18 Questions with Shawn Misener

1. How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first chapbook was just a cool experience. I’m proud of myself. I also have a full-length book of poems entitled God Sheds His Gravy On Thee due out sometime this year as well, a bunch of poems written from 2006-2009, and it will just be nice to lay that period to rest. I guess seeing my work in print allows me to move on. I need to be doing a lot of moving on lately, and so I am. Just moving on.

My work lately is different than what it used to be. I almost died a couple of times during surgeries in 2009, and the words that have come out of me since then have been more introspective and spiritual, and less dreamy and surreal, less weirdo Americana It feels different because I don’t like the new style as much as how I used to write, but I’m learning to accept it, I guess.

2. How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I came to fiction first. I started writing short stories in seventh grade, mostly gory little horror tales about evil farmers and monsters in the basement (I was exclusively reading Stephen King at the time), and my English teacher Mrs. Haroff took an interest in them and encouraged me to write. She told me I was really good, so I believed her, and in a way I still believe her to this day. Whether I am objectively “good” at writing is lost to me, but I do have an inner confidence that I can trace directly back to Mrs. Martha Haroff.

I used to write poetry only in my journals. Emotional, sticky stuff. Nobody has ever read it but me. These days, I write mostly poetry as some sort of weird habit. It would probably be better if I didn’t feel the need to write. I’d get more shit done with my life. Is there a support group for compulsive writers? A Writers’ Anonymous?

3. Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you?

It’s usually a line that literally pops into my head, and I try desperately to hold onto it, then I just let the poem flow from there, if I can find my laptop. Usually, though, I forget the lines, and the poems never materialize. I’m the king of lost poems, or poems that could have happened but didn’t. I remembered on the other day while I was gloriously peeing: “The body is a sensitive machine,” or something like that, and I managed to get a nice lengthy rant out of it. But I also forgot like three other good ones the very same day.

4. Do you employ the device of public readings? Do you feel they aid your work?

I’ve only read in public a couple of times, but I would like to do it more. I have to learn how to read more slow, for sure. I used to be a debater in high school, so I tend to rush. Poetry is best read slowly, so the audience can soak in the words. I’m not a “slam” poet either; my work tends to sit better when read alone and slightly stoned. When I read it out loud people look at me funny and say they don’t understand.

5. What kinds of questions are you usually trying to answer for yourself during the course of any given piece of work?

Why the hell am I doing this? Am I addicted to writing? I need to eat. Should I?

6. How do you feel the writer contributes to society at large?  Where do you think the writer fits into global perspective?

The writer is everything to me. If not for the writers of the world, I would lose my favourite form of entertainment: The novel. But only really, really good novels change the world. And there are so few of those.

I guess writers serve the function of entertainers in society, and I’m cool with that. Some writers tell stories about being human that need to be told. Those are the classics, usually. 1984, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Brave New World, and so on. But the rest of us, we’re just entertainers. Kurt Vonnegut knew that, Mark Twain knew that, Haruki Murakami knows that. Books provide a diversion from the reality of our shitty lives. And, in rare cases, they make us look at the world in a fresh way. Corny, but true. I don’t ask for more from a writer than to be entertained and occasionally learn something I didn’t know.

What a lame answer, eh?

7. How do you feel about working with editors?

Editors are terrible, terrible people. And I also edit, so I am a terrible person.

8. What is one quote/piece of advice/song lyric you can’t live without?

Although I am hardly a practicing Buddhist, I have always gravitated toward the Four Noble Truths. Life is suffering. I know that, I feel it, I’ve experienced it. That the first truth. I don’t want to go on about all of them, because then this interview would last forever. But it has always inspired me to know that life is tough,but there is freedom and a clear path to take to get there.

9. Do you have a writing routine?

No. I think maybe I write more in the morning, though. I used to need weed, opiates, and cigarettes to augment the experience, but now I go it sober. Which is probably why my writing is worse than it used to be. Who wants to read a sober writer? About 35 people a day, according to my personal blog. That’s not a lot.

10. Do you prefer a certain type of setting to write?

I have a chair that I sit in. A recliner. I’m kind of a potato when I write. I like rainy days. I like silence. I prefer to be slightly hungry; don’t ask me why, and don’t read into it.

11. David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Dreams. Dreams. Dreams. Dreams. I’ve never run out of material for poetry because I tend to have crazy, super-interesting dreams. I’d say at least half of the poems I’ve written have been simple descriptions of various dreams I’ve had. I’m also absurdly interested in Americana and consumer culture (I have a degree in sociology), so I like to write about the weird things people do on television or at the mall. Usually, my poetry ends up being a mixture of the dreams and the culture I see around me. Both are, to me, incredibly weird and absurd. I’m a great lover of music, but it distracts me when I write. The only album I’ve ever written to was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

In terms of art, I really admire the paintings of Salvador Dali. I know, I know, how original, but in a way his work closely resembles mine. Dream imagery. I also really dig Alex Grey. Both guys are way better at what they do than I am at what I do. That’s a fact.

12. What writing or writers do you feel are essential for your own writing or just your life in general?

Holy shit, are you serious? Ok, two categories. First, the novel writers who made my weirdness at least somewhat more palatable: Haruki Murakami, Tom Robbins, Philip K Dick, Christopher Moore, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathon Lethem, Umberto Eco, Terrence McKenna, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paul Auster, Don Delillo (in particular White Noise, my favorite book), Chuck Klosterman, and many others I can’t remember at this moment.

Now, I have to give a shout out to all of the small press poets whose work reminds me that just because you don’t have a book deal doesn’t mean you can’t be a badass writer (shout).

13. Laptop VS Pen: Where do you stand?

I used a pen up until after college, when I finally purchased my very own laptop. I never looked back. But, in the absence of my computer a pen and a piece of paper is a beautiful thing. But then I type it into my laptop. So, for me, laptop wins the battle I guess.

14. What would you like to do in your writing life that you have not done yet?

FINISH THE WHOOSHAY. If I can finish this novel, I’ll feel great about myself. If somebody publishes it, I’ll be even happier. (see question #18)

15. Do you have another occupation? Do you write full time?

Is this a joke? If I didn’t have another job, I’d be homeless. But in the past year I have actually written full-time because of the aforementioned extended illness. But here in a couple of weeks it’s back to work in the mental health field. Which means less time for writing, and less time for editing Clutching At Straws.

16. How natural in the craft of writing for you?  Was it something you picked up gracefully from a young age or has it been a lot of blood, sweat and tears to mold a talent into something significant?

As I said earlier, I started writing stories in middle school, and poetry a little bit later. I really started taking it seriously about ten years ago when I started submitting things to magazines (followed by many, many rejections).

I’ve worked hard to become the writer that I am today. Sometimes, a complete poem will slip out that needs no revising; those are usually the best ones. But, in most cases, I write and then tuck it away for a week or more and then edit it with fresh eyes. I still can’t judge my work objectively, but I can certainly tell if it sucks during the first re-read. I suffer a lot then, because I think most of what I write is absolutely terrible. But some people seem to like it, which makes my ego feel good, yet I can’t help but think they are incredibly gullible. People always read more into my work than I do.

17. What was the last great book you read?

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. It’s crazy good for a first novel. Check it out.

18. What are you currently working on?

It’s a novel titled The Whooshay. I’ve been writing and reworking it for over three years now. It’s my best friend and my worst enemy. I’ve written twenty chapters and completely trashed them and started over TWICE. Once I finish it, though, it will be great. My basic idea is to create this cult leader called The Whooshay, and through the book I want to explore all of the themes and issues surrounding cult mentality. The twist is that whereas most cult leaders have religious overtones to their teachings, the Whooshay is kind of the opposite. He espouses liberation through materialism, consumerism, sex, greed, and so forth. So the novel comments on America as a place where consumerism is a religion.

The book is pretty funny, I think. At least, I hope it is, because nothing will sink a book faster than bad humor. I’d like to have it finished by next year, and then it’s on to the hunt for an agent and all that shit. Any agents out there?

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