Interview with Mike Young

Mike Young edits NOÖ Journal.

Mike Young’s poems and short stories have been published in Opium Magazine, Pindeldyboz, 3AM Magazine, The 2River View, Juked, elimae, Prose Ax, Word Riot and more. His story in Word Riot was a 2005 storySouth Notable Story.

Mike Young is twenty years old and lives in Oregon.

SK: In what way are literary magazines fucking up and in what way are writers fucking up these days, would you say?

Mike Young: Literary magazines have too many covers with flowers and decrepit architecture. Though these are college reviews and journals, which is pretty much okay, since they don't pretend against themselves. If you live in a college town and want literary fiction to read, it's good to have these journals. I guess. I don't know. People retreat into languorous fluff under the excuse that the television has stolen the loud and weird. This may be true. I'm still young, trying to write loud and weird stories and poems, still trying to think why I don't write for cinema or TV.

Something about imagination and language. Literary magazines and writers don't just need more imagination and language -- they need stuff that will attract and nurture a world "sapped" of imagination and language. Like when Dick Cheney can't think of anything more clever to say than "fuck off" -- that's bad. I think. I don't think "sapped" is right. I think people are taught that they're lacking language or that our language is crude, and that's not true. Everything is gallant.

Places like Tin House or A Public Forum make me more sad than some flaccid North Dakota Southwest Quarterly Technical Conservatory Review. The NDSQTCRs of the world are love affairs, for the most part, however lily-limbed, nostalgia-obsessed and ignorant of poor people they remain. Places like Tin House are rich and should therefore devote themselves to reacquainting mainstream readers with literature. Since I know plenty of mainstream readers who've never heard of Tin House, I say they're not doing very well. NPR listeners have heard of Tin House and Billy Collins. They're not mainstream people. Poor people don't know Tin House. Dale Earnhardt fans don't know Tin House. But maybe that's the fault of poor people, since all poor people are ugly and smell like used loofahs.

Oh, and most literary journals should be free. Make them ugly if you have to. If we were to cut every American three-car garage into a sane one-car garage, we could make literary journals free, more would read language into life, and people would lead more considerate lives. Does anyone make a living from literary journals? If so, they should get jobs feeding and teaching people in Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

When Chekov wrote about real people, real people liked him. The real people I know read science fiction and romance and don't want to hear how shitty their lives are. They probably have a point.

SK: Do you like McSweeney's? I like Amanda Davis. Have you read her?

Mike Young: Some of McSweeney's I like, the funny stuff. They're too expensive, but McSweeneys.net is cool, and that whole clique is a gateway into literature for plenty of young people, I think. I like it when they try without trying, when they're breezy and whizzybang -- when they're too indignant or squeal too much, it sounds like Richie Rich lecturing his teddy bears. Okay, okay, duh: not all McSweeney's people are the same. Lots are cool and I would love to buy them lunch -- or have them buy me a plane.

Amanda Davis: I have read her stories on the internet, in magazines, and in places like Best New American Voices 2001. I have not read her novel. She makes things sound lofty and speaks as though her heart is something like "shorn." I like when the magical elements of her story sneak in some humor, like when fat folks float in the sky and stuff.

I don't want to say too much about my opinion of her, cuz she died too young. Anyone that dies too young -- who cares what I think? There are sad arms and hands that still miss her, even when I play my friend Hans's Yahama keyboard, even earlier when I saw lightning graze a truck and said "cool!" She is still an everything and a sigh to many, many people.

Thus: fuck me for saying anything about her, you know?

SK: Could you describe the history of NOÖ Journal? What it's all about? Plans for the magazine's future? Is it pronounced "new"? What does the title mean?

Mike Young: NOÖ Journal got conceived when Kyle Peterson and I were driving back from JJ Lewis Nichol's theatre workshop in Yreka, CA. This was around the 2004 elections. We talked about how Siskiyou County, with its zany hippies and get-ir-done rednecks, exemplified the political "tension" in this country. We talked about the Chico News and Review, how cool it is. We said we should start a magazine that allowed politically disparate people to talk with one another, a public forum. I don't know if that really works. I really hope so. If nothing else, I hope that written commentary can still tweak people.

I suggested we include poetry and fiction. Some local, some not-so -- I had just started exploring literary journals through the internet. We said let's do it. We cooked things up and put out the first issue in July of 2005. Kyle came up with NOÖ. It means "mind" in Greek. It's from Tellihard's "noosphere" philosophy, which is basically the evolution of humans to a state of pure mental consideration. I think. A few months ago, I found out that it's pronounced "no-oh" like, oh no we don't have an o. But I still call it "new" -- puns are the sheezy.

Two things are important for NOÖ: being free and being a paper magazine that people can pick up in coffee shops, indie bookstores, laundromats, etc. I like the idea of NOÖ getting read among strangers. Anything read while around strangers -- I don't know, it does something, it says we are all made of words, let's not hate each other.

We want to make the magazine a little better every four issues. A higher page count was our first step. Maybe next will be a color cover, bigger distribution, something. It's hard because we're funded through our pockets and the donations of others. But we're hawk-eyed with dedication and will not burn out, promise.

I love NOÖ because it's allowed me to connect with tons of amazing writers and people. We've published Pulitzer Prize nominees and seventeen-year old Canadians. We send a copy every issue to a kid in Redding who loves it, I think. Stuff like that makes me go yes, okay, yes, we're alright.

SK: The Bad Poetry (the "o" in "Poetry has a heart) series is you and three other writers. Someone pays two dollars and receives a poem. When you travel, do you plan to compose the poems on the spot? Or do you collaborate and send it through an email later?

Mike Young: When I travel is a delicate subject right now. I don't have a lot of money. But I will try to travel nonetheless, somewhere, somehow.

We compose bad poems on the spot, no collaboration through email or anything. Like those fair booths where people paint your face.

The gimmick is this: you donate two dollars and get a "bad" poem for a receipt, so that we can continue printing "good" poetry in the magazine for free. Sometimes people like their bad poems and say "Hey! That wasn't so bad!" So we say, "Great! Buy another one!"

Right now it's me, Bryan Coffelt, Kasey Mohammad and Tao Lin. More writers soon? I don't know. There are some folks in California whom I may ask to join up, since I can travel to California pretty easily. No hints. Stay tuned.

SK: How do you go about submitting? What's the most interesting reply you've had?

Mike Young: Usually around 4AM, I jerk up from my nightly quilting work and get quite distraught that I have not published anything for some time. So I check out this text file of plausible places and plausible submissions, and I ignore it, instead emailing every editor I've ever known or will know with seven thousand pages worth of work. This work is formatted as Commander Keen saved games. Everyone loves it and feeds me ice cream. I'm like "we're on the internet, how did you get the --" and they're like "shhh" then together we're all "ice cream!" Coca-Cola filmed the process for a commercial. I am played by Shaq.

The most interesting reply I ever had was an invitation to go pole vaulting in France. Unfortunately, the message was in French, so I had no idea what it said. Only later, after watching the television show about my life, did I figure it out. I burned that computer, ate it with collard greens and lemons, and snagged a new computer from an Australian dwarf vendor. He sold me a defunct dwarf, so the computer was gratis.

SK: Who are your influences and what are some of your favorite books? And what are you reading now?

Mike Young: Hmm. Chic answers require something obscure or pop culture oriented, right? I don't know. I don't know who's looking over my shoulder when I write. I do feel, when I write, that everything I've ever read is in the room with me, arms crossed, making sure I don't regurgitate clichés or steal ideas.

People who talk to me change me, like Tao or Bryan or birds or free phonographs.

Here are some people, though: Thomas Pynchon, Denis Johnson, Frank Stanford, Leonard Cohen, James Tate, Dorianne Laux, Jeff Mangum, Ray Carver, Emmanuel Levinas, David Berman, John Cheever, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, Sandra Cisneros, and so forth. It's hard to make a list -- not just the fact of picking only a few, but the pressure to forget about all those old Nickelodeon shows and M.E. Kerr books and Joseph Wambaugh cop books. Or the country songs. I musn't mention the country songs.

Right now: I just finished a Charles Baxter story collection and Martin Amis's _Dead Babies_. Yes, Amis is an asshole. I'm reading poetry by Joshua Clover, Juliana Spahr and Tony Tost. Fiction - not sure what to read. Something will lacerate me and then I'll have no choice. Little known fact: books are actually spears.

SK: What percentage of contemporary poets are physically attractive?

Mike Young: I just image googled "contemporary poets." Here is what I found:





SK: A lot of serious writers are on MySpace. It's a useful publicity tool and meeting place for writers. Is it ok that we're on MySpace?

Mike Young: I think it's totally okay. But I'm with MySpace not as a "serious writer" -- my account is mostly for my personal life, I guess. A lot of my peers define themselves in public. It's a new self-identity process, one that's sort of dangerous: consider sexual predators. But quite cool too: consider the bravery of declaring yourself gay or transgender or whatever at fifteen. People rag on MySpace for stupid shit. No one believes they really have seven thousand friends; it's not classic "friendship," it's more like a watered-down Sanskrit namaste. A concerted exchange of acknowledgment.

In other words: MySpace, sure, why not, sure.

SK: Do you think poetry has advanced beyond movements, zeitgeists, manifestos? Like The Beats or whoever? The Black Mountain gang.

Mike Young: No, not really. The Flarf-list. The A-Tonalists. The School of Quietude. The New Formalists. Bay Area Poetics. New Sincerity. KaBLoW! Every poetry message board: The Alsop Review, Desert Moon, etc. Some movements are jokes, but still. Lots of people buy into regions and feudal kingdoms. There are too many poets not to generate that sort of social construction. Poets want to talk to poets. Didn't Longfellow and them have their Dante gang? Everybody likes treehouses and poets are no exception.

SK: This is a stupid question, but can a writer write well if he hasn't suffered enough?

Mike Young: No, that's a gnarly and substantial question. I don't know. If you're really suffering enough, I mean Enough Enough, then you don't really have time to write, right? You're too busy dying. I think it's dumb to help people out of mud by jumping in with them, and I think it may be dumb to ever assume you can save (or even salve) the suffering through writing. I mean -- I don't know. I don't know if it's dumb.

I believe in the human capacity for empathy. All those nouns -- human, capacity, empathy -- have substance to me, fit like splinters. I totally believe that I *can* try to feel for the suffering, reduce pain and suffering. Not only that, but it's pretty much a strident human duty.

Through writing? When I read something and go yes, yes, yes, everything is less alone now, then okay. That's good. I used to read Beautiful Losers and Crying of Lot 49 and Allen Ginsberg in high school and go out to the mall and think "wow, these really are people, people! people!" - and what else gets you doing that besides the right story or poem, the right language?

SK: Your story Ten Gallon Bucket of Fries was published at Word Riot and picked as a 2005 storySouth Notable Story. Is there a Southern influence on your work? Southern authors? Also, are drugs ever an influence while you write? Can substance abuse give a writer some reach or is that a romantic idea?

Mike Young: Lately, more of a Southern influence, sure. I used to hate the South, used to say vague things about Faulkner being "high South" or something, used to think the South unfairly dominated American mythology. I was dumb. Barry Hannah, Frank Stanford, Conrad Aiken, the Flannster (for her characters and sharp eye, not the Original Sin nonsense), Eudora Welty, Bobbie Ann Mason out of Kentucky, photographers like William Eggleston, bands like The Legendary Shack Shakers or the Elephant Six crowd from Ruston, LA and Athens, GA -- all of those make me thrum and flutter.

One of my grandfathers was a carpenter from Kentucky, the other an English professor from New England. I never knew them, but well, there you go.

As far as drugs, I don't know. Here's something: one night, this guy came in where I was hanging out. He gobbles mushrooms and smokes pot, well-known druggie "punk" -- etc. That night, he had two 40s taped to his hands and called himself Edward Fortyhands. He proceeded to explain the universe in terms of his three fingers, which twirled around each other. Like the universe came from three orbiting balls or something? At various times in the past, these three fingers had also explained racism, World War Two, and folk music.

People took pictures of the scene, but I didn't see anything beautiful come out of him.

In all fairness: one time we sang Simon and Garfunkel songs together. I think he was half-sober. It went well. I can't escape my diabolical need to be fair.

SK: Could you tell me about your experiences running an open mic poetry reading before it was closed down? You've been involved in some theater?

Mike Young: Haha, it got closed down because the bar that hosted it turned into a sports bar. We're trying to start it again.

We had a good time. Over the weeks, we got loons, acoustic guitar noodling, teary going-away parties for hippies, Jewish prophets, native African dancers, The Highclass Hobo Society, poets in poodle skirts, kickass Morrissey covers, an art lecture, jokes about Star Trek, stories about pirates, stories about Mr. T and Chuck Norris, poems about hamburgers and poems about the ins-and-outs of being a gay gothic Mexican (no shit).

I would "advise people" to have open mics in strange places and prep for the worst and never attempt to save face.

I used to do theatre and improv. Improv taught me to never attempt to save face, to hassle people while winking, and theatre taught me to bitch about crowds changing night to night. Um, it helped me perform words with all of my heart juices. To mesh my "poetry" with my "theatre" -- I don't know. It makes me giggle, makes me -- proud, almost, if I can say that without sounding stupid.

SK: Do you think poetry can be taught? Would you teach poetry? What would a class taught by Prof. Young be like? Okay, I'm walking into the classroom, taking a seat, looking at you dreamily.

Mike Young: The idea behind "to teach poetry" needs clarification, I think. It's not the same as "here is the quadratic equation, here is practice, now you know it." There is no poetry equation. It's more like teaching people to love how language and people work together, how one comes from the other and so on. It's teaching people to read more poetry. It's teaching people what James Dickey said, something like "talk to everybody not there as if they were."

Kasey Mohammad says "Poetry is thinking rhythm."

In my class, we would start with infinite time. Then a question: is our own internal emotional chemistry important enough to warrant un-ironic clichés, allusions, and grandeur? The answer would be no, no it is not. We would write about other people. We would write to hook those who care too much about things, emo kids, people who say "goddamn" until they cry. We would write using crazy language, clunky language. We would try to make skittish language, brutal language, all language beautiful. We would read tons of poetry. We would encourage people to never lug in any "sacred" pieces. We would encourage people to make others cry and laugh, then to urgently fuck with everything that worked, because that is how the world works. Things make us cry and laugh that are fake, malleable. We would learn that great poetry is somehow no longer malleable, and that this is something of a miracle, if you're into that sort of thing. We would learn to reject the first six words we write for the seventh, until we've trained ourselves to sense the right word. We'd read ideas about poetry, we'd learn that poetry has a history and a responsibility -- in that vein we would read prose-on-poetry from Stein, Jack Spicer, Auden, Pound, Rilke, Wordsworth, Frank O'Hara, Charles Olson, Bruce Andrews, Frost, WCW, Baraka, Charles Bernstein, d.a levy, Ange Mlinko, a billion blogs. John Ashbery says "Make it sweet again!" We would make fun of NPR, Billy Collins and Dana Gioia, make fun of people mercilessly. We would fuck the image of silk-lily Romantic and fuck the image of Modernist critic and fuck the image of fake poor Beat and fuck the image of drunk Bukowski slobs and fuck exclusionary L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E nonsense and fuck every image until we all had new ones. Poetry is the eternal fuck.

We would all start blogs and start writing poetry everywhere and finding poetry everywhere.

Our poetry class would be in a new place every week, definitely once in a carnival, once in an airplane, once on the moon.

Okay, scale back: we would eat blueberry-cinnamon-coffee cake and worry ourselves to death.

SK: Could you tell me about your poem Play Monsters With Rubber Bands?

Mike Young: The first two stanzas are things I saw and changed to sound cool. Tried to make them true in the ways we believe sometimes in capital letters, true how we want the world to resemble cartoons. The last stanza, I got worried about all that. Then I had the last thought, of hearing snow on the neck. Maybe I want to hear snow on my neck? Maybe I think it's amazing I can write that and have it happen?

I don't worry much about making "sense" in poetry -- right sense, clever sense. I just want to make amazing sense. It's the only way to get noticed in a crowded subway. It's the only way, in a world of huge shouts and shitstorms, that I am able to feel honest about writing poetry.

Louis Simpson has a nice poem about chicken broth and German girls that mentions "snow falling down the necks of lovers." I read it after I wrote the Play Monsters poem and went hehe, wow, hmm.

SK: Plans for the future as far as writing, submissions, manuscripts? Mr. Young, I salute you, thank you for the interview.

Mike Young: I'm waiting on a bunch of submissions. I don't have a real job right now and feel sleazy. Anyone reading this: please tell everyone to accept my stories and poems. But if you believe in prayer, pray for the discovery of renewable resources and the discovery of a human government that accommodates their benevolent and practical dispersal.

Sean, I feel guilty that I didn't ask you any questions, and everybody else has. I talk too much. You remind me of a well-twisted William Saroyan, who rocks like a NASA space camp. I don't give a shit to show off what I've read or something. I just want people to read these authors, because I think they're good and filling.

Sean, who are you worried about? End with a little about one friend for whom you're worried or sad, and other people will care about them. Maybe it's best for us to care so hard that we're not sure what's real or what's funny.

SK: Thank you. Saroyan is great. I dunno. When I try to say bleak things, they’re clown-bleak. I think my writing is clown-work. Also, I write angry because I become too attached to some people in rare instances, so I write with hatred, jealousy, my umbrella sags, I play a ukulele and drip tears. I hate everyone now that I’ve ever been personally close to, or intimate with - always an unreachable too-sane and wise disgust on their part - and have only a kind of vain glee at the idea of hurt in anyone’s direction. Forgive me, sir, I have been so viciously over-breastfed that I still sneeze up big plates of yogurt every morning. Honk.

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Blogger the_zygote said...

Fantastic interview once again, Sean! Mike Young is one sharp cookie & a talented writer to boot. I really enjoyed reading his take on the state of poetry & the poetry scene.

Blogger Bryan Coffelt said...

this was a good interview.

after i read it, i felt like something was moving in the direction it was meant to move.


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