Welcome to TRB Lounge. Today, I’d like to welcome Aaron Poocigian, author of Mr. Either Or, for an author Interview.
About the author:
AARON POOCHIGIAN earned a PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. His book of translations from Sappho, Stung With Love, was published by Penguin Classics in 2009, and his translation of Apollonius’ Jason and the Argonautswas released October 2014. For his work in translation he was awarded a 2010-2011 Grant by the National Endowment for the Arts. His first book of original poetry, The Cosmic Purr (Able Muse Press), was published in 2012 and, winner of the 2016 Able Muse Poetry Prize, his second book Manhattanite will be out in the Fall of 2017. His thriller in verse, Mr. Either/Or, will be released by Etruscan Press in Fall of 2017. His work has appeared in such journals as The Guardian, POETRY and The Times Literary Supplement.
Hello, Aaron. Thank you for being here today.
Can you please tell my readers about your ambitions for your writing career?
I want to find a broad audience for poetry, and snappy, un-put-down-able narrative verse is, I think, the best way do to it. Poets often complain that no one reads poetry anymore but, as I see it, the lack of interest is primarily the fault of the poets themselves who tend to alienate readers in various ways, rather than giving them something engaging and exciting. I want to engage and excite people through words—that’s my career ambition. I aspire to write poetry that is as popular in the 21st century as Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” was in the 19th. Can you imagine a literary world in which books of poetry sell as well as books by Danielle Steele and Stephen King? I can.
Which writers inspire you?
Raymond Chandler, one of the fathers of the noir crime genre, has been a great inspiration. Though he wrote in a mode generally regarded as “inferior” to literary fiction, his novels are nonetheless master-crafted—every sentence, every phrase, has been labored over and perfected. He is a consummate artist. He taught me that literature can be both popular and virtuosic.
I also find Thomas Pynchon’s early work inspiring. His “The Crying of Lot 49” was another major model for “Mr. Either/Or.” It taught me that the demands of the plot need not restrict wild creativity. The writer should never be merely telling the story—he/she should do that, of course, and do it well but always at the same time be enjoying him/herself creatively. Pynchon’s novel is a mad whirlwind of a thing, a boundless conspiracy theory. I highly recommend it.
Tell us about your book?
“Mr. Either/Or” revives the genre of the verse adventure-story (à la Homer’s Odyssey and Byron’s Don Juan) by sustaining the charge of lyric poetry through an extended narrative. I regard “Mr. Either/Or” as an “upgrade” to prose fiction in that the poetry provides a sound-track as in a film by alternating between free-rhymed lines for the exposition and the alliterative verse of Beowulf for the action scenes. The setting is not real-world New York City, but a timeless one in which fantastic things can happen (as in an urban fantasy novel). The plot focuses on legends and on what I call “American Mythology:” mole-men living underneath the New York and the Roswell Incident, for example. Best of all, the novel is in the second person: “you” the reader are the hero—you think his thoughts and encounter the world through his eyes as in a “first-person-shooter” video game.
How long did it take you to write it?
It took me eight years to write “Mr. Either/Or”—two years to figure out how to write narrative in verse and about six years to write and polish the thing. I am preparing to write a sequel, and I hope it will go much faster now that I know what I am about.
Are you working on any other project(s) right now? If yes, what are they?
Yes, I am working on a new book of poems that aims to invest American places and characters with religious awe. We’ll see if I can do it. I am also preparing for the sequel to “Mr. Either/Or,” though I doubt there will be a sequel proper, rather another book with the same characters and setting.
Why have you chosen this genre?
“Mr. Either/Or” brings together all of my great loves—epic poetry, genre fiction (noir and thriller), action films and Americana. I really don’t know what to call it—sometimes I call it a thriller, sometimes urban fantasy, sometimes an epic poem. The “action” mode was appealing to me for a number of reasons. First, because it is the opposite of most of the poetry that is being written today—it is not static, observational, meditative. Second, the adventures of the hero gave me, I confess, a purely escapist pleasure. We writers are a sedentary bunch: we sit; we write—it’s our job. It has been good for me to get out and have adventures through my hero.
When did you decide to become a writer?
In high-school I was all about music—my band, musical theory, songwriting—but as soon as I took a poetry class in college, the rhythms and sounds of language re-focused my creative impulses. I had a sort of religious experience during my Freshman year. I was reading the opening lines of Vergil’s Aeneid in Latin—Arma virumqute cano. . . Though I didn’t know the language, I was so moved that the sky became brighter and everything became clear: I should learn the Classical Languages and spend the rest of my life writing poetry. That’s what I have done. No regrets. I guess I’m lucky in that I never had a phase when I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.
Why do you write?
Whoa, tough question. At this point, I write mostly by habit. It’s just what I do every day. I also write by instinct—I feel certain that I was meant to be a writer. I can’t imagine doing anything else. There is also, of course, the fear of death. I want to be able to feel, as I age, that the best of me will live on in literature. Yes, that was a tough question indeed.
Where do your ideas come from?
Where do my ideas come from? Out of my curious mind and out of all that I have read, yes, those and out of daily experiences—the doppler sound of traffic passing in front of my house, the sheen the barista’s mop leaves on the floor at the coffee shop, out of the crazy junk in my backyard and backlot, out of the many, many places I have lived. You’ve got these lines from Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” running through my head:
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
How do you prefer to write? On computer/laptop, typewriter, dictation or longhand with a pen?
I’m left-handed and writing by hand was always clumsy for me, so I took to the keyboard early on. I prefer writing on a laptop. I always have one with me. I tend to buy super-cheap crappy laptops ($250) so that I can drag one everywhere with me and not worry about it getting banged up. For “Mr. Either/Or” I created one Word.doc for each plot event and allowed myself to go crazy creatively in each file, so long as I also narrated that one plot event. I then fitted all the files together into the whole narrative and polished the transitions. That way, I found I was able to get the story told while still giving myself freedom for creativity.
What are your 5 favorite books and 5 favorite authors?
Five Favorite Books:
- “Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin
- “The Tower” by William Butler Yeats
- “Goodbye, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler
- “The Crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon
- “The Inferno” by Dante Alighieri
Five Favorite Authors:
- William Butler Yeats
- H. Auden
- Philip Larkin
- Raymond Chandler
- Dante Alighieri
How do you deal with Writer’s Block?
I do my best not to fall into the doldrums of Writer’s Block in the first place. After I finish a poem, I do tend to feel what I call “postpartum depression” tugging at me. I then sit down at my laptop, open a Word.doc and fill a page with lines that I like, phrases, curious words. I play around with them until something happens. A number of years ago I made a promise to myself that I would write full time, 40 hours a week at least, and, since then, I have forced myself to write even when I don’t feel like it. Yes, there are occasional blessed periods of spontaneous creation, but writing is usually hard, certainly harder than just watching tv instead. All the same, we writers must make ourselves focus and do our work.
What advice would you give to new aspiring authors?
I’m afraid that I won’t be able to give anything more than boilerplate advice: craft, craft, craft. Work, work, work. Force yourself to know boring subjects like grammar backwards and forwards, so well, in fact, that you don’t have to think about them any longer. The time you spend early on studying grammar, for example, will pay off down the line, I promise, by making you a clearer and more efficient writer. Preachy, boring advice, I know, but it’s sincere as Hell.
Thank you, Aaron, for all your insightful answers! I particularly agree about the need to know grammar through and through.
About The Book:
Aaron Poochigian’s Mr. Either/Or is an ingenious debut, a verse novel melding American mythology, noir thriller, and classical epic into gritty rhythms, foreboding overtones, and groovy jams surrounding the reader in a surreal atmosphere.
Imagine Byron’s Don Juan on a high-stakes romp through a Raymond Chandler novel. Think Hamlet in Manhattan with a license to kill.
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