Tony Trigilio’s Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2 (BlazeVOX) is a sneaky text. Mind you, I don’t mean to impugn the book in any way. Rather, “sneaky” is the only way I feel capable of describing how Trigilio lures you into these poems with an unassuming, even charming conceptual-cum-procedural transparency (“hey, we’re all binge-watchers here”) and tone (O’Hara-esque chattiness). But, by the time you realize that your cozy cup of tea has been laced with phenomenology and epistemology and ontology, it’s too late. The walls are closing in, your certainties are draining away, and you can’t help but admit that, as much as you fear for your comfort, a more intense tingle is telling you how thrilled you are.
Appropriately enough, there’s a word in Italian for what Trigilio achieves in Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2—sprezzatura. Roughly translated, this term (coined by Castiglione for the benefit of courtiers everywhere) means “the artifice of no apparent artifice.” In the hands of a lesser artist, sprezzatura is just an ironic form of braggadocio. “Oh that? Oh yeah, sure, I made that. But it’s no big deal.” But let a true artist bring their craft to bear on this nonchalant performance of virtuosity, and what often results are works defined by an almost inexpressible grace.
Maybe this is what the brilliant Italian novelist and poet Cesare Pavese meant when he wrote that “to be a genius is to achieve complete possession of one’s own experience, body, rhythm, and memories.” Of course, Pavese (and Castiglione, for that matter) were wise enough to know that genius is a phantom. Yet the question remains: how do we choose to negotiate with all those forces, exercising themselves both within and without ourselves, which shape our acknowledgment of who we are? That conundrum is real, and utterly banal—its own soap opera, in that lovingly pejorative sense we all know from the gossip that diverts us from the days of our lives—and therefore a matter of life and death. Based on this book, and this larger endeavor, I believe Tony Trigilio writes towards that same wisdom as well. It’s just that, in the moonlight, even wisdom looks a little devious. Like poetry. And like narrative: poetry’s double.
The following questions and answers were exchanged in the existential chiaroscuro that was October through November of 2016.
One of the aspects of Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2 I appreciate most is that the text remains relatively agnostic regarding its own intentions. It is careful to draw a distinction between what it is doing and what it is about, if that makes any sense. For you as the author, did writing this text also entail resolving some tension between making and meaning?
The book has helped me understand this tension more deeply. I’m becoming more and more sensitive to where making and meaning diverge and where the two overlap. I don’t want to control the circulation of meaning in Inside the Walls of My Own House, but even if I tried to, I’d fail because each new Dark Shadows episode sends the poem into unpredictable new directions during the act of composition. Chance operations have always been dear to me in writing and all forms of art-making, and in many ways this project is the ultimate aleatory text: each new Dark Shadows episode triggers, organically, the directions the poem is “supposed” to go.
Is there any such thing as an UNguilty pleasure?
Sadly, ever since the U.S. became a surveillance state, it seems like the only options are guilty pleasures and potentially-guilty pleasures.
Beyond the trap represented by its tropes, fear can a very fraught subject. To write about fear with any sort of clarity, to do justice to fear’s erotics, and to record fearful experiences without indulging in the distortions (albeit expressive) of drama all risks a kind of cold-bloodedness. But, as the poem written in response to episode 539 of Dark Shadows proclaims: “sometimes we actually / experience the uncanny with dignity.” (Cf. another unconventional vampire tale, Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos.) And I feel this incredible camaraderie with speaker in these poems, how frank he is about his anxieties, how sensitive he is to his terrors. As when he tells us, late in the book, that one of the manifestations of his OCD looks like this:
I’m convinced that if I don’t scratch our two
cats atop their heads before I leave each day,
one of them will die when I’m gone
What other books provided you some guidance with respect to writing about fear as you do in Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2?
I’ve always trusted the urge for candor, but for some reason this particular project brings more repressed or forgotten material to the surface than I thought possible. It requires me to write with more frankness and vulnerability than I was capable of 10 or 15 years ago. I have to be at ease with the probability that at any given moment in the writing process, a kitschy goth soap opera will trigger submerged, unsettling memory. I often call this project an experiment in autobiography, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s only about formal experimentation—this is part of it, of course, stretching the bounds of the ekphrastic poem to write about pop kitsch instead of high art. But even within the boundaries of a blooper-infested, low-budget daytime soap opera, I’m taking autobiography very seriously and trying to stretch myself into often-uncomfortable moments of openness and candor.
But, back more specifically to your question, a couple of writers in particular come to mind as inspirations for writing frankly about fear and anxiety in the book. The first is John Porcellino, whose King Cat comics feature spacious visual art and complex, moving, intensely honest autobiographical narratives. King Cat is an ongoing autobiography of the continuous present. It resists artificially imposed beginning-middle-and-end autobiographical structure, and this is something I’m also trying to do in Inside the Walls of My Own House. Porcellino’s 2014 graphic novel, The Hospital Suite, was a huge influence on the way I wrote about anxiety and fear in Inside the Walls of My Own House. His frank portrayals of struggling with anxiety and OCD in The Hospital Suite inspired me to write with honesty (and without shame) about, for example, my inability to leave the house without first exhausting a step-by-step catalogue of 39-40 ritualized behaviors. This kind of candor about fear is necessary for a project like this because my earliest understandings of my psyche were circumscribed by my childhood Dark Shadows nightmares, which means my first true mapping of what I’d later call the “unconscious mind” was actually rooted in night terrors.
Horacio Castellanos Moya has been an influence in this way, too. I’m thinking specifically of his ability to create narrators suffused with neurosis who draw you into his novels instead of making you too neurotic to read them. He’s also been a formal influence—a writer who unfolds anxiety (often political anxiety) into long, talky, meandering, and precise sentences full of hairpin turns and elongated associative discoveries. I’m reading his 2015 novel The Dream of My Return right now and it’s a constant companion as I compose Book 3 of this project.
Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2 opens with an on-screen séance: a conjuring of past lives. Over the course of the book, the poem’s speaker goes on to establish contact with other, more “real” ghosts: the child he was, his deceased mother, the students murdered at Kent State in 1970. What is it that poetry can communicate about elapsed and departed selves that other art forms cannot?
Other art forms—especially, for me, music and film—can resurrect our ghosts, but poetry seems uniquely suited to bring back the dead because, I think, it’s so stubborn about trying to find a way to talk about what’s already lost. “A word is elegy to what it signifies,” as Robert Hass famously wrote, and I think poetry often takes this idea literally rather than repressing it. Poetry begins with the impossible desire to say what is unsayable—it begins with what is lost, with what can’t be expressed in words. Poetry’s confidence that it actually can communicate what other modes of language cannot put into words is completely irrational—and, for me, this irrationality is part of its strength, its beauty. Still, even though I’m drawn to poetry’s desire to surpass the limitations of language, I’m also mindful of poets aligned with the Language / L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, among others, who approach the art form with a completely different kind of linguistic temperament—a faith in language’s inability to recuperate word and thing. I’m drawn strongly to both perspectives. While I believe that language can possess an almost magical quality to resurrect the past, I’m also suspicious of the belief in a transcendental language. As with most things in my life, I’m probably trying to have it both ways in Inside the Walls of My Own House: I want to explore, for instance, what it means for Dark Shadows character Ben Stokes to be “trapped in the prison-house / of language”; but I also want a language for transcendental moments—for moments like Section 1 of the book, for example, when I encounter the ghost of my dead mother at a spiritualist community in rural Indiana.
There’s this wonderful contrapuntal quality to the verses in Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2. The syntax of these long, appositive-encrusted sentences plays some very supple and often delightful variations against the more regular pulse of the couplet. In addition to being a poet, you’re also a drummer: a “time-keeper.” What do you hope readers would most get out of scanning these poems?
Thanks so much for your reading of the rhythmic variations of the sentences and couplets. (And I adore your adjective “appositive-encrusted” so much that I’m going to try to find a way to fit it into Book 3.) My hope is that readers experience the book’s shifts and swerves of rhythm as manifestations of the unpredictable turns of discovery that the speaker experiences throughout the poem. As a drummer, one of the most important elements of songwriting for me is rhythmic dynamics, shaping the ebbs and flows of embodied sound, and I’m also trying to bring this sensibility to Inside the Walls of My Own House.
The poems in Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2 dedicate as much of their language to the specific circumstances of watching as they do to what is being watched. We know when and where the Tony in the poems is watching these episodes, on what device, in whose company. And he shares with us all those memories and associations that (re-)watching Dark Shadows resurrects. Are these poems recaps? How or how not, or, or what, exactly? Assuming you’ve thought about it all, why do you think recaps are so significant to how we consume popular culture in the 21st Century?
I’m not sure why recaps are so significant to twenty-first-century pop culture audiences, though I’d guess to some extent it’s because we’re so overwhelmed with choices that sometimes the simulation—the recap—has to suffice. But I hope I don’t sound like I’m denigrating the recap by calling it a “simulation.” Quite the opposite. One of the key narrative influences in my life—as important as fiction, poetry, and comic books—were the episode recaps I used to read, as a child, in my mother’s issues of Soap Opera Digest. These recaps later migrated online in the 1990s, which was thrilling for me, knowing that the bare-bones, stripped-down declarative sentences of the “soap opera recap” genre—which I didn’t just consume but inhaled as a child—could be equally delightful in a digital medium. I wrote a lot of politicized parodies of soap opera recaps in a blog I kept from 2005-2010, and I think these experiments helped me understand the “recap” as a genre itself. Those recaps probably were an unconscious precursor to the Dark Shadows project. (Here’s a link to a sample: a recap parody from a 2009 posting in which my blog’s alter ego, my cat Shimmy, writes with unshakable certainty that Sarah Palin’s sicko anti-Obamacare “death panels” fantasy was an effort to cover up the embarrassing “fact” that she was a kleptomaniac. Shimmy had no evidence that Palin was a kleptomaniac, but, for her, the facts never got in the way of a good, scandalous, clickbait story, especially one that she could narrate in the form of a soap opera recap.)
What quality of Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2 would you identify as having been most influenced by your understanding of the soap opera form, as revealed to you by your hours and hours spent watching Dark Shadows? How much of your watching would you, in fact, classify as reading?
My dedication to the project is an extension of my fascination with the way soap operas stretch their narratives into gigantic story arcs that are so compelling that viewers devote years of their lives to a particular show. At one point in Inside the Walls of My Own House, my wife, Liz, casually mentions that she spent 20 years watching the soap opera All My Children (like many loyal viewers, she’d still be watching if All My Children hadn’t been canceled). Liz and I figured out that she watched roughly 5,000 episodes of All My Children. This sounds too big to comprehend, until you think about how the goal of a soap is definitely to hook viewers to such an extent that they’ll watch for years. Viewers expect a soap’s narrative arcs to never fully resolve. We want these shows to go on for as long as possible. I internalized this aspect of soap viewing at a very young age, and I think this made it easy for me to commit to a project that would mirror the multiyear dedication that soaps inspire in their audiences. The major difference, though, is that I’m both viewer and writer: in order to write the poem, I need to watch the show and watch myself watch the show.
And part of the thrill of this project is that I’m always simultaneously watching and reading when I’m working on the poem. I’m watching the show, yes, in the sense that I’m following the narrative arc and the plot (even when the story arcs are interminable and the plots barely make sense). Because I love Dark Shadows—and because I love soaps in general—I’m invested in what actually happens in each episode. I’m re-watching Dark Shadows episodes I saw as a small child, but I feel like I’m experiencing the narrative structures and character development for the first time, because as a child I absorbed—often at my own peril—only the show’s spooky, supernatural, terrifying aspects. But now, as an adult writing through the show as a source text for an autobiographical poem, I’m also reading the show. I’m following the plotlines and wacky character transformations as a viewer while also reading this particular soap opera as a cultural artifact of the late-1960s and early-1970s.
Reading the show this way also requires that I read myself. Barnabas is my vampiric Proustian madeleine, and I have to trust my unconscious to read as thoroughly as possible the memories the show triggers in me and then shape these recollections into writing.
Dark Shadows is a Gothic melodrama set, in part, in 1795 New England. The narrator of our poem is an Italian-American of a generation not so far removed from immigrating that Italian was still spoken in his mid-mod, working-class household. I found I couldn’t help but think of these differences, and how they’ve been violently homogenized under the banner of “whiteness,” whenever the poem lovingly described the glamorous, psychedelic rot of Dark Shadows’ Colonial Americana. As though what appears to be most “campy” about Dark Shadows is most true about it: this nation’s origins in Anglo-Saxon, Protestant monstrosity. (Or perhaps I’ve brooded over too much Hawthorne and Lovecraft.) But what kind of otherness, for you, is most at stake in these poems?
I feel the same: the campy costume drama of the show’s 1795 plotline unintentionally reveals the ersatz revolutionary spirit of the country’s origins. It unintentionally dramatizes American exceptionalism as a WASP-y monstrosity indeed. Watching now, as an adult, makes me more alert to what my mother must have been thinking, as the daughter of non-English speaking parents whose family barely eked it out during the Depression. I learned leftist political outrage from my mother, who taught me to distrust, virulently, anyone who demonized the poor or working class as “others.” In this way, gender is one more kind of otherness at stake in Inside the Walls of My Own House. My mother was driven into horrible psychological knots by capitalist patriarchal culture. On one hand, she grew up in an old-world matriarchal household, and her mother raised her in accord with a matriarchal form of Catholicism brought over from rural southern Italy. But my mother’s “old country” background, as she called it, was of course at odds with a culture that treats women as objects of exchange. By the time Dark Shadows came along, the women’s movement was picking up serious cultural momentum, and I’m just now starting to write about how this cultural shift was often not reflected in the show itself, as a cultural product of the conservative cultural imaginary of U.S. daytime network television. I’m writing a lot in Book 3 about what it must’ve been like for my mother, who strained against these kinds of gender limitations, to watch the show knowing that no matter how much the world was changing off-screen, the most radical social changes you could find in the show’s fictional seaport town of Collinsport were groovy psychedelic minidresses.
Once completed, this project (all apologies to Dorothea Lasky) will consist of 1,225 sentences of various lengths: one sentence for every episode of Dark Shadows. You’ve referred to this undertaking within the context of “writing as an act of radical endurance.” Further, the poems in this collection frequently reflect upon themselves and how they constitute an “impossible object.” Yet Dark Shadows itself came to a conclusion (it was canceled) which left many narrative threads still loose. What possibility would you most like to see set free by your taking your writerly endurance as far as it can go?
At a formal level, I want to open up the possibility of what the sentence can do in poetry, which I’ve been intrigued by ever since I first read Ron Silliman’s “The New Sentence” many years ago. When I decided that my procedural constraint for the project would be the sentence itself, that I’d write one sentence per episode, I realized that I’d have to rethink, constantly, what the sentence as a unit of expression can do for a poem. I’m experimenting with how the sentence can propel narrative without imposing the artifice of conventional prose linearity on experience. How do I write a poem inspired by the long-form narratives of soap opera and grounded in the grammatical unit of the sentence, while also staying true to the non-linear, recursive narrative trajectories of poetry? This question was always rattling around in my unconscious when I was writing Inside the Walls of My Own House.
Form isn’t the only possibility I’d like to set free. I’m also fascinated with life-writing as a practice of dailiness, as in the work of the New York School poets, for example, or in the diaristic mode of artists and writers like Porcellino. Above all, the greatest possibility I’m trying to open myself to is the potential for this project to document a life. I can’t think of a more difficult, and fulfilling, task as a writer.
What is the most poetic aspect of the original Dark Shadows?
For me, it’s the show’s insistent genre mashup—its gleefully stubborn belief that the horror genre can coexist in the same reality-field as the daytime soap opera. I’m fascinated by the collision of these two genres. I think the metaphysical poets would’ve loved Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows is, in essence, a 1,225-episode metaphysical conceit. If John Donne had been alive in the 1960s, I could imagine him being utterly compelled by the possibility of yoking together daytime soap narratives with gothic supernatural narratives. This genre risk—domestic melodrama invaded by tales of horror—is, for me, the core of the show’s poetics. The fact that the show’s writers and directors often mishandled this genre mashup and unintentionally created low-budget kitsch is an accidental bonus!
This last question was prompted by two of my favorite moments in Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2.
… at which point I stopped,
realizing I was pretty much rewriting
the lyrics of Chicago’s 1972 hit single
“Saturday in the Park,” and I probably
wouldn’t be able to get the song
out of my head the rest of the day
(I was right—it wouldn’t go away).
I suddenly couldn’t find a boundary
where my body ended and the other
bodies in the room began—the invisible
veil that separates me from everyone else…
Is the only way to avoid writing autobiography, and thus to cheat the terminus / telos—death—that autobiography connotes, to accidentally write in an autobiographical mode?
This is a great question—I love the way it opens up new possibilities for autobiography. I’m trying to work in an autobiographical mode whose telos/end is its ongoing-ness. The deeper I go in this project, the more it becomes an autobiography of the continuous present (tangled with clumps of memories of the past) rather than an autobiography with a defined beginning, middle, and end. But if I’m writing an autobiography of ongoing-ness, I have to keep in mind that the terminus of my project might not be the 1,225th sentence but instead might be the terminus of my life. I don’t mean this to be melodramatic. This project will require several more years to complete and, of course, I have no guarantee I’ll live long enough to reach the last sentence. As I write in the book, “I’m a future dead / person, but I want to finish the poem // before I’m tucked into my coffin.” I guess I’m trying to have it both ways again: to recognize the presence of death as a telos/end and as a life-giving force of autobiographical ongoing-ness. As I recount in Inside the Walls of My Own House, the entire project itself was generated by a number of deaths I experienced in the late-1990s and early-2000s, and my grieving since then has reshaped my understanding of autobiography’s relationship with death and ongoing-ness.
I’m remembering a conversation with the poet, scholar, and nonfiction writer Diana Hume George, a dear friend, the week after my brother Carmen died. We were talking about our desire to finish all of our writing projects before we die, as if somehow the universe might allow us just enough time to complete everything before we reach our physical terminus. We couldn’t help but laugh at our audacity—walking around with this ridiculous faith that the artifice of writing could somehow cheat death. Eventually, Diana sketched on a napkin what our tombstone inscriptions should say: “Got it all done. Died anyway.” I want that napkin buried with me.
Tony Trigilio’s most recent books include Books 1 and 2 of The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) (BlazeVOX [books]), White Noise (Apostrophe Books) and Historic Diary (BlazeVOX [books]). He is also the editor of Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments (Ahsahta Press) and author of the critical monograph Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics (Southern Illinois University Press). He hosts the poetry podcast Radio Free Albion and plays in the band Pet Theories. He is a member of the core poetry faculty at Columbia College Chicago, where he is Interim Chair of the Department of Creative Writing.