Noah Cicero, A Young, Not-dead, Not Chilean Pablo Neruda
Noah Cicero is kind of like Pablo Neruda, except that he is not Pablo Neruda because Pablo Neruda had a head shaped like a big onion and Pablo Neruda was romantic and wrote in a romance language and Pablo Neruda was not from Ohio. Noah Cicero is from Ohio and his head is shaped more like a beet. Some of his books are translated in romance languages, but that does not make him Pablo Neruda. He went to Pablo Neruda’s grave recently. The ghost of Pablo Neruda might visit Noah Cicero in his dreams and say to sleeping Noah Cicero “You have visited my grave and wrote poems. I wrote poems too. Thank you my friend.”
It is true that Cicero’s lines will often break haphazardly, that his rhythm is not standardized in any particular way, but his poems make your heart do that feel thing the heart does. In this sense, Cicero is an anti-conceptual poet, an anti-Kenny Goldsmith. Whereas Kenneth Goldsmith wants, in the words of Andy Warhol, “to become a machine,” Noah wants to be a human being. Kenneth Goldsmith is the poet laureate of the MoMa in New York and Noah Cicero is the poet laureate of taquito meat and Arby’s barbeque sauce. When you are alone late at night and look at the ceiling and think the thoughts that you maybe don’t want to be here anymore, the kind of thoughts you might become afraid to think, Noah Cicero wrote words in a space in a book because he wants you to feel okay.
Noah Cicero wants to be a human being and he wants you to be an okay human being too. He is generous at the expense of leaving himself completely vulnerable. Kenneth Goldsmith reads transcriptions of the weather at the White House and drinks champagne from a flute. Noah Cicero reads his poems to disaffected youth in Chile who crowdfund his plane ticket. He sleeps on somebody’s couch, anybody’s couch. Kenneth Goldsmith lists Barthes and Sontag as influences. Noah Cicero’s major influence is the smell of whisky soaked sadness in the recorded voice of George Jones.
Perhaps we can consider Cicero as being prototypical of a kind of New Sincerity. As a reaction to the condescension and privilege, the dry wit and irony of the literary culture of postmodernism. Cicero’s work immerses the reader into an American mythology—whether we are in the southwest desert listening to Mazzy Star, eating Best Teriyaki in Oregon, or drinking Korean rice wine and arguing about David Bowie lyrics, even at its most cosmopolitan, there is nothing that is not completely and sincerely American. That goes for the mental illness too, because love in America, let’s face it, is a kind of mental illness.
JL: Your road to becoming a writer is, at least in the contemporary construct of the American writing scene, was somewhat unconventional. You are from Youngstown, Ohio, didn’t go to school to become a writer, and worked various blue collar jobs. Why did you decide to start writing books?
NC: I started writing when I was sixteen, I became obsessed with the idea of being a writer, writers to me were these crazy people that traveled and got drunk and never grew up. I wanted that, to never grow up. To never be sitting in a two story house with a wife and kids, watching television eating corn syrup, gaining weight, complaining about the weather, mowing grass, mini vans, I didn’t want any of that. Writing to me is a life style, I know now, it isn’t like you don’t grow up, it is just you create your own world. I’ve created my own world, of hiking and zen and weird friends and traveling. I really enjoy it all.
Concerning writers going to MFA programs, there are only about 120 MFA programs in America. Which means they graduate only about 7000 people a year, I think America benefits from 7000 people who strive to be creative and have spent a few years trying to learn about creativity and what it means. Concerning the phrase “learn to write.” If you look at the history of literature in the last two centuries, only a handful of writers ever wrote more than five awesome books. And usually they had to write 12 to get those five awesome books. A great book requires ‘something to say.’ Take for example Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl or John Gunther’s Death be not Proud, they had something to say and they said it well, and people love that they said it. They have one book but everyone loves that book. Take Murakami, he has basically three books Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995) and 1Q84 (2009) we can see that even for a very great writer they can only pump one book of genius every ten years. Which means for me, I need to keep writing, because I don’t know when the ‘next one’ will come. I might write something awesome again, but I won’t know, unless I write something.
JL: This idea of creating your own world sounds a lot like Oscar Wilde when he talked about Individuality. Cultivating personality. You remind me a lot of Oscar Wilde. Except he was gay and his hair was smooth and flowy. You, not gay. Your hair, not flowy. But he also didnt know the music of George Jones or Townes Van Zandt, Janis Joplin. And yet he wrote of the white man’s sadness. Everything is possible.
NC: I really enjoyed Oscar Wilde in high school, I thought he was the coolest. Then found Rimbaud and the Beatniks and Hunter S. Thompson I really like the idea of a person taking their personality to a vicious extreme. I remember looking at pictures of Ezra Pound with giant hair, my mind thinking, “That’s a poet.” I really like people in general who have extreme personalities, doesn’t matter if they are writers or athletes, I really love Bo Jackson and Terry Bradshaw, they both seem so authentic to me, so comfortable being themselves, people that aren’t afraid to dance or cry, I really like ‘don’t give a fuck.’ I really like when people hear a song and start dancing no matter where they are, I really like when people go to sleep in funny places like in restaurants or on rocks on mountains. I believe there is a lot of beauty in silliness.
JL: In this age with everything instantly rated, tweeted, and the author more and more intertwined with the selling and marketing of their work, do you place a lot of weight on your work’s internet reception? Do you think you need a palpable social media presence to be an American author in the 21st century?
NC: I think if a person wants to sell more than 100 books they better do some self-promotion. I don’t think it takes a lot of effort to maintain a social network, I basically only tweet things regarding my writing or funny things. I post things on Facebook concerning my writing or pictures of me hiking, I email a lot of people asking if they want to review my book or to interview me, and sometimes it takes three hours, I just did a 10,000 word interview for Hobart, and yeah, it takes time. But I think it is fun to interact with other writers, I really enjoy all of it. I know of several books that are incredible, that are amazing, but the authors don’t think they have to self promote, and the books haven’t sold 500 copies. A musician has to practice for months to make sure everything is perfect, then they have to travel all over playing shows if they are sick or not, a lot of them have to practice choregraphy, then they have to do interviews at 5am or in the middle of the night at radio stations. Athletes have to practice and exercise constantly like maniacs to play their games. People on movie crews (from camera men to actors and actresses) have to go to weird places and wake up at 5am and work all fucking day to make their movies. Actors and actresses have to maintain perfect bodies via massive amounts of exercise. And a writer can’t emotionally handle copy and pasting links into Twitter, well then you don’t deserve to sell copies, you’re lazy, I don’t care.
JL: You have a story, “The Tiger Painter” where the main character can’t seem to find his authenticity or silliness, so he commits suicide. Like all of society has rejected him and he has no dignity and has no sense of humor to cope with the fact that his society is total bullshit and that he might be the only one who is okay.
You lived in Korea for a year and a lot of your new stories and poems take place there. What kind of influence do you think Korea had on you?
NC: I think I can answer these two questions at once, first to start off I am from America, before I went to South Korea I had lived in a peaceful landscape my whole life, Canada and Mexico are not threats to America. So we don’t have to be ‘serious,’ Americans can just live in a techno dream and not care about anything. But South Korea is different, for 1000s of years the Korean people have been under assault from China, the Manchus, Mongolians, Japanese and now North Koreans want to kill the Southern Koreans. There is no rest for the Korean people, a Korean has to get up and think, “We are under threat from these outside forces, we must protect.” When a Korean has a child they have to instill in that child, “You are Korean, we are under threat, we will forever be under threat, we have we must be diligent for if we let our guard down for one second outside forces will come to destroy us.” Koreans, Jewish people, Tibetans and black people are never allowed to completely relax, the world won’t let them just be silly and enjoy life. They have to wake up everyday with at least a little focus on ‘protecting their people.’ I, Noah Cicero from Ohio, USA, I’m allowed to be Noah, I’m allowed to relax, because my people have all the weapons, they have the rules, and the rules they made, were made for people who look like me. But Koreans, Jewish people, Tibetans and black people don’t own the weapons, they don’t own the rules, the rules aren’t for them.
I really learned about my own whiteness, that I have had privileges, just being born a native speaker of English is a privilege, being born in a peaceful part of the world is a privilege, getting things just by being born is a privilege. Koreans do not have those privileges, they have to learn English and they have to live in a country completely surrounded by groups of people who want to own their land.
JL: So your new book, Bipolar Cowboy, is the first book of poems you wrote. How was the experience of writing poems different for you?
NC: I wrote it as a book of poems because I couldn’t write a novel about what happened in my life, because if I wrote a novel I would have had to talk about the ‘the woman’ in question who I had a relationship with. And I didn’t want to talk shit. What I needed at that moment in my life was not to talk shit about ‘the woman’ or other people or anything. Talking shit is really hard in poetry, you don’t have enough words to lay out enough evidence to convince the audience that the person in question is worth talking shit about.
I felt really free writing the poems, because I didn’t have to construct a plot and make it work in a linear or in a non linear. I could just come up with concepts and put them on paper and stare at them and enjoy them, without too much stress.
JL: It is strange how in America people are either writers or poets, like we make some kind of demarcation between the two. In most every country I’ve ever been to the poets also write stories and drama and essays etc… why do you think we are like that?
NC: I think maybe because those ‘worlds’ of interest are separated. The poetry world lives in MFA departments or on the Internet, it doesn’t live anywhere else, and people in the ‘poetry world’ have nothing to do with the ‘novel world’ which consists of agents, the big five major presses which hardly ever publish poetry and the top indie presses which publish publish poetry but not that much. The screenwriters all live in LA and have $$$ in their eyes. I’ve never encountered anyone who writes plays and gets them published in my 11 years of being part of the writing world, I have no idea who those people are or where they live or even if they exist. There is ZERO communication between novelists/poets and drama writers.
Basically what I’m trying to get at, is that if I wrote a screen play or a drama I have no connections to get the project done. I think basically the economic and geographic structure of the writing world is not unified in any way. Maybe in Korea where Seoul is the major hub for all artists of Korea, people can meet each other at coffee shops and bars and build networks. Paris in the 50s seemed like a place where people could meet each other and make things happen across genres. The American economy rewards specialization, if a person gets an MFA in poetry that person is expected to put out books of poetry, if a person gets an MFA in fiction, that person is expected to put out books of fiction. People just follow the rules. But the world of writers like Norman Mailer or Hunter S. Thompson having these amazing careers of diverse books about different subjects is over, the mainstream won’t allow it, nobody wants to pay for it. Vice magazine does nostalgic moments but not with real writers, with just kids who read a Hunter S. Thompson or models, the quality is completely lost. And nobody can even see it.
Proof of God
I was in Oregon,
and saw a place
called Best Teriyaki.
It seemed odd,
so fucking unbelievable,
that white people came and killed
all the buffalo, wiped out or moved
into tiny spaces all the Chinook people.
Then a guy or woman from Japan, from
a country doing great in terms of development,
decided to come to Oregon, a forest where the sun
hardly ever shines, where it rains rains rains and
every white man has a beard, even if it makes him
And the Japanese person opens a business that has the
Best Teriyaki on the Planet Earth.
The very concept, the idea, the notion,
the phenomenological existence of
Best Teriyaki proved to me that the universe
was truly weird, that anything could happen,
because if the Best Teriyaki could be located
inside a forest on the western edge of North America,
anything could be possible.
A Way Somehow
I don’t know, at times,
if you are really people, I
know you are people, I mean,
you aren’t walking on fours, and you
wear clothes. (But sometimes, when
you’re naked, I don’t know if you are human,
and get confused, that’s why I don’t
go to strip joints anymore, or have sex.)
How did you all become people? How did
you get so good at showing up on time for work,
and doing what your manager says, how did you
get so good at being detailed-oriented. There
is an ad on Craigslist for a processor, that says, “We are
looking for someone seriously ready to start a career
and care about the work they do every day.”
Seriously the ad doesn’t even state what the
company produces? How the fuck can you people
care about some unknown something, will you even care
after you get the job?
How do you become a person?
Usually, instead of trying to get a job,
I listen to music on YouTube, instead of being
a person, I try to become the notes of songs,
the chord structure of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”
covered by Amy Winehouse, I want to become that song, I learn
the song on guitar and strum it on my adobe porch thing,
trying to become non-human, sometimes I try to become
the taste of a Carl’s Jr. cheeseburger, I want to be
that delicious, that bad for you.
Sometimes I listen to Amitabha chants,
Navajo chants, even old
Kentucky Old Regular Baptists call out chants, I
want to be a pure feeling, that may lead to heaven,
but instead I am Noah Cicero, sometimes I scream, I
can’t be controlled, I can’t be tamed, because I
don’t know what to be—
When you see a pronghorn antelope from your car, high up
north in Nevada, by the Walker River Rez. I don’t know
what to be, the antelope, the person seeing the antelope, the grass
that the antelope is eating, the feeling the person gets from
seeing the antelope, the feeling the antelope has while
eating the grass, so I try to be all things, then I realize,
I’m just wind, swirling and swirling, and it is okay, and
it isn’t okay,
and all will work itself out, something is taking its course, but
it never works out, and all all all it comes, and the wind
shaking the leaves of the palm tree, the hum of bugs, and
me trying to find a job on Craigslist.
I went to the library on West Charleston,
by the community college.
I looked at the community college, and
considered taking a class on Excel
Went into the library and returned
Pearl Jam’s greatest hits. I’m
on mood stabilizers, and I just took
an anti-anxiety pill. Recently,
I’ve been crying, having panic attacks.
I am high in the West Charleston Library,
Nobody in the library knows how lonely
I am. I thank them for that.
Go over to the CDs, stand in
front of the country CDs, I can
barely move, time doesn’t exist
on these pills. I see George Jones,
he is like my brother. I hold the
George Jones CD, he has a buzzcut,
the songs are from his early career.
I say, “George Jones,
you are my brother. My real brother
is a douchebag who won’t talk to me,
but George Jones you have
never rejected me. You are like
my Jesus, I knock and you let me in.”
I walk over to the religion section, and
find a book on Taoism that I never heard of. I am
holding Yuan Dao: Tracing Dao to
Its Source. I am going to listen to George Jones
and then trace the Dao, I have—
become a real freak.
Could I get any weirder? God?
Did you know that George Jones
has a cover of “I’ll Fly Away” and
it ain’t that bad.
That Mazzy Star Song
Standing on Foster Road in Southeast Portland,
drizzle drizzle drizzle
the sky, the earth a big shadow.
Noah stood on the street,
looked around and thought
“This looks like fucking Ohio.”
He began crying, hyperventilating.
He just wanted it to be over.
He moved into a small room,
in some weird guy’s apartment. The weird guy said
he loved art. He used the word
The man had two cats, they didn’t
seem evil when Noah first met them.
In the middle of the night, the cats
scratched on the door. Noah heard
the scratching, quick memory burst—
not good, of 2011. When he first met her.
Sleeping in her room in Oberlin, Ohio.
Her roommate’s cat, Tuna, would always
scratch on her door at night. Tuna would
stick his little paw under the door.
Noah liked looking down at the cat paw.
the cat scratching the door, there was a
horrible, tumultuous noise inside his head.
He woke up the next morning in hell, a violent hell
that involved Noah Cicero killing himself
Noah Cicero stood on Foster Road
in Southeast Portland.
Isn’t Portland supposed to be heaven?
Where did these evil cats come from?
Noah packed up his clothes
and Buddhist beads, got into
a car and started driving back to Las Vegas.
He drove through the Cascades,
through the cold desert. He had only one CD.
It was a mix CD his friend made.
The only good song on it was
that Mazzy Star song
“Fade Into You.”
Noah listened to that song on repeat.
He remembered his brother Michael,
long dead of a gunshot to the head,
His brother liked that Mazzy Star song.
Noah remembered that Michael
ordered 16 CDs from BMG for one penny.
Noah could see
some of the CDs in his mind,
Elton John’s Greatest Hits, 4 Non Blondes,
Rod Stewart, Eddie Money, Violent Femmes,
and that Mazzy Star album.
Noah wanted to find Mazzy Star, he wondered
if they had become bipolar cowboys.
Noah Cicero (b. 1980) is an American novelist, short-story writer, and poet. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is the author of six books of fiction, one book of poetry, and two ebooks.