BRIAN ALAN ELLIS
Tom Sawyer (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2018), the debut poetry collection by Joseph Grantham, opens with: stuff suddenly happens / stuff keeps happening / stuff stops happening. It is this simple, semi-sweet malaise that makes Grantham’s work stand out in a sea of wordy, agenda-heavy poesy that, to quote a long-dead white guy, is told by idiots, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In a sense, Grantham’s Richard Brautigan-meets-Mumblecore aesthetic also signifies nothing, but it is the profound nothing; the nothing of every-day living; the nothing of making art in spite of whatever privilege you may or may not have or whatever unsatisfying job you may or may not have or whatever love you may or may not have; the nothing that makes Tom Sawyer this year’s most refreshing poetry collection, which is why I teamed up with writer/illustrator Michael Seymour Blake to ask Grantham several questions that have nothing to do with poetry.
BRIAN ALAN ELLIS: Okay, Michael. I started hearing about this Joseph Grantham character about a two years ago, after he and his sister published a book [Dust Bunny City, Disorder Press] by our pals Bud [Smith] and Rae [Buleri]. Then he moved in with them (!), and I was like, “Who the hell does this guy think he is?” How did you first hear about Joseph Grantham?
MICHAEL SEYMOUR BLAKE: Okay, Brian. Mr. Smith (we’re no longer on a first name basis) messaged me one day with something like, “Hey, you should be friends with Joseph Grantham. You two would really get along!” I’ve heard that line a million times in my life and never, not once, has it ever panned out, but… he had this painting of a mustached man (possibly him) as his Facebook profile shot. Thought it was Brautigan. For a long time I pictured that image whenever his name came up. When I met him in person, I was shocked to see a normal looking human being and not a painting of a mustached man. What a letdown. Seemed real nice, though.
BAE: The mustache definitely seems to be his brand’s calling card. Mine involves depressing tweets where I apparently rip off Melissa Broder. What’s your brand, Michael?
MSB: Am I supposed to take this seriously? I never think about brand. It feels icky to me. I’m super inconsistent in art and life, but that’s not a brand. I try to inspect my guts and see how much of them I can transfer through my fingers. Usually not much… Coloring With Your Guts: A Paint by Numbers book by Michael Seymour Blake.
BAE: Joseph, do you remember meeting Michael on this shockingly disappointing day?
JOSEPH GRANTHAM: I remember meeting Michael. He was a lot smaller than I thought he would be. Not that I thought he would be a big guy. But he was petite. And not in a bad way. There’s nothing wrong with being petite. He was scrappier than I thought he would be. And he had a strong east coast accent. But I liked him. I remember thinking, “I like this guy.” He brought a “grab bag” to the reading. And he kept talking about people winning prizes or something from the “grab bag.” I thought the “grab bag” was cool. I started calling him “Mike” in my head. He’s “Mike” to me now.
MSB: I was trying to fool the world into thinking I was huge and you just fucking blew it. Way to go. Guess the jig is up.
BAE: How did you first become aware of Bud, like how did that relationship evolve?
JG: I first became aware of Bud Smith through the Otherppl podcast. I listened to his episode while working a job at my old high school. I was in the cafeteria opening and organizing books for all of the students. It was a nice dumb easy job and I could listen to podcasts all day. I liked Bud. Everyone likes Bud. Or that’s not true. Some people hate Bud. But I like Bud. And then months later he submitted to the press I run with my sister. And that was exciting because we were already fans. And from then on Bud and his wife, Rae, became family. I’ve gone on road trips with Bud, I lived with Bud, Bud and Rae flew down to New Orleans to hang out with my sister and me and our mom and dad. I’d get hit by a car for Bud. Which is something that almost happened to me quite often when I was living with Bud and Rae in Jersey City. I almost got hit by a car almost every night.
BAE: You also lived with another creative power couple in Scott McClanahan and Juliet Escoria. Tell us, which married couple keeps a cleaner house; has nicer furniture; owns friendlier pets; keeps better books/records/movies in their collection; owns more speedboats, etc. etc.?
JG: The thing is, Bud’s wife, Rae Buleri, designs stuff for Martha Stewart. So you know that apartment is gonna be looking good inside. That being said, Scott and Julia still keep a nice house. It’s just hard to compete with Martha Stewart. But Scott and Julia have Jelly, one of the kindest, gentlest dogs and friends I’ve ever met. And Scott has whatever book or movie or CD you’d ever want (although he may have to dig it up for you). And at the time I was living with Scott and Julia, it was not long after The Sarah Book was released, so Scott had purchased a Mustang and a Corvette, although I’m not sure on the years or makes and models. Scott really went car crazy that year.
MSB: I’m sure Bud’s got a body or two stashed away somewhere in there, but I understand you want to protect his privacy. Anyway, let’s get back to business…. Would you rather have a turkey vulture that sits on your shoulders and vomits every time someone says or thinks something mean about you, or a fat fluffy cat in a tiny baseball cap that follows you around and at a totally random time, maybe twice a week, announces exactly what’s on your mind?
JG: I’d choose the vulture because I don’t think people think mean things about me very often. Or maybe I’m wrong. But I think for the most part, in my day-to-day life, I keep a low profile and don’t attract a lot of hateful thoughts. So there’d just be this ugly vulture on my arm. The cat sounds more my speed but I don’t like the idea that my thoughts might be blurted out at random times. I have a lot of weird thoughts and a lot of bad thoughts. Or I think really dark things sometimes, just for fun, because I know that no one else will know or hear about them. So if that cat was blurting these things out… I’d have to kill the cat. And I don’t want to kill a cat. I don’t want to kill any animals.
BAE: Wow, so you’re just assuming the turkey vulture would be ugly? That’s kind of messed up.
JG: I assumed the vulture would be ugly because I’ve been seeing a lot of vultures lately. And they’ve all been ugly. There’s a lot of roadkill where I live and the vultures will eat anything and I almost hit them with my car because they wait until the last second to fly out of the way.
BAE: What if it was a child instead of a cat blurting out your thoughts, would you consider killing a child? Only kidding. Next question: Curious about why you called your new poetry collection Tom Sawyer. Was this your way of thumbing your nose at classic literature, like when the Replacements named their album Let It Be to fuck with the Beatles? Why Tom Sawyer and not, say, Dracula?
JG: There are maybe two poems in my book that reference Mark Twain’s book, and when I finished my manuscript I thought, What if I just called my bookTom Sawyer? Because I didn’t know what to call it. And then I thought about all of the things in my book. And I thought, Hey, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is kind of a fun, coming-of-age adventure story. And my book is kind of a depressing, boring coming-of-age story about a kid who grew up with a nice family and good friends, and came of age in a suburb that no one thinks or cares about and who moved to a big city and got his heart broken and who used a cell phone and had a boring job that he liked to complain about. And I thought, Maybe this is what a modern Tom Sawyer might look like. And I also thought it was funny. And I think it doesn’t matter what I think. But I also think that my book is like… what’d you get if you stomped on my skull and brains for a while and then scooped the mess into a pan and put it in the oven for an hour and then took it out of the oven and ate it.
BAE: So you’re not a fan of Rush?
JG: No, I don’t listen to Rush. I can only name one song by Rush, and it’s “Tom Sawyer.” But I don’t like Rush. I don’t like their logo.
MSB: You called your book “boring,” or I guess “kind of” boring. Can boring be entertaining?
JG: Yeah, I love boring. I’m interested in the things we do every day, the things we do so often that we don’t really think about them. Things we eat, strange gestures we make, sounds we make. Repetition. Like, there’s this room in the house that I live in that gets really nice sunlight in the morning, so each morning I go stand in that room for a second, just to look at it. Or how this morning I finally clipped my toenails for the first time in a while, except that I’ve had a lot of back and neck pain lately, so it hurt like hell to be hunched over my feet and it was still early in the morning and my eyes were tired and the room I was in didn’t get very good light and so the whole process was infuriating.
MSB: In your opinion, what are good examples of boring entertainment?
JG: I think Kelly Reichardt’s films are good examples of interesting boredom, Certain Women in particular. Some of Mike Leigh’s films. Some of David Gordon Green’s films. The later novels of Stephen Dixon. Much of Frederick Barthelme’s work. Ron Padgett’s poems. Megan Boyle’s LIVEBLOG is a bible of interesting boredom. A lot of the poetry I enjoy is usually just about someone eating breakfast and thinking, Wow, that’s a good scone, or, Ow, I burned my tongue on the coffee. I like a lot of art that seems like it’s just sitting around and letting you make what you will of it.
BAE: I think that is what I like about your writing. I also like that about the films of Mike Leigh and the stories of Stephen Dixon and Barthelme. In fact, my favorite part of the movie Stripes is the first 15 or 20 minutes, when Bill Murray and Harold Ramis are sitting around their shitty apartment, just talking about how their lives suck while contemplating joining the army. I sometimes wish they didn’t joined the army and had just loafed around their shitty apartment the entire film.
MSB: Rio Bravo is a great hangout movie.
BAE: Speaking of the army, I think Joey would write a really great war novel, like The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, or Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. Would you ever consider joining the military for the sake of art, Joey?
JG: I would write one of the best war novels of all time. I would put Catch 22 to shame. I would make All Quiet on the Western Front look like trash. The Red Badge of Courage would like the Red Badge of Bullshit by the time my novel was done and out there in the world.
MSB: War, huh, what is it good for? That’s a good line, don’t steal that.
JG: But I’ll never join the military. I don’t like guns very much and I don’t want to die for my country because I don’t like my country that much. And it’s not even because of the current state of politics. I just don’t like it that much here. I’ve also never once left North America. So it’s all I know. But I don’t think I could stand being in the military. I know this is a privileged thing to say. Some people grow up in places, or times, where you have to join the military. But I grew up the way I grew up and I’d rather join the post office. There was a brief moment in college where I was really depressed and considered dropping out and joining the army as a big fuck you to everybody and nobody. I figured I’d do that rather than kill myself, if I ever got that depressed. But I didn’t join the army and I didn’t kill myself. I just kept living like everybody else who’s alive.
MSB: We’re glad you’re still alive.
BAE: True. However, I am not really glad that I am still alive.
MSB: What would you do if you found me and Brian locked in an ear-biting scuffle à la Norman Mailer and Rip Torn?
JG: What would I do? I would probably sit down and watch. Or I don’t know, maybe I’d try to break it up.
MSB: Who would win in a fight between me and Brian?
JG: I think Seymour Blake would beat Alan Ellis. Michael Seymour Blake is scrappy and spidery and I think Brian might want to get his ass kicked. Or Brian might just stab Michael and then the fight would be over. If I had to bet money on it though, I’d take Michael Seymour Blake.
MSB: Ok, you gotta admit that Joey’s on point there—I’d eat you like a fuckin giant slab of fresh ham.
*BAE immediately unfollows both Joseph Grantham and Michael Seymour Blake on Twitter and Instagram*
MSB: OK, give me some recommendations. I’m talkin’ books and movies. Old, new, give me the good stuff. Say, five of each. Go into as much or as little detail as you’d like. Give your fellow writers that Grantham bump, or not. Hit me baby one more time.
*BAE unleashes an epic eye roll and nearly vomits all over himself*
JG: Okay, recommendations. No. It’s too much pressure. And then I feel like I have to check all these boxes, say the right names and blah blah blah. And then I’ll look back on this interview years from now and say, “Shit, I look like an asshole. I should’ve told everyone to read Charles Dickens. I should’ve told everyone to read Toni Morrison.” But fine, I will say that I’ve been reading and collecting every book by Stephen Dixon. Stephen Dixon sent me a cake the day that my book was released. Or someone named Stephen Dixon sent me a cake. Or someone wrote Stephen Dixon’s name on a cake and sent it to me. And I’ll also say that everyone should read the books that my sister and I publish through Disorder Press. It costs us a lot of time and money to edit, design, and print the books and so we wouldn’t waste our time on any book that wasn’t very, very good. And I will give you two movies that I like, off the top of my head: Living in Oblivion (dir. by Tom DiCillo), Daddy Longlegs (dir. by the Safdie Brothers). That’s it. That’s all you get. But you can’t go wrong with this stuff.
BAE: Okay, Joey, let’s wrap this up.
MSB: Hope you liked talking to a hack and a nobody, Joey.
BAE: Before you go, tell the hack and the nobody what’s next for Joseph Grantham… writing-wise, life-wise, birthday cake-wise, etc. etc.
JG: I work at a local pharmacy. I started the job a couple days ago. I quit a job I got at a local coffee shop. I wear nicer clothes now, which is strange for me. Yesterday, a customer told me that I look like Weird Al Yankovic. I think that that is an inaccurate statement. Right now I’m sitting on my couch wearing my dad’s old running shoes and some jeans and a t-shirt. I have a few days left to work at the coffee shop, so I get to wear my comfy shitty clothes. Today I am going to make coffee drinks for old people and college students and then tomorrow I am going to take a bus to New York City to read from my book of poems and then I am going to come back to North Carolina and continue working at the pharmacy. Maybe I will become a pharmacist.
BAE: No more writing?
JG: I am going to keep writing. Sometime soon a book entitled Raking Leaves is going to be released from Holler Presents. This book has a long and torrid history. It may be the thing that ruins my career. It may be the thing that changes everything. Or it might be utterly forgotten, like 98% percent of books/people. I know that one day, I will die. I don’t know how. I know that I probably won’t have a lot of money when I die. I don’t know where I will die. I hope I like where I am when I die. Anyway, you’re gonna die, too Brian Alan Ellis. And so are you Michael Seymour Blake. We all have that in common. I hope you enjoyed speaking to me, there were a lot of other things you could’ve been doing and you chose to speak with me. Thank you guys.
JOSEPH GRANTHAM was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He grew up in California. He read books for a while and wrote bad stories and poems and went to school. Not much happened. He lost his virginity when he was 18. He got his BA from Bennington College. He still reads books and writes. He runs Disorder Press with his sister.
BRIAN ALAN ELLIS runs House of Vlad Productions, and is the author of several books, including Sad Laughter (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2018) andSomething to Do with Self-Hate (House of Vlad Productions/Talking Book, 2017). His writing has appeared at Juked, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Fanzine,Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Funhouse, Heavy Feather Review, and Queen Mob’s Tea House, among other places. He lives in Florida, and tweets sad and clever things at both @brianalanellis and @HouseofVlad.
MICHAEL SEYMOUR BLAKE’s work has appeared or is forthcoming at Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Barrelhouse, Fanzine, Flapperhouse, Entropy, Waxwing, Corium, Paper Darts, People Holding, and Heavy Feather Review. He writes and doodles in Queens. michaelseymourblake.com