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“The Party Tricks We Call Answers”: An Interview with Weston Cutter

Weston Cutter is from Minnesota, and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too.

His poem, "Compromise," appeared in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

Here, Weston Cutter talks to interviewer Michele K. Johnson about the impossibility of the perfect word, Holy Shit moments, and writing toward the messy stuff.

Does the collision of the world of math and the world of language come naturally to you?

I don't know if come naturally. I suppose. I guess I'd be more tempted to say that I'm (like most, this isn't special) sort of fascinated by system-like things I can't solve, especially system-like things that aren't articulated fully. A map that's only half-filled-in seems the state of most of the stuff we all deal with (even something seemingly simple and obvious—football, let's say—has a level of how-does-that-happen [how does Andrew Luck, the QB for the team currently geographically nearest me, pull off stupendous, seemingly-impossible throws under pressure?]). Anyway. I'm realizing now you only even asked about the collision, not the other stuff. Yeah: the degree to which I love and don't fully understand math is probably the same re language, plus my desires for each—Rhapsodic Clarity, a gigantic sign blinking This Is It, some Hitchiker's Guide machine to spit out 42 or the perfect (or, worse, right) sentence to say in any scenario—are identical and identically of course impossible and impossible not to long for.

Can you speak a little more about the relationship between inevitability and variability as it is explored in the poem?

This seems like one of those questions smarter than either I or the poem is. It's cool and strange to go back to this poem—it's a bit older, and I wrote it the night after what's described in the poem (I'd honked at a kid riding a scooter [he was blocking the turn lane, talking to a friend of his, leaning into the dude's passenger window, gabbing away as if none of us had anywhere to go] and he'd gotten fairly upset, and the situation was kinked because in the back of my vehicle was my then-infant daughter, plus beside me was my beloved, so an interaction that would've—kid- and wife-lessly—been just me sort of Macho Staring at some dude [or flicking him off, rolling down the window to swear, swerving toward him to induce greater fear and remind him of the actual mechanics of car vs scooter] turned into this very Holy Shit moment. My hands got very sweaty, and I remember this prickling that doused my skin as I thought what if he's armed or wants to get physical or or or.). Like everyone I like to believe other people who do things with which I disagree are just Totally Different and Stupid, and I'm Totally Not and Englightened, and in that moment, with that asshole (brown Carhart jacket, short brunette buzz-cut, I'd drive uncomfortably close if I recognized him today, just to mess with him), after the initial wave of Protect-My-Family eased, I realized: the distance between us was slim, perhaps nonexistent. How many folks had I responded equally poorly/stupidly to, behind or in front of a wheel? And part of his response was (this part's a stretch, but I sort of can't imagine a compelling argument to the contrary) predicated on the notion that he was Right, and I Wrong, but POV (of course) ends up shifting radically as one ages/experiences more (part of the whole thing of the poem was just the realization that I could no longer drive as I once had because I had people I couldn't put into the risks I'd gladly put myself in, driving-wise [I make it sound like I'm some terrific maniac; I don't believe I am, but I suppose none of us does]). Anyway: I'm sure the guy doesn't even remember, and truthfully I'd forgotten, too. I suppose I'd just say: life to me feels an awful lot like a process of making mistakes without realizing it, and then, as time draws its curtain, realizing it (and in fairness, also a process of making good decisions without really realizing it, and then, later, realizing those, too). But even still those things--what we come later to realize are mistakes, long after we've made them—are dependent on how we view them. I've been lucky enough—have health and love of family and friends and financial security—to be able to now look with an almost fondness at the urgent fury of my youth and young manhood (because it ultimately hasn't yet cost me too dearly), and so my response in the car was to laugh at this poor guy (after the panicky wave of fear passed), so Raging at some guy just trying to get his wife and (crying, it should be noted—we needed to feed her) daughter and self home from the mall, but it (my response) could've just as easily been something radically different—further escalation, tireless stalking and punishment, calling the police. That's I guess the ultimate fascination: experience is something like a government bond, and how it matures is dependent not just on time but how we choose to slot the time as it courses neutron-like through us. This is all getting so inbent and convoluted. I'm sorry. I've had two cups of coffee; it shouldn't be this bad. I'm sorry.

One aspect of this poem that drew me in was its slow build toward a powerful momentum. How did you work to build this pace for the reader?

That's really kind--thank you. I don't think I've got any idea, or whatever idea I've got's tied up in the process of making. You know Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? In Bolivia they try to get legal jobs, and so apply to protect this spitting guy (who I'm almost sure was the warden in Cool Hand Luke) as he makes his way to gather payroll, and when asked to shoot, Sundance asks if he can move (he's missed the shot he's taken when standing still). The guy (Wikipedia confirms: it is him in CHL) considering hiring him's like, "Just hit the thing, don't get all fancy or whatever—" and then Sundance crouches and blasts the target to smithereens. More and more that to me's writing: movement to facilitate hitting some target, which is all fine and good, but how one talks about how we make those moves seems increasingly hard.

What else have you been writing recently? Is math a common theme in your work?

Lately: poems that keep using "museum" in the title because I'm lazy and want things to seem ordered. Strangely (or not, I guess), I'm sort of pushed off by what feels like the precision or control of "Compromise": I want messier, want poems that take a pick-axe to stuff other than my past. I don't know. Math is or has been common enough—It is a deep love—but it's not been too tempting for a bit now and probably needs a vacation from my skull (as in fairness I need one from its).

What have you been reading recently?

This one's great. So many good things. New books of poetry last year from such dynamiters—Malachi Black, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Jericho Brown, Erin Belieu (I know all those are Copper Canyon)—plus falling back into old Matt Hart and Alex Lemon. I don't know. Exceptionally excited by Danez Smith and Phillip Williams and, on the press related to them, Meghan Privitello (KMA Sullivan's doing amazing things at YesYes Books, obviously). That's poetry and there's plenty more I'm forgetting. Hannah Gamble. Someone needs to release a book by Layne Ransom. I go back to Bob Hicok's and Charles Wright's and Jorie Graham's work more than anybody else. Fiction's in a stack in the next room and right now I'm driving toward: Daniel Torday's Poxl, Laura van den Berg's Find Me, Metcalf's Against the Country and Brandt/Price's The Whites. Sorry for the too-muchness (that's my tombstone).

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