Marcus Slease’s latest book, Play Yr Kardz Right, will come out in August with the British small press Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Tim Atkins has called these poems “gentle & generous engagements with the ephemera of almost-everyday life, coupled with a variant of bill bissett’s Lunarian English, and a sensuous, curious, cosmopolitan, and compassionate world-view.” We chatted over email about his writing and reading practices, the American Dream, and teaching abroad.
Laura Wetherington: I want to start by asking you about the spelling in the book. For folks who haven’t seen it: a lot of the words seem to be sounded out, like these lines from “DO ANDROIDZ DREEM UV ELECTRIK SHEEP”:
we come from ainshunt
we have to find
but when I listen to you read selections from the book, I don’t hear an accent different from the one you use to introduce the selection. What does the spelling signify for you? Why this choice for this book?
Marcus Slease: I have actually been playing with various styles of reading lately. My good friend and fellow poet, Chris Gutkind, suggested reading a little less emphatically for effect. I did a reading in Madrid with my new voice and it seemed to work well. The humor is maybe more effective. I think the reasons for the creative phonetic spelling are many. Jack Kerouac was one of my first loves. I related to his working class background. And his spontaneous play. His desire for freedom. Being on the road and so on. But he was also very American. I worked hard to become American. I wanted to become more American. I practiced moving my mouth in the mirror like an American until the sounds came out right. It took about three years. Age 11.5 to maybe 14.5. But I was never fully American (whatever that means). In rule 13, from his “Belief & Technique For Modern Prose,” Kerouac says to “remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition.” So there’s that. The desire to work through inhibitions in both form and content. This is partly due to my strict conservative Mormon upbringing. My anti-authoritarian bent. And what is more authoritative than the rules of spelling. The tyranny of spelling. Another reason is the emphasis on sound. I have immigrated to many countries. Beginning at age six I emigrated from the island of Ireland to the island of England. And then at almost age 12 to America (first a trailer park in Vallejo, California and then Las Vegas through my teenage years, then Utah, Washington State, and North Carolina). I left the United States on New Years 2005 and turned in my alien card. Now I am a world alien. First it was South Korea, various places in Poland, Turkey, London, and now Madrid. A third reason (I’ll stop at three) is the mystical element. The shamanistic element. The poet bill bissett was a big influence with the creation of Play Yr Kardz Right. There is the spirit of bill bissett in there (along with others). bill bissett also showed me the queering of language. I need the queering of language. It is sort of my plan of salvation. Sara Ahmed says that “To make things queer is to disturb the order of things.” In all my work I am about disturbing the order. bill bissett (and surrealism etc) opened up other possibilities for me. Another world is possible and we need aliens. bill bissett is an alien and I am alien too. I come from another planet. I go to poetry, and art in general, for alternatives. Not as escape. The opposite. Another world is possible. Art can show us other worlds. Other possibilities.
Laura Wetherington: You mention a lot of other writers here as inspiration, which has me wondering about your reading process and how you conceive of a manuscript in a more general way. The poems in both Play Yr Kardz Right and Rides are thematically-linked; they’re constructed around different concepts, though I wouldn’t call your work “conceptual.” Do you begin writing with a fully-formed idea for a book? And then, to what extent do you develop a reading list to put you in the writing mood for each book? Are you reading toward a particular manuscript while you’re writing it?
Marcus Slease: My books are never complete until I find the right new reading love(s). Then I cut and rearrange and remix. So the framing comes at the end. After the final reading surge. It is the last surge. The poet Tim Atkins, more than anyone, helped me to see the fun of framing with his Petrarch poems. The frame of his Petrarch sonnets is expansive. They are wild and contemporary poems that sometimes connect to Petrarch and sometimes not.
Rides began as a commuting project. I wrote observations and thoughts and recorded found language while riding the circle line in London. This was back in 2008. Rides was originally called The Circle Line. I was reading and listening to the voices of Sean Bonney, Jeff Hilson, Tim Atkins and others. Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day was the biggest influence and love. Plus Riot grrrl music. And the new confessionalism of poets like Sam Pink, Dorothea Lasky and others. Then one day, sometime in 2014, I was reading Ariana Reines’ Coeur de Lion and that was it. The book I needed to finish the manuscript. A kind of voice, style, stance. A portal. It was no longer The Circle Line. I realized then that the framing comes toward the end of a book project.
My books are layered over an average of four to six years. A collage of reading loves and what is happening in the moment mixed with memories. It all gets in there. My partner, Ewa, often finds the frame. She is my first (and often only) listener and editor. My ideal reader. I read the poems out loud and she suggests cutting and rearranging and re-ordering. She suggested the frame for Rides (train rides forwards and backwards around the U.K.).
Another completed book manuscript has the frame of bathtubs. It is called The Spirit of the Bathtub. Poems written in bathtubs in Poland, Spain, South Korea, London, Portugal. Again, the frame came at the end.
The reading eureka moment for Play Yr Kardz Right was bill bissett’s book Stardust (Blewointmentpress, 1975). He has kitschy movie stuff in there. Just the thing I didn’t know that I needed to finish the manuscript. The memories of the 80’s tv show Play Your Cards Right was also a frame. It somehow all clicked with the themes of the manuscript (immigration, the American dream, popular culture and so on). Also a shuffling of the cards. Fate and not fate.
After leaving the U.S. in 2005, I gave away thousands of books. A lot of collector’s items (first edition countercultural stuff). I only had a few books for some isolated years in Poland and South Korea. When I moved to London in 2008, I realized books are a vital part of my creative process. Not just a little. A lot. So I am back to amassing the books. My latest projects have more of a narrative frame. Influenced by surrealists who have lived (or passed through) Madrid. Also Latin American surrealism. Leonora Carrington, and Garcia Lorca especially. It in the final stages. I am waiting for the next reading and writing surge to finish another gestating manuscript. I am mostly just reading now. I have to fall in love with books and art to write well. I have to feel like I have forgotten poetry and I am rediscovering it for the first time. A beginner’s mind.
Laura Wetherington: These frames you find only afterward (the commute or the bathtub) are inextricable from the moment of composition. Does this mean you only realize what pattern you’ve made after you’ve made it, or do you think you’re superimposing a frame onto the work once it’s completed? Are you realizing the work with the frame, or altering it?
Marcus Slease: Hm. Most of time I can’t see the patterns until I have quite a few drafts of the whole book and some seeding time. It feels like the framing was there all along. Waiting. I just have to find the form already in the material. I think I am realizing the work with the frame.
Laura Wetherington: And are the frames always situational (like writing in a bathtub or on a train)? Can the reader always detect the frame? I’m thinking now about the chapbook you published with Poor Claudia, mu (Dream) so (Window), and whether I can spot the compositional strategies there. I can’t. Has this framing evolved over the course of your work?
Marcus Slease: I think mu (Dream) so (Window) is where I really discovered the fun of framing. The poems in that book came from keeping an impressionistic confessional notebook while living in Seoul, South Korea in 2006. When it came to collaging, I took a minimalist approach. About halfway through, I had the idea of using the frames of various locations around Seoul (the bar Tin Pan 2, Bongeunsa Buddhist temple, Incheon Wal-Mart, the Flying Bird Teahouse). I arranged the thoughts and reportage into their new frames. In a loose and intuitive way. The new titles as locations then led to further research of the areas around Seoul and some new information was collaged. Some of the poems connect more directly to the location, while others use various collaged material (often material that doesn’t usually play together). For example, a poem that connects directly to the location and tells things like they really happened is “Wonderland.” “Wonderland” takes place in a school called Wonderland. It is the true story of experiencing the children’s game called ddong chim while teaching a class of 5 year olds. This means “poop needle.” It is the Korean version of a wedgie. A few of the poems didn’t fit into the frame of a location. For example, “The Rumi Sequence” is partly collaged from experiences with a new roommate from France named Rumi. But then it completely moves somewhere else into the realm of erotic fantasy. The poem “Balloon Flower” is a recontextualized song poem based on a popular children’s song about spring and the balloon flower. I am somewhat obsessed with balloons. I have lots of balloons in my work.
Laura Wetherington: Poop needle! That’s a perfect term for a wedgie! I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall in that classroom. You’ve taught in a number of different countries, including South Korea, the U.S., the U.K., and Spain. Where else? What advice can you give to U.S. writers who are interested in teaching abroad?
Marcus Slease: Well I have lived in many places. No trust fund/family money and meager savings. Not Hemingway or the so-called Expat way. All the traveling and living has been made possible by teaching English as a foreign language. I have lived and worked in the U.S., South Korea, Poland, Turkey, the U.K., and now Spain. Lots of other short term travels in various parts of the world. I think teaching English as a foreign language is a tough road but not without rewards. A sense of humor is vital. In a few countries you can live quite well overall with the money (South Korea, parts of the Middle East and sometimes China for example). But in most cases, especially if you are long term, you live super simple. You will have little savings, not much financial security. I usual break even most years. My savings from one country helped me to hop to another country and then I am back at zero. Nothing fancy like cars or any possibility of owning property or whatever. But you don’t starve (usually). And there are lots of rewards with living simply in various countries. Lots of amazing experiences. It can be an aid to mindfulness practice (for a while). Maybe less complications (no mortgage, insurance, or retirement to worry about etc). I think one thing I learned late was that people are pretty important. Isolation in foreign countries was not so good. It is good to make some effort to be around people. Some of my jobs have been university adjunct gigs in foreign American-style universities. This is better than language school jobs. More enjoyable. And as long as you stay away from the U.S., and live in more civilized countries, you will have some health insurance. A big plus for working as an adjunct or language school teacher. Now and again I feel the pull of careerism, prestige, and money culture. Usually if I accidentally watch American or British television or hang around ex-pats. But this doesn’t happen very often and it doesn’t last longer than a few hours. I am mostly happy with this simple life.
Laura Wetherington is a poet whose first book was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books. She teaches in Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program and co-edits textsound.org with Hannah Ensor.
Marcus Slease was born in Portadown, N. Ireland. He immigrated to Milton Keynes, England and then Las Vegas at age 11. Some influences include: Buddhist philosophy, surrealism (both hard and soft), shamanism, collage art, noise music, Leonora Carrington, Richard Brautigan, Ivor Cutler, Chika Sagawa, James Tate, Guy Maddin, David Lynch, and various other fabulists, absurdists, surrealists and satirists. He is the author of eight books from micro presses. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, featured in the Best British Poetry series, translated into Polish and Danish, and has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many publications such as: Tin House, Poetry, Fog Machine, Little White Lies, Conduit, and Fence. He lives in Madrid, Spain.