I don’t remember Shy Watson’s hair color when I first met her. I was visiting a friend’s sublet in Prospect Park and she walked through the door; I was shy, gave a quiet hello. Consider the fact that she was about to publish my first chapbook, something I didn’t bring up. I just listened. She spoke of a witch camp, or a BDSM summer camp? A BDSM witch summer camp upstate, Vermont? It could really be anything, and that’s why I love Shy. We stayed in contact intermittently, until our accumulation of mutual friends grew so large we couldn’t ignore the fact that we probably had a lot in common, or at the least had enough stuff to gossip about. We weren’t wrong on either front, and it’s been a joy starting a friendship while going into year three of supporting each other’s creative journeys.
The two met over Zoom to discuss Shy’s new book of poems, Horror Vacui, released through House of Vlad.
SJ: I feel like we’re on a business call.
SW: I know, right? Have you been using Zoom at work?
SJ: Yes. And for school I use Zoom. So, I only know it in that context.
SW: Oh, wow. Then this is really professional. It does have that vibe. Skype seems like a chat room or something. Like, juvenile and purely social. Zoom’s recording. That’s something.
SJ: What are you eating?
SW: 5% milkfat FAGE with local honey. Sorry. I realized I was starving right before this.
SJ: I upped my calorie intake yesterday and last night lay in bed feeling how hard it was on my body to digest the extra food.
SW: Oh yeah, I gained like 8 pounds in Mississippi.
SJ: Road trip, right?
SW: Yeah, I was helping my friend move in with her fiance; I drove a van.
SJ: I want to go on a road trip with my boyfriend.
SW: I’ve been wanting to do that with Kirk, too!
SJ: I have an idea. Maybe you will like it. ‘Cause I don’t wanna do anything too crazy. I really want winter diner vibes. The heavy mugs. So some of the old-fashioned diners aren’t open or they’re just really cheesy and have turned into a tourist thing. So I found one that’s very legit. It’s in Connecticut and on the way there there’s this big park and Yale, so it’s like we should just visit the Yale campus and stay in a motel and go to the diner, and it’s only like 2.5 hours away. So that’s my idea.
SW: I love that. I like the diner vibe.
SJ: So, your book of poems, titled Horror Vacui, has just been released. The term Horror Vacui is a fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces, especially in an artistic composition. It’s not hard to understand why you chose this title. Colors (blue butterflies /surround me), foods (force-feeding myself /some eggs), clothes (crushed velvet robes), sights (looking at sad paintings), and people fill up your poems. And as someone who knows you fairly–though not extremely– well, I can see that much of the content in your poems are drawn from or inspired by your personal life.
If this title is indeed a reference to your poems, would you say it’s fair then to discern that your life is also partially run by this fear, this horror vacui?
SW: Absolutely. My life goal has always been to experience as much as possible. My grandma always told me to spend my money on memories, not objects, because that’s all you have when you get up in age. She also said if she could do her life all over again, she’d live like I’ve lived: taking residence in tons of different cities, not having children, etc. I mean, she doesn’t know about a lot of what comprises the more exciting aspects of my life, but I love that the adventure translates regardless, though I doubt she’s so naive to think that I’m living innocently. But yeah, I’ve lived by that. I want as many romantic partners, as many friends, as many different types of both, as much travel, as many fabrics, as many different lives as I can possibly squeeze in.
SJ: I was wondering if you notice whether you write in real time as things are happening, or if you feel that you’re so caught up in everything that when it’s time to write poetry it’s more of a reflective process, where you have to absorb and process everything and then be like “there’s this memory that’s impacted me”?
SW: I don’t know. I mean, when I write poems that are about recent events, I just write the ones that pop up in my mind, you know? Like, in my poem “week two” I write about a woman walking her dog and a guy asking her how many teeth it had, and how a man was doing tai-chi alone in a park. All these images will flood me, but I don’t place any importance on them beforehand. Once I write something and I’m looking at it as a reader though, it’s interesting to see what details I thought to include, like what occurred to me. I feel like I experience my poems more as a reader than as an intentional writer going into it. I’ll look at them later and interpret them once they’re on the page. I don’t distill meaning beforehand. I think writing the poems is maybe the “working through it” and looking at them later is like learning what I worked through or something. But it’s not even that thoughtful. I never intend on anything.
SJ: That makes sense. We’ve spoken about this before, and I spoke about this in a podcast, about how authenticity is the most important thing to me. So I try not to get too intentional with it before I’m writing a poem like “okay I want to make sure I include this and this and this.” It’s more interesting for me to see what comes up subconsciously. Especially with your Waking Dream poems. For me, with my chapbook and book, I just had the idea of the project, like, “okay I want to make this project,” but I didn’t think about what I wanted to write. I just let things flow. It’s also easier to write that way, because I don’t have a lot of formal training and that’s not what my philosophy is about either; it’s much more authentic and way more exciting. I think a lot of the intention of Horror Vacui is to capture the excitement in your life. The more you think about it, the more distilled it gets. The farther it gets away from your heart or soul or energy.
SW: This is reminding me of psychoanalysis. Like you say you go into a project and you don’t have an intention. I feel like it’s the same as when you’re speaking aloud for a long time. Like, patterns will emerge. And I think that’s kind of what I’m doing in writing. You know, people can interpret my feelings still and be like “Oh! She’s talking a lot about struggles with identity in the context of social circles or struggling with class issues or the perils of being a sex worker” or whatever. It’s a very subconscious thing, but other people are able to pick up on it. I think it helps that they’re playing the role of the observer. It’s harder when you’re actually in the experience to notice your patterns. Like, other people can identify the points more easily.
SJ: Definitely. I feel like that does lend itself to being more authentic, because you’re not picking and choosing and trying to come off a certain way. Like what you’re saying with psychoanalysis; you’re not thinking about what you’re saying as you’re lying there, but what you say is very much related to your subconscious. It is your subconscious. That is so much more fun for me as well, even when it’s dark. And that’s sort of what I notice. Even when I’m writing about a darker topic, because I’m not like mulling it over and trying to make it dark, it’s still almost fun when I have darker poems, because it is coming from that spontaneous or exciting place. And I feel like that involves not fearing being vulnerable, and I feel like that reflects our personal lives as well. Just in our own relationships and being willing to share as well as being poets and writers. I think that vulnerability makes everything stronger. I think even the poems that are personal that I’ve read but are very structured and edited multiple times, even that can get away from vulnerability. Like the farther it is away from you, the less vulnerable it is? I mean people can argue that, but that’s how I feel. I hate saying the word bridge because it’s so overused, but it’s like a bridge between you and the work. It separates them.
SW: I had a dream about a bridge the other night and have been meaning to look that up. Do you know what dream symbology for bridge is?
SJ: I mean, I don’t, but I feel like it would be an unfulfilled aspiration that you want to move towards. Almost like a positive separation, because you want it to be connected with you. I love thinking about interpretations. I feel like I’m not sure how smart our subconscious is to create a beautiful metaphor, but I also think there must be some truth to the meaning of symbols.
SJ: It does really surprise me. It leaves me in awe how true things might be in dreams. Not always. Sometimes it’s totally nothing. But sometimes I’ll think about the dream I had and be like “Wow, that really makes so much sense.”
SW: I know what you mean. Sometimes I’m disappointed in myself because the symbology is so obvious, you know? It’s like “Oh really? That’s all you could come up with? My ex-boyfriends being fishes I’m not feeding? In water? Which symbolizes emotions.” It’s like, c’mon! But sometimes it’s pretty deep. I have recurring dreams about missing trains, planes, and subways. And when I’ve looked it up it’s said I’m afraid of missing opportunities, which I think is a little more complex. I’m slightly more proud of that. Actually, I was talking to this guy who is very into Freud and Jung, and he said that the most important parts of your dreams are the details you notice, but that don’t seem important or vital at all.
SJ: That’s really interesting. That makes it fun, to have a little activity to do. Like, “Oh, there was this detail, which means I must have noticed it in the dream.” Like, “I had a dream about these two people in a house, and I noticed that one was in the living room and one was in the kitchen. Like what does that mean? Why was that one in the kitchen?”
SW: Yeah! I was watching S6:E2 of The Sopranos last night, which shows a dream sequence that Tony Soprano has while in a coma. The whole thing is that he has someone else’s briefcase, wallet, and credit cards, which belong to a guy named Kevin Finnerty. So he’s in a hotel and wants to check in, but he has the other guy’s identification, so he has to pretend he’s him, and these monks are like “You’re Kevin Finnerty! You owe us money!” and Tony’s like, “No, I’m not actually that guy.” Then he goes up to his room and there’s a stuffed teddy bear in a chair next to the elevators with a sign that says “Please bear with us. The elevator is out of order.” And Tony looks at it and scoffs. Then it moves on with the main narrative of the dream. But the bear might be the most important part.
SJ: Yeah, totally.
SW: Which makes me want to analyze it. Like, “Okay. Tony wants people to bear with him while he’s figuring out the balance between his home life and work and he’s kind of like a teddy bear?”
SJ: Yeah, I was thinking the teddy bear could represent vulnerability. Like he’s someone with feelings who has a child inside of him.
SW: Yeah! Someone else told me that the symbols in our dreams are subjective because we all have such varied experiences to contextualize objects. So there can’t be universal dream interpretations. But any time I look up a symbol on DreamMeanings.com or whatever, there will be about eight different interpretations. We are both here on Earth with similar enough cultural experiences and exposure to media, so it seems like we would have pretty similar
SJ: Understandings, yeah. Like, bird: flying, freedom. This makes me wonder: does it bother you at all that the people who read your work might not understand your relationships with the people you mention or maybe don’t know what experiences you’re talking about? Like if you say “Oh, I was at the party of blahblahblah,” which might be some famous New York party, people might not have the reference or your visions. I feel like for me, since it comes from visuals that are very specific to me. So I’m like “Okay, so saying this thing about Juice Press, will they understand that that’s referencing eating disorders and class?” But it could be totally lost. Does that excite you or bother you? Or do you not care either way?
SW: I had actually never thought about it until maybe three weeks ago when I was over at Kirk’s and he read me one of his stories. For the feedback I just explained what I had visualized, like what my impressions were. Then I realized, well, with fiction, because I’ve been writing stories, like, “Oh my god! People aren’t picturing this hand job palace the way that it is in my mind!” Or they may not be picturing my coworker in the way that I see her. And it was just like, holy shit! Then I thought about all the canonical stories, like of Raymond Carver or Margaret Atwood, anything we would have read in English classes, and how everyone who has read them has obviously been picturing something different. It kind of blew my mind. I was like “Am I a narcissist for having never considered this before?” Like, “Am I just solipsist as fuck?” I had honestly never thought about how people are not imagining what I write the same way that I do. I mean I’ve read “The Death of the Author,” that Roland Barthes essay, so maybe I have at least considered similar ideas. Automatically assuming that anyone interprets my writing the exact way I do has to be the furthest possible thing from the truth.
But I think it’s cool and exciting that people would interpret my work differently than I would. Honestly, when people have told me interpretations they have of my poems, what they have to say is usually a lot cooler than what I have to say. I like to see the ways other people can be creative with my work. CJ Llego, a friend from my fiction workshop, read my novel two or three times and he talked to me about his experience as a reader for like two hours. He went to an MFA program and has the language to talk about writing in a critical way. He was saying that my novel is about the compartmentalization of personal life and what you have to do under the demands of late capitalism and all this high-brow shit, and I was just like, “When this comes out will you do my interviews for me?” Because I do not know what it’s about! But he seemed to.
SJ: Well, first off, it’s nice to hear that it’s exciting for you to give other people that opportunity to be creative. I think that’s a really positive way to look at it. I think that’s a lot of what publishing is about. When I first started doing interviews about my book it was the first time I had done interviews and I was like “Oh shit, what do I have to say about this?” Like, “Let me take a moment to be analytical about my own writing.” After the podcast I did, I regretted not saying more to give people greater perspective about ways of looking at my work or where I was coming from. But at the same time it’s like, yeah, it is just throwing it out there. And if part of the intention is to not be so analytical from the jump, it is more natural to let it stay that way, I guess. Or maybe somewhere in the middle where the point isn’t for it to be like, intensely combed through, but still connecting to how it relates to who we are or our intentions for writing in the first place.
SW: I think if you’re not attached to a certain meaning, you’re not going to care so much about what other people get from it.
SJ: True. I love that. You mentioned your novel- I want to hear what it’s about and add to the understanding of your body of work and you as a writer.
SW: It started as basically a 100% true account of the end of my senior year of high school through when I went off to college. But now I’m on the ninth draft, and it’s become more and more and more fictionalized with every edit. But that was my basis, which is very common for one’s first novel, to use actual lived experience. It’s kind of like potty training. Later on you’re able to be a real writer or something, and you can come up with entire fantastical worlds. Like, my ideas for the next two novels I want to write are totally made up. But this one, because I was a baby in training in need of a crutch, I used my real life. I’ve shown it to people and they’ve detected themes. I mean, there’s a lot about class, because the narrator, Ally, grows up poor. I mean, her mom works at Walmart and she works at McDonald’s, but all of her friends have money. The love interest lives in this giant mansion that has a name: “1,000 Oaks,” because one-thousand oak trees had to be chopped down in order to develop the property. So, she feels uncomfortable around the money, but it’s never, I mean, the one thing I never want to do in my writing is beat something over the head. I prefer meaning to be subtle, because I think experience is usually subtle. So, there are tones of class struggle and self-consciousness about socioeconomic status and privilege, you know, who has it and who doesn’t. But it’s mostly about being young and excited for a future that isn’t your present. She’s in rural Missouri with this shitty job living first with a dysfunctional mom, and then with these total losers, and she just wants to move beyond that. But she makes the most out of the time that she has to pass through. She entertains herself in various ways. She falls in love, does drugs, etc., but she also does what she has to do to prepare for that future. She has to work her shit job and save money. It’s a lot about being willing to invest in hope. Preparing for a future you can’t be sure of, but you still have hope for. It’s about making the most out of the present as it’s unfolding since you’re trapped there anyway.
SJ: That’s really cool, and I like hearing about it from that perspective. And I feel like in the case of a novel versus poetry, the editing is productive, like for the sake of refining the flow or the writing itself– I would say it’s more important for fiction than poetry to tell the story properly or clearly, so I think that it’s always a positive thing to edit as long as it’s something you feel good about. I think it makes sense for the basis of something to relate to your life and be from that space. I think also fictionalizing it a bit makes it more exciting and curious to see, like, “Okay. This is sort of Shy’s life but I wonder what isn’t true.” Like this isn’t someone writing about themselves the whole time, but they’re turning it into this crafted, thoughtful thing. You get to feel the authenticity and the rawness, too, but in a blended way, if that makes sense.
SW: I think I understand what you’re saying. Like, getting all these clues and wondering which are real and which are made up. It’s like a puzzle or something.
The best details in it are the ones that come from real life. I mean, I’ve made up some decent details too. I feel like I can always tell when something is lifted from real life in fiction, because it’s always the detail that no one could ever fucking think up on their own. Like, it just shines too brilliantly, you know?
SJ: One thing I found interesting is when we’ve spoken about meditation because it’s perhaps the opposite of filling your life with experiences and activity, even if just for a moment. I’m reading this book right now called Psychotherapy Without the Self and it talks a lot about emptiness and the difference between psychological emptiness and emptiness in the Buddhist perspective. Like, the way we feel emptiness in relation to depression and personality disorders, how it feels and where it comes from. And how from a Buddhist perspective, how it’s a more positive thing and how we can get away from the person we identify as. I don’t know, sometimes I feel like in the past when I was depressed or lonely meditation scared me because it felt like this emptiness that I didn’t want to feel. But even though I still am not constantly happy or anything, I feel more comfortable now feeling whole when I meditate. Like, just listening to sounds and letting them support me in feeling whole, so I don’t have to rely only on the external. I know that your title is about filling up space, but you’ve also said that meditation is a shortcut to the vacancy that you’re afraid of. But you’ve also told me that it really relaxes you. So, I’m wondering if you’ve had the same experience, where it’s made you feel scared of the void, and then supported.
SW: I have really bad death anxiety. Recently, a friend offered me meth and I was like “No, I can’t! I’m too afraid to die.” And that friend was like, “That’s like your brand, being afraid of death.” Because I, like, won’t do as many reckless things as friends do. I’m always the hesitant one or the one doing the smallest amount of a drug, and kind of hoping not to get high. I have a big fear of letting go of myself or my ego, and I feel this strong attachment to it, which is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in Buddhism. Like, you’re not supposed to identify with that ego. You’re supposed to get on the outside of it and observe it, like observe your feelings and experiences, as an observer rather than the subject of your life. I went to this breathwork event about a year and a half ago. It was run by this billionaire lady who had hosted a tantric retreat in her 5-bedroom, 5-bathroom, 2-roof terrace penthouse apartment in Tribeca that my friend Gabby had taken me to. But the breathwork event was at her boyfriend’s place, which is even more ridiculous. It’s like, an entire building on the corner of some street in Tribeca with a mural by Keith Haring on the wall. Like, the ceilings must have been 100 feet tall with giant windows and there were, well, it was nuts. I remember we drew animal spirit cards and I got a tarantula. But I digress. We did this breathwork exercise where we were instructed to lie on the ground and hyperventilate. It’s called holotropic breathing. This psychiatrist Stan Grof developed the technique after psychedelic therapy became illegal in the late 60’s. It was meant to mimic the experience of taking acid. I remember doing the breathing then feeling like my soul left my body or something, like a total evacuation from my “self,” and it terrified me. I flipped over onto my stomach and beat the carpet until my spirit returned. I was just desperately clamoring to not transcend. Like No! No! No! No! No! I don’t want to do that! Then the Lululemon “shaman,” Candace, had to calm me down. For the rest of the time, I just lay there. I mean, the emptiness is something I’m very afraid of in a very big way. But that being said, it was required to meditate at Naropa, the Buddhist college where I did my undergrad. I think having to do it definitely helped my anxiety a bit. It’s like exposure therapy, a bit, meditation is for me. And I was trained in transcendental meditation a couple years ago, which helps me drop into my body more than I used to, and I don’t really think about the fact that I’m being emptied while it’s happening. I’m more just focusing on how relaxed I feel. The more I do it, the more it becomes a solely visceral experience rather than a hellish thought-panic thing. I think one of the reasons TM works for me is that they give everyone a different mantra that you’re not allowed to tell anyone for as long as you live. I have to repeat this, basically, like, noise in my head. The mantras aren’t words, because then you’d assign meaning. It’s basically this phonetic two-syllable jawn that sounds like it could be a word. But, having a mantra to grab onto helps me feel like I’m not going to totally lose myself. It’s like having the “oh shit” handle, like the grab handle, in the passenger seat of a car.
SJ: I love that.
SW: Like, you have something to grip onto still. And you’re supposed to keep returning to it. When I did the training for TM, the instructors said one of the signs you’re meditating correctly is when the mantra begins to speed up, slow down, or warp. Or the voice in your head starts to shift. That’s how you know you’re doing it right, when it gets real weird. But in Shambhala meditation, which is what they taught at Naropa, it was about trying not to think. And if you needed something to return to, it was the breath. And I could not do that.
SJ: It’s hard! That’s sort of what I’ve tried. I haven’t done a mantra in a while, because I try to see if I can do nothing and see if any realizations come up for me, because I have had really helpful realizations, like, “Oh, do a heart-protecting visualization exercise when you need to.” Like, I wouldn’t have ever thought to do that if I wasn’t just letting the space open to receive anything. But that sounds really cool. I’ve never tried TM.
SW: So, when you meditate it feels like opening yourself up?
SJ: Yeah. I have central air and it kicks on a lot, so I’ll try to listen to that, this relaxing whooshing sound, but sometimes it will stop and just be silent. So, I try to center myself into nothing. I like to have that space open, because when I get into a routine of daily life, I love just being on my phone or watching TV and I don’t connect with my desires and needs as much. So when I meditate it’s like “Oh, shit I would have never had the chance to realize this thing isn’t fulfilling me or that this thing feels off.” So I need it for that reason. I have a hard time meditating for long periods. Like, I only do ten minutes, which for now feels like enough. But I’m just happy that I’m getting back into it. Senior year of college, I really got a chance to dive into it. It totally helped my anxiety, like, noticeably. And, I was like “this is so cool!” I mean, I know it’s beneficial—there are so many studies. And it’s so worth it to push yourself, because it’s hard to form habits, but it just seems like the easiest, most rewarding habit, maybe besides working out.
SW: Yeah, if you can just make yourself do it enough. With TM you’re supposed to meditate twice a day for twenty minutes each, and I did that for maybe the first eight months, only skipping a few times. And it was really good. But then I got caught up in my life, you know, as soon as you start making excuses like, “Oh, I have this thing to do today,” or whatever, then you make excuses more and more. Like, if you quit smoking and you take a cig from your friend because you’re drinking or having a bad day. It’s just a slippery slope. For me, the reason that meditation has helped with my anxiety, is that the principles have somehow permeated my perception on normal life where it’s kind of like, “Oh, all of these feelings and situations I’m in are temporary and they’re gonna pass and life’s just like a game.” Like, it’s helped me to abandon a sense of urgency or extreme importance on any one thing that I’m going through, because I can hold it at more of a distance. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m going through this breakup, but then I won’t be. This is just something I’m passing through.” Like, detachment, I guess. It helps you detach.
SJ: Yeah, and I feel like it shows me that space from my thoughts is okay. Like when we feel like we need to be constantly thinking, worries are going to come up. Because it’s not like we’re thinking constantly about like, “Oh, I’m gonna go on a hike later.” We aren’t constantly thinking about it. It’s like “What can I fill my brain up with?” Meditation gets me used to thinking less and shows me that I can come back to myself and not anchor onto everything else. So, yeah, detachment, like you’re saying.
SW: I love that—being able to have space from thoughts. That’s good.
Shy Watson is the author of Horror Vacui, published through House of Vlad in 2021, as well as Cheap Yellow (CCM 2018). Shy is currently preoccupied with writing fiction, as she is editing her novel manuscript, Drive-Thru. She lives in Brooklyn, NY where she co-runs Blush Lit. Shy holds a Bachelors from Naropa University, and just applied to MFA programs for the fourth year in a row.
Sophie Jennis is the author of the chapbook Find Peace Either Way, published through Blush Lit in 2019. She also released her first book of poems, Hot Young Stars, through House of Vlad in 2020. In December 2020, Sophie graduated from Tulane’s Masters in Social Work program.