In this new installment of Phoned-In, Dan Boehl reads from his new book Kings of the F**king Sea and talks to Luke Degnan about his collaboration with Jonathan Marshall, censorship, and Spiderman 3.
Luke Degnan At the beginning of Kings of the F**king Sea, there is a “cast” page. Can you tell me how that relates to the rest of the book? Specifically, are we meant to think of Jack Spicer or Mark Rothko while reading certain poems?
Dan Boehl I think the “cast” of the book comes from a combination of Mary Jo Bang’s Louis in Love and John Hollander’s Reflections on Espionage: the Question of Cupcake. Bang included a “cast” in Louis in Love, one of the books that most affected me as a young poet. Bang’s cast served to personalize and contextualize the narrative’s characters immediately. I wanted this to happen in my narrative.
In Reflections on Espionage, Hollander, pretending to be a spy who worked in an art museum, typed each of his poems and sent them off to “Lyrebird” as a series of dated correspondence. The poems were populated by Hollander’s contemporaries, poets he gave code names like “Steampump” and “Aspirin.” I liked that though the narrative of Cupcake was imagined, real people populated it. In this case the “cast” adds a layer of meaning.
I don’t necessarily want the reader to believe Jack Spicer is out on the high seas smuggling Chinese people into the United States. But in the life of the narrative trope, I want the reader to consider that he may be out there. That as artists and writers we are all out there adventuring, forging new paths of creation regardless of the morality that those creations purport to expound.
LD Were you thinking of a kind of overarching narrative while writing the book?
DB I think so. Jonathan Marshall and I were having a lot of conversations about narrative in art, storytelling, and heroic journeys. Marshall was working on his Lenny Trilogy, a series of short movies about a man who is questing in a post-apocalyptic landscape. I got excited by the arc of the epic journey, especially how it relates to art’s failure to create meaning in culture and society at large. So, the narrative became my way to create a poetry of action.
When I started writing I was not sure where I was headed with the narrative, but as I kept writing things started to take shape. None of the poems were written in order but they were written with a whole narrative in mind. Also, I was reading Moby Dick at the time and watching my favorite anime, One Piece, which is about pirates.
LD The book includes a section of images from artist Jonathan Marshall. How did this collaboration come about, and what do you think the inclusion of images adds to the book?
DB The way the book came about was that Jonathan Marshall came to me while we were working together at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin and he asked if I would collaborate with him. I said yes, and he agreed to send me images of things he was making. A bunch of his drawings had nautical themes. I was particularly interested in a painting he made, Attack of Megamouth II (2006), where a giant shark swallows a ship. The poem I wrote for that painting became the center of the book, the seed that grew the rest of the story.
The two of us were asked to be in a group show at a local Austin gallery. For that we made the cast photograph that appears in the back of the book. We also built a wooden canoe, painted it in pink dazzle camouflage, and shot it full of holes with a bunch of guns.
Our collaboration kind of petered out because Jonathan was working on a bunch of gallery shows, his movies, and he moved to go to grad school. I kept writing the book and eventually finished it. I was not sure how the art would fit in, but then when Birds, LLC decided to publish it, the other editors and I agreed that Jonathan should be involved. So Jonathan made an entire body of new work in the span of a couple of months during the fall of 2010. Those are the images that appear in the book.
I think Jonathan’s images help contextualize the story, showing the reader that artifacts of the narrative exist in the world. The images further the mythology while adding another layer of context.
LD In an interview on the Pshares blog you said, “I hang out with mostly visual artists now.” How do you think being so involved in the art world, as opposed to the literary, affects your writing?
DB I think being around visual artists all the time has forced me to build a different kind of artistic vocabulary. Though I am a poet, I express my poetry visually and in terms of scenes that flesh out different emotions. I would like to think that my individual poems express a moment like a drawing or a photograph. Sort of a voice over for a scene that unfolds in front of the reader. I think this is what I mean when I say “a poetry of action.”
LD Instead of Kings of the Fucking Sea, the title is Kings of the F**king Sea. Why did you decide to censor the title?
DB The book is not about shock and transgressive language so I wanted the word dulled a little bit. I knew the title had to be Kings of the Fucking Sea, which is the name of the crew of polleros in the book, but I was apprehensive about it. I joked with Jonathan that we would have to write “F**king” in order for the book to appear in Walmart superstores. Jonathan said, “Oh, those asterisks are like bullet holes.” I liked the idea that the “u” and “c” had been shot out, probably by a rival pirate crew..
>Also, the asterisks draw attention to the fact that “fucking” contains “king” creating an internal rhyme in the title. I think censoring the title does a few things. First, it is a nod to the Puritanical mores of American society, the societal norms that the Kings claim to disavow. I wanted the asterisks to draw attention to the word “fucking” without actually using the word in a transgressive way. Censoring the word “fucking” draws attention to the fact that the word is a taboo. It also dulls the word so that the title is not simply about the expletive.
LD Spiderman 3 comes up again and again. Can you explain why?
DB Spiderman 3 came out while I was writing the book so I imagined that the crew of the ship had a bootleg that they watched while they smuggled Chinese people between China and the US. Spiderman 3 is so impossibly bad that it is almost good. There is a ridiculous dance number right in the middle of it, during the part where Peter Parker is possessed by Venom, right after he has dumped Mary Jane, who is involved with Peter Parker’s best friend, who just so happens to be his arch enemy. The Spiderman 3 story arc kind of created a system of moral conundrums that my main character could use to process his moral dilemmas about smuggling and using human beings for his own benefit.
LD This is one of my favorite poems in the book, and it is devastating. Can you tell me something about it?
(A Firing Squad)
“He had shot the children him-
self. Women were shot as well.
Because it was repulsive—they
didn’t always die immediately—
he described how he grabbed the
kids by the back of the neck and
shot them with his pistol so he
knew they would die right away."
DB This is basically a fragment from an account of an actual Nazi officer killing women and children during WWII. I can’t remember exactly where I found the account (Harpers Monthly, I think). The book is full of these appropriations, which is part of the pirate/theft/appropriation aesthetic of the book.
Dan Boehl is a founding editor of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry publisher, which put out his book Kings of the F**king Sea, and will publish Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow and Dan Magers’ Partyknife this winter. His chapbook Les Miseres et les Mal-Heurs de la Guerre is available from Greying Ghost. He writes art reviews in Austin and works for the University of Texas. Kings of the F**king Sea is available now from Birds, LLC.
Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.