[Image: “Pretend Until The End” by Erin Armstrong]
This interview was conducted at the Nai Lert Park Hotel in Bangkok, in 2019.
“For the record, is Cedric Munch your real name?”
“No, it’s my pen name. As we discussed beforehand, I’m happy to answer any question, provided my real name is not revealed.”
“All right, let’s get started, Cedric. This has been a big year for you: you won the Costa Book Award, a Rattle, and the Bernard F. Conners Prize, but you say you were born without empathy. How is it possible to create works of passion and insight without the ability to feel what it’s like to be in another man’s shoes?”
“To answer that, I think we need to go back to my school days. I never had a friend in grade school or junior high, and my only friend in high school was a senior I dated at the end of my freshman year. She was my pale fawn. When she went off to Emerson College, we corresponded by what she called ‘narrative postcards.’ They were mixed media, made with stencils and paint, and represented a diary of her student life, including a promiscuous period where she had lovers of both sexes. Her last postcard was a skull in a priest’s collar, stenciled with roach spray, which arrived still sticky.”
“That sounds pretty grim. You’ve called this period ‘my empty suitcase.’ I can see why. After high school, did you go directly to Europe?”
“Not right away. I left in June 1990 when I was twenty. I didn’t return to the United States for fifteen years.”
“How did you support yourself?”
“I was a thief.” He paused to take a sip of coffee. “It started when I was in high school after my father deserted us. I was rebellious and was expelled for truancy my sophomore year. After that, I was homeschooled. I found that I could study for the State equivalency tests, pass them easily, and have plenty of time to do whatever else I liked. I became a hungry reader. While I was working my way through the classics, I stumbled upon François Villon, who was a criminal and one of France’s greatest poets. He said: In my country I am in a far off land. I die of thirst beside the fountain. It was Villon who wrote his last will and testament as a poem, leaving his soul to the earth, his stolen wine to his best friend, and his eyeglasses to a madman.”
“So, Villon inspired you?”
“And others…Thomas Malory, Oscar Wilde, Cervantes. O. Henry did five years for embezzlement. One morning when I was reading in bed, I looked up from my book and saw two men peering into my neighbor’s yard. The larger of the two, who probably weighed three hundred pounds, cranked up a gasoline-powered leaf-blower while his partner slipped over the chain-link fence. The big man tried to follow him, but got his pants caught, and when he tried again he screamed out in pain. A few minutes later, his partner appeared with a shopping bag full of swag and a big grin on his face.”
“Sounds like a silent movie.”
“It made me laugh and I was surprised how good it felt.”
“So you thought you could do better than that?”
“Well, I had a job delivering the LA Times on my bicycle. It was good exercise and I enjoyed my morning ride with no cars on the road. I knew the habits of my customers: who was home, who had dogs. What I didn’t realize was how I was subconsciously casing their houses. One day, I saw an open kitchen door, and the next thing I knew, I was standing in a closet rifling through my customer’s jewelry box. It was very exciting. I left by the front door. After that, it was easy.”
“So you were a jewel thief?”
“Sometimes. But I preferred cash. No credit cards, silverware, or televisions sets. No guns, although they’re easy to hock.”
“Are you still a thief?”
Cedric turned his back toward me and looked out the window. A pretty Thai girl sitting in a white leather chair crossed her legs and looked up. “I was a criminal until my first book was published.”
“And you never held a job?”
“Only briefly, when I was a hotel clerk.”
“Let’s go back to the empty suitcase. Why is a poem like an empty suitcase?”
“The poem is empty until you fill it up. I collected sacred objects on the road—touchstones to remember a feeling or significant event. Here’s one: a spoon from a Turkish prison. It reminds me how they beat my feet with metal rods.”
“What an ordeal that must have been.”
Cedric looked stoic and then he smiled. “When I was twenty-one, I met a pair of English thieves on a train from Zurich. One was a large man with red hair who called himself the blaggard; theother was a small, thin man who called himself the sneak. They told me they had been pulling jobs all over Europe. The blaggard said he grew up in East London and was a member of a famous crime family that dated back to his great-great-grandfather. The family got started counterfeiting half-crown pieces from pewter pots. The sneak let the blaggard do all the talking, nodding in agreement to everything he said. When he smiled, he looked like a rat. I had a smile like that when I was young.”
“When you tell the story, I imagine Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy. But you don’t look like a Ratso. You’re tall and blond—more like the cowboy.”
“When you have money, you look after yourself. I had plastic surgery in the Philippines and work done on my teeth in Croatia. My hair was bleached here in Thailand.”
“Sorry, we were in the middle…”
“‘He’s the sneak and I’m the blaggard,’ the big man told me. What I found out was they were not the only sneak-and-blaggard team working the continent. Apparently, it wasn’t as easy as it had been years ago, and sometimes there was a smart jeweler who kept his safe locked. The blaggard was a master storyteller who could talk in different accents. While he blags, the sneak slithers on his stomach into the back room.” Cedric demonstrated his patter by talking out of the side of his mouth:
“’At’s a nice litter dazzler ye got air. A glass eye fur Auntie Ida. And ’ere’s a beauty. I’m lookin’ fer a sparkler for me missus. Lost her wedding ring down the loo. ’At was a sad day. ’Ad to get down on me cans and bees…nasty busi-ness, that…swear on me muzzer’s grave.”
“He’s the best,” says the sneak.
“He’s like a bloody ferret,” says Cedric still in character.
“I’m invisible,” says the sneak.
“That’s amazing. Did they teach you the family business?” I asked.
Cedric became more serious. “I was dead broke and needed to find a way to make some money. The blaggard had given me his number in London, and when I called him, he said it was my lucky day because there were some Chinese paper smackers in town who had high-quality hundred-Euro notes. He said if I wanted, I could have a go.”
“You’ve got me miles away from the story I came to write. How did you go from a life of crime to a life of poetry?”
“That’s a good question. It’s strange to say, but I didn’t have human feelings until I started to steal. Or maybe I should say, it accelerated my feelings. A poet must have energy to write. It helps that I’m bipolar. Like Villon, I have been drawn to those who are outsiders. Kay Ryan is one. She says: A rat might survive one night on a single treadmill bottle. When I read that line, I could see its tiny feet scratching the glass, running all night with its chest about to explode. I couldn’t get the image out of my head.”
“Running for your life, but going nowhere?”
“That’s right. Here’s another: Eventually, the most accident-prone or war-weary walkingsticks are entirely reduced to antennae. Now that’s me to a tee. I’m the antennae, a mast…an unlicensed channel. I send and receive transmissions. You see how it works?”
“Can you give another example?”
“Okay, from Ryan: A bitter pill doesn’t need to be swallowed to work. Just reading yourname on the bottle does the trick. She does this thing with recombinant rhyme to create a genetic mix. It’s a magic trick. She produces a white rabbit with jellyfish genes that glows in the dark. When Ryan talks about luminescent, she is talking about illuminating the poem with Tijuana funhouse technology.”
“So the poet is the black light?”
“Black light makes a scorpion blaze like a torch! But then the poet needs to make something happen. Poetry is a hundred years behind painting. Readers feel queasy when the form is unfamiliar. Finnegan’s Wakeis ‘exasperating and exhausting’ but Jackson Pollock can spew anything on the canvas and the audience no longer gets sick.”
“Well, we’re finally getting around to content and technique. How do you work? Where does the poem come from? The unconscious mind?”
“Unconscious minds! Left and right. Thieves work in pairs. As you work, the sneak crawls on his belly into the back room and steals the jewels. And you don’t know what you have until you make the deal with the fence. You see what just happened? A fence appeared, and if you’re fit, it’s easy to go over.”
“Unlike the fat gardener?”
“Who gores his testicle on a sharp picket—curses and loses his baseball cap. He doesn’t wear gloves because he doesn’t care about fingerprints. He’s heading south of the border where he has a sick mother, five sisters, and a skinny dog named Flaca. The poet sees what’s thick. The sky is thick with a scaffold plumped against a red-orange sky. The man with his neck in the noose ejaculates at the moment of death. We watch him kick as he tries to swim back to the surface. This is how you feel when you fall in love. Even a hard bean can grow a heart. By this you understand the meaning of should-have-lived and the trap that opens before you complete the full count.”
“Are we going dancing tonight?” asks the young Thai woman.
“I can’t think of anything I would rather do,” Cedric says.
Todd Easton Mills co-wrote and produced the documentary film Timothy Learyʼs Dead. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alabama Literary Review, Amarillo Bay, Euphony, Rougarou, Fogged Clarity, The Alembic, Griffin, The Legendary, ONTHEBUS, Voices, The Coe Review, Yellow Silk, AUSB Odyssey, Sage Trail, riverSedge, OxMag, Collage, Antiochracy, Forge, Jet Fuel Review, New Plains Review, Crack the Spine, Storgy, Serving House Journal, Barely South Review, Santa Monica Review, The Penmen Review, and in the anthology Poets on 9-11.