Glenn Shaheen is the author of Predatory (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Republic, Subtropics, and elsewhere. He lives in Michigan, where he edits the journal NANO Fiction and serves as poetry editor for the journal Third Coast.
REAL: Would it be accurate to call the past decade one dominated primarily by fear, panic?
Glenn Shaheen: I definitely think it’s accurate. It sort of seems like this new decade is shaping up to be one dominated primarily by fear and panic as well, but hopefully that’s just the residue. Of course, maybe fear and panic are the threads that hold America together, maybe they’re always our engine – I was a kid in the 80s, and not living in America, but I can think of any number of R-rated movies from that decade that show a fear of anarchy, or governmentlessness. Punk rock kids opening switchblades on middle class couples, street gangs of indeterminate non-white origin spray-painting a businessman’s car, bands of immigrants with difficult and deadly problems they’ve brought across the border with them to the suburbs…these images were meant to compel (or reflect, as is the duty of art) a fear in a populace whose economic power was being stripped away from them by the policies of Reagan. But I’m reaching, maybe looking too far into Arnold movies. This past decade the appeal to fear has been more brazen, certainly, and used far more blatantly by politicians and the media.
REAL: In “Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind,” Martin Amis argues that the age of terror will also be remembered as the age of boredom. To what extent do you agree or disagree with his notion? Is boredom a theme you feel finds its way into the work in Predatory?
GS: To answer that question (though I haven’t read the Amis book) we should look to what is the source of our fear. What are we worried about? That we will die? I don’t think that’s necessarily it. It’s a worry that our way of living will change, yes, maybe not even drastically. And what is our way of living, apart from “freedom” or whatever jingoism a politician may throw at you? That of the most excess. In America we literally have everything to lose, so why wouldn’t we be afraid all the time? If people in other parts of the world perceive such a degree of ill caused by us that they would attack the strongest nation, then that means we must change the way we live. Not that we “give in to terrorism,” no, but that we reevaluate whether or not the way we live is the best possible way. But even a national evaluation takes real effort, from politician to Wal-Mart greeter. So of course as a nation we’ve been trying our best for ten years to do nothing, to respond to these threats not with work and thought, but with the same old military song that maybe briefly worked a few times in the past. We’ve got all these video games, man, how are we going to ever beat them if we’ve got to actually do something? This is boredom on a national scale, yes. The idea that we could ever go back to a “simpler” time is boredom, is laziness – what kind of nation wants to live simply?
In Predatory I’ve tried to include a lot of the sort of bread and circuses that we bore ourselves with to try to keep us from thinking of the difficulties of living in America – video games, tv shows, movies, heartbreak, etc. The terror that exists in the poems alongside of these things is always threatening to make the diversions impossible. The fear is of an “apocalypse,” but that’s ridiculous – the real apocalypse for many of us would be that we couldn’t watch television without feeling the inexorable guilt that we ought to.
REAL: One aspect of Predatory I find fascinating is guilt, and its sources. Guilt is not anything new to literature, though I feel there is something of a moral twist to these poems. Whereas one might feel guilty about adultery or drug use or child rearing–and whereas much of these subject matters have been covered many times over in contemporary lit–here the guilt stems from the speaker’s belief in the role of the individual within a society. It’s a kind of Western Civ guilt: duty as a citizen. You must be Canadian, or something!
GS: I’ve always believed in John Locke’s idea of action against an unjust government being a responsibility. I don’t mean violence, I don’t think violence is the best possible solution. And when I say unjust I don’t mean a government who is killing its citizens, or taking away their freedoms, either. What I mean is that when our government is doing something, here or on foreign soil, unless we are actively engaged in an ongoing and extended dialogue with them, via protest, via union organization, then we are saying we accept everything they’re doing. We’re responsible and guilty for all of their actions. To vote once a year is good, but it is not enough. Watching The Daily Show and telling your like-minded friends that things are unacceptable is not enough. Stopping by Occupy Wall Street to listen to Jeff Mangum play a set is not enough. We’ve got to continually participate in a dialogue, and if we are too lazy to do so, then we are culpable in every action our country makes. And certainly, I don’t go out to protests all the time. I’ve only been to two in my life. In one as soon as the police threatened to arrest us we all just went home. That’s barely any kind of action. Writing a political book of poetry is also barely any kind of action. So I do feel guilt, for example, for the government sanctioned torture of people who look like me. It’s my fault because I’ve chosen that is an acceptable enough practice that I mainly live my life as though it were not happening.
REAL: What does a crumbling infrastructure offer a poet?
GS: A crumbling infrastructure offers a poet the same thing a rotten pork chop offers a maggot. I’m being a bit glib, I suppose. Nobody should want a crumbling American infrastructure – it’s bad for our health, education, future… I read a statistic once that said more Americans are killed because of poorly maintained roads each year than by drunk driving. And as an educator in universities I’ve spent a lot of my time incredulous about the kind of stuff my freshman don’t know (not to diminish my students, they’re incredibly capable). These kids are getting the short end of whatever stick we’ve got left. Obviously I’ve leeched onto this awfulness and written about it like some kind of human bug, but that’s art baby. And it’s all so terrible, but it’s also incredibly funny. We’re the wealthiest country in the world by far and we really can’t afford to keep our own bridges from collapsing? We clearly can, but for some reason people (wealthy people) have decided that it’s in our (their) best interest to just let it all go, to create this narrative about being broke. One of the most hilarious analogies I heard a politician use was that “If your family at your home runs out of money for a month, you just stop spending!” It’s so simple! But the logic of the situation is that our toilet is overflowing, we’re buying dozens of handguns to protect ourselves from our “scaaarrry neighbors,” our daughter is a multimillionaire making beaucoup bucks on insider trading, our son is making millions in the entertainment industry posting videos of our overflowing toilet online, and we’re “broke.” It’s just really funny to me that we’re letting this happen to us, and obviously tragic because it’s not a toilet we’re talking about, it’s thousands of Americans dying needlessly. Comedy plus tragedy, that’s the best formula for artistic creation.
REAL: How important is form to your poetry? The poems displayed here in REAL all follow a strict form, whereas the poems in your book vary quite a bit.
GS: Form is very important to my poetry. Even though in Predatory things don’t follow a specific structure, always, the form I choose for each poem is crucial. If the poem is spread out across the page, it may be because I want to isolate moments of shift, or moments of a particular emotional tone. If the poem is a solid block, then it may be that I want the reader to read more slowly, especially if the poem is one that changes direction a lot. Of course, what I intend the form to mean may not be what it actually does for each reader, but that’s ok too.
REAL: One of my favorite poems from Predatory is “The Halifax Explosion.” After a litany of bizarre and startling (not to mention gorgeous) images, the poem ends on something of a hopeful note.
GS: Thanks! Of course (if this is not a copout) all writing is hopeful, in a sense. Even when a poem is wallowing in despair we write because of a belief, even if it’s subconscious, that somehow the situations we are addressing can be changed. I accidentally told an auditorium of fourth graders that writing poetry is a way to fight back against the misery that is life, thrashing against the current. Uh, whoops! Stay in school everybody!
REAL: It isn’t everyday we here at REAL get to reference sixteenth century neoclassic theorists, but here goes: Lodovico Castelvetro once asserted that “spectacle exerts very great powers of attraction on the soul.” To what extent does a spectacle like the Halifax explosion offer a form of hope or catharsis for the spectator?
GS: To those who were there and were injured or lost loved ones, the catastrophe itself offered no hope or catharsis. That would have been created by the aftermath, and the ways people moved past squabbles to help and look for survivors, to rebuild. I’m not entirely sure I can speak for the Haligonians of a hundred years ago, but we’re very narrow-minded creatures. That is, we have difficulty seeing the world in any other context other than the individual self – this is where many people’s idea that the world will end soon comes from. The inability to believe that the world could continue beyond the self. It’s conceited, but that’s how we usually work. When disaster strikes (is that a Fox tv show?) we are pushed to look beyond the boundaries of the self-made world, and see things from a larger perspective. Not everybody does this, but many people do, and it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do all the time, we just can’t be bothered to think like that, it’s exhausting. I think maybe that’s the way catastrophic spectacle offers us hope or catharsis. Or me, anyway, ha ha.
REAL: Are there any habits in your work you wish you could break?
GS: In Predatory there’s a lot of violence, and violence kept creeping into my poems post Predatory, too. It belongs in Predatory, but I don’t want to keep going for the images of weaponry, or violence, so I’m really trying to take them out of the newer work. It’s a violent world, yes, but it’s also a beautiful world, full of love and sex and hockey games.
REAL: What role does humor play in your poetry?
GS: After my parents read my book, I asked them what they thought, hoping maybe it would be good enough to diffuse the fact that I didn’t go to law school. They said “It’s really dark.” There are moments of comedy in individual poems, but if you picked almost any poem, even with a few funny images they’re going to seem super depressing, probably. Part of the way I put the book together, though, was that in the beginning things seem really dire, but as the book progresses the capital DOOM just becomes silly, and the poems start to acknowledge that. It’s tough picking poems for readings, because with a small dose the book may come across as relentlessly bleak, but I mean for the apocalyptic hypothesis of the speaker to fall apart under its own weight, to become comedy. Is that me saying too much about my own work? It’s easy to say that the small moments of humor are used as a counterbalance, but I think it’s even funnier if you take the anvil and just drop it on the opposite side of the scale from the feather.
REAL: What are you working on now?
GS: I’m working on poems, and maybe a new manuscript is starting to take shape. Poems that deal with our concepts of community, on the small scale of a familial or romantic unit, to the national and global. How are we all connected, and how to we fuel or let starve that connection? I’m also trying to write some more flash fiction, which I sort of let slip away once the book got taken. It’s nice to have an outlet for pure narrative, you know?