You Don’t Console a Reckoning: A Conversation with Sasha Fletcher
I meet my friend Sasha Fletcher at a restaurant in Brooklyn on an unseasonably warm October day. We are thankful for we can sit outside. We are miserable, for we want scarves, we want sweaters. We are talking about his book, It Is Going to Be a Good Year (Big Lucks). The book’s poems are organized around the domestic life of a couple, living in a town populated by bandits and ghosts, governed by a president, ruled by a kind of melancholic chaos. The chaos is externalized in verse, and his book is a meditation on the tremors and aftershocks of romantic love.
It’s the kind of collection that trades in leaps. Leaps of language, literal leaps of bravery and athleticism. In his poem “you are a beauty and i am alright,” the word punch quickly leaps forward, circulating through its various connotations: a punch bowl, a punch in the face, a punchline. Later, when Sasha tells me about his favorite movie, Punch Drunk Love, I think about that missing articulation of the word—the one that relates to love—its absence made present by the unmistakable affection in these pages.
He’s got a shirt the color of pavement and a burger and a beer and he’s going to talk to me about tattoos. Specifically, the brand new tattoo on his arm. It’s a kind of banner or pennant or flag, a symbol of collegiate enthusiasm, and on the flag, i swear to god is semi-scrawled in a confident hand. It’s a bit of found dialogue relayed from the mundanity of a friend’s babysitting story, he explains, a floating exclamation that Sasha pocketed for himself. Sasha tends to pocket exclamations, and his book is an exclamation that fits in my pocket. It could fit in your pocket, too.
HILARY LEICHTER: I swear to god sums up the tone of your book, actually. It’s kind of perfect. I never would’ve guessed that it was a quote lifted from someone else’s life.
SASHA FLETCHER: It became a thing. And I was writing it down, and I drew it out. I wrote it out.
Is the tattoo in your handwriting?
Yeah. I’m only getting my handwriting and things that I would say. I’m only getting words, and I’m only getting them done in my handwriting.
I like that.
There’s this great thing that the tattoo artist said. So I was telling him about I swear to god, and he was like, “Oh, I bet there’s a story behind that.” He’s this really laid back surfer guy with a lot of neck tattoos, wearing an open-collared dress shirt and pinstriped overalls.
So he tells me, “Normally I tell people not to get words on their body, because it’s a lot harder to live with words,” he said, “but I feel like you get that.”
You know how to live with words.
He was like, I feel like you’re aware of that.
How many tattoos do you have?
Just the two.
When did you get the tattoo of the word hex?
The week that I turned thirty. People always want to know if there’s a story, so you make one up, because people love fucking narrative. So the story that I like to tell is that I figured I was turning thirty and if anyone was going to put a spell on me it was going to be me. That’s the story I came up with.
But what’s the real story?
I just wrote it down, while drunk, on my hand one day, and when it washed off, I missed it. And I just kept writing it, and realized that I wanted it.
That does sort of sound like you were hexing yourself. Sort of.
The next one is going to be the moon—
On your palm? You’re writing it on your palm!
It’s gonna hurt so much.
When did your obsession with the moon start? The moon appears in so many of your poems. And the moon is always kind of described as being a jerk.
As a kid. Whenever I would say prayers I would be looking at the moon, or picturing the moon.
So why is the moon in your poetry so often “sitting there like an asshole?”
Because it’s always fucking there out your window, right? I mean a lot of it came from the fact that I wrote a lot of these poems when I was living with my ex in Williamsburg. And we were right off the BQE, and there would frequently be BQE construction, and so there would be those giant lights in the window. Or when there was a full moon, it would be right outside the window, and often I’d be writing late at night while she was asleep, and I’d be in the living room, sitting on the couch using an Ikea end table for a desk, listening to music with headphones in, and the moon would be right out the window.
The moon was like your cat.
But gigantic. But like, “Hey, hang out and watch me all the time!” Like as though that’s not creepy!
Not at all. Not creepy at all.
I mean, I love the moon. I just think that maybe the moon’s a jerk.
I mean, it’s okay. You can love someone who’s a jerk.
Right? People love me! I’m not a jerk so much as I just won’t stop texting. I’ll write like, fifty emails in a row instead of one normal sized one.
How does that make you a jerk?
It’s not being a jerk so much as…the moon and I both have no chill, when it comes down to it. And that’s maybe why I have so many strong feelings about the moon, because the moon has no chill.
You’re right. It doesn’t know when to say when.
It doesn’t know when to stop, when to go away.
Can’t stop, won’t stop.
Were the poems in It Is Going to Be a Good Year written mostly over the course of one relationship?
I think the oldest poem, “my eyes have seen the dawning,” was written my second semester at Columbia around 2010. The title poem was originally a thirty or forty line poem, and I just kept cutting it down. It was also part of “when I go to bed I go to bed with the lights on.” A lot of these were all different things that didn’t work together, but eventually they found ways to work. I always basically only write about love. I’m mostly interested in domestic relationships and just the ways the world gets stranger when certain things are calmer. And the way lots of other things get…not calm at all. The idea of quiet monotony is incredibly compelling in the way that it is never actually that at all.
Right. There are decibels that you can’t necessarily hear.
A lot of it was originally written about…I don’t know how to write about anything directly. My dad told me as a kid that when you’re wrestling, you don’t want to approach someone from the front, you want to approach them from the side so they can’t see you coming. So that’s how I write about my feelings.
I’m just going to read you a line or two where I feel like you might be doing what you just described—coming at an idea from the side. This is from “we the people”: “We are shipwrecks / with legs and we go to sleep / at reasonable hours.” You make this unbelievable kind of statement, that is then immediately buffered by something mundane. And in the poem “torch song”: “I felt like I was holding a loaded gun or a gallon / of milk.” You do this thing where you pivot, mid-image. Does the gallon of milk come first for you, or is it the gun? Where does the image start?
I have almost no idea. With those line breaks and those turns, I think those were always there. John Darnielle was talking about the reason he never plays “Going to Georgia,” because of the idea of a young man with a lot of feelings and a gun, the idea that especially when you’re younger and have a dick and are straight, your answer for a large, almost violent level of feeling is violence, whereas it’s not ever actually violence in reality. That magnitude of feeling is not a feeling that demands or deserves violence. But there’s still an impulse there.
It’s hard to read your book now after this year, and not read the violence in a different way. Is it going to be a good year, Sasha? Was it?
[The title] was always written as the sort of thing where you’re looking in the bathroom mirror and you’re just saying to yourself, with sort of prayerful wariness, “It’s going to be a good year. It’s going to be a good year.” When Mark [Cugini] picked the photo as the cover, I was a little wary of it. But I figured that my sort of stunned look of confusion would make sure that people didn’t read the title as, “Woohoo, yeah!”
So the title is not a prediction.
It’s an “I forgot my mantra.”
Because I would argue that this has not been a good year. I think we need your book this year.
This was easily the worst summer of my life.
Personally or nationally?
Both. Yes. Yes. I was broke and deeply lonely. People were on vacation, or pregnant, or on vacation. I was alone a lot. I wasn’t working. I could make rent and kind of get some groceries, but that was about it. I didn’t like leaving the house because I just thought about the fact that I couldn’t do anything but go for a walk. And then I’d get tired or hungry or thirsty and have a little bit of food that I could snack on at home, but that was way back, and I’d have to walk for a long time until I felt something different. But then I didn’t feel anything different? It was just like that every day. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t a big fan!
But now things are creeping into the light a little bit?
Yeah, I mean yes. And nationally things are just a fucking shitshow.
The president is a big character in your book. Who, in your mind, is the president? When you picture that person that’s always coming in to calm down the town and country and the couple in your poems. Who is that for you?
A better version of Bobby Kennedy.
I have to ask you this. Have you ever seen a ghost? Do you have experiences with ghosts from your childhood? Because I’m so used to seeing ghosts in your poems and in the novel you’re working on. I’m so used to seeing them that I’m kind of anesthetized to their presence. And then re-reading your book, I felt, “Whoa. Sasha has issues with ghosts.”
I really like the idea of a Greek chorus. What better Greek chorus than a bunch of ghosts wearing bedsheets in your house who may or may not be actual ghosts? Or somehow there’s stadium seating suddenly erected outside your window, filled with skeletons or people who are ghosts wearing bedsheets. They’re both the studio audience and the chorus. I really love TV and movies, and it seemed like a way to work some of these tropes of performance into a poem. It becomes something that is part of the world of the poem. So it doesn’t become meta. It doesn’t take you out of the moment, it just becomes part of the construction of the whole world.
A world in which there are ghosts! I wanted to ask about it because I find them to be a calming presence. They’re not scary. They’re not haunting anyone. They’re just saying, “You okay, buddy?” They’re just there.
Conceptually, it seems the idea of a ghost has always been portrayed in American literature as the dead who can’t quite let go. There’s something holding them back. And generally, people who can’t quite let go of shit are real sad motherfuckers! As a depressive who watches a lot of Louie, these are the kind of ghosts I feel I would hang out with.
You seem comfortable with the lines between life and death, and here and not-here. Those lines are murky or nonexistent in your work. Life does not end in your poems.
Yes and no. It ends frequently, but then it just keeps going. I remember reading this thing about how there are kids who believe when they’re really young, that the world will end if they close their eyes. When you go to sleep, the world just ends. Like, what kind of creation myth is that! The world just ends because you went to sleep! What other ways can the world end, but no actually end? It’s this feeling that everything’s going to collapse.
And then it somehow keeps going. There’s a relief in the collapse that you never let the reader have. In the poem “crybaby,” you describe a ferris wheel as being “functionally on fire.” That’s maybe a good way of describing your verse. Functionally on fire. Because it gets to where it needs to go, but it’s burning the whole way there. When you’re writing, is it a stampede to the end of the poem? Are you functionally on fire when you’re writing?
When it’s good, yeah. But editing is such a huge process for me. The last poem I wrote, “something wonderful,” I wrote that in a week. Five or six drafts maybe, rapidly revising. And all of it came out of the fact that there was this one poem I loved called “jawbone” that was just too aggressive. So I just took bits of it. And like I brought one line back in another poem about wearing your jawbone like a tiara. But then added the line, “which is a symbol of your office.” Really extended the metaphor to the point where it became uncomfortably funny.
Some of my other poems took five years. You know how sometimes when you’re writing, you know what you’re doing, and other times you just really desperately want to know what you’re doing? When I’m able to be smart, it’s maybe 25% of the time. When I’m not being a moron who’s at best word-drunk, and at worst trying to say something good. It’s mostly the latter. You can eventually stumble onto something. But the other problem is when you’re writing and nothing is good, and then you just start getting mad. And then you’re like, “writing is the worst, everything I did before was good but that’s never going to happen again.” And this is the one thing I’m good at. I’m good at this, and I’m good at texting too much. One of these is maybe beneficial to strangers. And the other is not.
That’s not a good feeling.
It’s the worst!
Why five hundred children? The couple, the protagonists in the book at various points have five hundred children. It hurts to think about that. Who are these children!
Remember that Nutrigrain commercial where the guy’s like, “I’m going to quit my job and start my own company!” And there’s a woman who says, “I’m gonna have babies! Yeah! Lots of babies!” And she starts stuffing things under her shirt? I watched that a lot. A lot. It was a spiritual touchstone. And I think they say, “Yeah, five hundred of them!” But it didn’t register until later that that’s where I stole that from. But I was thinking, what’s a number that’s completely unreasonable, but not—
Fake? Well, no, it’s definitely fake.
It’s totally fake! A thousand seems completely outlandish, but somehow five hundred…it also sounds good.
But then at one point in the book the number increases to five hundred thousand!
There was a while where the publisher and I were talking about doing a running draft where one of the edits was going to be that at each instance of five hundred, we would add an additional five hundred. So every time it said five hundred babies, it would keep adding each time.
Until it was the whole world.
We decided that it was ridiculous, although it was totally great for the use of the comment in Microsoft Word, “Baby Math,” which I wrote every time there would have been an increase of babies.
The babies get kidnapped by bandits. They go through a lot.
They go through a lot! Those babies can handle it.
I almost wasn’t picturing babies by the end. I was picturing kids.
Preternatural toddlers. Most of the times I write about children, I’m thinking of Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” But they definitely start out as babies, and then they grow.
That’s what happens to babies! In the poem “a love story,” there’s a line I’m obsessed with, which to me describes your whole deal: “you will tell me that I am your husband / and immediately this will become true.” There’s a randomness to the places your poems travel, and then suddenly, they make sense. You tell us that we’re your husband, and then it’s just automatically true.
Everything good that I’ve ever written exists in a world that believe in the power of invocation. To speak something is to name it, to name it is to give it a truth. That’s the basic tenet of what language is, right? We name a thing so that we can understand it, so that we can make it true and give it a truth. So I just feel like [these poems] should operate in a world that operates the same way. But also sometimes not, because if it’s the same way all the time, then it’s never going to be surprising. Right? If things don’t occasionally fail or misfire, how is it interesting?
Do you mean on the language level, or world-building level?
All of it. I mean, the fact that we have a gameshow rapist as president elect. That’s a misfire.
That is an understatement. Understatement of the year.
Do you watch Preacher?
Is that the show based on the graphic novel? I haven’t watched it.
There’s this bit at the end where the whole town explodes because everyone decides that God isn’t real. Or not that God isn’t real, but God has left his throne in heaven. The town is like, well then sin doesn’t matter. So there’s this guy who’s been trying to have sex with his wife, and he works at a cow manure energy plant making sure the methane gas doesn’t go crazy. He passes out from the sex he’s always fantasized having and just dies, and no one can turn the methane off, and the whole town explodes. Just a little misfire! That results in the death and destruction of everything. An orange fireball consuming America.
If the president in your poems could tell us something about this election, what would he say? What would he say to Hillary and Donald? How would he console us?
I don’t think he’d have anything to say to them. I think to us, he’d just be like, well, fuck.
But in the voice of Bobby Kennedy?
Right. You console someone when you need consoling. I don’t know that this is a thing that should be consoled.
Because we made it ourselves?
It’s a thing that has to be reckoned with. You don’t console a reckoning. Things got to the point where this is possible. You don’t say, “There, there, it will get better.” You say, this is terrible. Let’s do something.