"[I] Feel Like The Queen Of Laughing At Fucked Up Things":
An Interview With Mallory Whitten
The first time I met Mallory Whitten we were 11 years old. She was wearing a Dead Kennedys t-shirt and skateboarding. We've been friends ever since, and I can't express how wonderful it's been getting to know and growing with her.
I had no idea that these poems and stories - with the exception of "Things I Remember My Great-Grandparents Doing," "Ball Day," and the few other pieces that were previously published - were being written while they were being written, despite almost always being around Mal and living together briefly. She's one of the realest people I've ever met and her writing reflects that realness, because it isn't separate.
The subdued stoicism with which Mallory perceives the world around her, coupled with the personal details in the pieces, makes for a calmly - and sometimes intensely - emotional read. I've always viewed literature as a kind of coloring book - the author draws the outline, the reader fills it in - and in Collected Poems & Stories, nothing could be more the case.
With poems like "Tweet Drafts," "Thing I Did Today," and "Parts of Conversations I Overheard Around a Bonfire," Whitten paints a portrait of existence, in a voice that can only be her own, complete with all the sorrow, hilarity, complexity and absurdity that comes with being a 20-something woman in the pre-Ferguson landscape of modern day America.
Here are some questions I asked her...
When did you write these poems/stories?
The earliest of these poems and stories are from my senior year of high school, in 2010. I continued writing when I went to college at Kent State University. I think most of these are from 2010-2012. Some of the haikus were written last summer, in 2013. I didn’t put them together until this past year, after I had gotten sober.
Why write? What's the point?
When I was writing everything that makes up this book, I wrote to document what was going on. I would go back to my dorm room and write everything I could remember that happened at the party or whatever I was at, or the night before. I would get home from work or high school and write about interactions I had with customers or students so I didn’t forget them. Some of the stories were documentations of interactions I had that I emailed to Tao. I didn’t think about making a book. I think a lot of it was also trying to process things that had happened, like interactions that were absurd. Some of the writing was to remember situations that made me happy.
I am glad I wrote down what actually happened, because I feel like if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t remember a lot from that period of my life.
I got a good response from Tao the first time I emailed him about a girl I went to school with. He encouraged me to send him more about our interactions, so every time I talked to her I sent him an email. After a couple months he recommended that we publish the emails via Muumuu House’s website as a story. At the time I thought things like “this happened, I believe in complete honesty, so if I don’t want it to be published I am withholding information.” It felt good working on things, so I continued to do what I was doing and more things were published.
Collected Poems and Stories is one of the realest, if not the realest, books I've ever read. Where do you draw the line between art and life, if there is one for you?
I guess for me, how I view art goes back to the “this happened, I believe in complete honesty, etc etc.” If I were to get my period unexpectedly, then have an unreal series of events occur because of that and then feel compelled to make something about the whole scenario, I would, and I wouldn’t exclude that I got my period and it was bleeding through my pants because it is embarrassing or unattractive. This book is really emotional for me, because I wrote 95% of it when I was still addicted to drugs and alcohol. I was a different person then, and I don’t really like that version of myself. But because it happened, and people took an interest in what I wrote during that period of time, I am willing to share it.
I feel like my favorite art by other artists is autobiographical. After I read or see their work, I feel like I have learned about the person, not what they want their portrayal of themselves to be. My goal is to not separate life from art. Just thought about a philosophy quote where the author is looking at a puddle of mud, and is overwhelmed with how beautiful it is, even though it is just a puddle of mud. I feel like in order for me to be the happiest version of myself, I have to view life and art being closely related.
In many of these pieces, you even keep the "character's" names real. Do you ever worry about hurting or otherwise affecting - and/or the nature of how - the people you write about via your writing?
If I am going to write about something that happened and know other people will see it, I normally ask the people if they want their name to be changed. I never thought my writing would affect anyone, so I never worried about that. I think that because of how I write, I wouldn’t write anything about someone that was mean, because there is really no place for that. The only thing I could see some people perceiving as hurtful is that I may have written about characters doing things that people I know have done, and are now ashamed of doing. But it is what happened. That is what I write about. I feel like that is part of it.
You've made some appearances in other people's books too (as a character in Tao Lin's Taipei, as ~75-85% of the 'you's in both of my poetry books). Talk about some feelings you've experienced while reading those things.
Reading your poetry books made me feel pretty shitty, and I don’t think I would want to sit down and read either of them front to back again, because it reminds me of a version of myself that I don’t like and a version of you that I don’t like. Hearing you read from a poem about a character named Peter always wanting some of your coffee made me feel really self conscious about when I ask to have some of something that you’re having.
I remember when Tao sent me the PDF of Taipei printed on normal paper in this binder ring thing. I had recently gotten sober, and wasn’t talking to you anymore. I think you might have OD’d around then or went away to rehab. I felt really scared to read it because I thought it would include accounts of things that I did when I was fucked up that I didn’t remember doing. It did. I remember that I felt nervous to read about us going on drug binges knowing you had recently OD’d. After reading the book I felt fine. It seems surreal now, like recently I walked into a bookstore and Taipei was on the front table, and I forgot I was in it.
I feel it. I've always kind of felt like if I can, as honestly as possible, express/document feelings/things in an artistically satisfying manner, then I've "done a good job," and when I read your book, I can remember certain things so clearly, and hear it from the version of yourself that you were when you wrote the book, which I like. To me, that's a beautiful thing. What inspired this sort of personal-detail oriented style of writing for you?
There was a period of time spanning from 5th grade till the end of 6th grade where I started writing in journals at night before I went to sleep. It didn't feel therapeutic or fun but I would stay up till like two in the morning writing down everything I could remember that had happened because I thought that if I didn't I wouldn't remember anything. I remember the feeling of thinking I was done, lying down, then remembering something I didn't write down and getting back up out of obligation to write it down. I remember filling composition notebooks then burning them because I was embarrassed of the habit and didn't want anyone to read them or know my thoughts. I guess this has to do with my writing style now, because I automatically rewrite interactions or stories with all the details I can remember.
Type 5 words re: each of the following...
macbook parents computer ego masturbating
Tumblr hashtag sister vagina portraits
Wanted this a little today
Ultra violence pure heroine feminism
Gluten free bagels granola bars
Lip stuck on teeth, awesome
I noticed something funny in "My Experiences on Bath Salts." You wrote "...jordan and i saved the rest of our bath salts for graduation" but I lied and ate the bath salts in between college orientation and high school graduation and bought more the day of graduation and lied to you about it. There's not really a question there, just something I remembered and thought you might find interesting. Thoughts?
Not surprised, sweet.
To me, this collection tells somewhat of a story, and drugs and alcohol are a part of that story. There is certainly an amount of humor in these what feel to me like snapshots of existence, but also an amount of darkness sort of overshadowing it all. If you could, talk a little bit about that.
I have to laugh about fucked up things or else I will cry. Feel like the queen of laughing at fucked up things. Remember scaring friends away because of that. It is a coping mechanism.
Is there anything else you'd like readers to know about Collected Poems & Stories?
Thank you for reading this far. I hope you like it.