Interview: Marcus Slease

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Marcus Slease sits down with Everest Magazine to talk craft, influences, Beat Poets, Polish surrealism, Americana and THE HOUSE OF ZABKA, out now from Deathless Press.

Just a few basic stats:

Born: Portadown, N. Ireland

Educated: Weber State Univeristy, Western Washington University, UNC Greensboro

Favorite Author/voice: Richard Brautigan, Samuel Beckett

Profession: Teacher of English as a foreign language

As a poet rocking a sense of Joycean transplanted Irish identity, what voice do you feel comes through in your writing? You teach English as a second language, how does that allow you to engage in conversation with readers with a variety of voices and accents?

I think my transplanted Irish identity has allowed me to have a fluid and playful sense of identity. It wasn’t always that way. At age 6 we moved to London for a while and I quickly wanted to get rid of my Northern Irish accent and become English (it was the late 1970s and being from Northern Ireland automatically made you a suspected terrorist much like people of “Middle Eastern” descent today). Then at age 12 we moved to the States. I also got an officially new last name. Slease. My step father told me to make sure to pronounce it very clearly. Like lease with an s. I remember it was very important not to add the z sound. I didn’t know why. HA. I don’t mind either way. My step father got a job in Las Vegas so we ended up there. Las Vegas, as everyone knows, is the ultimate fantasy land of identities. No one suspected me of being a terrorist in Las Vegas. I convinced everyone I was an Irish ninja and had to escape my homeland. I think I believed it as well. By age 14, I had changed my accent again, this time to a kind of western American, with a few words still in Northern Irish. I was tired of everyone asking me to say words in my Northern Irish accent and asking if I were friends with Duran Duran and older girls trying to kiss me because of my accent. I just wanted to play football (soccer). I wanted to be on the outside observing rather than being observed. My step father had also changed his accent from Manchester to American western. He got a cowboy hat and some chickens and eventually we even got a horse and moved to a small town in Utah called Hurricane for my last year of high school. But that never took for me. I never wanted to be an American cowboy till much later.

Then at age 20, halfway through a Mormon mission, I had an identity crisis. I wanted to get back my Irish identity. My mum kept Irish traditions alive in the house but I didn’t feel a sense of belonging in this strange American religion and I felt like my American voice was someone else’s voice. I left my Mormon mission halfway through and left the Mormon church and started searching for someplace like Ireland but in America. I ended up in the northwest of the U.S. for university because it had rain and it was green, but it wasn’t like Ireland in America. So I went to North Carolina because the Ulster Scots came there a few hundred years ago. I was reading a lot of the history of the Ulster Scots in America and I thought I could find my American and Irish identity via the Ulster Scot history in North Carolina. By age 30, I realized I needed to travel the world. So I sold everything and gave away about a thousand books of poetry and headed to South Korea with a 12 inch laptop and 15 kilos that became my life belongings. I decided to become more of a world citizen and live a simple life. If I could choose, I would have a passport with my citizenship from The Milky Way. I also started to engage more and more with Zen Buddhism. This sometimes allows me to be more accepting and less self-conscious of my identities.

I am in London now and at the moment I feel a bit more American. Maybe 55% and rising. I think it may peak at around 68%. But a polite American, like a Northwest Canadian. At about 36 I found a lightness of touch via the great poet Philip Whalen. I am appreciating American literature more and more. The expansiveness of the American voice in literature. The openness and curiosity. My first loves were Joyce and Beckett and that still comes through in some of my work in terms of a playfulness with language and a strong inclination towards the absurd, but I am finding the American voice the most fluid and useful (Richard Brautigan and NY School Poetry really rock my boat). I can layer all the other identities.

Teaching English as a foreign language allows me to see my mother tongue like a beginner sometimes. It often keeps my relationship with the language fresh and curious. I can relate to my students in London as immigrants and I dig the various in-between languages: Ponglish, Konglish etc.

I’ve heard that at one point you collected hard to find poetry books circa 1950-1970, what Beat Poets sit on your bookshelf at home?

When I lived in North Carolina, and drove a car, I would travel to seven bookshops twice a week to find books of poetry. I sold my signed Seamus Heaney and picked up the first issues of The Evergreen Review and all the City Lights pocket series of beat poets. Then I got most of the Black Sparrow books. I really got into the Beats, Black Mountain/objectivist poets, and especially NY School poets. I acquired some first editions of the early work of peeps like Ted Berrigan, William Burroughs, Alice Notley, Kathy Acker, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Kenneth Koch, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett, Frank O’ Hara, Paul Blackburn, Bernadette Mayer, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Joanne Kyger, Jim Brodey, Allen Ginsberg, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Creeley, Alice Notley, Diane di Prima, Ron Padgett, Richard Brautigan, Lew Welch (and many others).

Your most recent chapbook from Deathless Press, HOUSE OF ZABKA, reads like Beckett’s Endgame with plot like Ohio Impromptu. Do you sympathize that “nothing remains to tell”, or what insights can we glean from pig butcher’s daughter turned protagonist, Carrie and her travels with Toto?

Everything seems available like never before in our human history. I mean that’s what we keep hearing and it seems to be true. It seems to me one way to use this is to layer stories on top of stories. Some call this post-modern. I don’t know if it post-modern or post post modern. It doesn’t really matter. But I prefer the literature of the impure. Layering stories and suggestions of stories on top of each other in one massive galactic orgasm. OK. Maybe it’s not that good. But I do think, as Tom Robbins said, we need playfulness to keep the human mind fluid and open to change. Rigid sticks break easily. I like wonky bendable sticks. Northern Ireland (and a lot of Europe) has had a lot of rigid sticks in both its literature and its politics. But, unlike the density of a lot of post-modernist fiction (Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace etc.), I mostly enjoy an accessible surface and minimalist aesthetic. I think there is everything and nothing left to tell, as always.

ZABKA is billed as a polish fairy tale crossed with Kurt Vonnegut. How did you combine surrealist Polish/eastern European poetic tendencies with classic American references, a dog named Toto guiding a pig’s blood drenched Carrie through images straight from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale acid trip?

The House of Zabka is loosely based on experiences of living in a coal mining region of southern Poland with minimal contact with native English speakers in a former 5 star hotel under Communism. It also imagines various worlds of the imagination. A kind of psychological realism (surrealism). The imagination is a way for me to filter and cope and also re-see some harsh realities, both on a personal and political level. I grew up with the immigrant ideal of the American Dream. That dream got seriously skewed (skewered) for me and in my world travels I was forced to confront all these various identities that had built up over the years. One way to cope with all the layers was to embrace them and make them pliable and non-competitive. In Southern Poland, I had a new alien environment to bounce around in. My friendship with the great outsider Polish poet and artist Grzegorz Wroblewski influenced my writing and opened up ways to deal via surrealism. Kurt Vonnegut and others (such as Richard Brautigan and William Burroughs) opened up possibilities in terms of absurdist story telling.

“One day Happy Henry met a boy named Jimmy Burman. Jimmy Burman started as a shoe shine boy and worked the night shift at K-Mart. He told Happy Henry all about it. Jimmy Burman knew all the presidents of the United States of America, and gave him a set of cards with all their faces. Happy Henry went home and memorized their faces and names. His favorite was the current one. Mr. Ronald Reagan. His smile reminded him of beef. Beef and cows. And Happy Henry liked cows. He liked cows very much. And he was liking the presidents of the United States of America.”

Now, The Presidents of the United States of America. What inspired this poem? What American dream/nightmare do you engage here?

My first introduction to America was K-Mart. We went to K-Mart and I got my first American hamburger and some plastic cowboy boots. A guy with a big beefy smile kept coming on the telly named Ronald Regan. We escaped Margaret Thatcher and I thought Ronald Regan was maybe a nice alternative, especially since I was really enjoying my first American hamburger. I made friends with immigrant boys in our North Las Vegas neighborhood and we were trying in our various ways to assimilate and melt. Jimmy (real name Jose) took me to his house and tried to teach me all about the American presidents so I could become a citizen. I never become an American citizen (I kept my alien card until it expired three years ago), but I remember all those faces of American presidents. I don’t like what Ronald and his cronies did. He became a scary nightmarish figure of the American empire for me later, but when I first arrived in America he was a symbol of hope for a new life away from the troubles of Northern Ireland.

What do readers have to look forward to from you in the future?

London can be a great place for collaborations. I am working with an outsider artist and musician named Ben Morris for an exhibit/performance at the Hardy Tree gallery near King’s Cross in London in a few weeks. It is part of The Enemies project organized by SJ Fowler. I am also working with an Italian translator/poet, a British outsider artist named David Kelly, and a band called Chips for the Poor for a performance and reading at an old medieval tower in east London in a few months.

I am just wrapping up ( I think) a book of poetry that attempts to deal with the sudden death of my younger brother last year from a heroin overdose. We were very close growing up as immigrants in America. He was my best friend growing up. So it was a very very hard blow. Right now the collection is called Cool Valley (but that could change). The poems in the book attempt to get as honest as possible about the impact of losing someone very close, but also deal with things like string theory, alternative universes, strange Mormon missionary experiences, my experiences as an immigrant in Las Vegas, moving to the docklands of east London with it rich history of Chinese immigrants etc. etc. As always what I am reading has an impact. I have been reading a lot of the poems of Albert Goldbarth, Bernadette Mayer, Joanne Kyger, Matthew Dickman, and re-reading all of Frank O’ Hara’s poems.

I am also attempting to finish a book of interconnected short stories based on experiences living in Seoul (South Korea), Katowice and Elblag (Poland), Prague (Czech Republic), Trieste (Italy), and various parts of Turkey. Some of the stories are memoirish and some of them are absurdist and surreal. The writers Aimee Bender, Bradley Sands, Elizabeth Crane, Sam Pink, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, George Saunders, and of course Richard Brautigan and Samuel Beckett have all had influences on the stories. It’s tentatively titled Never Mind the Beasts. I am not sure when it will be done. Some of the stories from the collection have been published in Word Riot, MonkeyBicycle, Keyhole Press, Sprung Formal, NAP, Metazen and others.

You can read more from Marcus Slease in Everest no. 1, here:

Or get his new chapbook, THE HOUSE OF ZABKA, from Deathless Press here:

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