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New work and interview with Casey Thayer

Casey_ThayerCasey Thayer is the author of Self Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur (University of New Mexico Press, 2015) and has work published or forthcoming in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. Currently, he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and splits his time between Chicago and the Bay Area.


bullet: what thunder, teeth / in the threat, / blade in the sheath, / blood-letter bought / over the counter as easy as aspirin, an Oxy, / to take into the body, / what the deed / leaves, a hand that reaches / across the field’s divide, / snake coiled in the warren, / mole mazing the loam, / what the body carries, / what’s left / of the fire, / shot from the muzzle, the muscle, / the missing piece but also the puzzle, / what punctuates, / what measures a half-beat, / the period, the blow, / not immediate but in escrow, / death’s long note guiding one / to bed, / the blood, the ink, / this name in the blood, / ache in the scar, / birds shadowing the eaves, not shadows / but stains, what ruins / language, my blood, / brother / hailed in the / crossfire, what cuts / through the collective, us / the ever / severed we /


trigger: genesis of the hard / percussive, fricative, plosive, / eyelash of the gat that frees / the bullet to follow / its true path of being, a liberator, pulls / the pin on what you’ve hidden—caution: / this content will upset some, / what’s inside you & how it explodes / in moments of weakness & being / everyday amazed by / the willingness of strangers / to meet with grace this bare expression of weakness, / the squat nub, half-moon apostrophe, / what’s second-thought / but not: the trigger’s insistent: / to talk about it, the need / to talk about it: / what to label, what to leave unlabeled, / to erase the mind & survive that erasure, / ringing in the ear, blood in the ear, / to stomach it, / to contain what sets / off, to hold it / in your mouth / like a match swallowed / by the flame, or a landmine that means / to negate itself through its own loud / & insistent protest, this test, this testament / to life beyond the body: that / to have a trigger makes you / the weapon, you hold / a finger to the lash, you draw / the eye closed.



All night at Main Street, his polo shirt
orange with grease & red sauce,

he talked you down & tossed pan crust
when all you wanted was to take off

his pants & all he wanted was a fishbowl
full of Guinness & to finish

with his shift. A shared smoke
on the dumpster, stars shining like the sights

of a gun, he saved his gum
on his fingertip & left the ghost

of his ass in flour
on the plastic lid. To quit this,

to forfeit. But then, maybe, you thought
what would you have done

with the dachshund, your fridge
full of skim milk? You thought

of our mother & our mother’s
boyfriend. Maybe, of me.

But then, his skintight Levis,
your lungs punched empty of air.

In the dark, the breakwater
called to you, called to you: Come.


Interview with Casey Thayer by Phillip B. Williams:

Phillip: Thank you, Casey, for your patience. I’m sorry my being sick slowed us down so. I want to jump right in! In the poem “bullet”, we get this prose block that is segmented by backslashes, as though each isolated part is an incision of some sort in the reader’s interpretation of the poem. The phrases “what punctuates,/ what measures the half-beat,/ the period, the blow” utilize both the slashes and too commas so that we know there is also in this a reliance on what is typical punctuation. Those phrases also in some way enact this “measure” and “blow.” How, for you, do the backslashes work and how much of the poem represents a human body and what is enacted against it?

Casey: For me, the slashes work as both a formal constraint and a fracturing of form (I like how you put it “an incision…in the reader’s interpretation”). Lineating the prose pieces in this sequence seemed too mannered, too aesthetically beautiful—I didn’t want to beat the head to fit the hat—for poems that center on deconstruction. Specifically, they attempt a dissection of the different parts that constitute the gun (along with an interrogation of language and politics and many other issues)—I was thinking of them, in some ways, working like those David McCauley children’s books where he cross-sections tools and machines to show how they work. But I wanted to also expose what might be buried in these parts we’ve made symbols: the bullet, the trigger, the silencer, the stock, etc.

All that said, I felt that I still needed the control of the line break to defamiliarize, to work against the measure of syntax, to disorient the reader. I wanted a certain purposeful awkwardness.

These experiments draw inspiration from a number of sources—a beautiful poem “engagement” by Corey Van Landingham, sam sax’s drug “sonnets,” The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn. For the slashes, though, I took a cue from Shane McCrae’s Mule where he uses them to mark the pentameter break in an effort, perhaps, of redefining the sonnet. I tried to combine the new and the old, too, in this sequence, a herky-jerky, stilted syntax held against the echo of form, true rhyme, rhythms drawn from hip-hop and Hopkins and Berryman.

To your second question, certainly, violence against the body is a main concern here. Guns allow for a remove, a less intimate (and perhaps more easy to perpetrate) violence. Press a button = erasure. You don’t have to feel the knife going in. Perhaps more so than the poem as visual stand-in for the body, the sequence revolves around this idea.

Again, I’m really grateful for the chance to talk about this sequence. Thanks for your thoughtful (and thought-provoking) question. I’m excited to see what comes next!

And glad you’re feeling better!

Phillip: My pleasure! In your poem “trigger,” we see the same form but this time applied to what is arguably the closest part of the gun to the person who wields it, is a reflection on the will of the person. To shoot or not to shoot. How does free will play out in this poem? You say “what to label, what to leave unlabeled,/ to erase the mind & survive that erasure.” How does this describe, if at all, how the decision to pull a trigger can be lead by what misleads?

Casey: Certainly, fantasies of control, at least in part, spur our love of guns, and these fantasies, like most, mislead, setting up false expectations and hopes. And agency does often get tied up in the debate over guns (“guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” “there are no dangerous guns, just dangerous people”). I wanted to explore in “[trigger:]” the question of free will by literalizing the person as weapon. When we become objects, we are robbed of control. When we contain triggers, we risk losing our ability to process, reacting instead—when provoked, when set off—instinctually. People obviously can target these weak points, and each trigger is the legacy of a trauma experienced by the person/weapon. But I think that there can be relief in owning one’s threat. By not allowing others to trigger us, by accepting our response and reactions and our need to release our traumas, we can maintain some level of control. Maybe it’s mutual destruction or self-immolation as protection. Maybe it’s not a healthy way to deal with trauma. Then again, maybe poetry needs more anger

Phillip: In your poem “Black String of Days,” there is something there about desire and violence, failure and expectations being unfulfilled:

????????“All night at Main Street, his polo shirt
orange with grease & red sauce,

he talked you down & tossed pan crust
when all you wanted was to take off

his pants & all he wanted was a fishbowl
full of Guinness & to finish

with his shift.”

To have to be “talked down” is usually reserved for, I think, talking someone down from harming themselves or someone else. And here is this person who could be a friend but feels so much like a stranger, a mysterious hero, coming to the “you” with some ease that at the end of the poem falls away at the call of the “breakwater.” I want to ask you what the power of being a stranger is, as poets all have to introduce themselves to readers? How do you see poetry as operating to move inside a writer and what are ways to build that intimacy, that trust?

Casey: This question of power is one I’ve been thinking a lot about recently in terms of surprise, the fact that, as you point out, we enter every poem as a stranger who must find his or her footing using only clues offered in the title, the first line, the second, etc. We build a reading of the poem as we progress and recast our reading with each new piece of information. Usually, our impulse as poets is try to minimize reader confusion and work toward clarity—I think of Billy Collins’ quote about the difficulty of stepping from the dock of the title into the canoe of the poem. Antithetically, I’ve begun to work against this impulse, aiming to upset and disorient the reader, which I suppose could work in opposition to building trust (but not entirely). My hope is to create a poem that reads much closer to the lived experience, something mimetic to the disruptions of social media and the general onslaught of (mis)information bombarding us, something that captures the weariness of fighting through this muck of days. This impulse is clearer in the definition poems, but it’s present in “Black String of Days” in the shifting pronouns, the tangled motivations of the speaker, the relationship web alluded to in the poem.

Ultimately, being unknown to the reader can make us a blankness, giving us the freedom to create without boundaries. Poetry is a gift in this way, existing largely outside of market concerns and the pressures of audience (although there are exceptions), but even so, our choices can limit our paths and narrow our aesthetics. I’ve never been a writer particularly interested in a particular “I”—though I admittedly have trouble escaping the first-person in my lyrics—so maybe I’m much more at ease living as an unknown and inviting in a sense of anonymity. I have no interest in building one consistent poetic persona.

But to bring this back to the concrete, you’re right to read the “talking down” as a suggestion of violence, a potential for self-hurt and the poem, in toto, as an exploration of the imbalance of affection and desire. I want a contradiction here (and I’m very reassured that you’ve interpreted the poem as you have—something must be working): the “you” assumes a friendship with the “he” that, in many ways, is not reciprocated, whereas the speaker of the poem is desirous of a friendship with the “you” and would be willing to act as life preserver/release value/object of affection. We don’t know, sometimes, whom we are heroes for. And often, we don’t know how to be saved. It’s a big, tangled, tragic, cyclical situation where the end is already written, even if we stubbornly try to ignore it.

Phillip: Are these poems part of a larger project? Can you talk to us about your first book, Self Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur, and how you see these newer poems being in communication with your previous work?

Casey: Yep, they’re part of a sequence of definition poems scattered throughout my second manuscript. And on a larger level, they speak to the book’s overall exploration of gun culture, masculinity, and violence. Excepting the guns, my first book would fit under this umbrella as well—it tells the tumultuous love story between a cowboy and a homesteader, which, you know, equates mostly to violence and alcohol and horses. Even with the dual voices (it features poems with both male and female speakers), I am working through definitions and expressions of my own masculinity.

But where my first book embraced narrative, my second, largely, attempts to move away from the sure-footedness and comfort of narrative progression, to erase the presence of the I and explicitly engage with the outside world. My first book feels more insular. These poems aim for a wider scope.

Phillip: To close out, I want to first thank you for taking the time out to converse with me. What’s in the future for you? Where can readers find more of your work?

Casey: Phillip, please, let me thank you! I’m honored to have a mind such as yours examine and interrogate these poems, and I found it very helpful to think through some of the ideas guiding the second book manuscript (of which these poems are a part). I always read your interviews (and Vinyl) with great interest, and to be, now, the subject of one myself, it’s humbling.

The question of the future is a daunting one, it always is. I’ll be wrapping up the Stegner Fellowship this June and moving back home to Chicago, where I’ll keep chasing down Book Two. I have new work coming out sometime soon in the American Poetry Review and The Adroit Journal, and I hope to blanket the market this fall with work produced feverishly these past few months—the looming end date of the fellowship proved to serve as a great motivator. And of course, readers can find more of my work in my first book Self Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur, a rollicking romp through the American Southwest packed with twisted and broken love stories, in case you need another corkscrew to run through your heart.

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