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Maybe Then I'll Be Cured: An Interview with Graham Irvin photo

You might be reluctant to try liver mush. You might think it’s not for me. But you are at a party, and you’ve been cornered by a stranger, and there’s nobody else there you really want to talk to, and you actually kind of like being cornered, you’re flattered by the attention, and Graham Irvin’s breath is soothingly reminiscent of your favorite cousin, and he’s making an elaborate case about how Liver Mush is for you. What even is it? “It’s parts of a pig and corn meal and some other shit,” he says, and he says it a few times. But it’s also “christ’s body / broken for you,” and in fact, somehow, by some distorted definition, you might be liver mush too. He’s not overbearing — you’re enjoying his supplication, you’re egging him on — and the more abstract and tangential Graham’s reasoning becomes, the more frenzied and desperate he gets. So you give in because he earned it. And you both win.

Graham Irvin is an unparalleled riffer, and he's got a ginormous heart. He knows when to cut the jokes and get sincere. He’s got great shit-shooting generosity, and every glimpse I get of his mind makes me excited for what he's done and will do. In Liver Mush, he's exploded a novelty concept into a hybrid book-length project so much more than the sum of its sad/silly/sweet parts. Its cohesive arc of poems, essays, stories, and rants reckon with loosening familial ties, food-fueled nostalgia, disconnection and depression, and the hopefulness to be found in things lowly and mundane. We took to a shared doc to chop it up.

 

You evangelistically break down liver mush’s ingredients and then extend the label to other decreasingly similar foods (from scrapple and goetta down to “any protein + any carb = liver mush / a Slim Jim = liver mush”) before it morphs into a prism through which you probe regional identity, class, and memories of family. Was there anything you were tempted to fit into the statement “liver mush is ____” that you couldn’t quite sell, or that turned out to be something liver mush isn’t?

The stuff that really didn’t work was the stuff that made liver mush mean less due to how I used it in the piece, like these lines from my notes:

liver mush has had it up to here
liver mush is mad as hell
liver mush is not going to take it anymore
liver mush is asking you to give them a second chance 

They’re similar to other lines in the book but, because they’re focused on the word liver mush instead of the image of liver mush, they make liver mush kind of a character instead of an idea.

Same for this one:

liver mush isn’t my girlfriend
but he’d be pretty pissed
if he heard me say that

I was trying to do a “translation” of a Mitch Hedberg joke the way there are haiku translations in the book. But then it’s like, is liver mush a person? I thought, Maybe I’d understand liver mush better if he was a character.

Then I thought, if Liver Mush is a character, maybe he’s in love with a 19 year old cashier named Starbucks and he stops a robbery to prove he’s good enough to be her husband and her son’s new stepdad. I had a hard time writing that story because I still wanted it to symbolize something. If Liver Mush was a character he’d have to be a character who comes back later in the book. Maybe gives me a thumbs up when I realize all I’m meant to realize about liver mush. But then liver mush would be both that character and whatever meaning I put on the actual food. I would probably have to kill Liver Mush to get back to the semi-specific meaning of liver mush I wanted at the end of the book.

Therefore, Liver Mush is not a character in Liver Mush.

I also wrote a poem that imagined writers I liked eating liver mush and liking it. Maybe inspired by Felix Bernstein’s poem “If Loving You is Wrong”, or maybe I just thought of that poem now because it’s repetitious and includes writers’ names.

Bernstein Googled a bunch of poets and then wrote them in ascending order of Google results, until the last two lines:

If Socrates (7,700,000 results) is a poet, I’ll consider it
If Andy Warhol (16,300,000 results) is a poet, I want to be a poet

The poem is in his book Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry. So, even if I can’t say I was directly inspired by that poem to write a long list of writers I’d like to see eat liver mush, I can say liver mush is not post-conceptual poetry.

 

The book also reads like a bighearted love letter to the speaker’s mom, K, and Bambi. What do your mom, partner, and cat think about the book?

My mom has always been pretty supportive of my writing. She believes God gave me the talent to write and I’m using it to reach people. I think she still has hopes that something else is coming on the other side of this. Like a big book deal or a job that pays me to write or something. She doesn’t necessarily like the “cussing and drinking” but she sees people talking about my writing as proof that it has some value. A few of her friends bought the book and have told her they like it. She sends me their screen shots. That’s funny to me. She always seems surprised that I remember things that I write about because I don’t talk about them with her. That she sees it as remembering instead of exaggerating is a big positive I think.

Kaitlin enjoys being a character in the book. She sees it like I’m talking about her to friends when she isn’t there. Which is kind of the case. She is who I spend most of my time with and who shows up in most of the stories I tell. After I did the book release reading here in Philly we had a really good talk about it. She told me she was proud of me for taking something small about myself and getting people to care about it. Bringing my world to a slightly bigger world. She didn’t say it that way. She was more flattering. But it was good to hear. It made me weepy and even more appreciative of her for seeing that and making sure I don’t minimize it. Her being proud of it makes me more proud.

And Bambi loves it. She’s my biggest fan. Since the book came out she’s been on my lap more. She’s been sleeping on my side of the bed. She’s eating all her food and not asking for any of mine. She’s even trying to control her hairballs more. She’s gotten a big head because Tao Lin mentioned her in his blurb. He’s her favorite writer. After me. She keeps asking me to see if, even though she hates dogs, maybe Dudu would want to hang out sometime. I keep telling her it’s probably not a good idea to meet her heroes. Plus, you know, she hates dogs.

 

There’s a Flavor Flavian quality to the hype levels in this book. While reading, I had a flashback to watching a kitchen knife demonstration at the National Western Stock Show. Even though I was just a kid, this guy had my full attention and could do whatever he wanted with it even though there was no chance of me buying anything. Have you considered going into sales?

“Flavor Flavian” is good. That’s a huge compliment. I envy that talent a lot. Being able to keep someone engaged and make them believe some object or idea will make their life better.

I recently watched Tommy Boy, that Chris Farley movie, because I remembered the scene where he convinces a waitress to serve him chicken wings even though the kitchen is closed. That’s a great scene. I like that the movie’s about Tommy realizing his weird charisma has the power to continue his father’s legacy.

I wish all sales were like that. It feels evil to make people spend money or do something they weren’t already going to do. Sometimes I feel evil when I suggest someone listen to a song or watch a movie or read a book. Because it’s moving them off their own mission.

But I do think there is a place for artist branded nootropic supplements. Maybe that’s what I could sell. A pill called Cormac that makes you write old but cool. A drink mix called Woolf that makes you invent narrative modes.

 

A t-shirt that cures depression! I bought one, but it only works on days that I wear it, and for a little less time each day. You also let me read your manuscript, Some Food I Ate, which gets at how this thing we do daily is about sustenance, and, if we’re lucky, pleasure, culture, and habit. The things I put into my body, surround myself with, and subject my senses to reflect my distorted perception of what I holistically need. Are you in tune with your needs? Can vigilant awareness of your consumption cleanse it of others’ ulterior motives for pushing it on you and unlock something pure or ideal?

I’m still not sure what I need or what would make me happy or what would cure me. The t-shirt that cures depression doesn’t cure depression because a single new event doesn’t really affect anything. It’s just a distraction. Healthy habits of any kind are more likely to make life better than any one event or product or whatever. Habits allow your body to be in equilibrium. Maybe.

I am not super healthy. Eating is something I have to do and I’ve felt controlled by that at different points in my life. Writing Some Food I Ate helped me figure out more emotional ties to food in general and maybe separate emotions from food in a healthy way. I feel more in control of the stories attached to those emotions. They’re closer to the surface and I can talk about them with people. That makes it feel easier to connect with others, which is something I value in life and gives me a sense of personal power. If I can connect better with people I can exist more fully in their minds. If I can exist more fully in other peoples’ minds maybe I’ll feel more complete in my own mind. If I feel more complete in my own mind maybe I won’t worry about other peoples’ perception of me. Maybe then I’ll be cured.

That might be why anyone writes or that might just be my personal goal. Writing down what I ate just happened to be what made me feel closest to that goal recently. It’s worth thinking about what you think about when you do what you do. Otherwise how would you know?

But yes, everyone should do it. It’s a burden but it’s the only thing that works until something else works. Then that’s the only thing that works.

 

Has anybody convinced you of anything recently?

This is hard to answer because I don’t like to believe I’m convinced of anything. It makes me feel more in control when I think, even if my actions were swayed by outside influences, I still made the final choice to do or think something. That isn’t true though. I think I just frame things that way. So I’ll try to answer more sincerely.

A couple days ago someone sent me a playlist on Instagram and through those songs I ended up listening to Don Caballero and some of the members of that band’s side projects. I really liked one song from Don Caballero and a song from a band called Speaking Canaries. I also liked this band called Hurl’s first album. I’ve tried to get into Don Caballero before but didn’t really enjoy math rock, still don’t, but those songs and that Hurl album made me change my opinion somewhat. I was tangentially convinced to reconsider a band’s output by a friend online.


Is there anybody’s conviction that you admire but don’t find persuasive?

Religious people are admirable. Christian faith is the one I’m most familiar with. I was an atheist for a long time but don’t consider myself that anymore. I don’t consider myself a Christian or a theist now either.

I’m interested in that kind of thing though. I want to have some type of targeted faith other than, “I’ll probably be fine.” The relationship people have with God is very beautiful. Believing that there is a God who sees you and knows you in a way even you can’t comprehend and still loves you is something that makes me feel weepy even imagining it now.

But I find it hard to fully buy into it. It’s persuasive but not enough to get me all the way there. And I feel that’s a weakness in myself but not a weakness I want to solve through going to church or praying or trying to be a Christian. I try to pray sometimes though.

A lot of things about Christianity are cool though. Good stories in the Bible. I’ve been reading it lately. Great art for centuries. Some of the coolest paintings ever are crucifixion scenes. That shit rules.

Religion makes sense and I respect people who are religious. And I know there are other religions besides Christianity that I have not looked into or tried to learn from or believe anything fully from those either. Part of me feels Christianity is the only option for me because it is the religion most closely related to my culture. And I wouldn’t understand other religions because I wasn’t raised in those cultures and that would make me unable to feel God there too.

And I think if I see religion as primarily cultural instead of primarily spiritual it hasn’t fully persuaded me.

Maybe I just haven’t convinced myself that it’s something I want to do because it feels bigger than a lot of the other choices I make. Listening to a band or reading a book or eating a new food isn’t a huge identity shift. It’s easy to absorb those things into my view of myself. It feels like becoming a Christian or a theist is desirable because it’s the opposite. I would be absorbed into something larger than myself. That scares me or makes me uncomfortable or just wary.



If you could jack into the Matrix kung fu machine, what knowledge would you download first? What do you wish you could summon to exist fully in your own mind?

It would be nice to know what clothes to wear that I already own for whatever the current weather is. Say it’s 56 outside. I instantly know my green hoodie and black jeans will be perfect for it. And they’re so perfect I don’t think about the weather while outside or kick myself for choosing the wrong thing before leaving the house.

Something like that would be good. Something small and personal that maximizes comfort and confidence but can’t really be exploited. It wouldn’t work for anyone else.

Maybe it would be better to always know what everyone could wear, based on the weather where they are and clothes they own, so I could help people feel comfortable and confident all over. Is “shared for the good of humanity” the opposite of exploited?

Or I’d pick kung fu too. Or maybe MMA because that seems more applicable to an altercation in everyday life. I could leave my apartment and say, “I’m perfectly prepared for the weather and anyone who might want to kill or maim me.”


 
What have you enjoyed learning about lately?

I’ve been working at a restaurant a couple months and have really enjoyed learning about the structure of food service. How the front of house interacts with the back of house. How people in the kitchen prepare for service and portion out the same meals all day. I like food and have worked around food but never in this capacity. It’s a lot of fun. Watching the head chef work has made me feel more adventurous in the food I make myself and also more aware of how little I know about food and flavors. So much of a good meal comes from balance and order and timing.

Also, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction books by authors or about topics I don’t agree with. It has been exciting taking that information in and forming my own opinions. Maybe attempting to engage with the thoughts or empathize with the problematic people in the books. I read some of Sexual Personnae by Camile Paglia and even though I don’t agree with a lot she says, or feel she says a lot without much evidence, it’s still interesting to follow how she forms an argument.

Another book I’m reading is a biography of George W. Bush. It’s pretty critical of him and his family, his common man public image vs. his family’s wealth and connection, from an early 2000’s perspective at least. Which, yea, of course, even before the Patriot Act and the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, he was a governor who did fucked up stuff, he was a college and graduate student who did fucked up stuff, his family did fucked up stuff, etc. But the way people talk about how he was so immediately friendly and likable was, I don’t know, enjoyable? It doesn’t change my opinion too much about the guy. Maybe it ties into the Flavor Flavian Tommy Boy kind of thing. I’m just interested in that kind of social rhetorical skill.

 

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