An Interview with Jason Morphew

By marc t. wise

JASON MORPHEW is the author of In Order To Commit Suicide, published by Floating Wolf Quarterly Chapbooks. While this is his first book of poems, Morphew is no stranger to the world of artistic output. As a singer/songwriter he has released six albums, most recently Vaporizer on Max Recordings in 2008. As if this wasn’t enough, Jason is also in the process of receiving a PhD in English (Renaissance Studies) from the University of California Los Angeles. Needless to say, he’s got a lot to talk about: his travels, life as a musician, as an extra on movies, as an Arkansas Razorback fan, and in this case the life he leads as a poet and scholar. In Order To Commit Suicide slashes a swath through the myths of celebrity, fame, obscurity, death, and (most importantly) the living with a kind of honesty you would expect from someone seated next to you on a plane going down in flames. The following exchange took place electronically, and provides welcome insight into the poems and the mind of this extraordinarily talented artist.

Who are you? Where are you from? Why does that matter? Why does that always matter?

I’m a redneck spy behind enemy lines, gathering information. The inevitable tragedy is that my allies at home aren’t interested in my “intelligence.” Some of these allies have even been brainwashed into believing they are my enemies. Thus runs the absurdity of contemporary spying.

How do you grapple with songwriting, poetry, etc.—setting oneself after the discussion of the myth (your poems grapple with Faust, Disneyland and Charlie Sheen), and still hold some ground for soul, for folly, for the mistakes of this world, on a personal, but also systematic and cultural level?

We have a mythology--Jordan, Lincoln, Hank, Elvis, Tupac, etc.—but we don’t have a culturally cohesive system of mythology, like the Greeks did. Cultural diversity plus infinite subjectivity equals a lonely, isolated encounter with mythology, a post-Reformation ironic orgy where everyone, though naked and aroused, prefers to masturbate in the disgusting bathroom. Instead of our mythology bringing us together, it sends us to iSelves. I’m not complaining.

Folly generates mythology. I’m thinking of Odysseus, Columbus. I don’t think there has been an adequate discussion of the myth of Charlie Sheen. I sometimes wonder if during the Meltdown Charlie had someone writing those wonderful haikus for him. I would have enjoyed doing that. His scandal was about language, the lyric substance of a lunge at autonomy. He carried his offensive mask beyond its prescribed narratory arc. This transgression of boundaries made it feel as if Charlie were cutting lines of charlie on our coffee table. He violated the sanctity of genre, which made his persona appear to be more present, at large. Immanence is a scandal. Then he lost interest, I guess because he didn’t want to die. It was a delightful couple of weeks.

You mention songwriting in your question. I wonder why contemporary poets who never rhyme—who disparage rhyme in poems—love song, which almost always not only rhymes but is also incessantly and conservatively metrical. Nothing is more formal and conservative than song, regardless of the dissonance of the backing music or the experimental nature of the video. The expectation that songmaking is related to writing poems has led me to write poems that defy music, that interrupt music once its ghost begins to clang its chains. That’s what attracts me to Swift’s poems—they refuse to sing.

Does one have to choose and/or deny himself access to reality (however we define it) in order to be present, in order to be famous?

I love that you connect being present with being famous. It’s Eucharistic—Christ is present during the ceremony, and no one’s more famous than He. Film, video, text, audio recordings, and now holograms appropriate the Eucharist in order to evoke the specter of presence. I increasingly define reality in terms of genre. In order to become famous in the creative sphere in a premeditated way, one probably has to have an acute appreciation of genre. Appreciating genre is tantamount to learning to love others. Some genres are beneath some people. Some people think some genres are above being genres. I prefer the latter species of snobbery because at least it’s mystical.

There’s this fear of anonymity that comes through this collection, or perhaps it’s a grand respect in the guise of fear. Is this a legitimate fear in your work, or is there a quiet line being drawn around this respect?

I’ll share a glimpse of my training with you: the obscure life was not worth living. Mom had a subscription to People and a local Arkansas film agent. She acted in films and commercials that were shot locally. She got me into some of them. As a matter of fact, I’m an extra in a Charlie Sheen movie called Three For the Road, shot in my hometown Hot Springs. I am also exploded in a made-for-TV terrorist movie called Under Siege, the one that stars Victoria Tennant. I walk right by the camera, board a plane, then we cut to that plane exploding in spectacular fashion. I’m sixteen, skater bangs, tapered jeans. I remember feeling so excited while filming that scene, like it was my big break.

Obscurity is a means of disappearance, a renewal that draws its enormous power from the fact that it is done in secret. Obscurity is mystery, an unseen site of resistance. Failure is the gift that leads to obscurity. Failure is what generates the poem. My favorite stories end “and he was never heard from again.”

You have a remarkable talent for managing the space between when you get to choose how you want to be in this world and when you’re not paying attention, when you can’t bear to—this kind of guilt, I might assert, seems part of that slow death piling on us in the form of rhetoric (I’m thinking here of TMZ, SUV, Tea Party in The Death of Loved Ones). How does accumulation, both personal and historical—you are a renaissance scholar—function in your work? Where do you see yourself sitting on the historical catalogue of human history and what does this mean in this war between fame and obscurity that unfolds in your work?

Thank you. You use the term war—I’m currently taking an Italian translation class at UCLA and the other day we were group-translating a passage written by Mussolini, for some reason. I had no idea that fascism included a theorized rejection of the notion of peace. I don’t know if anyone really wants peace. They certainly don’t seem to want it, on a global or interpersonal level. Many conversations I have might as well be knife fights, and most of the people I converse with would rather die than have it thought of them that they don’t seek universal peace. Metta World Peace is the most violent fragment of the NBA. That’s not a coincidence. He named himself, after all. Metta apparently means love in Pali, but his name also works as Meta World Peace.

Guilt is an element I swim in, a mother tongue, largely because I’m the product of a melodramatically divorced poor teenage redneck fundamentalist Christian romance. My mother once asked me, “What’s so great about an open mind?” I knew when I heard that question I would spend the rest of my life trying to answer it. If I were a painter I would depict my mother sadly making out with Montaigne.

I compartmentlaize my “Renaissance scholar” life from my poet life--though a professor recently told me that “The Death of Loved Ones” is a Hamletian monologue. Writing is tea with skeletons that are rudely texting with the grave. As far as the narrative of the human goes, I agree with those who say that ours is a post-human and post-secular age. The fragmentation of the self has become so fully realized that we’re more fragment than human. The human is performative, anyway--no one behaves like a human unless they have a role in Antigone. You would be locked up if you really tried to live according to the writings of Cicero or Petrarch, fathers of humanism who were already describing something that had vanished. You notice what’s gone.

When I say “post-secular” I mean beyond religious faith in science. I could never be an artist if I thought that meant twirling in a corner of benign make-believe while adults toil in fields of truth and reality. Science vs. Art and Science vs. Religion are false dialectics, failed experiments of the eighteenth century. All we have are ideas based on other ideas. The reason no one’s seen an atom after all this time is they’re looking in the wrong place. It’s in the ancient poem De rerum natura.

By the way, I can explain the rise of the Tea Party: Obama is the first openly cosmopolitan President since JFK. It freaks rural people out.

In your poem “The Death of Loved Ones,” there’s a wavering back and forth between that reality-denial and also a refusal to be present manifested through the various disguises (costumes, masks/poet, songwriter, scholar, husband, son, etc.) that one wears during a 24 hour passage. This seems, in relation to grief, a kind of defense, an attempt at building a barrier between oneself and death. What for you is the relationship of life experiences/trauma and poetry, i.e. the act of making art?

Poetry lives in the discomfort of the condemned man’s luxurious last meal. I steal this notion from my father, who once said to me, “I don’t understand why people fantasize about their last meal—you’re about to get electrocuted, Jase.” You’re always about to get electrocuted. Enjoy your Pizza Hut.

Grief itself is a mask, a technology that prevents our immediately joining that which we grieve. In the worst moment I’ve had all I could think about was being at Blockbuster the moment it opened and renting Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. I wanted to see the facial expression he makes when he sees the Ghost. He’s so in love. I required the katharsis that mask provides in order to survive until lunch. Masks are external insofar as we perceive them in the world, but our bones are made of them. That’s why there’s no such thing as authenticity.

Alan Grossman writes that we’re paying the price for our myth (our personal heroic narrative) with self-identification in “terms of a human community, which requires sacrifice of certain features of individuality”(Summa Lyrica, 38.6). How do you see the poem/poet functioning in its (his) relationship with the larger community?

Poetry’s so ingrained in the larger community that the larger community doesn’t see it. Modern science is an homage to Lucretius’ poem; evolutionary theory is an homage to the Metamorphoses. Every immediately digestible creative medium shares a background in lyric poem form. I don’t see what forcing the larger community to acknowledge that would accomplish, other than their denial and irritation. To persist in writing poems in light of that undertaking’s mighty challenges ought to make your poems all the mightier. It sounds to me like Grossman was raised like a first or only child, too. I wonder how many non-first children grow up to be poets. It seems impossible for a middle child to become a poet. Middle-children poets and “babies of the family” poets should all receive MacArthur Fellowships immediately. Narcissism is a generic convention of lyric poetry, so it helps to have firsthand knowledge.

In the poem “Listening to Loretta” you write: One must be alive/in order to commit suicide. Yet the poems at large seem more concerned with the specifics of self-harm, pointing to other small deaths (disappointment, anxiety, obscurity) as opposed to, or perhaps in order to get at, the largesse of total self-termination. What kind of suicide(s) do you see these poems acting out?

I recently swam with a giant tortoise. They live to be a hundred and fifty years old. The first thing I thought when I saw him through my mask was that he’s the first large old being I’ve ever seen not engaged in some form of suicide. Yet I don’t think there is total self-termination. That’s a benefit of the self’s status as myth. I don’t think we even have a “life,” an idea I take from Giordano Bruno. He writes that there is no life or death but, rather, congregation and dispersal. Bruno was a sixteenth-century Dominican friar. He said he was a believer; Clement VIII disagreed and dispersed him at the stake. Maybe what Bruno disliked was the linear narrative that having a life requires. But once you follow this idea through the secular frame of mind, into a post-secular one that views the scientific method as mere language, it feels true. I’m not here. I’m not alive, in the crafted-narrative sense of the term. If I’m not alive suicide is impossible. At a recent wedding I informed the people seated at our dinner table that I do not exist. I’m sure some of them wanted me to prove it. Have patience, sorority sisters of my wife.

There are definite moments in the collection in which the work appears to regard the poem as a closure of event, of song, of concept and other moments in which the poetry opens into a wonder that borders a kind of astonishment in presence, even joy (Joy!). How do you as poet, songwriter, and scholar grapple with the idea of sentimentality?

God, sentimentality is a beast for me. Irreverence is an attempt to stave that poisoned monkey off. The white South is utterly sentimental. All the poetry I was raised to think is good—and it is—is very sentimental. The deaths of grandmothers, that sort of thing. The best collection of these poems I’ve seen is The Made Thing, published in the late 1980s. But if one wants to interact with the white Coasts, one has to vex that sentimentality, which was already horrible and fatal, anyway. To glorify one’s past requires a fierce variety of courage. I don’t have the stomach for that kind of suicide. I guess the opposite of sentiment is pure presence, rejection of all that came before, total emotional autonomy. I don’t think you’d make it far before being shot. Sentimentality is distinct from joy, obviously yet oddly. I always have a sense that if I saw things in a slightly different way I could force an encounter with joy. Maybe that’s how infinite subjectivity struggles with darkness, maybe that’s how joy gets into my poems. I don’t know what people mean when they say happiness, I think because it implies a permanent state of joy, which would be a cruel lie on par with Heaven. Heaven is sentimentality’s masterpiece. A permanent state of joy would kill you very quickly, which is a way that negativity’s not negative. Maybe everyone’s coked up in Heaven, maybe the joke’s on me. Maybe that’s the point of Heaven—this permanent state of joy won’t kill you. Sentimentality and joy have been reconciled, my son. Just say yes.

Finally, what does it mean to effectively disappear?

Love is the problem. It’s the ontological evidence that I exist, the groove in stone the water made. I may not be here, but I somehow love my family and, when we’re not fighting over Fantasy Football, my friends. I now honestly love a dog. It’s ridiculous. If I collapsed typing this next digit my love would remain, an aroma on a scarf. The impossibility of disappearance inspires the desire for it. Not only is there no privacy, there’s no way to ever leave a room.

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the work of marc t. wise has appeared in Slope, Gigantic Magazine, Sleepingfish, and the Denver Quarterly.

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