Books In Conversation
Poems from the Dark Side: JOE FLETCHER with TONY TRIGILIO
(Brooklyn Arts Press, 2018)
Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) Book 2
(BlazeVOX Books, 2016)
When Joe Pan, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Brooklyn Arts Press, with whom I was in the final stages of preparing my book The Hatch for publication, suggested I do a co-interview with Tony Trigilio, whose work Joe thought shared a sensibility with mine, I was intrigued. Tony’s Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), the second of a multi-volume project in which he composes one sentence—crafted into verse—for each of the 1,225 episodes of the gothic soap opera that aired on ABC from 1966–1971, had been published recently by BlazeVOX. I had never heard of the show Dark Shadows, nor had I met Tony or encountered his other work. So it was a revelation to immerse myself into his world.
In his “Previously in The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1” prefatory section, Tony writes that the project has become “more consciously an experiment in autobiography, documenting my life as I watched (and documented) episode after episode of Dark Shadows,” a show that he absorbed daily beside his mother when he was a toddler, and whose central character, the 18th-century vampire Barnabas Collins, haunts Tony’s earliest memories and dreams. This struck a chord in me, since the poems in my collection also engage with the gothic tradition and the terrors of childhood.
I immediately recognized in Tony a kindred spirit by virtue of such a project, not to mention his—and the show’s—interest in the late 18th century. I too number among my earliest memories watching horror shows and films long before I should have, though I was older than Tony was during this exposure. And these memories are also associated with my mother, who was the prime facilitator of this transgression into the dark shadows; so strict in most other respects, she inexplicably allowed me to watch Tales from the Darkside—a particular episode of which, “Inside the Closet,” has indelibly marked me—and would even rent VHS tapes of the Friday the 13thand Halloweenseries, among other R-rated films, from our public library. Thus, I sensed Tony and I would have a lot to talk about.
Joe Fletcher: Tony, thanks for your haunting book. There’s a great line break early on that for me seems emblematic of your project: discussing director Lela Swift’s penchant for premature burials, you write, “to be buried alive, a fear that made me / afraid to go to sleep in 1972, age six.” This book strikes me as being an exploration of the “fear that made [you].” I want to ask first about the origins of this project. I’m curious about your early memories of watching the show with your mother. Was there discussion of it between you once you did have language? (I love that she smoked Salems while watching it, given her—and your—later interest in the Salem witch trials.) And did anything in particular prompt you toward this project, and the particular form it takes? Were there other attempts to engage with the show/your memories of it (beyond your fourth-grade creative writing journal)?
Tony Trigilio: I appreciate your kind words on the book, Joe. I felt the same upon reading The Hatch. Within the first couple of pages, it was clear I was in the presence of a kindred spirit influenced by multi-generational hauntings. Your memory of watching Tales from the Darksidewith your mother amplifies this feeling. Many thanks to our mothers for not turning off our televisions!
I agree, definitely, this book (and the Dark Shadows project as a whole) is an exploration of the “fear that made me.” As a child, I watched the showunfold day after day with its low-budget special effects, cobbled-together sets, and what seemed like barely rehearsed scenes. But I was too young to understand kitsch—instead, the primary emotion I felt was terror. In my toddler mind, the show functioned as a warped documentary of the supernatural creature living inside the inside of my house.
My mother and I talked about my childhood Dark Shadows obsession periodically as I got older. The conversation always turned to the question of why she let me continue to watch the show despite the nightmares it caused. The answer was pretty simple. It was far less trouble for her to just sit with me and watchthe show, like we did all the other daytime soaps that were on her radar, and then deal with my nightmares later. Her decision makes a lot of sense to me. We’d go through periods when she wouldn’t let me watch, but the tantrums I threw in response were epic performances. At some level, I think I knew that no parent would be able to endure them. They were my secret weapon to let me back into the show’s fictional seaport town, Collinsport, during those periods when I had been banished.
These later conversations with my mother about Dark Shadows often were connected to my efforts to write about how the show haunted my childhood. I tried to write about the soap opera in the mid to late 1990s, when I was in graduate school, but the subject was just too big for me at the time. The showtaught me as a very young child that I had an unconscious mind—that a part of me repressed the scary parts of my daily life, and that this submerged material came back later in the form of dreams and nightmares. We all learn this somehow at an early age, of course, and my teacher happened to be a soap opera vampire. But as an adult, I had trouble wrapping my mind around how to write about it. For a long time, I felt only the essay could capture the epic scope of my childhood Dark Shadows anxieties. The thought of writing a long poem, like I’m doing now, was too daunting. I just wasn’t ready to tackle something so large in poetry at that time in my life.
I think in those early efforts, I was focused on pushing ideasabout the show’s effect on me rather than focusing on building a world from which the ideas instead could emerge naturally. I was focused on rhetoric rather than discovery, until I started playing around with the project as it is now—the poem as a world unto itself, with a varied emotional and spectral terrain that will need multiple volumes to discover and map out. As a friend said last year after watching an episode with me: “I can’t believe you live in this world—with these people you just go and visit all the time.” Her remark felt almost like an ars poetica for the 700-plus episodes I still have remaining. (And, of course, I couldn’t resist including her comment in Book 3, which I hope to finish sometime next year.)
It feels like “world-building” is something both of our books share. This isn’t what we usually say about volumes of poetry, I know. It’s the kind of observation that’s usually more suited to descriptions of so-called genre writing. I appreciate how your poems take the recognizable realism of the contemporary lyric poem and reshape this lyric world into something phantasmic. I’m thinking, too, of what Aase Berg wrote about the book: “The Hatch is another real world.” As in your poem, “Kindergarten,” it’s a world that emerges from “the pregnant hour / when the dew was forged, when the real’s deep joints were carved.”
Can you talk a bit about the process of writing The Hatch? Where did it begin, and when did you know it was shaping itself into a full-length manuscript? I’m also interested in hearing more about how the uncanny manifests in the poems. From the very beginning, it was clear I had to pay close attention to those moments when spectral, taboo detail would irrupt into the landscape of each poem. I appreciate how the uncanny and the sublime work together to unsettle me while making me want to keep reading—all without creating a need for epiphany or closure.
Fletcher: Aha, so the epic tantrum kept the horror spigot dripping. Savvy. I’m told I deployed the same tactic in other childhood contexts.
The Hatchdoesn’t really have a single origin story. Joe Pan and Brooklyn Arts Press had published a chapbook of mine back in 2011, and he expressed interest in publishing a book a few years later. I submitted a couple manuscripts, themselves comprised of poems written over the past decade or so and revised, shuffled in and out of various other manuscripts, etc. Joe culled poems from those two manuscripts and I slipped some more recent poems in, thinking they fit within the book he was envisioning. I used to be much more rigid about keeping poems written during a particular period united in the same manuscript, but that’s seemed less crucial to me of late. Thus it is with The Hatch: the poems come from all over.
So I’m grateful for Joe’s editorial intuition for how these poems were working together. He saw the uncanny/sublime aspects that you describe more clearly than I did, and he even classified the poems in the book into three types (which don’t correspond to the sections in the book). As for how the uncanny manifests, I probably don’t have a satisfying answer. It’s just been central to the literature—lyric and otherwise—and art I’ve always loved, and I wanted my poems to do that. It was Joe who identified what you call the “phantasmic” element and who thought the collection could be described in such terms. I don’t disagree, but it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me.
Speaking of phantasms, you mentioned the kitsch element of Dark Shadowsthat was integral to its effect, but which of course you didn’t recognize when first watching the show as a toddler. There’s so much to love, but I think my favorite bits in your book are your nuanced descriptions of the production blunders that occur throughout the show: the shoddy stage props that shake and wobble, the stagehands whose shadows are glimpsed, whose coughs and shuffling footsteps are caught by boom mics, who tap yellow wrenches against malfunctioning machines, who sometimes are heard shouting lines to actors who have flubbed or forgotten them. I find this hilarious and terrifying. These stagehands and second-rate actors are clowns, to be sure, and your adult perspective reveals the glaring holes in the artifice of Dark Shadows; but they are also demons, low-rent imps who have successfully orchestrated a production that forever marked young Tony. Can you speak to the role they—and the passages in which you describe them—play in your poem?
Trigilio: We often need solitude to write, but your story of how The Hatch came together in consultation with Joe is a reminder for me that every book is really a collaboration between writer and publisher.
I hadn’t quite thought of a direct correlation between the uncanny and the low-budget bloopers of Dark Shadows until you mentioned this. It’s a great point. The shoddy production values and acting flubs in the showinfluence what I write, but I also have to be careful that the book is more than just a compilation of bloopers. It’s not easy, because I adore those moments in the show when everything falls apart. Dark Shadows always teetered on a precipice, with a production schedule that the actors and crew couldn’t keep up with, and I try to make this precariousness part of the book’s energy and attention to craft. The cast and crew were forcing gothic horror and daytime melodrama to collide, and the genre mashup of this alone guarantees they’d be living on the edge every day while taping the show. The foundational reality of the showwas a rickety, undependable thing: vampires and werewolves intruded on the melodrama, and stagehands and boom-mic shadows intruded on the artifice itself. At one point, ABC had to build an entirely new stage setup for Barnabas’s twentieth-century home, known as “the Old House,” because the original set had been thrown away accidentally by the production crew. Even when the book is laughing at the show’s “demons” and “low-rent imps” (as you described them so perfectly!), it’s also taking seriously the idea that they reflect the ad hoc randomness of everyday life that we might only comprehend fully in memory and dream. For me, the disordered events taking place on the Dark Shadows soundstage correspond to the disordered narratives of the unconscious mind. Each is a manifestation of the other. The dread vampire of my childhood might get caught picking his nose on camera, as occurred in a recent episode I watched for Book 3, but mocking this moment (which, to be precise, happens at the 17:10 mark of Episode 635) doesn’t change the fact that my child’s mind never understood that this was artifice. Barnabas still terrified me, even when he flicked away that booger like a rank amateur. I think this is the kind of dramatic logic (or illogic) that only makes its fullest “sense” in dreamscapes.
As I talk about what lies beneath the surface of the show’s production values, I’m thinking about the way you unveil—seamlessly, in poem after poem—how precarious our understanding of reality actually is. Part of the allure of The Hatch is that it doesn’t take for granted any kind of shared reality—anything we could agree on, even provisionally, as everyday lived experience. As I read your book, one of my favorite passages from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell kept running through my mind: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense World of Delight, clos’d by your senses five?” This is an aesthetic I see as a frame for both of our books, which doesn’t surprise me, since Blake is a part of our artistic lives: you are Managing Editor of the William Blake Archive, and I’ve written about Blake as a scholar. Can you talk a bit about the artists and writers who influenced the book, especially those who are committed to making the world strange in their work? Blake especially came to mind in “The Fly,” and also in “Isaiah,” when the prophet “hear[s] the voice / of god like a roach buzzing / in his ear.” But I’m also thinking of “Beksiński,” your moving homage to the Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński, or “Suite for Henk Boerwinkel,” for the Dutch puppeteer Henk Boerwinkel, which, in its terrific blurring of artifice and reality, is, I think, one of most important poems in The Hatch. These figures seem almost like spirit guides for the book, invoking a submerged, surrealist world that’s just as vital as the surface world of materiality we otherwise take for granted as the “everyday.”
Fletcher: That image of Barnabas the vampire caught picking his nose on camera made me snort-chortle into my coffee. And I like how you describe the show as enacting a double intrusion—of gothic horror into daytime melodrama while the exhausted crew intrudes upon the artificial set (the Old House splintered in the dumpster, encrusted with dried boogers).
I was intrigued to see the nods to Blake throughout your book as well: the aging speaker becoming overwhelmed by the claims of reason (Urizen), the ratio’s “same dull round,” the connection of 1795 with the publication of The Book of Los(the first thing that everyone should associate with that year!), etc. Your summoning of the monstrous Urizen/Los creation myth provides a compelling backdrop to the creation of Dark Shadows’ multiple genre intrusions—both are bungled, horrific productions. And as you point out, Blake is visible in The Hatchas well. The Marriagewas—and remains—a revelation for me, and it has helped me see what poetry/art could do. I’ve long been struck by Blake’s distinction from the other major Romantics insofar as he largely dispenses with the lyric “I” attuned to its intimate experience, imagining instead an elsewhere traversed by howling, terrifying/terrified forms. And in the past eight years I’ve written a dissertation, published articles, and am now working on a book—all on Blake, in addition to working at the Blake Archive; so, yes, he’s been pretty bound up with me. One of the most fulfilling aspects of having the opportunity to work at the Archive has been my exposure to Blake’s abundant designs in multiple media. Like most poets—I imagine—who came up in the pre-digital age, my early engagement with Blake was largely textual, with the occasional glimpse at some low-quality facsimiles of the illuminated books. But with access to high-resolution digital images of his vast visual output—commercial engravings, color prints, watercolors, wash drawings—I’ve come to appreciate him even more.
I suppose the turn to the visual art side of Blake’s output is an instance of a larger fascination with visual art that is evident in The Hatch—no shaking free of the image in that book. You mention two visual art “spirit guides” in Beksiński and Boerwinkel, but others include Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Odd Nerdrum. They all open up strange, humming vistas.
Back to your mother. You write that the project has become much more explicitly autobiographical in scope, which is clear in this volume, which adeptly weaves together multiple time strands—that of the show (which is also engaged in time travel), the speaker’s memories, and his current experience—in its couplets. One of the most surprising/haunting moments for me is the passage in which the speaker is attending an American Spiritualist camp and the reverend—Reverend Spencer—becomes possessed by the speaker’s mother, who not only advises him to change the time signature of the song he’s working on with his band, but reminds him of the way he used to hold her pointer finger as a toddler, which triggers a vivid memory of an August parking lot, a Dodge Dart. It’s one instance of the supernatural—if I may call it that (or, to use the phrase you slipped in from M. H. Abrams, “natural supernaturalism”)—occurring outside the frame of Dark Shadows. In the poem the speaker attributes his belief in the paranormal to the show, and describes such a belief waning with the onset of adulthood, in keeping with the trajectory of the uncanny. But the passage at the Spiritualist camp belies this narrative. At the risk of prying, I wonder if you can speak of the role of the supernatural in your adult life?
Trigilio: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was my first experience with Blake’s exciting, and dislocating, sense of “elsewhere,” as you put it. I’d love to hear more about the book you’re writing on him. I gush when I talk about Blake. He feels like kin. When the utilitarian impulses of the world feel like they’re bearing down on me, Blake reminds me how urgently I need to reorient my vision.
This is great question about my adult experiences with the supernatural—doesn’t feel like prying at all. My mother’s old-world, southern Italian Catholicism pretty much assumed that we traffic with ghosts as part of our everyday life. This attitude gave me permission to pay close attention to “elsewhere,” even as I nurtured a healthy agnosticism toward it, all the same. One of my most unsettling experiences with the supernatural occurred as an undergraduate student, when I was sharing a hundred-year-old graystone house with four other roommates. I lived in the cheapest room, a poorly lit basement that was big enough to function as a living space and a music studio. I remember reading one night on the couch in that basement and hearing someone knock on the back door of the house. It was late, maybe around 11 or 11:30. I heard the floorboards creak above me as one of my roommates walked from the living room and into the kitchen, where the back door was. Then I heard a large group of people walk in. I’d lived in that basement for several months and I’d developed a keen sense of the house’s soundscape. It was clear to me, by sound alone, that five or six people had entered the house. I was ticked off because my roommate, Mitch, often hosted after-hours parties, and I thought this was the start of another one. I went upstairs to tell Mitch I had to get up early for class the next day. When I opened the door into the kitchen, I found him standing next to the stove, stirring a small saucepan of canned tomato soup. No one else was there. I checked the living room. It was empty, too. But I knew what I had heard—a knocking, followed by five or six people entering the kitchen. I was convinced, and told him so. “No one here, man,” he replied. “Do you want some soup?”
I was terrified and slept upstairs on the couch that night. I witnessed lots of unexplainable phenomena in that old house, usually in the basement. Lights would turn on or off when no one else was home, and objects periodically were knocked on the floor by invisible forces. I asked a friend of mine, Jana, a psychic, to tour the basement and make an assessment. She eventually concluded that the spirit of a young boy from the turn of the twentieth century shared the basement with me and liked to get my attention by knocking over my wastebasket. Jana and I were taking an adult education parapsychology course taught by a local podiatrist, and we used what we learned in the class to try to convince the spirit to move on. The mischief never quite stopped, though—the wastebasket continued to be a focal point—and I moved out when my lease expired because my (human) roommates and I were no longer getting along very well.
As I was remembering these details—a psychic, a podiatrist/parasychologist, a mischievous ghost obsessed with my wastebasket—I felt like I was describing the kind of absurdist scene I’d expect to find in The Hatch. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Wayne,” and I love that moment when Wayne, a gigantic man “[w]earing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of the local university,” stalks the mysterious “languid and frenzied” feral dog: “Seventeen minutes passed, silent but for the occasional crack and creak in the depths of the winter forest. Constellations twisted in the cosmos. A plane bound for Omaha blinked silently as it split the sky. Wayne’s exhalations melted a divot in the snow. The dog began to snore.” I’m terrified of that dog. I’m fascinated by Wayne’s Zen-master concentration. And I can’t help but laugh—the hell-hound snores while Wayne, a demented Captain Ahab, lies in the snow watching him. Meanwhile, a passenger jet hurtles to Omaha. The uncanny doesn’t just announce itself with trumpets and fanfare. Instead, it knocks on the door and someone allows it to walk into the room above you, making the floorboards creak. Try to figure out what just happened, but all you’ll find is someone stirring soup on the stovetop or airline passengers headed for Nebraska.
Earlier, you brought up the interconnection between humor and the paranormal in my book, and I wanted to circle back to how these were important to my experience with your poems, too. I appreciate your careful cultivation of the absurd and the frightening, amplifying both without creating poems that can be reduced merely to shocks or gags. The speaker’s major discovery in your title poem, “The Hatch,” for instance, evokes in me the hilarity and horror of, say, the scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvetwhen Kyle MacLachlan’s character stumbles upon the film’s notorious, ant-covered ear. I like how humor and terror combine to encourage me to discover where I’m complicit, as a reader, in your poems: I can’t just walk away from what’s scary because, after all, like in “Wayne,” this is exactly where “the conversation began.” It’s where language unfolds, where words proliferate.
I didn’t plan it this way, but it seems appropriate to be talking about the proliferation of language as we reach the end of our own conversation. In the spirit of language unfolding, I’d like to hear more about your current works-in-progress—maybe the Blake book, but really any projects you’d like to preview.
Fletcher: After I read your tomato soup story I sat by my window and smoked an entire cheroot in silence, looking out at the night. Re-read it. Poured myself some ginger ale. Looked out the window. Thought about that podiatrist.
I can think of no better master of the fusion of hilarity and horror than Lynch, and I’m, well, flattered, that the title poem evokes for you that Blue Velvetscene—what my friend Chris once referred to as the film’s “thesis statement.” Humor and terror strike me as the most effective, immediate ways to crack through the mundane shell (to steal again from Blake) of our subjectivity, a way to, if I may, hatch us into a vision of excess, as Bataille might put it.
As for current works-in-progress: yes, the book on Blake, which tries to take seriously Blake’s desire to be read as a natural philosopher; so it’s an intellectual history—one that I’ve long wanted to write—exploring the philosophical traditions with which his early work, both poetry and designs, is engaging. And I continue to write creatively, oscillating, as I do in The Hatchand in previous manuscripts, between prose and verse. Lately I’ve been involved in longer sequences, book- or chapbook-length pieces inside whose worlds I can stay for a while, draw out narratives or other threads.
How about you? Anything else in addition to the third Dark Shadowsbook you’re in the midst of? And how has your experience working on the third installment differed from the previous books?
But before you respond, allow me to say that it’s been great to get to know you and your work, albeit virtually. Thanks for sharing, and I hope our paths cross before too long. A final note of appreciation: I love the formal experimentation embedded within the couplets—the abecedarians, the sestina, the sonnets, probably others that I didn’t catch since I was paying attention to content. My favorite: “Eccentric” as the “X” line in one of your abecedarians. Looking forward to more!
Trigilio: A cigar and ginger ale—what a delightful way to experience the ghost, the psychic, and the podiatrist! Your Blake book sounds excellent. Of the many paths into Blake’s work, I’ve always been fascinated by his approach to nature and knowledge. I’m thinking of another of his Proverbs of Hell: “Where man is not, nature is barren.” That statement alone feels like it belongs in the 21st century as much as it does in the late 18th.
Of my current projects, two are consuming me the most right now. I’m a little more than halfway through the third volume of the Dark Shadows project. Book 3 is a poetry-prose hybrid, a radical departure from the first two books. When I finished Book 2, I was a little worried that if I turned again to the continuous scroll of couplets for Book 3, then I risked a kind of complacency. And I also worried that a repetition of the same structure over three consecutive books could feel predictable to readers. I wanted to raise the stakes for myself. I hoped that working in a new form would reveal new autobiographical trajectories—which it has, I’m happy to say. The self-imposed pressure of a hybrid form has led me to new autobiographical discoveries that, as much as I love the couplet, probably wouldn’t have occurred if I’d kept pushing forward with the same structural conceit. And thanks for your kind words on the forms I’m playing with in Book 2. I’m doing the same in Book 3, interrupting the prose at times with terza rima and haiku.
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a documentary poetics manuscript on the alleged alien abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961. I’ve been research and writing the poems in the manuscript for several years—not trying to solve the mystery of what happened to them in the White Mountains, but instead exploring the effect it had on their individual lives and on their marriage. (The project has become part-documentary, part-love story.) I’ve spent the past half-year or so revising some of the poems and the overall narrative arc of the manuscript. I’ll be finished sometime this summer.
It’s been a blast to talk about the many convergences in our work, and I’m sorry to see the conversation end. Looking forward to your Blake book and more of your poems!