I Never Want to Sweat Blood: An Interview with Megan Martin
Some books should be released with a gunshot or a firework accompanying their publication, a way for the title to rise above the din of a million books pouring out into the world.
It’s hard to sift through everything and find something that reaches into your stomach and pokes your guts. But for most of us, all we want is that punch in the viscera, those words that will make you say: Yes. These Words. More.
Nevers by Megan Martin offers a buffet of gut pokes, and you’ll want to belly up. A few gems:
Love is a gruesome school of bass smoking cigars and dying.
Why are the foxes dancing so mechanically as I play R. Kelly in their honor?
…we continue to bloom and rot and bloom, on and on and on like galaxies and bacteria and ants.
Point being, I’d like to shoot a gun into the sky for Nevers. I think it should be a revolver. Consider it fired.
SARAH ROSE ETTER: This is one of my favorite books I’ve read in a long damn time. It was like reading small explosions. Caketrain sent me the PDF, and I was reading it at work between meetings, and it made me want to run out of the office screaming and start writing. I think that pulse carries throughout this collection – layers of madness and joy and kindness and devilishness. Is all of that in your head, too? Are you my soulmate?
MEGAN MARTIN: The voice, Amanda and Joseph, the editors at Caketrain described it as “manic,” which I think is pretty accurate–and it’s maybe even more bipolar because of the swings you describe. My inner experience feels intense a lot of the time: a moment can be so beautiful for a minute and then something happens and you just watch it go sour and turn into a totally new moment that’s infected with a totally different feeling and then turn beautiful again. You never know what’s coming next. I wanted to capture that as I wrote. And it was interesting to try and write in that way but to write pieces that would qualify as stories and not poems or prose blocks. Like, how do you make a story that’s fragmented and wanders and has all of these different angles but is still identifiable as a story?
I wanted to make it feel like you were inside the narrator’s consciousness, inside a person experiencing the present moment, instead of trying to write stories that added up to some specific idea or meaning like math problems.
I think we’re soulmates. Tongue Party is soulmate dark to me, soulmate intense, and the language is just so weird and good. I was so attracted to that while I read it. So I love that you feel soulmated by my craziness; the feeling is totally mutual. I love that rare feeling you have as a reader when you feel so intimately connected to a stranger through their writing.
SRE: One thing that jumped out to me was also something Matt Bell mentioned — that your sentences have a way of turning in on themselves. A line about foxes turns into a line about R. Kelly turns into a line about suburbia. Where’d this rhythm come from? How do the words come out for you?
MM: I hate boredom. I used to write long stories, but at some point things like developing plots and characters became boring to me and I discovered that language was the most interesting thing, and my stories shrunk. I don’t have the tolerance for toiling–I toil enough in life and don’t want to toil as a writer. I never want to sweat blood to write. Honestly, as a writer I do the things that interest me and avoid everything else.
There’s nothing I love more than writing a sentence: it’s the supreme thing I care about. I never want to write a boring sentence and I hate writing filler sentences that get you from here to there, so I try to skip them and hope the reader is cool with making unexpected leaps with me. I think that’s part of how we get from foxes to R. Kelly to suburbia. The other thing that made these sentences was the process. All of the pieces in the collection emerged from just automatic writing by hand and not censoring myself. Many of the leaps happened because they were created by being open to what entered my mind, as opposed to homing in on a particular noun or idea or line and writing a story that projected outward from that one thing or moment.
During revision, I picked out the sentences that I was drawn to and saw what happened when I strung them together and tried to make connections between things that were really just trainwrecks to begin with. At a certain point in the editing process, I wanted to make every sentence a surprise, and totally unexpected coming off the previous one, and to think about how those leaps could create enough “arc” for something to still be a story and not just a bunch of language.
SRE: Throughout, this collection becomes more and more self aware, almost like watching someone writing a collection while realizing they’re writing a collection – the shout outs to poetry, to academia, to the fucking process of writing. How and why did you decide to expose those bones?
MM: When I started writing these I was reading BAD BAD, a collection of poems by Chelsey Minnis, and I fell hard in love with some of poems. They infected my writing process. Her poems are really honest about how writing is unpleasant and dumb and terrible and absurd. She says things like ‘I’d rather have a Gucci bag than a poem,’ or ‘if poetry is dead…then good.’
And, yes, I love that sentiment. She wrote all of these ‘fuck you’ poems that were just so charming and that really rebelled against whatever the academy or the canon would consider good poetry. And she also writes a lot about failing as a writer. I found it so comforting to read something so honest.
I also love metafiction, like, love it, I love when the writer’s mind is talking about process in the middle of a story–it’s so comforting to me when a story breaks out of itself in whatever way and feels spacious and expansive rather than rigid or too tightly wound. I feel acutely aware of my failures as a writer, and we hear so much about writers’ successes as they’re constantly being announced online, but every writer I know feels like a total failure a lot, if not most, of the time. So it relieved me, in the middle of a story, to just be honest and say, yeah, I suck at this. Or yeah: who the hell is gonna read my book of weird stories from this little press? Or: I am jealous of that stupid lady poet whose tidy poems win all the awards. Or: god, that old whiteguy poet is a jackass. I’m personally comforted by things that push my buttons and make me feel uncomfortable, so maybe the book will be comforting to other writers.
I find the writing world to be simultaneously difficult and nourishing. It’s easy to glorify the idea of community as something that’s always nourishing, but communities are like families: loving and imperfect and messed up. I have a depressive bent in my writing and as a person, so the book focuses more on what makes community difficult: the fragility and enormity of writers’ egos, striving for recognition, and how competitive and schmoozy and self-absorbed that world can feel. I often feel like we can’t talk about how uncomfortable that community can be or how it’s flawed or cliquish or makes us feel shitty, so I wanted to.
SRE: A lot happens in these short pieces – two pages and it’s suddenly a secret park, a fossilized vagina, a seemingly kind word from a lover. But despite how short, these pieces remain so damn dense. Can you talk a little about how you compress these pieces? What’s your editing situation like?
MM: If I’m going to write things that are tiny, I don’t want them to be throwaways. I want there to be everything in the world going on in a small space so that it does feel dense and like the experience of being alive. Spinning off in a bunch of directions feels really real to me in terms of what it feels like to be alive–that being alive, for me anyway, is just fucking disorienting all the time. And I wanted the pieces to move fast for that reason–to really capture that experience of disorientation.
I don’t know how compressing happens, specifically, just that I start with a pile of shit and say to myself: okay, what’s good and interesting to me in this pile of shit, or what connects this pile of shit? My editing process revolves around me not being bored, mostly with the sentences, and seeing how many I can take out or how I can combine the ideas in multiple sentences into one that’s really tight and packed full of a lot. My tiny stories actually feel fuller and more complete than longer stories I used to write that felt like they wasted space.
Also, Amanda and Joseph at Caketrain made awesome cuts. They were really able to just dig in and ruthlessly chop out things that didn’t need to be there. I can’t kill all my darlings because I spend so much time on them, but they could! And they cut out some of the wandery-ness that was distracting and made many of them feel more centered, which made the book way better.
SRE: What inspires you?
MM: Things that make me angry or irritated or sad. Don Draper or anyone like him. Conceptual art. Love. Failure. Writing or art that feels new or radical in whatever way, formally or content-wise. I read a lot of nonfiction to get ideas, like too many books about feminism. Now that I’ve made that list, though, what inspires me most has always been my friends’ writing and conversations with my writer friends. A good friend of mine and I were recently talking about how we feel more like writers when we’re hanging out talking about whatever than we do locked in a dark room typing. The community in Cincinnati is really inspiring to me because it’s relatively small and really diverse in terms of what people are working on and feels intimate. In college I had writer friends but spent sooooo much time alone writing. I really wrote alone in a room trying to be “successful” for years and now that’s the most terrible, lonely existence I can imagine. I’m pretty sure all I ever wanted as a writer was to be Collette drinking on her veranda talking with other artists and feeling alive. That’s the most inspiring thing to me right now. I’m pretty sure I would’ve stopped writing forever ago if not for other writer friends.
SRE: What are the five best things you’ve ever read?
MM: Five! Seriously! Okay, off the top of my head. Donald Barthelme, 60 Stories. Thomas Bernhard, Woodcutters. Diane Williams, Excitability. Stacey Levine, My Horse and Other Stories. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber. Kathy Acker, I don’t know what to even pick. As I Lay Dying, Faulkner. Eileen Myles’ Inferno. Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies. Wayne Koestenbaum, Hotel Theory. I failed. I did stay under 10 though.
SRE: What are the five worst things you’ve ever read?
MM: I read the first page of something and if the voice or the form doesn’t feel new to me, I throw a small tantrum and put it down. I mostly want to read things about love or alienation, or things that are absurd, or full of rude, lonely people. I also want to be entertained as a reader, which for me can run the gamut from language to humor to a voice I haven’t heard to formal innovation. I’ve read two novels by Paul Auster and even though he does all kinds of things as a writer that I admire and feel I should like, something about his voice makes me want to stab the book. I failed at this question, too.
SRE: When I was preparing for this interview, one line popped out at me as if it was scripted out in a neon sign. You don’t shy away from anything – no matter how physical or intimate. How did it feel to write the line “You have a rancid groin area”?
MM: Yeah, hahaha. I write really unfiltered and ignore the fact that I have an audience until something is in print in the world and then I’m like “Oh shit, what did I just put out there?” With this collection, though, I was especially interested in the kinds of things that women aren’t supposed to or expected to say or do, like talk about their rancid groin areas or be ‘mean’ or just be generally rude and unfeminine. My sense of humor is kind of immature and raunchy sometimes, but writing also has to be a lot of fun for me or else I won’t do it. It felt really fun to be low and outlandish and gross.
SRE: You seem to have some beef with academia, and I’m with you on that. A lot of the pieces here seem very outsider in a great way. Where’s that come from?
MM: Oh, the outsiderness, that’s just my life. As I become more aware of how the world operates, I feel less and less comfortable and more upset by spaces that feel exclusively white, hetero, upper-middle-class, and male dominated, and academia is obviously just one of those many spaces. I was an adjunct for many years and left recently because although I love teaching, the pay and how you’re treated is just so demoralizing. So while the narrator of Nevers feels like an outsider everywhere–suburbia, academia, as the only woman in a hot tub of “old white guy poets,” I feel that all the time. The book is a wreck in a lot ways because I wanted to revolt against convention–what kind of writing is held up as acceptable or praiseworthy by the (white straight male) academy, or what kind of person is it ‘acceptable’ for a woman be, or what kind of voice is a woman writer expected to have, and how can I flip that off in a way that isn’t just me being angry?
Many of the beefs in the book also originate with my Midwestern upbringing where you’re raised not to act like the center of attention or brag or even take a compliment or as my mother would say, be ‘full of yourself’ and the writing world and academia and suburbia are plagued by self-absorption. I knew when I started writing Nevers that I wanted to write something akin to satire or stand-up comedy, because those are spaces where you can say whatever and push boundaries as long as it’s funny, and to write something felt mouthy and “inappropriate” and critical and vulgar and “low” and outsider. You don’t find women writing satire very often, or else I just don’t know about them, so that made me really want to.
So while the stories are really personal, interior, self-conscious, ridiculous, and off the wall, I very much thought about their connection to the larger world and what upsets me about it.