In Conversation

our collective misunderstanding of others: ghost ocean talks with tony mancus


Ghost Ocean: Your chapbook Bye Land was published last year by Greying Ghost Press; this fall, Tree Light Books is publishing its counterpart Bye Sea. Can you tell us about your early ambitions with both projects and their relationship to each other?

Tony Mancus: When I originally started, I hoped to build some kind of equally weighted structure that would loosely wrap around the theme each title suggested. The two chapbooks are two halves to what is now a three halved whole (the relatively newly added third half alternates between weird lyrics and prose-poems and might be tied to zombies somehow). The full manuscript takes the title of what is now the first poem in Bye Sea, “The captain versus.” Which is a cheap play off Neruda, but I kind of hope it works to give a sense of position to the various speakers—the captain here as not lovestruck, as set against most things, but not loveless either, as wanting contact but constantly messing it up. I think in Bye Land that is a little more prevalent, especially with the I/You split that recurs there.
It started out with this idea of captaining—of the questing godlike figure that is generally male (and hugely entitled) but often a stand in for our excessive ambitions and sometimes emblematic of our collective misunderstanding of others/the inhabited and uninhabited world/selves. It’s no wonder there’s been so much written in this vein (a lot of it really wonderful) since there are so many directions to travel with it (bad puns kind of everywhere here and trope-de-dope, but…ugh, sorry). When this first began I’d recently finished a crappy MFA thesis and had begun to wander further afield from this voice that I’d been holding pretty fast to for a long time and this was really the thing that started to take shape then. The first pieces may have actually stemmed from trying to crib something out of Sarah Manguso’s The Captain Lands in Paradise. And later Joe Hall’s Pigafetta and Alison Titus’s The Sum of Every Lost Ship were both kind of hovering near me as I was revising some of the pieces.

In any case, I'm super happy that Bye Sea has landed in your hands and you've been tremendously helpful as an editor—I really dig the shop talk and being pushed a bit to sharpen things further. Could I ask you something–what sparked with this manuscript for you? And what do you think a chapbook length work should or could do?

GO: Bye Sea is a strange, surprising, violent, heartbreaking world. It’s not any old ocean or ship, and the characters, especially the captain, all seem slightly off-kilter. The world you’ve created feels like this one but tilted off its axis. I’m curious if that’s a conscious decision or something that was a byproduct of the work and its energy. I feel like Bye Sea could power a small town.

As I see it, the chapbook is a great medium for narrative projects, especially ones that have a strangeness or an audacity that might be harder to sustain in a full-length collection. I haven’t read many books that attempt a continuous narrative or outrageous, fictional world and feel as potent as chapbooks I might consider in the same vein. Dan Boehl’s Kings of the F**king Sea is the first exception I think of. One of my favorite chapbooks is Sugar Means Yes, a collaboration between Julia Cohen and Mathias Svalina published by Greying Ghost. The language is eerie and beautiful, and there’s this lovely, abstract way the language builds a narrative that’s simultaneously clear and elusive. I think you bring a similar approach to narrative in Bye Sea; you’ve a wealth of vivid, concrete images, but the timeline’s sort of fluid and there’s this clash between (some) poems that seem to aim for ambiguity on the surface but the language collectively points in a more decided direction. I think that tension brings a depth to the narrative that makes it more fun, and also more meaningful, each time I return to the work—there’s always another treasure to mine.

What chapbooks that you’ve read do you think helped define your sense of what a chapbook is or can be? What draws you to chapbooks?

TM: I’m blushing over here. I think a lot of it is subconsciously guided, but that gets scrambled and worked over. I want to be able to remain in wonder and hope that the poems create that type of space in peoples’ heads—but without making things uninhabitable.

Oh, Sugar Means Yes is so good! I really like pretty much everything that Carl touches, which might be creepy. I have no idea how he does everything he does with Greying Ghost. It’s astounding. I loved Samson Starkweather’s Self Help Poems, another Greying Ghost title, for what its mission was/is. Also, a little book put out by Double Cross Press—The Grave in The Wall, by Brandon Shimoda. Stunning work and its presentation is just astounding. Fossil—this collaboration between Friedrich Kerksieck and BJ Love, put out by Small Fires Press—is a bizarre and wonderful world. Run by Kim Gek Lin Short from Rope a Dope, a punch and a kiss. I guess what pulls me is a combo between books built of narrative and voice and ones that work well away from that—through image and fracturing. 

And I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t say anything about the chapbooks that we’ve made for Flying Guillotine. All of what we’ve seen (from open readings) and what we’ve published has informed my understanding of what can happen in the space of a small book. 

To be honest, though, what draws me to a lot of chapbooks is their thingyness. I think that well designed chapbooks can really work to build an outward structure that reinforces the world that’s being reconstructed in the poems. And what’s wonderful about them is that they’re portable and self-contained. That you can sit and read a chapbook on a train ride and read something complete that might kind of mess up your entire life and reshape your take on the world in the best possible ways. But that’s more about good poetry than it is chapbooks. But what’s amazing with chapbooks is that they could be anything from just this Xeroxed and stapled paper that was lifted from an office copy machine or it could be something that’s been built of handmade paper and letterpress printed and sewn together or it could be something you’re holding on your phone—there’s such a wide spectrum, but in all cases, the people writing and making them are totally invested in what they’re putting out there.

GO: I think that wide spectrum—the Xeroxed, the letterpressed, the sewn chapbook—is part of what makes it so wondrous to me. What does a chapbook look like? is not a question with a single answer. Plenty of small and even university presses put out really artistic perfect-bound books, but they’re sardines on my bookshelves; my chapbooks, on the other hand, are displayed in this little box—easy to thumb through and corners of different books overlapping or peeking out from one side or another. I’d feel like I was doing a disservice to the intricate production of those books if I left them sideways and single-file like my others. 

With your own writing, when do you know you’ve got a chapbook on your hands? How do you determine whether what you’re working on is ripe for chapbook form versus a full-length collection?

TM: Oh, I forgot to mention Little Red Leaves—one of their chaps has these slides built into the pages–like a little panel cut out where the slide fits in. Super cool! And they’re just so colorful, in design and content. Yeah—what to do with these little gems…we just put up a bunch of shelving in our living room to display some of the chaps—it does feel like a disservice to have them stacked together, but I do have a pile at my desk that are all bunched up. Might work to swap them out somehow. I love the fact that Berl’s is able to present books all face-out! I’m super excited to visit next time I get up to NYC.

But to your questions, it seems like I’ve got two or three modes of construction. One is where I’m trying to pile up a bunch of material tied around thematic stuff. This tends to be working with individual poems that are usually in the 1-3 page range, mostly single page, though. If I’ve got a large enough pile, then it’s something that I try to arrange into a full-length. And that’s a lot of paper shuffling and pacing. But given my track record with full-lengths, it seems like something there isn’t working quite right. I do think this is how both halves of Captain Vs. came about. 

More recently, I’ve been working with a single document that I keep writing into which later becomes something that I pull from—so it feels like it’s collected by time and accretion more than anything else. But what makes this cohere is that usually my head is working mostly in a particular mode until the channel changes. Possession is one of my biggest fears, but it seems like it’s also sometimes how I feel like work gets set down. The notion of duende and where material comes from is really appealing to me, but also super scary. I mean, just sitting down and writing will almost always get you somewhere, but it helps when there’s a kick that’s charging the words—however that’s arrived at. 

With the big collected documents I can sort of see where the lines marking different approaches/obsessions are happening. Or if I’ve got two docs running, one will be toward a particular goal (which is how the new section of Captain came together), and the other will be a more general pile. This makes organizing a tad messy, and then I cannibalize things, too, which just leads to a boatload of version confusion. But it seems fairly organic and I don’t really mind getting lost in that.

Lastly, and most recently, there is something like what happened for Diplomancy, where I had a single long poem that originally was set out much closer together, and that I felt could use room to breathe. That’s how I’ve been trying to build chapbooks lately, with varied success—so it’s largely dependent upon my method of getting work down, I think. 

To address the core of the question, though, I think that chapbooks are these small self-contained wholes that can often be built together to make a larger fabric. Sort of like a weird panel blanket, which would be the full-length collection—a whole cloth that’s got different compartments built into it. In some cases the whole cloth is really more continuous, and less divided, and may be arrived at with significantly less stitching. But the idea of a thing built out of smaller things, of chaptering, or of rooms in a house, that sort of structural/construction metaphor seems to help me tremendously when I’m thinking about this. 

GO: Do you think poets tend to think of their writing processes as being more project-specific than other-genre writers? I’m thinking of your “modes of construction” and why some ways to approach a poem leave us empty-handed and others feel distinctly tuned to the content or style or some other characteristic of the work. In addition to “modes of construction,” maybe form is another way to think of this. Attempting to tackle a subject or idea in a certain form only to find a different form is what gives it life. As if Poem X were stalled in a sestina, but would come to life in couplets. Or vice-versa. What kind of a relationship to do you have with form? And how does that manifest in Bye Sea?

TM: I don’t think that it’s something that’s terribly particular to poets, though we tend to have a bit more at our disposal in terms of form. Though there’s definitely some interesting stuff happening with reconceiving of the formal structures in fiction. Seriously, a lot of this feels like divining. And really it’s just tinkering and temperament, I think. I love what line breaks do and I also like imposing really weird constrictions sometimes, like in 5 or 8 words I need to find another word that falls into the same sound category as this other word. Often, this is happening without me thinking too much about it. A lot of the time things go through different incarnations before I feel like they’ve found their proper bones. Like “Heated Madras,” for instance—that’s existed in about 6 different forms and I think, with your help, it’s finally found one version that works really well. I also have another version that’s in prose blocks that’s fairly recently rebuilt and I think that works in a different way, so I just tried to do some homophonic translating to make it keep similar sounding content but to morph it toward that shape a bit more. But I don’t know if any one form is ultimately “right,” and I really like being able to play with the possibilities and what kind of multiplicity of meaning can happen in the breaks. 

GO: I think, in a broad sense, I know a poem will stick with me when my first thought is “Damn, I wish I would have written that.” There are countless poems that I love and admire, but then there are poems that either pursue a question I’m obsessing over or maybe they’ve found a way to answer it that knocks me off my feet—poems that, if you collected enough, if the soul was a physical place, that’d be where they belong. Does that make sense? Do you have a poem that you feel that way about? For me, the one that comes to mind first is Bob Hicok’s “Pilgrimage.” It breaks my heart, but in this way that I always hope to have my heart broken.

TM: Oh man, that poem. I wasn’t familiar with it, but yes. Yes. I totally understand that and feel the same way a lot—sometimes there are pieces that I just admire for what’s going on in them, or how they tackle an issue or thought, but I know that I’d never be able to approach in this body and head that I’ve got. And they’re like paintings or some kind of other art that’s external to me. Something I know is beautiful and that I can sit and stare at for a good long while. But then there are pieces that I want to kind of just consume me – and they tend to be things that are living in the same place and time and context that I do. I don’t know if that makes sense, but yeah, Bob Hicok tends to make me feel that way often. And Terrance Hayes—I often I wish I could steal his moves. Pretty much anything that Mathias Svalina does just kind of kicks me right in the chest, and Ana Bozicevic does things that I can’t fully comprehend but that really just make me want to cry and laugh and scream. Oh, and jesus, Cindy King. And Sommer Browning. There are so many people who I just wish I could inhabit their heads for a stretch and I feel like the world would make better sense. In terms of individual poems that do this, I’d say Lorca’s “Romance Sonambulo” is the first thing that comes to mind that really just crushes me. There’s something to things that read like prayer, but godlessly so, that make me wish I believed in things better. 

GO: A godless prayer—I think you’ve named it for me. The urgency, vulnerability, the questioning, and petitioning. Always something in opposition. In Bye Sea, there's a constant struggle, a god-like figure lurking. Would you say that moments in Bye Sea are godless prayers? Can a god or god-thing exist in a poem and it still be a godless prayer? 

TM: I’d say in a way they might be trying to push toward that, but yeah, since there’s a figure that’s built into these pieces I don’t know that it’s really in the realm of godlessness. But I do think there’s something to that struggle built into the book—the speaker(s) are trying to reconcile the facts of the world in front of them against the facts that are built into what’s been told to them about the world. Reality set against belief, or the varied set of beliefs that one encounters moving through the world. I feel like I’m consistently grappling with this issue in poems and in life—that there’s so much that remains unknown but we’re constantly trying to explain to ourselves why in hell it is that we’re here. Both religion and science fail and we fall back on both of these things to try and set the world right and both offer something substantial. It’s funny that they’re often set at odds with each other and they’re both telling stories that are trying to impose reasons onto all these things that are unexplainable. 

GO: One poem from Bye Sea, “Bottle Heavy,” we’ve published in this issue of Ghost Ocean. In it you write “The truth is, my ship doesn’t move so much, but I am afloat within it.” and “What’s buoyed inside me has a name.” The ship’s crew, their vessel, the waters that carry them—these lines get blurred and you dream up some lovely images and ideas, especially when the language of one realm splashes into another. Could you talk about that overlap? How these spaces and the language crash into each other?

TM: I’ve been living on a houseboat this past weekend as we’ve been back and forth over some of these ideas, and oddly I think that’s been helpful in trying to get me to a place where I can better comprehend the impact of water. Which is bullshit, but also something that’s physical and somewhat truer than the piling up of language. I’ve been constantly fighting with my inner ear when I’m on solid ground. It feels like the whole world is a thing that’s moving, but really it’s just my head playing with me. I mean, the world is a moving thing, but when that becomes something that’s real, beyond just the idea of this rotating rock rifling through space it’s pretty bizarre. I think in the course of the manuscript there are numerous places where the world that exists is in conflict with the world that the people inhabiting the poems face. And that’s something that’s consistent in my experience of the world and in poems. Maybe these are all false equivalencies, but the “reality” that’s being dealt with in the poems isn’t far from the rock that we’re all spinning on. And I hope that the things that pull on me in the space of the waterlogged compartment that I hang around in regularly aren’t too far removed from the spaces that others inhabit daily. Or if they are, at least they’re not totally illegible.