when writing? Are there books you have been scared by?
I can't take pills that are for sleep. Makes me feel horrible—exhausted but unable to let go because it feels like I would fall too fast or too deep. But scared by my own writing? No. Other books? No. I think for me the writing and the reading of books comes after fearfulness, and always in response to it. I am afraid. That's a constant. I can forget it's there sometimes, and sometimes I am subject to its flaring up. The flare-ups always have to do with reality, i.e., the true formlessness of things. When I'm reading or writing, it's a given that I've turned away from my fear (and the sense of external reality my fear directly concerns) at least enough to get some sense of how I wear it, i.e., the figure my fear and I cut. It's interesting to keep track of the fearfulness one endures—it's celebratory, even. Considering the towering (and justifiable) fearfulness we live in, it is amazing to me that we are able to speak of having endured it, enduring it.
What does bring you fear?
I have some visceral fears—heights, for instance. But the real fear—the fear I withstand always and as a matter of course—the fear that defines, or at least colors, desire—is a fear of the end of the world. I do not mean nuclear war, global warming, or judgment day. I mean the end of the world that is already underway, and that has been underway for as long as language has allowed. I mean the end of the world that happens over and over again. The end of the world that every social situation intends to hold off, and maybe does hold off, for a time. I recall my daughter at age 5—the way she looked, the way her voice sounded, the way she thought. She's gone now, that child, even if my daughter is still with me. I recall the days when I had a close extended family—days catching butterflies that no longer come around—days watching The Wide World of Sports, an Ali fight! As you get older, you get to a point where you feel like you have seen the world end too many times. Every situation, one comes (finally) to understand, will end, will maybe be remembered a while, and then will be absolutely gone, wholly forgotten. I fear losing what I love. It has happened already so many times—it gets harder and harder to be there, on that shrinking ground, even as my investment in it increases. I understand why people throw themselves down at the savior's knees. I guess I do it, too, though in anger and spite rather than a hope of magic. I tend to concur with Celan, who said something like: I shall blaspheme till the end.
Two Poems from If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep
"An Injured Ship"
(an injured ship)
(blood to start the wind)
"How To Visit Europe on A Budget"
What I do is
I go down to the thrift store
and get a bunch of discarded action figures,
and I take them home
and dump them in my sink.
(The sink should be white—
pastels may cause overwhelming despair—
and there should be a mirror behind it.)
Then I take off my clothes,
close my eyes,
and masturbate on to the heap
of variously staring figures,
thinking of something else entirely.
When I come, I open my eyes,
looking myself in the eyes in the mirror.
I do not yet look down at the heap.
Before I consider the heap,
I run a straight razor across my forehead
(This should always be done slowly—
or at any rate, should not be rushed.)
I hold my face above the sink,
my eyes looking still into my eyes,
and I let the blood drip down.
I let the blood drip down for ages.
My eyes looking into my eyes.
Then, when ages have passed,
I look down into the sink.
I look down into the sink
at the bloody cum-splashed staring heap.
It's so beautiful!
Even so, I'm always glad to get back home.
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