Blake Butler interviews poet Tao Lin
At 23, Tao Lin has managed to end up with his name in a ridiculous number of mouths. Between his seemingly endless list of publications both print and online, to his trouble-stirring rants about editing and first serial rights and, yes, hamsters, at his blog, Reader of Depressing Books, people are taking notice. Whether infuriated or astonished, it’s impossible to argue that he’s not doing work that demands attention.
His most recent book of poetry, ‘you are a little bit happier than i am,’ is alternatingly funny and sad and irrational about heartfelt things and overly rational about oblique things and offhand and stylized and witty and childish and for the most part just very entertaining. It’s kind of like when a smart toddler does a drawing that kind of blows your mind by how right it is in its unassumingness and isolation unto itself.
Tao’s voice has an odd mix of deadpan humor and extreme bleakness, which may often leave the reader laughing out loud, but also squirming at his or her own laughter. In ‘i am unemployed,’ Tao imagines a water bottle as the CEO of company that will hire him in a part time position that pays full time, and then end up chugging the water to show his dominance over it, which in turn causes his brain to scream. This kind of peculiar, back and forth quasi-conflict invokes a surreal but still heavy-hitting brand of self-exploration. A line in the poem ‘i saw you on the street’ seems to capture the mood entirely…”sometimes a beach ball came from the darkness and i hit it back into the darkness.”
Other of Tao’s poems seem more intentionally antagonistic. In “i am about to kill my literary agent,” he writes: i can kill my literary agent’s entire family / just kidding / some of you just thought, ’it’s wrong to kill the wife and the children’ / but really i’m kidding / even though i shouldn’t be / since it’s probably philosophically sound to kill people / because life is suffering and suffering is the only real evil / and if you want to have meaning then that’s pretty much all you get / to make it your goal to wake up and kill people / not just select kinds of people, like hitler did, but all people, like the universe did in the future. Anything is fair game. Thus it’s with a sense of humor and an expectation that anything might happen that you must approach Tao’s work.
Recently Tao and I discussed his new collection as well as a number of other topics including the Nobel Prize, violence, Halloween costumes and Lydia Davis.
BB: A lot of your work seems to come from a place where black humor is used to express extreme self-analysis. What poets make you laugh?
TL: Ellen Kennedy, Matthew Rohrer, Michael Earl Craig, Ben Lerner, Joshua Beckman, and Noah Cicero make me laugh. I don’t really ever laugh when reading. I just think, “I like that. That is funny.” Or maybe I smile sometimes. James Tate is funny to me also, but rarely in a way that is also very desperate, or sad, or whatever it is. Jennifer L. Knox is funny to me also but even more rarely in a way that is also very desperate, or sad, etc. Some people they write and their goal is to make you laugh so that you will think they are a funny person, or so that you will forget your problems or forget to feel sad. Other people, their goal is to console themselves from sadness, loneliness, fear, or death by making themselves laugh, or so that you will be able to simultaneously feel sad and okay. The second kind of person are those six writers I listed. I like reading that kind of writing.
BB: You’ve become a bit of an iconoclast amongst online readers, from the Kevin Sampsell/Future Tense correspondence (http://reader-of-depressing-books.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_reader-of-depressing-books_archive.html), to a recent letter sent from an online mag’s editor regarding your submission of previously published works. It seems to work both for you and against you. People know your name. There are a lot of shit talkers and a lot of praise. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
TL: I don’t think it has worked ‘for’ me or ‘against’ me. I feel uncomfortable that my books will get more attention now because of these things. But there is no factual reason for that discomfort, I don’t think. Because I also know that if I think what I’m doing is good, if I think that it will reduce pain and suffering in the world, etc., then I should want more attention for myself if only as a means to get more people to think about these ideas and therefore reduce pain and suffering in the world. But I don’t know. I try never to think in terms of identity, of my own identity, though it is hard to do this and I probably spend more time existing in terms of identity, of giving more importance to my own identity, than in terms of no identity.
Since I don’t know what I want it wouldn’t make any difference if I had done things differently, so no. I know what I want only if I stop thinking or think in a way that excludes information that exists. I do that sometimes. I do that most of the time.
A lot of writers talk about the importance of writing without an agenda, yet in their real lives they vote, they use the word ‘should’ a lot, and they talk shit about George W. Bush. If a person believes that George W. Bush is bad for the world and does things like vote or make bumper stickers and still wants to write fiction then they should either (1) use all their fiction and poetry to convey that George W. Bush is bad or else only do things in the real world like creating anti-Bush bumper stickers or whatever and not write or (2) be honest and say that George W. Bush is only bad given a certain worldview, a worldview that I (the person) don’t actually believe in or else believe in only sarcastically, with the knowledge that no one knows anything.
The reason for this is because you cannot have two philosophies at the same time, or within the same day (writing without an agenda and then going to Kinkos to make anti-Bush bumper stickers), without admitting that the universe itself has no philosophy for you and that you do not know what you are doing.
I mean you can do that, but you won’t be able to make a philosophical proof about it, or something.
Okay. I think what I am trying to say is that you can either (1) have an agenda all the time or you can (2) have no agenda ever or you can (3) have an agenda sometimes and no agenda sometimes and do these things sarcastically, with equal importance for all things, for everything you ever do, from making bumper stickers to brushing your teeth.
Those are the three choices. If you don’t choose and someone who thinks without preconception locks you in a room and tortures you while screaming, “Explain the universe, explain your philosophy of life, and explain and justify your actions!” then you will be fucked. That will never happen.
BB: Your work often seems like such an odd mix of playful and depressed, as in ‘things i wanted to do today,’ in which you there is a list of things of all awkward, pleasant things that were ‘wanted’ to happen, but the mode does not shift from ‘wanted to do,’ and so, stepping back into the mood of the pieces that surround it, it seems almost defeated, if still well-wished. I kind of think you could be bipolar. Are you bipolar? Do you believe in psychiatry, for yourself or others?
TL: I don’t think I am bipolar.
Do I believe in psychiatry? I don’t know what that means. I don’t believe in clinical depression, how it is viewed by most people. That you either have it or don’t. To me obviously it is on a scale, like everything. Actually, maybe not. I learned once that like after a certain number of enzymes enter an area the synapse will fire. Like if 89 enzymes are there the synapse will not fire. If 90 are there the synapse will fire. Enzyme is the wrong word. In conclusion, I don’t know about that. Psychological terms are there mostly so that drug companies can make money off pills, that therapists can make money, etc., like most terms. Obviously every person is unique. Using terms denies that blatantly.
BB: How much of each day do you spend feeling defeated? What satisfies you?
TL: I don’t feel defeated very much.
I feel defeated all the time, but by things I can’t change. I mean I just ‘feel’ and in that ‘feeling’ is included things like death, limited-time, mystery of existence, free will with no instructions, etc. Some people feel ‘defeated’ all the time and that is how they exist. That is me. I think that is one difference between the writer who writes primarily to entertain others and the writer who writes primarily to entertain or rather console oneself.
I’m only ever satisfied in a self-deluding way. I can be happy but I know the happiness is fleeting, and I want to know that the happiness is fleeting. For me to block out that life is fleeting, that others are suffering, that something exists called ‘death,’ would make me feel like I am lying to myself, which would make me feel bad and nervous. Though I also feel bad and nervous not blocking out those things.
BB: What do you think about mental violence as an outlet for depression?
TL: When I’m depressed I don’t think about killing I just lay on my bed staring. When I write about animals being violent usually I need to be happy to do it because I need to be feeling creative. If I’m depressed and I drink a lot of coffee I can be creative but usually only in ways describing depressed, or ‘fucked,’ states.
I don’t understand the word ‘outlet’ when used like this. If a pot has boiling water in it and you remove the cover the heat will go away faster. People use too many metaphors. As a result I think most people today now believe that human emotions are literally ‘inside’ of us and can either be ‘let out’ or ‘burned’ like calories.
I don’t know how to give advice to anyone. I think Susan Sontag does that. Ask the modern equivalent of Susan Sontag. I don’t know who that is.
BB: Your writing tends to have a very impromptu edge to it, as in it is coming from somewhere straight, unvarnished, where the small edges of each sentence carry as much weigh as other author’s aim for big climax. Hence we end up with stories about things that to most people would never come near their palate. Do you embrace stream of consciousness? How much do you edit yourself?
TL: My internet things might seem more impromptu. Some things can be typed really fast. If it’s just a narrative I can do that very fast. If it’s just plot and I want it to be funny.
If you read my print books it might seem different. Probably 95% of the time I worked on them was editing, for the novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE, and the story-collection, BED. But I don’t know what the word ‘edit’ means really. I had about 40,000 words for the novel and then worked on it for one to three months, I forget how long, and then had 28.000 words. I had between 28,000 to 29,000 words for the novel for about one month working on it every day.
BB: Why is the novel called EEEEE EEE EEEE?
TL: It is called EEEEE EEE EEEE. In the novel the dolphins go, ‘EEEEE EEE EEEE.’ The bears go, ‘Hrr, hrr,’ when they’re cold. Salman Rushdie is embarrassed to stand in front of one hundred people and say, ‘EEEEE EEE EEEE.’ That’s the only reason I named it that. Salman Rushdie determines what I do each day. In the novel an animal murders him. Jhumpa Lahiri’s name occurs in the novel like fifteen times I think. She doesn’t die. She’s just talked about. Because writers talk about other writers.
BB: You seem to like things that are very simple in syntax, but that capture some odd angle of living without trying to summarize it. What kind of movies do you like?
TL: I like Woody Allen movies and Yi-Yi. Yes, I watch movies. I don’t watch TV. I listen to music a lot. I actually enjoy listening to music. Most books I read I don’t actually enjoy reading. I’m not sure how to describe what I feel when I’m reading. Some books I enjoy though. Only a few. I enjoy The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams, Honored Guest by Joy Williams. I enjoy A Green Light by Matthew Rohrer.
BB: Some people say that dreams shouldn’t show up in fiction. That they are burdensome, that no one wants to hear about it. Some of my favorite parts in fiction are a character’s dreams. What do you think?
TL: I don’t know what I think. If it’s all just words and sentences, what does it matter if it is a dream or not, I guess.
Joy Williams puts in people’s dreams and it’s funny but because Joy Williams is funny (to me), not because all dreams are funny. Also, her characters usually don’t put too much meaning into their dreams. Some people dream and then center the rest of their week around interpreting their real life through that dream.
My story, ROBBERS, that is in Hobart #4 is a dream my mom had. She told me the dream and I wrote it almost exactly like she dreamed it. And I like the story.
BB: What do you think about the function of the error or the mistake during the creation of your stories?
TL: I don’t know what you mean by ‘error.’ If I don’t know what I’m doing I can’t make errors. I can make an error in baseball because there are rules. I don’t know what rules there are to writing. Maybe if I make a typo that is an ‘error.’
I don’t really think of it as ‘creating’ stories. If I’m writing something funny I just do it. If I want to express that I feel like shit I also just do it. I don’t sit there thinking, ‘I must create a great story.’ I sit there thinking, ‘How do I feel.’ Or, ‘What can I type that will make me feel better.’ Or, ‘What can I type that will make my friends and I laugh and feel better.’ I don’t start with an image or a word or a ‘mysterious’ phrase that somehow is in my head magically. I also don’t have characters ‘talking’ in my head. I don’t see a mysterious face in my head and then feel that I must ‘discover’ who this person is. I just stare at the computer screen after drinking coffee.
Recently I only write about how I feel, what has happened to me, or what will make a specific person laugh or feel good. In this way I never feel like I have nothing to write about or that I can’t write or have ‘writer’s block.’
BB: Would you ever teach a workshop?
TL: I would teach. I would just pass out stories I like and then have them talk about it. If someone uses words like postmodern or post-punk or even, say, symbolism, I will keep asking them to explain exactly what they mean until they admit that they don’t actually know what they are talking about.
BB: Let’s have your thoughts on the following writers…
(a) Gordon Lish
TL: I read KRUPP’S LULU, some of it. I don’t remember any of it at all. I think I read a story about a dog by him. That is all I remember, that it was about a dog. I remember he uses, ‘I says,’ instead of ‘I say.’ Probably to make it consistent with ‘He says’ instead of ‘He say.’ Though if he did it the other way, making it ‘He say,’ it could have one less letter each time.
(b) Mary Robison
TL: I read OH!, a lot of her stories, and WHY DID I EVER. I read WHY DID I EVER more than twice. I liked it. I liked OH! also. She has one story called PRETTY ICE that people in relationships should read every day, it would make them be more considerate. It’s about a person who has gained weight and didn’t clean himself or wear a nice shirt when meeting his girlfriend and it’s from the girlfriend’s perspective. The girlfriend notices the person has gotten fat, did not wear a nice shirt, did not clean himself before meeting her, and then in the car says something stupid. It ends with the girlfriend thinking to herself as she smiles at the boyfriend that it is the last time she will smile at him. Because she is leaving him. It also has a flashback of a father’s suicide. Probably it needed that flashback or else it wouldn’t be an ‘important’ story and so wouldn’t be let into the New Yorker.
(c) Donald Barthelme
TL: I read a lot of his stories. In creative writing class one time I think I called him immature and the teacher slammed his fist on the table. I think I said his story, THE SCHOOL, or whatever it is called, was an immature critique of the education system. Richard Yates didn’t like Barthelme. I read Barthelme and I think that in real life he would care more about collecting rare gemstones or something than, say, being nice to neighbors or helping homeless people. Don’t tell me to separate the art from the artist. Both the art and the artist exist inside the universe, because everything exists inside the universe. Art does not exist outside the universe. Don’t try to argue about that sentence I just typed.
BB: In your new book, just about every poem has a reference to feeling afraid, at such things as seeing someone you know or being arrested or not being able to eat imaginary fruit fast enough. Just as often you have references to destroying things violently with knives or swords or throwing CD cases at the TV, etc. It makes me wonder what kind of things you dressed up as for Halloween when you were a child, assuming you did that? Which candies did you eat first?
TL: I dressed up as a cat once. I ate the colorful candies. I didn’t like chocolate. I didn’t wear costumes anymore after a while. In my neighborhood in Florida Halloween would just be an excuse to throw paint balls or balloons filled with shaving cream and water at other kids. The kids in back of the neighborhood would have a war with the front. We threw the paint balls instead of using paint ball guns because none of us owned paint ball guns.
BB: You have a press of children’s books, Ass Hi, which clearly isn’t much for children. Can you tell me a bit more? What would you do if you woke up tomorrow in charge of an 8 yr old child? Would you let them read your books?
TL: I would let an 8 yr old child read the books. They would ask questions and I would answer them. If they asked what an ‘orgy’ is I would answer them. Then they would go to 3rd grade and use the word ‘orgy’ and receive out-of-school suspension. In middle school they would use the word ‘motherfucker’ and be expelled. The child would eventually have the worldview that 99% of the population cannot think without preconception and have lives and rules that are supported by superstition, myth, society, The Great Gatsby, and Shrek; and that there is no way to dispel those superstitions, myths, etc., and that there is no reason to anyway.
That is why I will probably never have a child.
BB: Lastly, in ‘January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November,’ you ask a girl to describe herself in three words (‘vegan,’ ‘short,’ ‘loud’). Describe yourself in three words. It feels like I’m interviewing you.
TL: A person. Confused.
Tao Lin is the author of a poetry e-book, THIS EMOTION WAS A LITTLE E-BOOK (March 2006, Bear Parade), a chapbook of short fiction, TODAY THE SKY IS BLUE AND WHITE WITH BRIGHT BLUE SPOTS AND A SMALL PALE MOON AND I WILL DESTROY OUR RELATIONSHIP TODAY (August 2006, Bear Parade), a poetry-collection, YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM (October 2006, Action Books), a story-collection, BED (Spring 2007, Melville House), and a novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE (Spring 2007, Melville House). He is poetry editor for 3 a.m. magazine. His web site is Reader of Depressing Books. Tao lives in Pennsylvania.
Blake Butler‘s fiction has appeared in a variety of publications both print and online, including: McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Elimae, Eyeshot, Pindeldyboz, Opium, and others. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and had a story listed in BEST AMERICAN NON-REQUIRED READING OF 2005 as one of the notable pieces of the year. He was born, raised, and currently resides in Atlanta. His website is www.deadwinter.com.