Alyse Knorr is a Denver-based poet. She is the author of three books of poetry: Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books), Copper Mother (Switchback Books), and Mega-City Redux (Green Mountains Review). The latter two books both came out in 2016, along with a monograph from Boss Fight Books, Super Mario Bros. 3. Alyse co-founded Gazing Grain Press and teaches at Regis University.
I emailed Alyse shortly after reading Mega-City Redux and falling enough in love with it to buy copies for five of my friends as well as my mother. Her book represented a cross-section of several of my interests, but it was also funny, a quality so rare in poetry as to be endangered. We traded emailed enthusiasm about opera and Christine de Pizan, tried to figure out if we knew any of the same people, and, of course, got to talking about books.
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
I hate sexist and racist writing. I hate writing that sounds pompous or arrogant. I hate overrated books. I hate boring writing, or writing that I perceive as needlessly verbose.
Still, I like to think I’m fairly un-picky about what I read. I prefer to reserve the term “hatred” for very rare, special instances, which means that in general, I’m less likely to hate something than I am to just not love it—to feel “meh” about it.
I do tend to be pickier when it comes to the movies and TV shows I watch, and the video games I play. If I’m going to spend my precious free time watching or playing something, I want to truly love it, whereas with literature or music, even if I don’t love it, I’ll still have something I can learn from it. I suppose I approach literature and music with curiosity more than judgment.
It’s funny—when I try to set a “rule” or establish a more general category of which types of books I hate, I can almost always find an exception. For instance, I tend not to love absurdist fiction, like Catch-22 or The Third Policeman or the Coens’ films. Then again, I’m a huge fan of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and of a lot of Vonnegut.
What books have you really, truly hated?
I’m reading a graphic novel right now called Gallery of the Infinite, and it’s all about how mathematicians view infinity. It’s a fascinating book, and also a book that I hate tremendously—because it’s just so hard for the concepts to click in my brain. I’ve been reading and re-reading this book for weeks, in the hopes that eventually, the logic behind Cantor’s Diagonal Argument will finally make sense to me. It’s frustrating and annoying and intoxicating, and the hate I feel for it is such a good kind of hate. It lets me know I’m learning.
Call of the Wild is a very gross, very hate-able book. I listened to it on tape as my wife and I drove through the Yukon territory. I felt furious for most of that portion of the drive, and I was really surprised by how much I hated it. The representations of race and gender are so messed up—climaxing in (spoiler alert) three people and a whole team of dogs falling to their deaths because, according to London, women are idiots.
I really hated Robinson Crusoe. I had high expectations going into it—I thought it was going to be a super-exciting survival novel, but it’s just painfully tedious. I can still vividly remember where I read it—on the uncomfortable blue couch in my student apartment in Dublin, on a cold day when I was 20 years old.
And here’s the thing about this memory, and my memory of the Call of the Wild Yukon roadtrip: the experience of reading these books and hating them made an enormous impact on me. Elie Wiesel said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. I think that’s exactly true for books. The three books I mentioned above receive(d) way more emotional energy and attention from me than the books I feel indifferent toward, whose names I don’t even remember.
Why do you think people hate books?
People often hate books simply because of differing tastes. But I tend to dislike books more intensely when I feel pressured to like them for some reason. For instance, because I’m a big sci-fi buff, people assume I should love Lord of the Rings and Firefly. At first, I just felt “meh” about them, but the more people insisted I was wrong for disliking them, the more I moved into the realm of “active hatred.”
Other times, I think readers can feel pressure to like a book because it’s considered a classic, and then that pressure can backfire. When I Googled “most hated books,” I found all the “classics” that are taught in high school: The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. I would bet a lot of people feel the same way about Pride and Prejudice as I do about Lord of the Rings: They resent that they can’t say they hate it without having their tastes or their intelligence judged. Hating it makes them feel stupid.
Along those same lines, I think it’s often considered “cooler” or somehow more respectable to hate things than to geek out with love for things. To be picky implies that you have more sophisticated, discerning tastes. I mean, how many people at the record store in downtown Denver are going to admit that they love Taylor Swift? It’s easier to hate what everyone else loves—it makes you seem unique. But to me, it’s courageous to make yourself vulnerable by talking about what you love.
One of the first ways I realized I loved literature more than the average person was that in high school everyone hated all the books we read, and I loved them all. I remember my classmates really, really hating some of these books, with a fiery passion. Why? Maybe those books made them uncomfortable, insecure, or threatened. Maybe those books forced them to confront something they weren’t yet ready to confront.
The subject I truly hated in high school was math. I hated it because I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t understand it because I hated it. Hating it allowed me to give up, which allowed me to avoid feeling like a failure. People think they hate Ulysses for the same reason. They’re either confused about the book or they don’t understand the fact that confusion doesn’t have to be frustrating.
Do you think the books you hate have impacted the way you write, or teach?
Definitely. I strive to show my students that confusion is actually helpful and empowering. Confusion can be a doorway, not a wall.
When my students tell me they’re confused by a reading, I listen and sympathize with them and help them puzzle it out, but I also always tell them how great it is that they’re confused. I tell them, “That means you’re learning! When you’re learning something new, there’s always going to be a moment when you’re totally lost…because it’s new.” So I tell them that it’s pretty awesome that they’re getting their money’s worth out of college.
Recently a student came to talk with me about a certain passage in a short story we were reading that was so confusing to her, it made her hate the whole story. But when we looked at that passage together and followed her confusion deeper, she ended up discovering that this particular passage was crucial, climactic. She ended up writing a paper about that passage. Maybe she still hates the story—who knows?
Another one of my students really hated Paradise Lost. He just couldn’t get into it. I told him that his mission was to find one thing—just one thing—that he could enjoy about it. Even just one word. Or one character’s name. Anything. He was a music major, and the next week he came to class with an MP3 of an original orchestra piece he had scored in response to Paradise Lost. It was a beautiful composition that really captured the tragic mood of Lucifer’s fall. He let his hatred of the poem drive his curiosity, which in turn allowed him to produce something beautiful.
With your two student stories, you have essentially hit upon why I wanted to do this interview series. I think hate, when turned toward particular works of art (not people!), can be much more productive than love. Thoughts?
I can’t personally remember having written anything in direct response to a piece of art that I intensely dislike or hate. When I finish a book like Call of the Wild, which I hate because it’s so casually sexist, I feel grossed out and a little drained, and I just want to take a mind-vacation away from that world. But books that frustrate me because I’m productively confused, like Gallery of the Infinite, can certainly stimulate my curiosity and, in turn, my creativity. I think for me, that process is like this: confusion leads to frustration, realizing that my frustration is just confusion leads to curiosity, and curiosity leads to wanting to write.
Anger, though, does motivate me to write. And, contrary to what Yoda says, I don’t think anger always has to lead to hate. I wrote Mega-City Redux as a kind of feminist manifesto in the wake of the 2014 Isla Vista Killings, when the misogynistic rhetoric in the news and online really got my blood boiling. It felt empowering to turn those feelings into something beautiful.
What was the last book you recommended?
My last book recommendation was Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, and the one before that was Steam Laundry by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. I generally think everyone should read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires.
Oh, no! Autobiography of Red is a book I hate!
GASP! Just kidding.
On a personal level, Autobiography of Red came to me at just the right time—I read it as I was coming out, so of course I related hugely to the queer love story (it helps, too, that love is my favorite subject to read or write about). In addition, when I first read Autobiography, I had no idea that a poet could do anything narrative at all except in standalone poems. I’d never heard of the novel in verse or the verse sequence, and so this book pretty much blew my mind. I love the line “They were two superior eels at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics,” which is how Carson describes the two protagonists’ first meeting—the moment they fall in love. Swoon!
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room? Which one, and why?
I’ve never thrown a book across the room because books (even ones I dislike) have always seemed like precious objects to me. I like to touch books, smell them, hold them. I think I’d feel sorry for a book that got thrown across the room—it’s not the book’s fault it’s bad, it’s the writer’s. I did drop Ulysses out of a lofted bed once by accident, and it split in half at the seam.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m currently reading Joan Naviyuk Kane’s new poetry book Milk Black Carbon, and a history of Batman called The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. Both of them are great!