John Reed by Gee Henry

“The best way to write myself out of the project was to overwrite my own biography. I mean, who is this ‘I’ anyway?”

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David Wojnarowicz’s wall drawing at Pier 34, 1983. Courtesy of John Reed.

John Reed has been writing hard-to-classify books for over a decade, to great acclaim and sometimes greater notoriety. His novel Snowball’s Chance was a blistering and controversial sequel of sorts to Orwell’s Animal Farm that culminated with a 9/11-like attack on two windmills. Jonathan Ames called it “scary” and “engrossing,” as well as a “sustained triumph.” Reed’s novel The Whole was a satire inspired by his relationship with a certain MTV VJ and was published, bravely, by MTV Books. My favorite is the aptly titled Tales of Woe, a grim collection of tragic accounts from around the globe. Fictionaut said the stories were “without any redeeming character whatsoever—just bleak, bleak, unremitting, and undeserved.” In truth, they actually loved the collection.

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Reed is a real New York City character—mysterious yet completely accessible, old-school but cutting-edge. A few years ago, he started sharing some newly written sonnets on Facebook. Although they were largely about love, or desire, they weren’t really fit for readers looking for happy-ever-after scenarios. Many ended with a narrator seemingly suspended above a great metaphorical chasm, either about to descend into oblivion or ascend to something sublime. Reed collected these sonnets and others in his latest project, Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems, out now from C&R Press. And, since no book of Reed’s is written without adding a “remix” (a term often used by reviewers to describe his writing), he added something strange throughout—a semi-autobiographical letter to guide the reader through all the poems. Sometimes this letter is addressed to Reed’s current or former wife, sometimes it’s addressed to his literary agent, and sometimes it’s directed to the reader. In these, he goes from childhood to adulthood, to a decadent period spent in Cuba, then to the present moment. It contains mug shots of multiple “John Reeds” from around the country, as well as pictures of people Reed identifies as family members. This may be the closest thing to a memoir he’ll ever produce.

In Free Boat, he writes:

She comes like a wrecking ball in winter,
razing the old tenement and with it,
plink-plinking, she shatters your ice to splinters.
No one expects the foundation: the pit.
But you always recognized the ruins,
the crumbling walls, the painted hearts—you knew
it like a child alone will know to spin.
When you lie down, the weeds will take their pews,
and the white sun is too far to warm you,
and only the wrecking ball, your gray moon, 
laps the empyrean for bloody dew.
And whenever she comes, she comes too soon.
And you will love her like the broken glass
loves the wind that blows away the ashes.

Gee Henry Your fiction usually contains some structural challenge—in this case, the sonnet’s form. Do you write this way to make it harder on yourself?

John Reed It’s an earmark of literary pretension that the structures are derived from the content, rather than the reverse. The more genre-oriented [the work is], the more the structure comes first. Here I leaned toward structure as a prose person; prose writers, as poets, tend to work better with form. I think it’s partly about the storytelling itself. The structure of a sonnet is identical to a short story. It’s basically the Western argument—a structure I’m familiar with. I had the meter from Shakespeare, probably the path of least resistance. I love reading poets who are comfortable with no form whatsoever, who write poems that are just very shaggy and you don’t know what’s going to come next. But when I do that, I lose the thread.

GH Eileen Myles is like that for me. When I read her I feel like she is using no form at all, that she’s just creating this kind of language and structure for the poems that is just totally her own.

JR I was just putting her in a course syllabus, along with Ann Lauterbach, who also works brilliantly without a net. I love Lauterbach’s poems, the way she takes chances. On the other hand, I do have trouble containing them to a book, I do think of them as individual poems.

But sonnets though… Terrance Hayes and others work with sonnets now. There’s something about how contained they are, and our ability to read more than one of them, too, and attribute them as a sequence, which is unusual to poetry.

GH For this particular work why did you choose the sonnet form?

JR Well, it orients more towards love, anger, and big emotions. The form allows you to approach them in the same way that a Hollywood blockbuster does. Sonnets allow you to have these grandiose emotional experiences. They do love and anger, and occasionally friendship, really well. That was appealing to me.

GH You do write a lot about love in these sonnets, but you’re open to the tawdriness of love, which I appreciate. There was a period where I was getting Facebook friend requests from these questionable [friendly?] women with lots of make up. And you just knew what the story was before you clicked. But a couple of times, I saw that the only friend we had in common was you. So, what do you think is going on there?

JR I’m sure it was my fault, and I have a couple of theories! The first is that I’m a sucker and give people a chance—even if they look like sock puppets. Maybe it was my own curiosity. There was one who chatted with me a few times, and I eventually realized that even though the profile was indeed a sock, there was a genuinely miserable, lonely person there. That realization was uncomfortably acute.

GH There’s a whole section of the book that deals with the narrator’s falling in with an unseemly group of ex-pats living in Cuba, in particular one Shawn Eleman and his lover, Carnivale. Are you worried that people will confuse your creative writing in these sections with memoir, or is it in fact part memoir?

JR It’s a kind of a pathological memoir. One problem with writing poetry is that your biography overwhelms the narrative. It happens in fiction too, I suppose. The best way to write myself out of the project was to overwrite my own biography. You know how in an Etch-a-Sketch, you’ve overwritten it so many times that the blank slate disappears and it just becomes this muddy thing? I wanted to create a line of suspense that would draw people through the narrative, and one way to do that was to write about how these poems came about from a personal perspective. And my own biography wasn’t terribly important to me. I mean, who is this “I” anyway? As a writer there’s this inclination to destroy yourself.

GH And then Pauly Shore shows up in your book?

JR Yes, he does. There was a real Hollywood scene in Cuba while I was down there. I was peripherally a part of a film shoot, and there were a few Hollywood B-list and C-list people around. Of course, this was before the Internet. There were porn people, but you couldn’t tell who the porn people were, as they looked just like everybody else.

GH You write with incredible frankness about marriage and divorce, with parts of the book addressed to the narrator’s first and second wife. Would you say these sections reflect your own feelings on the complexity of marriage?

JR Marriage is so unbelievably complex. I don’t know if I can even… I don’t know how to talk about it without sounding insane, so I probably came off as insane in the book.

GH Some describe it as the search for the twin—the other half of you.

JR Part of finding love is finding a projection of yourself that you like, which is, in a way, the least healthy thing to be looking for, right? So identity itself becomes weirdly the enemy in any relationship, and yet it’s also the primary bond between two people. I suppose that’s the core of the prose, the conflict between identity and love. We have to be more or less what we were the day before, but it feels very much like something where you wake up and reach for who you are. I don’t feel like I wake up as me. I wake up, then the veil falls and it’s me somehow. On the other hand, if you have nothing—no identity—you’re in this joker’s void, you know?

GH Would you mind reading one of the sonnets?

JR Sure, I’d love to!

Death is a twenty-dollar holiday.
The first dollar buys a seat on the train,
then a dollar on lunch and a redcap,
and at the stopover you send a drink
to a tall pale woman with red lipstick,
who slouches when she laughs but laughs and laughs.
Her legs are crossed and she scratches her calves
with her heels and her bitten fingertips.
But it’s too long a trip to sit and think,
count pennies against a line on a map,
and spend your days on days, three meals a day.

So you decide you’re going to the grave
with this woman, and nothing to save.

GH I love that so much because it addresses the intersection of finance and desire, which I think a lot of New Yorkers can relate to. I feel there’s incredible tension between contemporary art and finance, with love as the big picture writing over it.

JR You’re right, there’s something transactional about it. What are the big problems relationships have? Sex. Money. What’s the other one?

GH Death? (laughter)

JR Sex, money, and death. You know, financial transactions always come with this stench of death. There’s an image of death we’re attracted to, that we established through our childhoods and somewhat through our adulthoods. And we materialize this fantasy of death with someone we’re attracted to and through romance we enter this experiential relationship with death. I mean, I suppose it is negotiated. That’s what I was thinking about—the pennies.

GH I like the sections where you’re clearly speaking to a literary agent about preparations for the publication of this very book, especially your instructions for its printing. The deckled edges, perforated pages for easy removal as gifts, and a leather cover (which is not likely to happen). What are your feelings about modern publishing?

JR I asked my agent for all kinds of things, all kinds of demands to be met, including that the words would shake off the pages (which, probably, one day will be available). Modern publishing, in some ways, is very healthy. What I think isn’t healthy is the distribution stream of books. Distribution is too nationalized. It’s not localized by geography or interest. I like e-books, which take up a market that doesn’t really compete with longer print books, not yet. They’re still shorter. When I got out of graduate school there weren’t as many small presses as there are today. They have really strengthened poetry. So, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. I’m not sure that publishing will survive exactly as we know it today, but the situation looks more transformative than terminal.

GH I’ve read descriptions of your work that make your prose sound like you’re trying to attach a musical device to it. The remix, or the sonnets and the rhyming. Is your work meant to shake up literature by adding some elements from other genres—like music, for example?

JR When I got into graduate school the idea that you could write different kinds of books and bring in other elements seemed really far afield. It felt like an insult to literature or somehow outside of the normative idea of what literature is or could be. It doesn’t feel that way anymore; people bring in other influences. The technology of writing books has come to a point where many people can write a good novel. But if you’re not putting your soul at stake in some way, I just don’t see why you need to do it.

GH Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing in New York? Your parents were both artists, your father was an abstract painter. Did that help you create an artistic sensibility?

JR I grew up in artists’s studios—two very different ones. And this was at a time when abstraction and figuration were at odds; my parents were on opposite sides of the equation. In the poetry world, at that time, language poetry was at odds with new formalism. There were polarities. But what I got most out of growing up in the arts was seeing the artists—people who, for the most part, were extraordinarily talented. Though not everyone had the same opportunities to forward their work. I realized early on that fame wasn’t something to strive for; recognition really couldn’t be what made you work. Very few people can fake their way through forever. The role models were obviously people who just wanted to do the work. I’ve written a little about some of these people. I reviewed the David Wojnarowicz biography by Cynthia Carr, and what really stuck with me was the image of the puking cow. So great. You can’t try to come up with a puking cow, you know?

GH I was at a reading of yours once and you told a story about your grandmother that was just so hard to believe that I blocked it out of my memory.

JR Oh, my Long Island grandmother. She had Munchausen by proxy. Usually she’d poison you to kind of keep you in the house or keep you around. But she might overdo it and take you out for good, and if you were really a drag she might take you down outright. I think there were about five people who died around her. She’s very, very smart and very charming. I tried to tell the police at one point, but you know the police in Long Island. I remember exactly what this cop said back: “What do you want us to do about it?”

GH (laughter) Well, I think every John Reed interview should end with that story.

Gee Henry is the pen name of a publishing denizen who was born in Antigua and lives in Manhattan. Find him on Twitter at @geehenry.

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