Shy and I met at BookBook in Greenwich Village, the middle of the afternoon, a Wednesday before the summer’s first heat wave. I bought Motherhood by Sheila Heti and after asking for a recommendation for coffee, the owner of BookBook pointed us down the street away from Starbucks to Rocco’s, an Italian cannoli shop with good coffee. Shy recorded this conversation on her iPhone, saying she would transcribe it all later. And she did. Thanks Shy. I wanted to talk to her about her latest book, Cheap Yellow, and she wanted to talk to me about my latest book of stories Double Bird. So we got a table in the back of Rocco’s and started talking. The restaurant had skylights, and through the sky lights I could see the blue sky and some clouds drifting by over New York City.
Bud Smith: So you just quit smoking?
Shy Watson: Yep.
BS: How long have you not had a cigarette?
SW: I haven’t had a cigarette since … last Monday. So, almost two weeks.
BS: I’m so happy you’re quitting. You seem to be doing good with it. You’re joking about it. You just tweeted a little while ago that you gained eleven pounds.
SW: I did gain eleven pounds. [Giggles.] I’ve never had such a substantial weight gain in my life.
BS: And now we’re here at a coffee shop and you won’t order any pastries.
SW: I won’t order ... I might end up ordering a cannoli but I did just order banana pancakes with brown sugar and cinnamon and whipped cream so I’m not doin’ that great.
BS: So I just reread Cheap Yellow again today on the subway. Such a great book of poems, there’s no off-switch for a topic and you refer to yourself as “the ultimate party girl.” You’re my favorite poet going right now. You write with all of the emotions and guts that people omit from their work. When I read poems by men it seems there are so many subject matters they won’t cover these days. They leave out all of the sexuality [whereas] your poetry isn’t scared of anything. Right now we have this moment in the poetry world where a lot of people are editing all of that stuff out, being bashful.
SW: I don’t know, I mean, it’s uncomfortable to write a lot of things. One doesn’t want to run the risk of sounding like a bad person or an insecure person or whatever it is they’re worried about. I think it’s different from everyone, but I’d guess that it mostly has to do with fear.
BS: Anybody writing beyond their fear should be a national hero. Or at the very least an Internet hero.
SW: When I read “Birthday,” I thought Birthday the Eagle symbolized aging and that the bullets at the end were injections of botox. I also thought of the wolves in “Wolves” as being displaced people during the process of gentrification. I was constantly trying to make metaphors out of your stories or to try and track them for some hidden meaning. Do place metaphors in your stories? Or do you just want readers to interpret it as they will?
BS: I mean probably; everything has a metaphor whether it’s intentional or not. So it’s always in there, and you can always find it. It’s funny; I read a story at a reading recently, GLING GLING GLING, it’s about this woman who hits a man in her car and then she takes him around town and he’s dying and they run errands and after the reading this guy came up to me and was like, “I totally get what you’re trying to do. That was like a story for anti-texting and driving.” And then somebody else at that same reading came up and said, “Weekend at Bernie’s, amirght?”
SW: I wonder if people find what they want to find, like whatever is going on for them subconsciously. Like when you look at a tarot spread and think, Oh this is in reference to this thing, and this is in reference to this other thing when really it’s just whatever your mind wants to make of it.
BS: Yeah, it’s like the cheapest therapy session around. You can even go online and you buy the book used for a couple dollars and instead of spending two hundred dollars on a therapist you just read some stories, and maybe you feel better because it’s accidental meditation, or medication, however you spell that. You put your therapy session on a shelf in your own home if it was worth the two dollars.
Cheap Yellow has a universal feel. It reads like memoir distilled to essential components so instead of walking in someone’s shoes it feels like getting fired out of a cannon through someone's breakups and breakdowns. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever heard somebody say about your writing that maybe they interpreted the wrong way?
SW: Hm. I have this novella manuscript from when I was twenty. And when I was twenty-one I was living in Seattle and taking classes at this residency, Hugo House. The teacher made us all partner up with someone else and read each other’s manuscripts, provide feedback. Well, I was paired up with this maybe mid 40’s, married, Indian woman and her novella was about this woman on Wall Street. Mine was about this strange girl who has a lot of hallucinations and kind of doesn’t fit into society well and she happens to be bisexual and there are some sex scenes and stuff and the woman I was paired up with, whenever she provided me with feedback was like, “Oh, so this is about you, and you’re bi, and you’re curious,” and she proceeded to tell me how hot my sex scenes were and she took me out to dinner in her big Mercedez SUV and brought me this THC spray called “Gold” something or other; that you feel like she was trying to secretly court me because she thought that I was this really weird character I had written who I actually had hardly anything in common with.
BS: You should have given her all your money to invest for you on Wall Street like, ‘Here’s all my paychecks and help me’ taken her manuscript to heart, too.
SW: Yeah, yeah. People read too much into things I write sometimes and get concerned. Like, “This seems really sad — are you gonna kill yourself?” Or even with boys I’m dating; I’ll post a poem on my Instagram story and they’ll see it and think that it means I hate them or that our relationship is failing when it’s just the way they’re interpreting it and I didn’t mean for it to be about them at all.
BS: Sometimes it can be misconstrued.
SW: Yeah, the next person I date isn’t allowed to follow me on social media. It’s caused some problems.
BS: It’s nice to date someone who doesn’t do what you do, too. Like if you’re a writer it’s nice to be romantically interested in someone who’s totally different. Unless they’re in a band because then you have to watch the band play all the time.
SW: Oh yeah and then they’re a musician.
SW: Everyone I’ve dated except my most recent boyfriend was a guitarist. I’ve never dated a writer, so I don’t know how that would be. There are so many writer power couples though. Is Jordan Castro’s girlfriend a writer?
BS: Yeah, she’s a writer and she’s fantastic, Nicolette.
SW: Yeah, they seem like such a power couple. I get really jealous of writer couples and want to be them. Brandon Brown and Alli Warren, Bridget Talone and Josef Kaplan, Leopoldine Core and Eileen Myles, James Merrill and David Jackson, etc.
BS: Scott McClanahan and Juliet Escoria.
SW: Oh yeah, yeah! That’s a good example too, damn. Yeah I wonder if I would end up being competitive with my partner if they were also a writer.
BS: I mean I think it’s good to be competitive! As long as you edit each other. As long as you actually are able to take each other’s criticism and make something better.
SW: Like push each other.
BS: Yeah, push each other, to write and read things. Maybe it all comes down to reading a lot anyway. Like if people read a lot of books then their mind is open to a litany of approaches to art. Someone could be like “Your book sucks” but they might have not read the great version of that book yet and they could push their partner or whoever they’re editing like, “Check this book out. I think if you just thought about it a different way you’d be able to re-envision your manuscript.” Nobody does this stuff alone, even if they are all alone.
SW: Oh, do you want a piece of gum?
SW: This is part of my trying not to smoke but also trying not to eat a bunch of Kit-Kat bars. Oh, speaking of relationships … you’re a happy, married, functional, middle-class man who is fully employed and seems to have his life together. But your stories almost exclusively involve rejects from society: junkies, homeless people, the mentally ill, etc. I was wondering how you find such a kinship with these characters or if you’re living out a kind of alternate life through them or if you don’t think there’s that much of a difference between you and your characters, despite your circumstances.
BS: Everybody is different and everybody is the same. Most of Double Bird centers on people who are rejected from society, or people who have rejected society. They’re not happy with their lives. Who is? There’s even a story in there called “Wolves” which is a fable about these creatures that are uprooted from their home. And that’s most people I know, uprooted and kicked out and searching out some other place to belong to.
SW: Yeah, yeah, I got gentrification out of it.
BS: Things kind of change for them. And they’re pushed out of the forest and they have to move to the city then they’re in the city and they have to move to the sewers and yeah it’s exactly like what you said, expelled from society. And I’m just drawn to that and was trying to talk about it in “Double Bird” where we’re in that point in history again where it’s really bolded, underlined, and italicized, people just being turned away, denied entry where they want to be. The next stories might be about happy, well-adjusted people, and they won’t be good.
SW: You think it’d be boring?
BS: Yeah, probably. Do you think you could write a good book of poems that was really happy?
BS: Why not?
SW: [Laughs.] I don’t think I could even write them! I think someone else would have to write that book. Um, I don’t think I’ve ever written a happy poem. Well, I’ve written love poems so that’s not true, I’ve written some happy love poems. But I don’t want a book of love poems; that’d be corny.
BS: Well there’s some great love poems in Cheap Yellow, like “imu,” “i miss you,” that poem. And the opening poem is really amazing and full of longing. It’s sad but remembering a happiness. Like you’re saying “how many rollercoasters do i have to go on to get over you?” and you just wanted to send pictures of the sky and shave your legs. That’s just so, nice, because you can remember back to really beautiful happy times. So maybe sad poems pull along and are happy too.
SW: Yeah, yeah, like nostalgia. Where it’s kind of bitter-sweet sad and happy at the same time.
BS: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
SW: I was wondering, are any of your stories based on true events? Like, “The Paralyzer” for instance, which was my favorite out of all your stories, seemed like it could totally happen. Like you read about it in the newspaper and then constructed a story around it.
BS: Yeah. That story kind of spawned out of my experience with chiropractors always being weird creeps. They’ve always kind of freaked me out a little bit. Adjusting the body they can heal you of other problems. What happened with that story is that I worked with this guy who ran into somebody he had known a long time ago at the mall, and the guy had become a chiropractor and was wearing a silk suit. And it just seemed to me such a crazy thing, like, he didn’t go and join a cult or anything but somebody showing up from your past in a silk suit and a creepy mustache and they’re a chiropractor now, I don’t know.
SW: Oh! I love that line of yours, “It’s amazing how much a person mutates when you go years without thinking about them.” It kind of reminded me of the double-slit experiment with the photons. Like, as soon as it’s observed it changes?
BS: Oh, like as soon as somebody else sees it?
SW: Yeah and this is kind of like the inverse to that like if you’re not paying attention
BS: Like Schrodinger’s cat, alive and dead at the same time.
SW: Yeah but it’s almost like the inverse. When you’re spending a lot of time with someone, you don’t even notice that they’re changing. But someone who you never think about, haven’t seen in years, you know, you go to your high school reunion, and they look to their husband the same as always but to you, you know…
BS: Yeah, it’s true, people change all the time. That’s what like, every sentence that’s ever been written is about, how beautiful and terrible it is that people change.
BS: Where did you write Cheap Yellow? Like in one apartment or many different places?
SW: Many different places. I think the oldest poem in it is maybe from ... 2014? I was living in an apartment in Springfield, Missouri, and I had just gotten out of a relationship in Seattle and moved back home completely defeated and depressed, and I started dating this kid and then we got an apartment together. So I think the oldest poems in there were written in Springfield which is just a sleepy little city. There’s a good art community there full of earnest, liberal twenty and thirty-somethings but the rest of it is kind of a conservative, racist hellscape. But there is an oasis there and if you find it, you’re in. I wrote some of them when I was living in Denver, Colorado. I went back for school for a bit. Moved to Portland wrote some poems there, moved back to Philly … I’d say the bulk of it is from when I was living in Philly last year. And a lot of it was written in New York. I’ve only lived here since August and the book was finished in December but I’ve had a lot of writing material being in the city. I feel inspired here a lot I’m constantly …
BS: You’re in your nomadic years, seeing things and traveling around. Maybe it’s not a phase; maybe you’ll be moving around your entire life. I want to be like that.
SW: Yeah, maybe. Meeting so many different people. I mean the poems in Cheap Yellow are all about different relationships, different friends, and different places I’ve been to. There’s nothing really constant in it at all except maybe my neuroses.
That reminds me, most of your stories seem to start with some big break like somebody getting hit by a car, some huge injury, or someone being taken off of life support. I was wondering if you think that possibility is more likely to come out of these breeches, like if you think change necessitates a departure from the everyday, status quo, day-to-day life?
BS: Change happens quick and it always happens in ways that you don’t want it to happen otherwise I won’t really write about it. Even self-reflectively people don’t usually write too much about their mundane days where everything stays in stasis. But they’ll write excitedly about when things get upended. Usually though they aren’t the beginnings of the stories; they get edited to be that way. Usually I start writing a story and the middle becomes the beginning or whatever.
SW: Oh, that’s what you do?
BS: Who knows what draft you find the begining in. Very rarely does a story come out fully-formed. Do you find that in your poems? Do you ever have like, you write a poem and then one stanza is the only stanza that survives the thing?
SW: Very rarely. Usually I write poems and then I don’t edit them at all. But I actually met someone at AWP; his name’s Jon Ruseski, and we’ve been sending each other poems and editing them for one another and he’s really helped me, I mean just his suggestions whether I take them or not, cause me to think about the poems in a different light and think of more possibilities. Just having someone else’s eyes on them has helped me to cut out the uninteresting parts or the less interesting parts and to try and make every line more impactful. I have just chopped off the first half of a poem a time or two it’s like cutting grass, y’know, makes it fresh again.
BS: Usually when you cut something out you just make room for something better even if the something better is just blank white space.
SW: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BS: So when you were starting to put together Cheap Yellow, when did you realize that a lot of these poems had yellow or that there was a common theme to kind of build the connection off of?
SW: Well, it was more … so I just had a huge messy word document with a bunch of poems in it and it got to the point where I was like “Okay, this is the length of a full-length book and I should try to organize it or structure it.” So yellow didn’t come until afterwards. I was sitting on a couch at my first New York apartment and I was texting some dude I had matched with on Tinder and then I just thought of yellows? Then I looked up shades of yellow and was hoping they’d have interesting names but unfortunately they didn’t. They had mostly boring names constructed of hashtags and letters. So I came up with my own yellows. And the placement of which poems went with which yellows came naturally.
BS: When you start putting your manuscript together, there’s no secret to it. I think people think they need this glorious, struck-by-lightning moment, but if you just go with your feeling, even a small little gut feeling, it can come together before your eyes, like shaking a polaroid and the colors of the world developing.
SW: Yeah it always blew my mind how there’s like, classes on how to put a novel together, because it doesn’t seem like something that can really be taught. It doesn’t seem like there should be some kind of pedagogy for that. It’s so individual and it depends so much on the work itself, the person itself, like I don’t think it could really ever be taught how to put a manuscript together. It’s always subjective. How do you put your manuscripts together?
BS: Work, my memoir about working in construction and making art, jumps around in time because I organized it by feel, the way I believe memory works like personal time travel. Work was organized like a playlist or a mixtape for my family and friends. I hardly ever write anything in chronological order. I’ll leave gaps because it feels nice to fill in the spaces later and to leave room to screw around, while I figure out what I am writing. Double Bird I wrote all the stories on index notecards and hung them on a map of the united states I have in my living room, so the country disappeared. I was tired of looking at it anyway. It was easy to get rid of stories for Double Bird. You just throw the index card in the trash and then hey, there’s North Carolina. Then I’d write a better card to cover North Carolina again. This stuff is all nonsense to me.
SW: How many did you delete?!
BS: It was probably like, double the length or so. And there were a lot of stories about, probably the most realistic story in there, was the one you mentioned -- "The Paralyzer" -- and there used to be more stories in there that were realistic. But I decided I wanted to have it be mostly just surrealist stories.
SW: Are you gonna do anything with the realistic ones?
BS: Maybe. Maybe some will survive.
SW: I wanna read them.
BS: They’ll come out one of these days. Oh, were there any other earlier titles for what became Cheap Yellow?
SW: Hm. The working .doc was called “Dunkin Grls.” Because there’s that poem that’s like “there’s the dunkin donuts that you take the girls to, you lead them to the apartment with the hall full of mirrors.” I did play around with a couple titles; there was “horror vacui” which is like, are you familiar with the concept of that?
BS: No, what’s that?
SW: So it’s an Italian term coined by an art critic, and it’s used to describe artworks which are super cluttered and chaotic. The idea is that there is this fear of absence or empty space. And I feel like that also very strongly describes me because I’m constantly moving and dating new people and I don’t like just having … it’s like a shark who has to keep swimming or it will die. But I decided not to use that title yet. I’ll use it some other day for something that is bigger. Or just different, something that would go along more with that theme. I may have had more; I’ll check my emails with Luis Neer because I remember asking them for help when I was choosing. What about with Double Bird
BS: I think it had every name under the sun. Haha.
SW: How long have you been working on Double Bird?
BS: Probably about six years. A lot of stories don’t go anywhere. You write them and then they’re gone. It took me a long time to realize that, to get comfortable with something I made being something just to be waysided.
SW: I think it’s hard for a lot of writers, myself included, to just scrap something. Sometimes you feel that every little thing is just so precious and you don’t want to let go of it even though it’s sometimes necessary in order to move onto the next thing. Like if you have a manuscript that you’re obsessing over or a story that you’re obsessing over and you can’t seem to fix it, it seems like it would just be better to discard it and start with something new rather than agonizing on it forever.
BS: As a writer your ideas don’t ever get fuller or stronger; usually your ideas are just your ideas and that’s what you have so you know. Whatever subject matter you have and the voice you bring to it, I mean it will change a little just from experience of living, but in general if I’m talking about someone’s plot they come up with for a short story it’s not gonna be any better from when you’re 18 to 80 years old but your writing itself, just from the practice. The first idea I had for a novel, I’ve rewritten that idea four times now. I can’t write as good as I want to be able to to live up to my dream for the idea. So I keep trying. And I like that I get to stay alive to keep trying.
SW: Do you usually write these out by hand then transfer them to a computer?
BS: I write a lot on my phone. I write on my coffee breaks and at lunch at the oil refinery. Or wherever I am. The subway. The waiting rooms. The Uber home.
SW: And then email yourself the text?
BS: Yeah, and then I edit it and edit it and edit it.
SW: Yeah, so you like use a pen and scratch things out like a teacher would be with grading a paper?
BS: I print things out constantly. Probably half my salary each year is printer cartridges and computer paper. Between my day job and all this waste I make with the printer, I’ve got to be the writer doing the most damage to the environment. How do you write your poems?
SW: I used to write everything by pen, like into journals then would type it up. But lately I’ve been doing the phone thing too because it’s just like how often am I gonna sit down with my journal and write? Not nearly as often as I’m gonna be in a subway or a Lyft. Same kinds of places you mentioned. And any time an idea pops into my head I’ll type it into my phone because I don’t want to lose it and half the time I’ll just keep typing, like, “Oh here’s this line I want to remember later,” and then instead of just clicking done I’ll type an entire poem when I’m in the bathroom at a bar or whatever and then, you know, I copy and send it to myself in an email and edit it on my computer when I get home.
BS: For poems … I used to, well, I still write poems but I haven’t really been doing anything with them for a long time. But I’ll just put things on Twitter, and I can’t write drunk, I’m not like, a drunk writer, but I like to get drunk and then copy and paste things from Twitter into a Word .doc and then I’ll assemble things.
BS: Or if I’m high or I’m drinking I’ll just move things around and build the first draft of some weird piece of poetry or maybe I’ll turn it into flash fiction or whatever it is while I’m drinkin’.
SW: So some kind of conglomeration of random tweets and stuff?
BS: Yeah, kind of when you’re scrolling through the ticker tape of things you’ve thought it doesn’t really matter where they are if they’re on a journal or on Twitter or texting with somebody.
SW: Do you find that living in New York was more inspirational for you or are you able to find just as much inspiration through the radio, the Internet, and other people talking and stuff anywhere?
BS: I think I myself just get in spurts really inspired by people, not so much places. People get me excited and I’ll just get in a really great mood meeting new people and you meet someone and you want to keep repeating your life stories over and over to new people. And there’s nothing better than when you meet somebody new and you tell them a story and they know you’re a writer and they go, “Oh my god did you write that down yet?”
SW: Yeah, yeah!
BS: Isn’t that such a great feeling? And then you write it down. And then that’s addicting once that starts happening. With a new group of friends or whatever, you can just keep a running list of, “Oh, I should write that down.” And I do the same, I make a point to, if somebody tells me a story and they’re an artist or something like that. Please write that down. That’s just such a good feeling.
SW: I get that all the time. I’m constantly telling funny stories from my life but I don’t write stories and, I don’t know, people tell me that I should try stand-up or that I should try writing fiction or essays and I just don’t know how to work through those mediums. But I totally understand. People ask me why I don’t write about my family when I tell them about my family because my family is really fucked up. They’re like, “WHOA, why don’t you have poems about THIS SHIT?” and I’m just like, “Oh, I don’t know how to do it.”
BS: Yeah, I mean there’s nothing better than not knowing how to do something though because that means that if you really wanted to work at it you could eventually do it. I mean I never really saw somebody who couldn’t do something if they really wanted to in art. I could never probably be a concert pianist but I could learn how to play piano, I know that. I know I could do it. It’s just whatever you want to dump your life into, you know? I don’t believe that poets can’t write stories or that novelists can’t write poetry. I think we’re all just writers and we can and could do anything we feel drawn strongly enough towards. We just gotta find that thing that we want to sacrifice our life to. Sacrifice our life, or same idea, unearth our life in.
SW: That makes me feel inspired that one day I can write stories maybe after this I’ll go home and try.
BS: Yeah, you should. I remember when I was younger, some girl I liked was a poet and I was just amazed that she could write poetry. She just made fun of me and said, “It’s not hard I’m not just some smart person. I’m just a normal girl, and I write poems. You could write poems.” She challenged me to do it and I wrote poems making fun of poetry and sent them to her and they weren’t good but it got me into doing it and just doing it for long enough you pretend to do it then all of a sudden you do it. I don’t know what happened to that girl and I don’t know what happened to me either.
SW: Mhmm. Fake it ‘til you make it.