When The Wizard of Oz Breaks Out into a Gun Battle: An Interview with Scotty Lewis, Author of Arkansas Ghoulash

Mark Spitzer says,

Hey, my grad students in poetry just did a kick-ass interview with Scotty on his book.

& here it is. Mark & Scotty will read from their new books Sunday, December 17th at White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield, along with locals Alan Olifson, Angele Ellis, John Menesini, & Rick Claypool.

When The Wizard of Oz Breaks Out into a Gun Battle:

An Interview with Scotty Lewis, Author of Arkansas Ghoulash

By Drew Cook, Énbarr Coleman, Callie Smith, Briget Laskowski, JJ McNiece, and Mikayla Davis

 

Scotty Lewis, a lecturer in Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, was recently featured at the Faulkner County Library in Conway for a “Debut-Break-Out-Book-Readin-Book-Signin Bonanza.” Hot off the press from Six Gallery Press in Pittsburgh, Arkansas Ghoulash is his first book, and it wasn’t an easy story to tell. On one hand, the narrative revolves around a tragic act of domestic violence; but on the other, it is a daring and complex epic poem in the postmodern tradition that relies on lyrical flashes from a highly unnatural “natural state.” After a dramatic reading that blew his audience away, Lewis responded to questions—an opportunity that graduate students in Creative Writing from the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop conveniently exploited:

Drew Cook: One of things you do in Arkansas Ghoulash is you take established forms and then you kind of collage them together so they’re not visually recognizable and all that’s left is the music. It’s really a high Modernist approach. I’m interested in how you arrived at that strategy, and if there were any difficulties and advantages in doing so.

Scotty Lewis: There are a lot of things that make poetry good or bad but one of the key things is music. Do I like improvisation? Of course. We like jazz but we also like form. The best improvisation realizes that there’s form, and it breaks it. The best improvisation realizes form. In a way this caused major difficulties because I might have preferred a straight narrative, but I don’t know if it would have worked that way. Emotionally, it was hard for me to do even as abstract as it is. If I turned this into a very straightforward story, I don’t know that I could have done it. Playing with the music of it, playing with the feeling of it, being able to be lyrical in different ways… it helped me capture the feel of it.

Énbarr Coleman: What stuck out most to me was the mention of the Berlin Wall because I noticed that you had a lot of these violent images, a lot of nature, and also soft and gentle stuff. Then suddenly you’ve got the Berlin Wall and things of that nature thrown in. In my opinion, it went from this very local poem to much grander, much more international. I was curious to hear your thoughts on that.

Lewis: There were several markers. The Berlin Wall is in there. Tiananmen Square is in there. There are a few big events of the time that were in there. If you go through the book, there are about seven or eight of those in there. Part of those are to mark time. This is the era that we’re talking about. This is the time we’re talking about. This poem jumps around a lot. Even tonight—and I didn’t want to stop and indicate necessarily because it would have broken up the rhythm of it—but there are places in the part I read tonight that weren’t necessarily sticking to one timeline. Those markers were put in there to anchor the reader in a certain time. They were also in there not only to give a sense of the violence that was taking place and erupting in my household, but also that was erupting around the world. The two things may not be related really, but they seem related. I mean, I grew up in the 1980s, so I certainly didn’t grow up with a cell phone, but I did grow up with a television. I did grow up with a Commodore 64. I grew up with enough technology to always be in touch with what was going on in the world. So I don’t think there is such a thing as living a completely local life anymore.

Callie Smith: The epic form of Arkansas Ghoulash is unusual in contemporary poetry—you don’t see that much. How did you decide on writing in this epic form? What were the challenges and what did it buy you?

Lewis: That’s such an interesting question. While it is the length of an epic, I think I really fell short on a lot of the other elements, but I did sort of want to include some aspects of the epic while writing it. I do think, in a sense, there is a journey to the underworld and an attempt, at least, to come back. So what inspired me to do that? I don’t know, but my favorite epic poem is The Odyssey, which I refer to in the poem. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it in short form. I didn’t want to do it as necessarily sixty poems about the same event. I thought it needed space to grow . . . But I was also keeping a lot of different forms in mind. Within the text, there are places where sonnets, blank verse, where American haiku is hidden—where a lot of smaller forms are actually talking back and forth to each other.

JJ McNiece: I felt a hyperpolarization with your imagery as you read. On one end: brutal, severe violence. On the other: soft, sweet calm. It seemed that the beginning displayed more of the brutal imagery, while the images during the violent event itself were often softer, though interspersed with the brutal. At the end, I felt the imagery gravitated almost exclusively toward that sweet, softer side. I’m curious what your conscious decisions are with imagery and language as you’re going through this? What are you trying to accomplish?

Lewis: I was trying to accomplish a balance. If this is going to be genuine, I don’t think I can gloss over the violence. This was a very violent incident. So, even the things surrounding it, even the consciousness of the narrator while he looks into other things—simple things—notices violence more, even in the landscape. I hope, too, that there are softer parts. I don’t know that I made a conscious decision to polarize those things, but both exist. Do I decide to make softer images? I do, but I don’t know that I think about it that much. I try to make a pretty image now and then. I like to make images. I think it’s a stronger suit of my poetry.

Briget Laskowski: My question deals with images, particularly the images you have on page 63 and 64 where you use the Tin Man image. In fact you even take his words, “Just because I’m presumin’ / That I could be a human / If I only had a heart,” and then on page 64 you have Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. What were you attempting to communicate using these images?

Lewis: Those were domestic images. I wanted to make sure people understood what those images were about. It was very close, very in the home. It was The Wizard of Oz breaking out into a gunfight. It was Loony Tunes in a certain sense. I was fifteen years old. I was really just crawling into adolescence . . . I felt like a child. So I wanted to make sure that things we associated with children like Mickey Mouse and The Wizard of Oz were there. Another reason for The Wizard of Oz specifically, was the year this happened my brother was extremely talented, very handsome, and he was beginning his acting career, and his acting career launched off partially from his acting in plays at our school. Probably his biggest role was as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Actually, in the yearbook for the next year there was a full page spread of my brother as the Tin Man.

Mikayla Davis: Many of your poems use natural imagery juxtaposed with very human, sometimes even mechanical imagery, so I was wondering what purpose you see that relationship playing in your poems? And what is humanity’s position in relationship with nature, for you?

Lewis: I think we’re way past being romantics about it. I think that would be disingenuous. I think that would be a lie. I love nature. I love going out. I love to fish, I love to hike. Those of you who know me know I love to be outside, but I always see it diminishing. I don’t really see our efforts to fight it as being very good or even very genuine. I mean, we’re part of nature, right? And so anything we see, if there are mechanical images mixed in with the natural—what we make is as much a part of nature as an ant making an anthill or beaver making a beaver dam. It might be more complicated in the way we do it, but we’re part of nature. We’re just one of those things in nature that really knows how to screw things up. We’re like termites. We’re going to keep eating at the tree until we kill it.

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