Interview: Spencer Madsen Writes Real-Life Poetry for Real-Life Attention Spans

Poet and publisher Spencer Madsen mines the :-)s and :-(s of modern life.

March 07, 2014

Poet and publisher Spencer Madsen mines the :-)s and :-(s of modern life.

Spencer Madsen is a writer who will, with equal enthusiasm, tweet a selfie of his butt and write the sincerest, saddest line of poetry you've ever read. Like so many of us, he's drowning in stimuli, emotion, options and the up-and-down of the weird 21st century world, but unlike most of us, he's wonderful at succinctly expressing his feelings about it—the 140 character limit of a tweet is the guardian angel of his work, whether that's through mooning the world on social media or using the tone of the internet to write about sad cats. Even when he has the space of an entire book, like his new one, You Can Make Anything Sad, he fills it with short lines and thoughts that grab your attention with their earnestness and arrest the unending, often cynical feed of modern media—he and peers like Mira Gonzalez, Gabby Bess and Steve Roggenbuck have helped bring poetry out of the grad class and made it urgent again. I spoke with Madsen while he was in Seattle at a writer's conference about his new book, which is out April 29 on Adam Robinson's very cool small press in Baltimore called Publishing Genius—pre-order the book, watch a very funny short trailer for it and read our interview below

You’re at a publishing industry convention right now—how do you feel like you fit in with the overall industry? It’s not really my bag, the whole MFA world, like more precious poetry. I am excited by readings where everyone’s kind of wasted and having a good time and the distance between the audience and the performer is engaging. I find that there’s a lot of that going on right now. It’s kind of shifting away from academia and it’s a lot more accessible, fun and social. So when it feels that way, I think it’s great.

Let’s talk about that a little bit before we get to the book. There’s been a lot of chatter about writers like yourself opening up poetry to the public and the internet age and making it more fun and young. Well, I feel like among my peers there’s an emphasis on actual experience. It isn’t imagined—we’re not writing about something fantastical, or transcendent, or spiritual. It’s very much about how you felt when you’re with a bunch of people that you’re supposed to like but you feel alone from. It’s in very real terms, which is always going to be more accessible to real people who have real lives and aren’t spending a lot of time studying the way it’s been written for years. And instead people are living their life and they come to find a book that reflects their experience.

Do you feel like a part of something, or is that the media of lumping you guys together? I feel like a part of a friend group that borders on family, and could be called a community, especially with people like Mira [Gonzalez] and Gabby [Bess]. Because Mira and Gabby both moved to New York, where I already was, and they dropped out of school and I had just dropped out of school as well. And we’re all kind of just flailing and hustling, and really being our own agents and publishers and editors and everything else. Like I really respect them, and I feel comfortable I have other people who are doing the same thing.

From the outside looking in, it’s so nice to see young people creating things together—how does that feel in a basic way? I think it feels very much like I would expect a start-up company would feel like. Because while we’re doing different projects, we’re all in it together. I feel like we all have a friendship that involves each other in a kind of interest in collaborating and would take opportunities where we could put out something together rather than go out and pitch to another magazine or press. Because we also understand that it’s in our best interest to work together rather than try to transcend our friends and peer-group and try to feel superior.

Is that why it was important for you to have your own press and publishing house, Sorry House? Yeah, well what I was looking for with Sorry House was really something I could do with my hands. The despair that I reach in writing is one relying on my mental faculties and my emotional faculties—which are finite. I would love to be someone that could just sit and write and write, but I don’t find writing fulfilling unless I’m writing about something that feels real. There’s only so much life I can live and write about, and feel good about. It comes to a point when I’m sitting on my desk and I’m like, what do I do? I’ve done what I feel like I have to do and I still have more hours left in the day. And with Mira being my friend it’s such a fun process because I can tell her like, “This is a shitty poem that you have here.”

Are you able to do that? Fully. And we edited her collection. I did a few rounds of edits that I would show to her, and we would go over it. And she was cool with pretty much all the changes because it was just a matter of cutting and cleaning and making what I thought was funny punchier and more succinct. And making the poems as accessible as possible because there would be times, as there naturally is with any performance, where you’re guarding yourself. So it was my job to basically say the point of the poem is in these few lines, and everything else is trying to hide it. If she defended it, I would just say like, "You know what, fine, if you want your shitty book the way it is, we’ll call it yours."

I have to say, you use the word “accessibility” and I’m really impressed by you using that word. Poetry can feel inaccessible, and it’s not a field of art at this point that you would expect to hear a word like accessibility. I don't feel smart enough for a lot of poetry, but I read your poems with joy and don’t feel alienated. I’m super happy to hear that. I get the same way too. Insecurity—like I’m not smart enough for this poem or even this novel. Poetry especially comes down to your ability to “read poetry.” It doesn’t come down to intelligence or imagination or anything else. It’s like the SATs. The SAT doesn’t measure how smart you are, it measures how good you are in taking the SAT. I feel like I fucking hate almost all poetry. I don’t enjoy it. If I go to a poetry section, especially at Barnes & Noble, I’m just not going to find anything that’s going to make me laugh or feel emotional because I just don’t care about birds or trees or plants.

Are there are any classic poets that you do like? In high school I really liked Sara Teasdale. I like that she’s kind of under-read. That’s really important to me in a book and in also publishing. As a publisher I want to find something that wouldn’t make it out into the world without me. If Stephen King came to me and said, "I have my 45th book and I’m looking for a publisher," I would have zero interest in publishing it because everyone wants a Stephen King novel and readers and publishers alike are going to find a way to have it. You know, it doesn’t give me a sense of meaning to put that out.

But to be honest, I’m not well versed in poetry. I took a few classes in college but there was rarely a class in college I managed to stay in throughout the whole semester. The glimmers I got when I was super excited about for the class for first two or three weeks and I did all the reading, that was the education I got before my interest waned. I’m really being honest when I say I really don’t like poetry.

How did you get started doing it yourself then? I had a teacher in high school—whom I haven’t really been able to track down even though he lives in Brooklyn. I’m worried that if he were someone I met today at a poetry reading, I would think he was a total tool. But when I was 15, he was pretty inspiring., I loved the way he commanded a room, I loved the way he had conviction in the way he taught ,and he’s the one who introduced me to Sara Teasdale. I loved that when he would teach a poem and people didn’t get it, he would feel personally hurt. He would say like, “Guys, listen to this poem!” and make eye contact like you feel like he’s about to shiv you. And that’s also been inspiring when I give readings. I try to command that kind of tension rather than have a kind of apathetic, “Here’s my writing, if you don’t get it, it’s on you.”

Why are doing readings of your poems so important? I think if you’re going to do them and you’re going to make people sit quietly, and you’re going to make people ignore their text messages and all co-mingle with strangers and feel uncomfortable in a quiet room while you talk, then at least read through your poem before you get up there. You know, at least pick something that’s going to be listenable, accessible, something that people are going to get because they doing have the benefit of time and a page and solitude. Pick something funny. You’re not there to give a lecture, you’re there to entertain.

You said to give people a reason to ignore their text messages. Is it easy for you to focus on writing? No. The idea of the book was to write something that I could feasibly finish. And so what I said was, fuck plot, narrative and insecurity. Just get up have coffee, go through your routine, open up your laptop, check Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Gmail and then scribble down into a Word document and then go on with your day.

So it’s poetry for short attention spans. Exactly. I mean, if I had to compete with all the other distractions of sitting at a computer, having a job and friends and all of that, and I can distract myself from all of that to write something down, hopefully it will also garner that kind of attention too, in a world of distractions.

I’m coming to the realization that there’s a benefit to being the kind of writer who is inundated with distractions. If you lock yourself away or have some kind of country house or go to some kind of writer’s retreat, where you could kind of close out the world, then you don’t have the obstacles of daily life that pull you away from writing. When you get that moment when you have something interesting enough to say that you could ignore that text message, then you’re onto something that’s going to be interesting for the reader.

You have the same distractions as your audience. Right, and there’s no point in pretending I don’t. Because I’m just going to make something that the don’t going to relate to. Life isn’t about getting a grant to do what you want in a cabin in the woods. Life is having to work an hourly job, or getting paid to do something that you don’t want to and then trying to steal away time for yourself.

You love cats and write about them a lot—why do you think cats have become such good fodder for the internet? I think cats are notorious for having a strong of self, and they aren’t intimate with everyone. If you go to an apartment where a cat lives, that you haven’t been to before, more likely than not, that cat is going to be cold. You kind of have to earn the trust of a cat, so there is something special about being able to see intimate moments that are documented on the internet of cats because you don’t see them so much in real life. I think that there’s something especially funny and cute about a cat jumping on a ledge and missing it because I don’t know anyone who has seen that in real life. It’s just like, cats are usually so composed and they don’t give themselves over the way dogs do. It actually feels intimate rather than silly.

One thing I really like about the book and you’re work is that there’s a balance for me of really serious, private, emotional moments and also really silly absurd moments.Yeah, definitely. In the first book I made when I first put out myself in 2011 called A Million Bears, it begins dispersed by tweets by Kanye West and 50 Cent. My ideal balance in art is an acknowledgement that emotions are felt in a spectrum and they’re all equally important. They all can be enjoyed equally—you can have a really nice time feeling sad as well as happy, as well as feeling loved. I think that it’s a very careful thing, to try to convey that spectrum without applying a value to one over the other. So what I mean to say is that I hope that the funny or absurd moments don't make the sad moments any less sad, but in fact underscore the sadness and the sadness underscores and emphasizes the humor.

Why make a book? We’ve talked about the Internet. It’s certainly something that’s interesting to you. You write about the Internet. You put your Twitter account in your author bio—so why even bother creating something physical? I think what I like about objects is you could put them away. And when I’m putting myself into an object I think I can put that away and when I do that I feel a sense that I can move on. The Internet is un-ending and there’s different ways to connect to people and I feel like the Internet is a great primer. But ultimately, what it comes down to is being able to sit down next to someone in real life. The internet is really great at facilitating that and so are tweets, but they are all a primer to the physical book that I can hand to a human.

So it’s great to chat with someone on Facebook but it’s better to hug them? There’s only so much an Emoji can convey. And that’s not to say that the internet isn’t valuable or that it can’t be an end in itself. But there’s something special about creating an object, there’s something maybe primal about being able to say, “I made this and I want to give it to you.”

Interview: Spencer Madsen Writes Real-Life Poetry for Real-Life Attention Spans