I’m excited to share the first installment of what I hope to grow into a SERIES of conversations with other artists. The idea is that this kind of “dual interview” format might allow us to dig a little deeper into questions of craft and “the work” of our work, and just be a fun way to connect.
Ollie’s work is incredible, and I’m super grateful that they agreed to do this (and create the pullquote graphics sprinkled throughout); my initial thought was that these would be relatively short, but of course we ended up with… a lot. But this whole conversation is so good, and I hope aspiring/emerging writers, poets, and/or just people interested in our work can find something useful in it.
Get Ollie’s book, Dead Dad Jokes, here. Get my book, Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough, here.
Finally, check out the pandemic-delayed-but-here-a-year-later Dead Dad Jokes release party on May 19 at the Strike Theater in Minneapolis! The show will also feature Neil Hilborn, TaneshaNicole, and Zach Goldberg!
SOME INITIAL THOUGHTS ON OUR BOOKS
KYLE: So I read Dead Dad Jokes in one sitting, and I can honestly say that it’s one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a reader. “Relatability” is a tricky thing, in that lots of us have death in our lives, and/or experience as caretakers, but none of us know 100% what anyone else is going through because all our relationships are different; I think you cover that in the book itself in a very honest way. But yeah, on some level, it was a powerful read because I just flat-out related to it. On another level, though, the book was so gripping to me because it’s just really good; of course, that’s subjective, but what I mean is that it checks boxes that I, personally, look for in poetry. I think us both coming from the world of slam is part of this, especially around rhythm/arc/structure stuff, the “containers” for big ideas, etc.
You mentioned this in our preliminary conversation, but there’s so much our work doesn’t share, and what it does share is often beneath the surface. You had mentioned how we both are interested in “digesting” and making sense of “big” concepts like war and death, often through storytelling and image-driven writing, as well as how we both resist perfectionism. I hadn’t thought too explicitly about that latter point, but it aligns with one observation I had: I think one thing we share is that while we care about “the work” that our writing does in the world, we’re maybe less interested in whether or not people “like” it. Please forgive me if this is just me, and I’m projecting, haha.
I guess I’m curious about how much you think about audience, and/or what the audience “gets” out of your work? I keep coming back to that idea of “the work” of a particular piece of writing, and am just curious how you relate, or don’t relate, or approach that concept.
OLLIE: First off, thanks so much for all of that nice stuff you said about my book! It means a lot especially coming from you, and I’m deeply honored that it resonated with you.
I think you are absolutely right about the aim of my writing in the world– I knew even before beginning to put Dead Dad Jokes together that it was going to be a potentially polarizing book for readers because of its intensity. But I think that intense honesty is really necessary if we’re ever going to get to a place in society where we actually have a healthy relationship with death, and where people actually know how to support other people through grief. Grief is an intensely lonely experience, one that I think was made even lonelier for me because of the fact that I was so young (24) and hardly anyone my age had a fricken clue what I was going through, both throughout the caretaking and throughout the grief after my dad died. I wrote Dead Dad Jokes to be the book I needed to read when my dad was dying; one that uses no euphemisms and holds nothing back. (Although, of course, I did hold some things back).
KYLE: I just love the audacity of writing a poetry book and also saying “no euphemisms.” I could see someone else raising an eyebrow at that, but that attitude/approach really does come through in the writing in a powerful way: there’s still metaphor, still lots of imagery and poetry “stuff,” but it all serves to illuminate rather than obscure.
OLLIE: Absolutely– there are plenty of books out there about death that are very euphemistic/distancing, and that just wasn’t my aim for this project (and if that turns some people off, that’s fine). That being said, I did put a lot of thought and intention into what other folks might be able to get out of this book. I think particularly as someone who was brought up through poetry in a slam tradition, I think about the audience a ton. I often say things to my students like “You can write for yourself alone to process something, but if you decide to share that writing with an audience, you need to think about why and what you’re bringing to the space.” By which I mean that I don’t believe in sharing poems that don’t make sense, that don’t offer anything to the audience. A poem is a conversation of emotion– you give energy to the room, the room (or reader) gives some back, which is how we grow through our stories. It’s always a mutual exchange.
For me, the “point” of poetry is to give someone a feeling, connect through our stories, etc. If you’re not thinking of the audience before you share (and to me that pretty much always looks like editing for clarity, both linguistically and emotionally), I think you do a disservice to that exchange and to the conversation the poem is trying to create.
Honestly, this is one of my first big projects where I really cared about the macro-message of the book; a lot of my work tends to focus on that emotional exchange, empathy building, etc, but this was the first project I really thought “I’m writing this book because it matters and because I want to change our culture and the way we talk about death.” During my dad’s dying process and after he died, I read a lot of work by Caitlin Doughty, who, for folks who don’t know, is a wonderful mortician and death-positive educator. I think while reading her work and learning more about death positivity, I realized how much death and dying is commercialized, medicalized, and removed from our lives–even though it’s all around us and we’re literally all going to experience it.
KYLE: Ohhhh I also read Doughty’s From Here to Eternity a few years ago, and it really was one of those rare paradigm-shifting books for me, something that shined a light on something I thought I already understood, challenging me to think much more deeply about it.
OLLIE: I completely agree! I first read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and it totally had that same effect on me too– And it also inspired me to get into the nitty gritty (I keep thinking about how she talks about the family being able to push the button that starts the cremation process for their loved one, and being able to watch the cremation process begin). I really wanted to be able to put out a realistic portrayal of what being a caretaker for my dad was like– so often media portrays “natural” death (like death from disease) happening in a hospital, but most people are actually happiest and most comfortable dying at home. As much as I wanted this book to say “look, look at my pain, look at our pain,” I also really wanted people to take away that I deeply respect the way my father chose to die, and in a just society, I think many more of us will choose to die at home and will choose to handle the corpses of our loved ones.
I think I’m getting a little long-winded here, so I’ll leave it at “corpses of our loved ones” for now lol.
I would also love to turn that question back to you– I know you’ve written pretty extensively in Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough, as well as before and outside of it, about the relationship of art and activism, and how art can support activism but isn’t the end-all-be-all of the “work.” (Tbh, you revolutionized the way I thought about my own art in conversation with activism). What do you hope readers will get out of your work? How do you hope it will mobilize them?
KYLE: Like you, I also think a lot about audience. I think about what it means to create radical, anti-authoritarian art through a publisher whose popularity is not driven by me or that style of content, if that makes sense. I honestly love the idea of riding the coattails of Neil, Rudy, Sabrina, Andrea, and everyone else, and maybe getting to do some subversive stuff along the way. One goal of the book is to serve as a “gateway drug,” so to speak, into abolitionist politics, especially for readers, Button fans, etc. who may be new to the concept. So there are poems that take that on directly, poems that take that on indirectly, and a reading list at the very end of the book for people looking to learn more.
Of course, the whole book isn’t about abolition, but it’s a useful stepping stone toward the larger project of the book. For me, the book is about exploring the role of art and artists in resisting authoritarianism, but while that’s a super compelling elevator pitch to me, and maybe a dozen other people, I know it isn’t necessarily the “hook” that it could be. So I’m thinking about how the work can explore that question, without that question always being foregrounded—content about narrative and storytelling, about community and mutual aid, about cooperation and collaboration—all that gets to that primary question, but hopefully in a way that might appeal to people who aren’t already interested in the topic. Maybe that’s someone who happened to see “ten responses to the phrase ‘man up’” ten years ago and liked it, or someone who just happens to be on Button’s email list, or someone who just saw the art and the sci-fi concept and thought it looked cool.
Ricardo Levins Morales talks about how “the soil is more important than the seeds.” I don’t see this book really doing “seed work:” mobilizing people around a specific campaign, or changing anyone’s life in any direct way; I do see it, however, contributing to the fertilization of the soil: asking questions about fundamental concepts related to authority, power, and resistance, and hopefully being one more piece of the puzzle, one more tool in the toolbox (to use a bunch of different metaphors at once) for readers growing into their politics.
OLLIE: I think that is awesome and brilliant, and you’ve definitely succeeded there. I think Not a Lot of Reasons is a great entry point for folks and offers gentle but direct avenues for how we can work together towards a better world.
ON CONCEPTS AND HOOKS
KYLE: Lots of poetry books have “thesis statements,” recurring motifs or general themes they’re interested in, but we both wrote books that are really driven by their concepts. In slam spaces, I often think about the idea of “hooks,” the organizing principle of a particular piece of writing, or “the thing that makes your love poem different from all the other love poems.” One question that comes to mind (and it’s kind of an “inside-baseball” poetry nerd question): I’m curious about how your experience in the slam world, and the specific things that slam audiences look for, has impacted your writing, even when you’re not slamming.
OLLIE: Hell yes, great question. I remember the first time I was on a slam team, I brought in some poems for a chapbook we were writing as a team, and Sam Van Cook (our wonderful coach at the time) told me that even page poems have to be about something. 18-year-old me was so surprised! I couldn’t, just, like, write a bunch of nonsense from my soul (my soul, Sam, how could you edit my soul??) and call it good? In the literal decade since, I’ve become a staunch advocate for the “thesis” in almost any poem, page or stage (which, honestly, to me, don’t have that much separating them). I describe it to my students as a one-sentence takeaway that an audience member would tell to their friend after a show, like “I really loved that poem that was about how the poet’s dad was an alcoholic and it made their grief around his death really complicated.”
KYLE: That is all very controversial! I mean, I agree with it, with the caveat that of course anyone *can* write whatever they want; I get that you’re making a deeper argument about the responsibility of the artist in context, in community. One way I’ve processed that tension is thinking about the “thesis statement” as a tool, not a rule. But it’s a very powerful tool; could you expand on that idea?
OLLIE: Absolutely– and I’m all here for people writing what they want to and using poetry in a way that suits them. I love the “tool, not a rule”– there are also definitely poems without a “thesis” that I think are incredibly brilliant. I guess I would think about it kind of like the “Rule of Thirds” in visual art– you don’t need to use it, but your composition is probably going to be better for it the majority of the time.
But to expand–why do I believe so firmly in having poems that are rooted in something concrete and easy to identify? One, it has to do with poems as conversations– it’s not a conversation if the person you’re talking to can’t understand what you’re saying. Which means that your poem probably isn’t going to be very effective at connecting. Two, I just really hate how some (I said some, Dear Reader, so you can still like whoever you like) “academic” poets write poems that are (often intentionally) convoluted, difficult to understand, etc. If I have to look up words in a dictionary to “get” your poem, it’s not for me. If I have to re-read it 10 times searching for a meaning, it’s not for me. And I think so many of these academic poets have gotten away with this unthoughtful, elitist way of writing for so long because the audience/reader automatically assumes that the author is the authority, and that if a poem doesn’t make sense, the reader is just “too stupid” to get it. Here’s a secret: you’re not stupid. In my opinion, the poet has a responsibility to guide you through their work (of course, to a reasonable extent), and if they’re asking me to listen, I sure as hell want their intention to be that I understand.
To use a metaphor, if the emotional connection of the poem is a “gift,” the poet is choosing how to wrap that gift for you. A poem with a strong thesis that’s easy to understand and connect to is like giving someone a gift wrapped with a single piece of tape (or even, like, sticking that shit in a bag). You have to do the work of opening the gift (listening, paying attention, imagining), but it’s easy. Other poems? (“But I want it to be mysterious!”) It’s like the poet took a roll of duct tape and used the entire roll, circling it around the gift again and again, and now they’re expecting you to pick it apart using just your fingernails.
All of this being said, I know that there are a lot of different cultural ways of writing that definitely don’t conform to this, and there are many poems I personally enjoy that are less linear, structured, etc, so I’d love to echo again that “tool, not a rule.”
KYLE: Once again, I really appreciate the hot takes here. One of the biggest pieces of cut content from my book was a whole section on the different “functions” of poetry. It’s like, it can be about emotional connection with an audience, but it can also be about pure self-expression; it can also be propaganda; it can also be a hustle to make money; it can also be about pushing the boundaries of language or whatever—and on and on. And a single poem doesn’t have to do everything; part of the argument was that all these different functions can all be valid, whether we appreciate the work that emerges from them or not. So on one level, I can see the value in those “mysterious” poems, or those “I’m just doing what I want and don’t care if you get it” poems, even as I also generally agree with you that that kind of work isn’t for me. And whether people agree or disagree with all these points, I think it’s healthy and generative to think about them, to grapple with them.
OLLIE: I totally hear this, and I deeply appreciate that you’ve approached this question from such a validating place. But for real, I do agree that poetry can have a lot of different purposes, and they’re all legit (even though I just spent a long time arguing for a specific purpose, but you know, I contain multitudes).
KYLE: Another poetry nerd question: I’m thinking about overarching conceptual frameworks and how they can be both limiting (all the poems have to be about the thing!) and liberating (it can push us to write about the thing in new ways). Was that a tension you felt at all, or something you grappled with, while writing your book?
OLLIE: This is also a great question. I love, love, love writing tons of poems about the same thing. Way back, Danez Smith was coaching a team I was on and gave the fabulous advice that you should just write about what you need to/want to write about, as many times as it takes. And I think it’s super freeing, so you don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel with every single poem, and you have permission to explore it from all different angles. That being said, one thing I did struggle with while working on Dead Dad Jokes was how I included queerness and transness. I am just, like, so gay, and it was/is really important to me that readers understand that trans people watch their dads die too, trans people experience grief, trans people are real people who experience all of the shitty parts of life that cis people also have to deal with. This book started out with maybe 20-25 extra poems that didn’t make the final cut– and while I appreciate the clarity of vision and arc that it gave the book, I think it can sometimes give my queerness and transness a secondary role to the grief, when really I’m a person who is queer and trans, so those things can’t be separated out.
KYLE: That note about the 20-25 poems that got cut is fascinating, because while I hear what you’re saying about thematic clarity, I will say that the poem Gay Love Is The Only Thing Saving Me really jumped out at me as a kind of “centerpiece” of the book, a poem that brings everything together, even if, on some level, it breaks from that “pure” thematic clarity to walk down a slightly different path. Which I guess is just to say that I think some of what you’re saying got cut is still very present, very animating, in what remains.
OLLIE: I am so happy to hear that– I definitely tried to use that poem as a bit of a Venn Diagram to sneak in more gay shit. A semi-related question for you: I feel like in Not a Lot of Reasons (and forgive me if I’m wrong here), the speaker is pretty intentionally distanced from being a “real” person (we’re on the moon, we don’t get a ton of personal info about the speaker[s], etc). I’ve never actually really written from the viewpoint of someone who’s not me, especially not for an extended period. How was the process for creating these characters for you?
I see slam as something that so often tends to be so rooted in the specific personal, where the speaker and the author are so often the same thing. How and when did you choose that fictionalization was the right way to go for this project? How did you draw the lines for “me” vs “not me” when creating these characters? What do you think you’ve gained/lost by using characters instead of plain autobiographical poetry?
KYLE: I mean, I kind of cheated in that Nary is basically just me, haha. So I get to dodge some of those questions about characterization and voice and identity and distance. It’s possible that I’m too close to the material to really be able to step back and analyze some of those deep questions, but in my head, the “writing in-character” element of the book wasn’t actually that important; it was more just a symptom of wanting to write a sci-fi poetry book that took place on another world, when I live on this one. So I had to make someone up to be the primary voice, but it’s still basically just me.
I guess one more serious point here is how the book is multivocal. It’s never really made clear who is delivering each poem—a bunch of them are likely from Nary, but others are just random characters that Nary and Gyre come across on their journey. There are subtle hints, here and there, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter who is the speaker in any given poem; the thing that is important is the larger point about the power of a bunch of voices, a kind of impressionistic portrait of this society, with no one word-of-god or authority… so the form of the book, to me at least, aligns with its content.
ON SPOKEN WORD AND SLAM AS COMMUNITY, NOT JUST BOOKS OR VIRAL VIDEOS
KYLE: Our books both came out via Button Poetry—Dead Dad Jokes back in Summer ‘21, and Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough in Spring ‘22. Beyond that connection, though, one thing readers may not realize is that we were both part of the same local slam scene here in the Twin Cities. I say “were” because it’s relatively quiet right now, partly (though I don’t think entirely) because of the pandemic. But one thing I always appreciated about you is that, even apart from your poetic work, you were intentional about making space for others, and contributing to the growth of others (via slam coaching, workshopping, online writing prompts, event organizing, and beyond). I guess I’d like to ask kind of a visionary question: what would you like to see in the local literary/arts/slam scene(s) over the next decade? That doesn’t have to just be a “local” question, but I think it can sometimes be a useful starting point.
OLLIE: Kyle! You are literally my community-involvement idol, and it’s in part because of your work that I’ve stayed so involved with my poetry community throughout all of these years. So many of slam spaces are volunteer run. I can count on literally one hand the primary organizers who made slam spaces possible for me, for years. And I recognize that I have benefited so much from their free labor, so I have been committed to dedicating a hopefully equal amount of time to paying it back in kind. Reciprocal relationships are only reciprocal if both people give. Otherwise it’s just taking, and draining someone for your own growth (which maybe sounds like a pretty brutal take, but I don’t think that people see the often invisible labor that keeps these things moving). I am also deeply glad that many of those people who ran slams for free for a decade have now stepped down (you can’t donate your labor forever, especially when your community isn’t taking on their fair share and supporting that work).
One of the things I love about Not a Lot of Reasons is that you really drive home that spaces like slams and cyphers are places we create together. When I was coming up in the scene, I learned not only how to write and perform poems, but also how to organize space and hold events. I think newer folks have continued to learn how to write, but the organizing piece has seemed to fall to the wayside (maybe because they haven’t been able to hold any events for like two years). I would really love to see poets of this next “generation” step up and become leaders in these spaces. It’s been heartbreaking for me to see so many slam and community spaces dissolve during the pandemic (and like you said, honestly pre-pandemic as well). I know there’s a ton that’s draining on people right now, and/also I’d love to see new spaces crop up again as people get more energy. I think telling our stories, and telling our stories through poetry specifically, is a sincerely vital part of our communities, and it does a ton of good. Plus, being part of a community is fun and rewarding! When I first started poetry, I didn’t do it for the “art” or for a career– I did it because I liked the people who were there. And I really miss being part of those super genuine community spaces.
I’d also love to turn this question back to you and get your thoughts, and to add a bit that I’m curious about. I know that you have done a lot of youth work in your time as a poet, and have been pretty involved with orgs like TruArtSpeaks (who is awesome, and our dear readers should check them out). I personally don’t work with youth a ton because I swear like a sailor (and honestly prefer not to edit any of my work to be “appropriate,” since I think youth can handle hearing about most of the realities of life as long as they have the support to process it, but that’s a tangent)– How do you see this book fitting in with your youth work? You include several kind of “how to”s in the book– were youth in your mind as a potential audience while writing it?
KYLE: First, I just really appreciate how you answered that question about physical space, and spoken word not just as a kind of writing, but as a community-driven phenomenon. Open mics, poetry slams, writing circles, afterschool poetry clubs, lit mags, talent shows—all these spaces, while all imperfect, still hold so much potential, and I hope we see them bounce back.
But to answer your question, yeah, this book was also an excuse to document, not so much my actual work with youth over the years, but some of the lessons learned during that process, some tips and tools that have been useful to me, that were very much developed while doing that work. Another big hope for this book is that it can find its way into the hands of high school students and teachers. The book isn’t marketed as “YA” or whatever, and I think a lot of the “writing tips and tools” elements of the book are appropriate for all ages, but that’s an audience that is very much the focus of the outreach work I have to do this year.
Going back to what we were talking about in terms of “thematic clarity,” I think it can be risky to say that the book is about exploring the role of art in resisting authoritarianism, while also saying it’s a book for emerging/aspiring poets, sharing practical process advice. But I’m super interested in where those two threads intersect. You mentioned the importance of telling our stories, and I know we both understand that as something that goes so far beyond a platitude. Telling our stories is life-and-death work, for both individuals and societies. When there’s a dominant narrative about a people, or a place, or an idea, especially one that is violent, counter-narrative work (and it is work) is fundamentally important.
OLLIE: I appreciate that a lot– I also really love those tips and lessons that are in the book, and I’ve actually bookmarked most of them to use with my students in future years! So thanks for that resource!
ON GENRE AND MIXED MEDIA APPROACHES
OLLIE: One thing we haven’t talked much about yet is involving different forms of media in our art. When I wrote Dead Dad Jokes, I also wrote and recorded (in my bedroom, of course) an EP of songs that was released with the book. As someone who is both a musician and a poet, I feel like each of those mediums is effective for communicating, but in different ways.
I also know that you are a person who has made music forever, and your book has illustrations and different forms of writing (particularly thinking about the scenes formatted as plays) as well. What do you feel like the different forms of media add to Not a Lot of Reasons? Related to that, how do you feel like your experience with music has influenced your poetry?
KYLE: This is another question where I could say something deep, but it’s really just about having fun, doing new stuff, and trying to create something cool. Casper Pham’s art is so incredible; that collaborative process really reminded me of working with producers; like, when I’d get a beat to rap over, and the beat would be so good that I’d go and rewrite the song to make it better.
Beyond the art, the other non-poem elements of the book were really just the result of, like you said, different forms doing different kinds of work. I don’t know if I can really put my finger on why certain ideas become poems, vs. songs, vs. essays, vs. dialogues; there’s maybe something in there about nuance and subtlety and their relation to form and structure, how forms carry ideas at different “speeds,” and how certain messages are more powerful when they’re shouted, and other messages are more powerful when they emerge unexpectedly from the text… but I generally just go with my gut, and write what I feel like writing.
And yeah, a lot of my approach as a poet is rooted in my experience as an emcee. And to me, that’s primarily about context, not content. It’s like, rap lyrics can be—and often are—as subtle, or challenging, or lyrical, or innovative—as the poems you’ll find in prestigious journals. The biggest real difference, in my experience, is more about the physical spaces we inhabit as musicians. They’re not the pages of prestigious journals. They’re not even slam spaces, where a seated audience, there for poetry, is intently listening to you. They’re clubs. They’re festivals. They’re chaotic stages where you’re opening for someone and everyone’s just drinking and having conversations and you have twenty minutes to get them to pay some attention to you, maybe just so you can sell three CDs and have money for some Perkins after the show (I’m thinking about my 20s). You feel the urgency, the arrogance, the humility, the gallows humor, all at once. And that’s an energy I think I’ve carried with me.
Could I throw that question back to you? Do you feel your poet muscles and musician muscles flexing in different ways, at different times, or do they kind of all work together in your creative process (maybe that’s a weird metaphor)?
OLLIE: I reeeaally feel that “sell three CDs” bit lol (which was a LOT of my first 5 years of doing music).
I totally agree that each medium can bring the same levels of innovation, etc– that being said, for me, I treat music and poetry super differently in my own creative process. Music is something I do in a very easy way– like, I wouldn’t even go so far as to say I’m “good” at music (not in a self-deprecating way, just like, I think I know maaaybe 10 chords on guitar). All of my rules/tools about “thesis,” considering the audience, etc., I don’t think about hardly at all when writing music (hypocrite alert!). Most of my songs are funny and go through minimal to no editing– so I guess if poetry is a place I work, music is a place I play. And I think being able to play in grief, play with my grief, was really healing for me, and I felt like it was a cool alternate connection point for folks who read the much more polished processing of that grief in the book.
THE APOCALYPSE AND ACTIVISM
OLLIE: Okay, quite the heading, but for real. One thing that really speaks to me from Not a Lot of Reasons is how easy it was for me to identify with a literally post apocalyptic society, and I feel like the past few years have given us a lot of Big Apocalypse Energy. I think you speak with such tenderness and humanity about surviving big transitions and forming small, local communities.
That being said, I unfortunately don’t see that mirrored a ton in real life– in fact, when I think of the activism community, I have an almost comical association with terrible infighting, bad power dynamics, and disregard for people’s humanity and journeys. (Which is to say, my experience with “activism” in college was not a particularly kind or productive one). Of course, you get into these conflicts a little bit in Not a Lot of Reasons, but I’m curious to hear you speak more on that. How did you approach nuance while writing Not a Lot of Reasons? How do you approach infighting, power dynamics, and disposability in your own work and communities?
KYLE: This is a perfect topic to close with, because I think it gets to the root of what I’m writing about, and also connects to your book. I mean, when you say “I think you speak with such tenderness and humanity about surviving big transitions and forming small, local communities,” that’s just about word-for-word something I could say about Dead Dad Jokes too.
We obviously can’t magically resolve the tension between “organizations are the only way to make progress on big, systemic problems” and “organizations are often awful” in this one conversation; I think it’s a tension we all just have to continually navigate. On some level, it goes back to the book’s title, Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough, which is kind of saying “yes, your cynicism is valid and well-earned; yes, people are generally awful; yes, most organizations are dysfunctional and sometimes even violent; and yes, there are enough cool people working together in cool organizations and collectives that we can win.
Part of the work is, to use a term that comes up over and over again in so many of my conversations, “finding your political home.” I’ve had bad experiences in organizations too, and I’ve had great ones. I just try to hold on to the great ones, and continue working with people who challenge me, and themselves, and who are deeply engaged in both doing the work and growing their capacity to do the work. Those people do exist! Maybe that’s not a very satisfying answer; something like “when things are bad, they’re bad, and when things are good, they’re good.” But in, like you said, apocalyptic times, I don’t think there’s any path toward survival that isn’t a collective one.
There’s so much more to say there, but in the interest of keeping this manageable, I will pivot to a final question for you, one that I think draws together a lot of what we’ve been talking about. I’m thinking about that word, “apocalypse,” and how it has meaning at both collective and personal levels. It’s maybe more often used to talk about big, civilization-ending destruction, but I’ve found it useful when exploring really personal, life-altering events too, where it’s less about the breadth of the trauma and more about the depth, if that makes sense. Your book is so “zoomed-in,” and so powerful because of that. I’m wondering if you’d have any interest in also zooming out, here, and making any connections between the ways you talk about grief in your book, and the way grief is present—or absent—in our world right now, between the pandemic, the climate crisis, and a thousand other overlapping crises.
OLLIE: That’s a great question– I do feel like grief is an apocalypse, and we are so often these days looking into the future and witnessing the infinite deaths of the futures we thought we would have. Maybe that sounds a little melodramatic, but I do think that part of why grief is so hard is because we have to say goodbye not just to a person or a thing, but to a billion versions of the future where they are no longer there.
A little bit of vulnerability here: I know it’s really trendy these days to use the word “grief” to apply to more than just death (breakups, big life changes, etc), and in some ways I agree, and in some ways, my heart just won’t accept it. I guess I’m here for grief being on a scale, but part of me still can’t help but feel really defensive about the word “grief,” and I think it’s in large part by how much my own grief surprised me. It was way, way, way bigger than I could have imagined– before my dad’s death, I might have used the word “grief” to describe one of my breakups; after his death, not a fricken chance. It’s like how I guess, technically, a kitten and a lion are both cats, but a kitten (probably) can’t rip out your jugular. I’m not trying to tell anyone else what to say, I guess I just think that sometimes, the scale of “grief” is so vastly different that “grief” actually becomes a metaphor; and I don’t think grief should be a metaphor.
That being said, I do have a lot of tenderness and compassion for the things people are experiencing right now, whether it’s grief from death or grief for the future or grief for our planet, and often, in my own body, these things do bring up similar feelings.
I’m not sure how much this answers the question, but watching my dad die really and truly made me know (not just think, but know) that I am going to die one day. It fundamentally shifted the way I think about life, the way I see other people– life often feels so structured, but it’s not. We’re all just a bunch of people who happen to be alive at the same time. Now I think about dying every single day– not in, like, a depressing way; I just know that I’m going to die. I know what watching someone die looks like. And I think the pandemic (and all of the other horrible stuff in the world) has brought a lot more people closer to that realization, to that full-body knowing.
I could say a million more things about grief (stay tuned for my next book), but I’ll close with something one of my friends told me: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.” So when I think about the amount of death we’re dealing with as a society, the amount of instability, the amount of disappointment and inconsistency, just try to remember that every time you’re grieving, it’s a reminder of your capacity to love. Even if we don’t know where we’re headed, or what’s next, we’ve got ourselves and this moment. So often grief asks us to take things day by day, minute by minute. To quote a good book, “…this isn’t my first end of the world . . . So tonight: Be real . . . Ask yourself, and ask each other: Of what future are these the wild, early days?”
Thanks again to Ollie for this fantastic conversation. Get Dead Dad Jokes here, and find more of Ollie’s work here.
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