No Ideas But In Pancakes: An Interview With Poet Jeremy Schmall
Jeremy Schmall is a poet and the editor of the Agriculture Reader. His first collection of poems, Jeremy Schmall and the Cult of Comfort is a strange little book that epitomizes the beauties of small press publishing. Designed by the good folks of X-ing Books, Schmall’s book encapsulates a vision of the world that is terrifying, hilarious, pathetic, and touching. Jeremy Schmall and the Cult of Comfort offers what all good poetry offers its readers plus a bonus round of design that is both integral and catalytic to the poems it enfolds. During the course of our interview we talked about his association with X-ing, turkey sandwiches, Mark Bibbins, and the value of precise imagery in poems.
Ben Mirov: Can you talk a little about the production of Jeremy Schmall & the Cult of Comfort. It feels totally unique to me in terms of its interior and exterior design. How did the final product come about?
Jeremy Schmall: The design of the book came entirely from Amy Mees and Mark Wagner. It actually was the same process as with the Agriculture Reader, where I pass them a word document, and just get out of their way and let them do whatever they want. I’m always astounded at what they produce, and in this case I was especially pleased with the result. As for the physical production, the covers are letter-pressed. We bribed a small group (using pizza and beer) to come over to the studio one night and do all the manual handwork on the book-scoring and cutting the covers, then folding and gluing them onto the text blocks. We also made a bunch of sweet buttons, most of which got nabbed at AWP. Maybe we’ll make more.
BM: You also work with X-ing Books to produce your journal the Agriculture Reader. Can you tell us what the entity X-ing Books is, and how it functions? How has your relationship with X-ing developed and continue to evolve?
JS: X-ing (Books/Design/Art) is the designer Amy Mees and the book artist Mark Wagner. They don’t really have any kind of production schedule or anything. They just like making books, and every now and again they decide to put one out.
I was introduced to Mark Wagner by Jen Benka, who was a classmate of mine at the New School. I was trying to put together the first issue of Agriculture Reader at the time, and didn’t have the very first idea what I was doing, especially in terms of the physical production of it. So I went to Jen, just completely desperate and a little hopeless. Jen-who is pure light, maybe the kindest person on the planet-introduced me to Mark. It was a fortuitous meeting. He asked me to provide the text for an artist book shortly after called The Slapdown, and he helped me get through my rather clumsy efforts at getting out the first issue of AGR. Eventually, I think with the third issue, Amy said to me, “Jeremy, just let us do it,” regarding the design and construction of the magazine, and obviously I wasn’t going to argue with that. Over the years we’ve become better collaborators, and also better friends. Mark is actually in the final stages of putting out another artist book that I supplied the text for called “Mr. Handshake’s Last Gasp.” The design is totally insane. The text is letter-pressed on these hand-bound one-dollar bills, plus there’s a slip case and a bunch of other crazy fine art details.
BM: You edited the first couple Ag Readers yourself, and then in the 3rd issue, Justin Taylor, an esteemed editor in his own right, came on board. How did the addition of Justin affect the trajectory of the journal?
JS: It was obviously huge having Justin on board, and really expanded the scope of the journal, especially as regards the fiction we publish. But Justin actually had a lot of input with the first and second issues in an unofficial capacity. We were going to a lot of readings together then, and always talking about what we liked-and didn’t like-in the literary world, so it just made perfect sense to show him the work I was considering. He also helped out a ton with the physical production of both issues. Shortly after the second issue came out, I invited him to formally co-edit it with me, and he agreed.
BM: The poems in Cult of Comfort have this balance of scathing cultural critique and empathy that always seems aimed outwards at the world and the reader. Can you estimate where this impulse came from or how it developed into a collection?
JS: My approach toward the writing of CC was to see if I could write a group of poems that had a consistent voice and thematic pull-through. I had mainly written one-off poems in the past, and they would typically be a kind of misery catalog related to how I “felt” at the time. I grew tired of doing that and so I wanted to try something different.
BM: The ways in which poets use humor in their work has been on my mind recently. It occurred to me that humor in your poems is applied to soften the blow, so to speak, of some of the more incisive cultural criticisms the poems make. Do you feel like this is an accurate assessment?
JS: I’ve had a few people tell me they found the book humorous and that’s great to hear because I was really worried I’d created something that was just incredibly grim and pessimistic, or even just simply unpleasant. I can’t really say that I was using humor to do anything in particular, but if that’s how it ends up functioning that works for me.
BM: Another thing that struck me about the collection is that many of the poems are almost lists of observations where what is being looked at is often more important than how the observer feels about what he’s seeing. If this is even true, can you speak to how it contributes to the overall aesthetic of CC?
JS: I think I just like specific images, especially as a way to keep a poem grounded. It’s easy to get carried away writing vague abstractions and produce something that is almost totally meaningless. When I feel like I’m doing that I tend to gravitate toward something specific, like a turkey sandwich, to provide some kind of anchor and which inevitably helps me (and hopefully the reader) better understand what’s happening in the poem.
BM: I love the idea that the act of seeing and or presenting clear images in a poem somehow “helps” both poet and reader, as if something that’s envisioned in the world of your poems is stable vision of the unstable reality that surrounds us.
JS: In this sense, I think Williams was 100% correct in saying “No ideas but in things.” It’s like how there’s no such thing as an objective reality beyond our perceptions because we automatically inscribe ourselves onto the things we observe. I have never seen a person or thing without accidentally making some trivial pre-emptive judgment about them, which ultimately just relates back to me. It’s pre-conscious, I think. The self and the world are entirely intertwined. You can’t just have an image of a cheeseburger sitting on a table, for example, and have it mean nothing. It means something, and what it means will vary somewhat from person to person, and vary wildly from culture to culture.
BM: There’s a lot of food throughout CC (pancakes, beer, sandwiches, imitation crab meat) and I was thinking it had something to do with the idea that so much of culture can be summed up by singular food items and or the idea that food can be hilarious all on its own. Is food an important aspect of the collection?
JS: Food is an important part of life! Actually, I think this relates a lot to the previous question. Food serves as an excellent anchor, both in poems and in life. Now, I don’t love food. I tend to think of it as a burden, like taking medicine. It’s something with how I’m wired. If I go too long without eating, I just feel awful. I can’t make decisions. I start to panic. And then I eat a turkey sandwich and suddenly everything’s fine. The thing with food, though, is in a lot of ways it’s the only thing that matters. I mean matters in the sense that it’s a requirement for life. It’s the primary need, the omni-source. And yet so few of us actually work to produce it. Why? What are we producing instead, and how could that possibly qualify us to “deserve” food?
BM: That question, or at least its spirit, seems like one of the central aspects of the poems in CC. It reminds me of the persona that develops throughout the collection: a sort of amiable everyman who is sensitive and attuned to the world without loosing critical distance. To me this persona is really what holds all the poems in synchronicity. Do you feel like this is an accurate judgment and if so, how do you see this persona in relation to your self? Is it completely constructed or is it more of a natural expression of your self and your concerns?
JS: That’s a good question, and reminds me of something Zizek writes about regarding the self. He says something to the effect that there is no one true self. Not only do we put on a mask for the world, we also put on a mask for ourselves. The true self, then, requires a “parallax view” to see, as it’s actually multiple, contradictory selves held in suspension. I’m not sure if that really answers your question.
BM: This is sort of a non sequitur, but you and I were both students of Mark Bibbins (whose hilarious blurb is featured on the back of CC). I was wondering if you feel like some of Marks scathing wit rubbed off on you, or at least if you feel like being in his classes and then becoming his friend has influenced your work?
JS: It’s hard to imagine that someone as kind and generous and smart as Mark can really exist in this world. His poems and his critiques of my poems have of course had an influence on me, but what’s made the deeper impression is observing how he treats people. Not to say Mark is a saint (see: scathing wit), but truly I’ve never been around anyone as open-hearted and welcoming and sincerely GOOD as he is. Don’t cross him, though-you’ll get cut.
BM: Can you talk about other influences that went into CC, especially non-poetic ones (poetic ones are ok, too)?
JS: The bodega on Dean Street and Franklin. Prospect Park. Bill Evans. Simpler Times beer. The Bachelor. Glengarry Glen Ross. Thumping bass from downstairs (noon-3AM). Broken glass. The Corner Bistro. Student loans. Frank & Dee. Loud noises. Jason Molina. David Thomas Broughton.
BM: I still have your copy of The Cow by Ariana Reines. Do you want it back?
JS: Legally, I believe you’re entitled to squatter’s rights at this point.
Jeremy Schmall is the founder and co-editor of the Agriculture Reader, and the author of the book of poems, JEREMY SCHMALL & THE CULT OF COMFORT (X-ing), as well as the chapbook, Open Correspondence from the Senator, Vol. 1: But a Paucity of his Voluminous Writings (X-ing). His work has been published in PEN America, Laurel Review, Washington Square, Columbia Poetry Review, and Forklift Ohio. He lives in New York City.
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