An Interview with Anders Carlson-Wee, by Christopher Locke
January 21, 2016
A friend of a friend told me I needed to read this poet named Anders Carlson-Wee, a young man living off the grid and hopping trains. “He just won an NEA in Poetry,” my buddy said. Okay, I thought, that has my attention. But then I read his poem “Dynamite,” from his award winning chapbook of the same name, and was absolutely knocked for a loop. Carlson-Wee crafts images that are raw, precise, and immediate, his language both spare and visceral. In his poems, he effortlessly pairs violence and pain with plain-spoken beauty in such a way as to make the reading experience almost transformative; you can only be fully alive when reading his work. But most importantly, he proves a trustworthy narrator and these poems bear scars, literal at times, that feel lived in and fully earned—nothing phony about Carlson-Wee. When I reached out and asked for an interview, he and his brother Kai (who is also a published poet) had just won an award for innovation in documentary filmmaking from the Napa Valley Film Festival for their short film Riding the Highline, which chronicles their time hitching rides on freight trains from Minneapolis to Washington state. The film is shot beautifully by both brothers, and their poetry is interspersed through the film as voice-over, adding an extra layer of intrigue and complexity to their time illegally riding in boxcars and hiding from “the bulls” (railway enforcers). I’m grateful we were able to exchange these questions-and-answers over the past 6 weeks.
In your award-winning chapbook of poems, Dynamite, violence, and at times the end result of violence, plays an important role in the language you use and in your storytelling. Poems such as the title poem, and “Polaroid,” where you recount bloody fights between you and your brother Kai, and “Volunteer,” where you helped out at a prosthetic center, don’t shy away from difficult images. How has violence shaped you as a writer?
Most of my kinesthetic experience with violence comes from skating. When I was fourteen I sprained both my ankles, broke my wrist, got eight stitches in my shin, broke my pinky finger and reset it myself (poorly––it still won’t straighten), suffered a severe concussion from which I still have the lump, and broke my leg in two places––the fibula cracked and the tibia popped out of place at the growth plate. I was awake when the doctor positioned the full weight of his torso over my ankle and pressed to reset it, but I don’t remember screaming because they gave me a “forgetful pill.” That was all in one year.
I’m curious about the bottomless violent impulse within humans––currently, historically, and prehistorically––and the human body as a vessel for violent acts, but I think I’m more interested in the body as representation of a person’s interiority. Something as simple as a pelvic tilt or walking gait divulges volumes about how a person thinks and feels. Hand size reveals a great deal about what a person has done with the days and hours of their life. The sharpness and shape of eyes––which involves muscle tone––tells you the types of things a person has gazed upon over the years, and with how much precision. You can read a person’s exterior like a tracker reads a creature’s paw print. While an interest in violence has been an inspiration for some of my writing, I think a fascination and love for the human body has shaped me more as a writer.
If a reader is shocked or upset by some of the blunt intensity of your poems, do you feel the poem has done its job, or do you feel you are not responsible for a reader’s reaction?
The upsetting images in my poems are upsetting to me. That’s why I wrote them. I’m trying to push deeper into stories and themes that haunt me by reaching for essential images. All communication hinges on primitive overlaps in our collective unconscious. For example, we’re all upset by images of violence and death, and yet we’re all drawn to them, even soothed by them. It’s a peculiar thing about being human. As a writer, I’m usually creating personal versions of elemental ideas, but where the next person takes an idea will––ideally––surprise us, and help us feel more empathy.
Your poem “Living” begins with the line: I get everything I need for free and proceeds to list those things you’ve found and repurposed in your life, even including a bag of dismembered pigs you discovered behind a butcher’s storefront. How much of this way of living is a lifestyle choice, and how much of it is pure necessity?
During the past eleven years, dumpster diving for food, clothing, and other supplies has been a huge part of my life. It started with my obsession over wilderness survival. I took classes at multiple outdoor schools and met some rugged off-the-grid kids who taught me about weird things like how to ship mail for free and how to jump through legal loopholes when you squat an abandoned house. So I started learning urban survival skills, and kept developing them out of my awareness that, as an artist, I would never have any money to speak of. Knowing how to live dirt-cheap has allowed me to focus on my work. For some years I lived almost solely on food found in the trash. I even had a shed behind my house where I stored a massive amount of surplus and invited friends to peruse (for free, of course). I also had a system down where I’d return stuff from the trash for store-credit and then shop for what I wanted (shhh!).
Dumpster diving is exhilarating, but it can be dangerous too. One time my friend North got locked inside a dumpster. This is basically what happened: North climbed into a huge grocery store dumpster and started passing me food. I heard someone coming and ducked out of sight. It’s routine for an employee to come out and throw a bag away, and North was ready for this––he had his arms up to block his face in case the bag had glass. But this time, after the dude threw the bag over the dumpster’s rim, he started cranking down the lid, which weighed hundreds of pounds. North saw what was happening, but stayed silent because it was a good dumpster and he didn’t want to compromise our source by getting caught. He just slithered down into the trash so the descending metal lid wouldn’t hit him. It’s a long story, but in the end I found a way to reverse the crank mechanism and lifted the lid a couple feet so North could squeeze out. But he didn’t come out––instead, he started passing me orange juice. I was like, “We gotta get outta here!” But North said, “Not without the food.”
Some all-time memorable finds include ten gallons of organic dark chocolate bars (estimated value of $1,700), an entire Christmas tree (with ornaments, colored lights, and strings of American flags), and way, way, way too much nonalcoholic beer (what to do with it?). I’ve brought home more than $3,000 worth of groceries in one night. Other nights, I’ve come home empty handed. Right now I live with my mom (at age 30, it’s true) and frequent some very cool trashcans. There’s this high-end pizza place that throws out a bag of pizzas every night, maybe $150 worth. Fennel sausage, goat cheese, vegan supreme––I’ve got a freezer jammed full. A handful of other dumpsters widen the diet. Without going into the details, my budget is well below the poverty line, and has been significantly lower in the past. Currently, I’m living solely on my poetry. I have no health insurance, no car, no predictable income, and I wear the same pair of pants everyday that I picked up for four bucks at a thrift store in northern Minnesota. Do I choose this lifestyle? Yes. Could I stop writing fulltime and find a job with a solid income? Almost certainly. But I couldn’t write at this level of intensity. And I couldn’t feel as alive. And as a human being, I believe I’m offering the best thing I have to offer.
You are a 2015 NEA Poetry Fellow, 2015 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow, and, as previously mentioned, the author of Dynamite, which won the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Your poems have also appeared in some of the top magazines in the country. Does this type of recognition and exposure feel counterintuitive to you as someone who is most at home “off the grid”?
At certain times I’ve been basically “off the grid.” For a couple years I worked at a camp deep in the Cascade Mountains. To get there you had to take a boat sixty miles up a lake, then bus another dozen into high-desert ravines. There was no internet, no phone, no roads in or out. While I lived there I slept in trees, snow caves, debris huts, and on mountain passes. I made fires with sticks. I tracked animals. I watched a bear play in an alpine lake––it stood on hind legs in waist-deep water, splashing the surface and bouncing at the knees not unlike a child. One time my brother and I camped in the mountains for a month and lived on a diet of rainbow trout, paired with bean flakes and rice. A couple times I bicycled across the country with gear I made from scraps found in factory dumpsters. I camped under bridges, in cornfields, on playgrounds, and stayed in the homes of strangers who took me in. The second trip was four months, 7,000 miles, and I did the whole thing on two hundred bucks. Another time I walked on foot across Croatia and Bosnia through the Dinaric Alps. Those times were pretty crazy. But most of my life is utterly benign. I wake up, I eat eggs, I write, I take a walk, I write some more. My biggest daily triumph is fingering through trashcans to avoid paying for groceries. It would be way too generous to say I’m most at home off the grid. In reality I’m most at home telling stories and imagining things. Writing is a kind of home for me. Writing and my family, those are my two homes.
Do you write fictional poems? Do you think you can eschew ‘the truth’ but still obtain a kind of capital T ‘Truth’ that is universal and thereby valid?
Poetry is cool because you get to play it both ways. Fiction writers are by definition making shit up. Non-fiction writers are by definition not making shit up. Poetry is like the invisible middle brother (like me, haha). Most of my poems are autobiographical, but that’s to make them feel real for me, and hopefully real for the reader. I also write a lot of persona poems that are largely fictional. But it’s a mistake to worry about fact and fiction in writing. When a thunderstorm rolls toward you across the shortgrass prairie, and the bolts begin to flash, and the earth begins to rumble, and all the wind is sucked out of the air for one calm moment just before the mammoth clap that triggers the cloudburst and downpour, you don’t wonder if that thunderhead bulging in the sky is truly violet, or some other shade of purple––bigger questions are shaking you.
Would you rather write a good poem for a great audience, or a great poem for no audience?
I’d rather write all kinds of great poems for all kinds of great audiences.
You and your brother Kai, who is a published poet and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, are also both filmmakers. Your collaborative 17 minute documentary Riding The Highline recently won the Award for Innovation in Documentary Short Film at the Napa Valley Film Festival. What was that whole experience like at the festival?
Napa was pretty rad. There was a ton of support for young filmmakers, which was surprising to me. I never thought Kai and I would be so warmly welcomed into the scene, and I never thought poetry would prove to be of such interest to the film world. Riding the Highline was screened with several multi-lingual films, and during the Q&A sessions, people wanted to ask about the language of poetry. One woman said she cried through our poems. Some audience members were able to quote lines after just one viewing, and wanted to know where they could read more work. On top of all that, winning the award was such a shock. Suddenly we were on stage, holding trophies of Wolf Family wine, stumbling through an acceptance speech, and then we were ushered backstage to hang with the stars.
Riding The Highline is about you and Kai hopping trains together, but it also includes audio of your poetry. Did you know that your poems would be a necessary part of the film before you made it?
Yeah, we did. The film was a longtime in the making. We tried to film it in 2011, but basically everything went wrong. The Highline is a four-day ride from Minneapolis to Seattle across the sweltering prairie to the west, so you need a ton of water. In 2011, our water jugs exploded in the chaos of catching a moving train, and we started the trip without any water (my poem “Birdcalls” is about that). We had to sip the dregs out of these tiny 4-ounce water bottles we gathered off the tracks when the train stopped at sidings. We also had to switch trains multiple times and almost lost our minds from sleep deprivation. We started seeing things walking toward us in rail yards. Finally, we got caught in the deserts of Eastern Washington and thrown off the train. Too many stories to tell. Anyway, we didn’t get enough footage to make the film, so we did the trip all over again in 2013. We only had three hours of battery power and had to plan our shots carefully. Plus, we were constantly ducking to avoid being seen, but we had good luck. After that ride we had a pretty good sense of what the film would look like. We edited a rough cut, revised it a few times, and ultimately decided to do another trip in 2014 to get certain shots we’d failed to capture in 2013. Altogether it was four years in the making, drawing from three separate train-hopping trips and a wealth of photography.
Hopping trains has a deep, folkloric history in the United States, and certainly speaks to a kind of ‘outlaw’ lifestyle. Is this a fair characterization? How does it apply/not apply to you and Kai?
Our mom and dad are both Lutheran pastors, and while pastors aren’t ‘outlaws,’ they’re sort of outside the community. They support the community, but don’t get to be part of it. Kai and I grew up with that example of service, that life outside the world. We also moved a couple times, which killed a lot of childhood friendships. Kai and I relied on each other and became best friends. I relate to the feeling of being outside the world more than to being an outlaw within it.
Regarding the folkloric history in the United States, trains have simultaneously represented the dream of the West, and the death of that dream by the hands of capitalism and greed. Kai and I grew up touching some of that huge contradiction: every summer our family drove west from Minnesota to spend time at a Lutheran retreat center called Holden Village in Washington State. On the way, we camped in the Badlands, the Black Hills, and on the Bitterroot River in Montana. Those trips felt so wild and exciting. We scrambled up boulder fields at Devil’s Tower, bridge-jumped in Missoula, and listened to buffalo breathe in North Dakota’s Painted Canyon. At Holden Village, our parents taught Bible study while we explored the ranges, drinking ice-cold water right out of the cascading creeks. Those days were free of money and law. We might as well have been animals. Ironically, our favorite place to play was on the orange tailing piles of the abandoned copper mine––a wasteland that continues to pollute the region. We used sheets of metal as sleds to glissade the huge slopes, covering ourselves in a toxic dust and plunging in the freezing river to wash it away. Those childhood trips were full of these western contradictions: wildness and its inevitable death when you try to control it; the breathless beauty of the land and the endless abuse of it; the old dream of going west and the arrival that inherently destroys what was originally sought; and so on. Kai and I grew up loving the lands of the west and the journey across that powerful country, yet also witnessed ceaseless manifestations of its extinction. Those trips with our parents planted the seeds for the train hopping that was to come.
Does filmmaking influence your writing or is it the other way around?
I’ve been making films for twice as long as I’ve been writing poetry, and that background has definitely influenced my writing. My imagination is primarily visual-spatial, and deeply reliant on the five senses. I’m not an abstract guy. I think in textures and odors and rhythms and motions and three-dimensional shapes. Film immerses you with image and sound, but if you’re patient, poetry immerses you even further by inviting you to finish the image and music in your mind. It can help you conjure all five senses more deeply––and not just while you’re reading, but in your life as well. We don’t really know the range of what can happen when film and poetry are combined, because it’s still such a young form.
Can you think and create as filmmakers without including space for your poems? Can you envision a film completely devoid of your written poetry?
I’ve been making films since I was ten, and only a couple recent films have featured my poetry. In 2012 I made a feature-length hybrid-style film about dumpster diving that was part interview, part documentary, part experimental, and used a little poetry. But Riding the Highline is a big leap forward in its integration of poetry, and I’m super excited to see where it leads.
I’m working on my first collection of poetry, which has more of the high adventure you find in Dynamite, plus a wider range of storylines entailing wilderness survival and staying in the homes of strangers while traveling. Stylistically, it’s more diverse, including two narrative threads told in personas. New poems delve further into family issues, while drawing on my obsession with human evolution. It’s a daunting project and it haunts my mind. Wish me luck! Plus, Kai and I are already storyboarding more films in the vein of Riding the Highline––so keep a lookout!
A Selections of Poems by Anders Carlson-Wee
My brother hits me hard with a stick
so I whip a choke-chain
across his face. We’re playing
a game called Dynamite
where everything you throw
is a stick of dynamite,
unless it’s pine. Pine sticks
are rifles and pinecones are grenades,
but everything else is dynamite.
I run down the driveway
and back behind the garage
where we keep the leopard frogs
in buckets of water
with logs and rock islands.
When he comes around the corner
the blood is pouring
out of his nose and down his neck
and he has a hammer in his hand.
I pick up his favorite frog
and say If you come any closer
I’ll squeeze. He tells me I won’t.
He starts coming closer.
I say a hammer isn’t dynamite.
He reminds me that everything is dynamite.
I crept around the dark train yard
while my brother watched for bulls.
Two days deep into the Badlands
and all our water gone. We had a birdcall
for if you saw something and another
for if you heard. A silent yard eight strings wide
with a few junkers parked. The horizon
a dull burn. The rails lit dimly by dew.
I was looking for the water bottles
the conductors used and threw out the windows
with maybe a sip left inside them.
I found one by stepping on it.
I sucked it like a leech. I stumbled
up and down the ballast and found five more,
unbuttoning my shirt and nesting them
against my chest upright and capless.
We had the sandpiper for if you should run
and the flycatcher for if you should hide.
I can’t remember why we had the loon.
I crouched in the space between coal trains,
cradling the bottles and feeling the weight
of how little I had to spill.
I rubbed coal on my face. I felt crazy.
I thought about being found like this.
I tried to imagine what my story would be.
A version with my brother in it.
A version with no brother. I swear
I could smell rain a thousand miles away.
I could smell rain in the soot. I folded my hands
around my lips and made the gray ghost,
which told him where I was.
And also meant stay alert.
And also meant some other things
only owls understood.
The Low Passions
The Lord came down because God wasn’t enough.
He lies on sodden cardboard behind bushes
in the churchyard. Wrapped in faded red. A sleeping bag
he found or traded for. Dark stains like clouds
before a downpour. The stone wall beside him rising,
always rising, the edges of stone going blunt
where the choirboy climbs. He opens his mouth,
but nothing goes in and nothing comes out.
Like the sideshow man who long ago lost
his right testicle to the crossbar of a Huffy.
He peddles the leftover pain. The stitches clipped
a week later by his father, the fiberglass bathtub
running with color, the puffy new scar,
the crooked look of the pitted half-sack.
He tells me you only need one nut, and I want
to believe him. I want to believe he can still
get it up. I want to believe he has daughters, sons,
a grandchild on the way, a wife at home
in a blue apron baking. But why this day-old bread
from the dumpster, this stash of hollow bottles
in the buckthorn, this wrinkled can of Pabst?
The Lord came down because God wasn’t enough.
Because the childless man draws the bathwater
and cries. Because the choirboy never sings
as he climbs. Because the bread has all molded
and the mouths are all open. Open to the clotting air.
Homeless, anything helps. Anything. Anything you can
spare. God bless you, God bless you, God bless. God,
Lord God, God God, good God, good Lord very good God.
“Dynamite” and “The Low Passions” originally appeared in Ninth Letter. “Birdcalls” originally appeared in Blackbird.
Photo credits: Kai Carlson-Wee.
Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellow and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. His work has appeared in Narrative, New England Review, The Southern Review, AGNI, Best New Poets, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University. In collaboration with his brother Kai, he co-directed the poetry film Riding the Highline, which won the special jury prize for Innovation in Documentary Short Film at the Napa Valley Film Festival.
Christopher Locke is the Nonfiction Editor at SLICE. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The North American Review, The Southwest Review, Poetry East, 32 Poems, and The Literary Review, among many others. Locke’s essay/poetry collection about his travels through Latin America, Ordinary Gods, is due from Salmon Poetry (Ireland) in early 2017.