INTERVIEW: The Poet in the Parking Lot // Megan Volpert
by Jon Riccio
There’s a high likelihood Megan Volpert is the only Teacher of the Year appearing in The Volta. Much as I wanted to ask her about the faculty smoking lounges of yore, we had other matters to discuss, namely Megan’s new book, Only Ride. Any poetry collection prefaced with lyrics by Tom Petty is bound to resonate. That and the line “I pretty much have the kind of problems that a pot of macaroni & cheese can solve, except that a lot of people think I think about death a little too often.” Driver’s ed be damned.
Jon Riccio: I’m thrilled to present Only Ride in an experimental autobiographies class offered this semester at the University of Arizona. How does it feel having your book on a 2014 syllabus, as it was published in the same year?
Megan Volpert: Any time somebody wants to teach your book, it’s awesome. Indeed, it feels good that Only Ride is popping up on some syllabi rather immediately after its publication. As I was writing it, I figured it would be more of a slow burner–sort of unassuming, but then growing in favorability as word of mouth about it spread. It’s ending up more splashy though, and I can’t deny I dig that. However, the thing about your particular case of classroom is not that it’s in the current year, but that it’s an “experimental autobiographies” class. I know the class is being taught by a poet, but wow; it’s most lovely for people to understand that Only Ride is in a hybrid gray space, and is not, strictly speaking, poetry.
JR: The final sentences in your poems blew me away. They’re places where hypothetical monkeys, John Cougar and bridged infinities abound. How did you hone your talent for endings? Was there a writer whose work influenced this?
MV: Thanks! My attention to closure, and hookiness generally, probably stems most from my roots in slam poetry. When your three minutes are up, people have to know it by the sound of your voice and the sentiment of your final line. That said, I’ve always been a girl who likes to have the last word, who likes to get in the quippy and biting final remark. That’s a branch of sarcasm toward which I’ve always been naturally inclined. But also: Camille Paglia, Roland Barthes, Andrei Codrescu, Daphne Gottlieb, Nicole Blackman, and many more.
JR: The dead are “already being reborn & preparing to speak ill of you.” Only Ride offers such additional meditations as: “I don’t know the precise moment when I first looked upon my own mortality with respect. There was blood on it.” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, just not until it’s done scaring the holy hell out of you.” How did these examinations shape the book’s arc?
MV: They shape its motivation more than its arc. Since I was a kid, people have been telling me things like I have an old soul, or I’ve been forty since I was eighteen. Especially since being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about ten years ago, and the extensive chronic pains that have accompanied that malady, I have come to some serious personal realizations about my life’s priorities. Only Ride is on a mission to share those, to make some kind of foray into humanism and to make explicit my philosophies of life. My grandpa called me up and said to me about this book that, at age ninety-three, he feels very close to death and he was shocked by how thoroughly I captured his feelings, given that I am only thirty-two years old. And that’s the thing: some people look death in the face sooner than other people, and I am just one of those people–the shadow of death is upon me. I’m not a morbid person, but I do consider daily the importance of making each day great.
JR: You mention wanting to define the living daylights in “Ankles disappear.” Here’s your chance.
MV: I just googled “living daylights.” I’ve always thought it would be a good name for a band, and there is in fact a band out there agreeing with me. It’s also one of the Timothy Dalton James Bond movies. Beyond that, I think the notion of “living daylights” is a highly personalized one. Everybody is fearful of different things they encounter in their differing existences. Who was it that said that only two things a person can be sure of are death and taxes? Only Ride gives a strong sense of my own living daylights and what I’m doing to keep on keeping on in the face of them, but I’m reluctant to declare too many aspects of my own scene as universal.
JR: “There are concave people & convex people” according to your poem “I’m not Velma.” Suppose there are two types of writers. What are they?
MV: You know where that line comes from? I ripped that idea from the movie Cocktail. There is a great bit in there where the mentor bartender is talking to newbie Tom Cruise, and the guy says, “there are two kinds of people in this world: the workers and the hustlers. The hustlers never work and the workers never hustle–and you, my friend, are a worker.” I’m paraphrasing, but fairly tightly. That’s an idea that’s been with me since I watched that movie as a kid. It was a formative experience for understanding how dichotomies operate. Now, supposing there are two types of writers, what are they? The workers and the hustlers. I appreciate your not asking me which type I am.
JR: Your publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, welcomes all authors, artists and readers regardless of sexual orientation or identity. “Blowing up all kinds of new avenues” is how you described their trajectory during a recent interview. Please share how you came to be affiliated with them.
MV: I snookered Bryan Borland, the publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press (SRP). I’d had a press lined up for the Warhol book, but the press went under and left my manuscript in the lurch. Like, majorly last-minute in the lurch. I had to find a home for it and had heard some nice things about SRP, which at that time was just a tiny indie upstart with the first inklings of buzz. So I invited Bryan to do a gig, and then after the gig, I cold pitched him the book. He fell in love with the idea of it right away, and I had already done 99% of the legwork and everything, so it would be super easy for him to slide in and just print it. That was Sonics in Warholia, and Bryan and I have been working together ever since. Of course, he’s learned not to say yes on the spot to random writers who pitch to him in bars–I thank my lucky stars he greenlit me so easily. He has such good instincts, and watching SRP grow exponentially over the past few years has been a total delight. I’m giddy about being a part of that family, about helping Bryan to build his empire.
JR: One of my favorite passages from Only Ride is “I conjure before you the only openly queer faculty member in this public Southern high school, fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance. You are failing tolerance…” Enlighten us with a tolerance tutorial.
MV: The epilogue there is interesting: I’m currently serving as my school’s Teacher of the Year. So that’s awesome and weird. But as far as a tolerance tutorial, it really just amounts to two things: having an open-mindedness that recognizes difference, and then valuing those differences in a positive way. Valuing difference in a positive way is very difficult for most people, myself included. I think a lot of people are idiots. This year, I’ve been trying to be conscious of the ways I put people into boxes, and I’m trying to do a better job of extending grace to people I might otherwise find idiotic. Being gracious is one of my life-long challenges. I know I’m entitled to my opinion that most people are idiots, but I can still extend those people a space for their contribution to the world. If I tried to cut out all the idiots, I would face a real consequence of loneliness plus the strong likelihood that I will have myself become an idiot. Fascism sucks. Tolerance is just about clearing space for people to do their best, despite the fact that you may think their best is not as cool as yours.
JR: Your book opens riding into the sunset and closes riding into eternity. Do you think we’re more of a sunset- or eternity-driven culture? What role does poetry play in this?
MV: Well, that opening poem is titled “Only idiots ride into the sunset.” The idea is that there is still so much work to do, and so much life to live. Each of us is leaving a legacy for the rest of eternity, and if you want to exercise some decent amount of control over what that legacy is, you’ve got to deliberately go about prioritizing some things. Only Ride is a bit of a guidebook to what I’ve chosen to prioritize, and I hope it helps some people make a little more sense of their own daily struggles, gives a little fresh perspective on what each of us can accomplish in our relationship to the stream of history. So that’s the role of the book; I don’t really want to speculate on the role of poetry at large, but I guess most people would agree that the arts are one good way to share what individuals learn for the betterment of our whole culture.
JR: “Filthy lucre never sleeps” is one of most apt musings on karma I’ve read in ages. Any karma in your life of late?
MV: Oh, wow. Yep. Big time. So, my wife and I just celebrated nine years together. Her birthday is close to our anniversary and we had a little party at the house. Once a bunch of our friends and family had gathered, I proposed to her that we renew our wedding vows in NYC next year, to celebrate our tenth anniversary. She said yes, of course, and it turned up the volume on the birthday party quite a bit. And then the next day, I discovered a lump on my ribcage. Like, a huge lump the size of my fist. Overnight, there it was. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been having what we can now retrospectively refer to as a cancer scare. And the synchronicity of those two events in one weekend is pretty ugly, you know? I’ve never felt for one second that the universe was punishing me for being a queer. But I do believe we’re all on a bit of a pendulum swing, and we get some good, then some bad, then some good, and the other shoe is always going to drop sooner or later before another upswing. Well, I guess we upswung way high with that vow renewal idea, so the ham-fisted fates socked me one in the ribs the very next day. It’s funny, but in that way “the luck of the Irish” is funny, which to a lot of people isn’t funny at all.
JR: Your titles could be primers for living: “Everything still turns to gold,” “No bonus for backs broken,” “There’s a difference between familiar & recurring,” “Coming down is the hardest thing.” What’s best about the ascent?
MV: I think we’ve covered both the “primer for living” notion and the “ascent” issue. Ascent: everybody does it. Let’s make t-shirts. The Living Daylights band can sell them.
JR: You “aspire to have been not the poet laureate of rock & roll, but the rock & roll laureate of poetry.” Your first three acts in this vaunted (and Patti Smith-approved) position consist of…
MV: Only Ride is the opening volley. Right now, I’m working on a thing about the Bicentennial that is extremely gonzo and punk rock obsessed. And then I’m happy to tell you I’m under contract to write a book about Bruce Springsteen. I love music. It understands me.
Megan Volpert is the author of 5 books on communication & pop culture. She edited the Lammy finalist & ALA-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. She is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.