Where Poetry and Film Converge: An Interview With Kai Carlson-Wee

Kai Carlson-Wee’s poetry and filmmaking explore a kind of restlessness that manifests itself in many forms. Robert Bly called his book Rail ” strong and inspired,” and his short documentary film Riding the Highline has won several awards since its release in 2015. What’s behind these different artistic impulses, and where do they converge? Chaya Bhuvaneswar spoke with Carlson-Wee to learn more about these forays into multiple artistic disciplines.

In what relationship do you think mental illness stands to the process of writing poetry? Specifically, how do you feel about the impact of different mental states on what you write? Is this something you’ve consciously thought about while writing and revising, or has been just been so intrinsic to your experience that you don’t label it at all? Have you had periods where you found it more difficult to continue taking your medications because of any feared effect on your poetry and how have you safely navigated that dilemma?

It’s a tricky thing. I’ve dealt with depression for most of my adult life. When I was younger I experienced two “mental breakdowns,” where I lost my ability to read and write and was medicated with anti-psychotics. In technical terms I have Major Depressive Disorder with a touch of Schizoaffective Disorder, which means I cycle through depressions every few years and occasionally experience distorted thinking. I start believing people are out to get me, I hear voices, things like that. I don’t like to romanticize this stuff because it’s not really an aesthetic stance. It works in the opposite direction of my writing and I can’t think clearly enough to write poems when I’m depressed. I get self-absorbed and myopic. But at the same time, once these cycles are over, they give me a deep appreciation for beauty. I become obsessed with writing clear lines and they make me realize how precarious the brain is. When I’m taking a psychotropic medication, like an anti-depressant or mood regulator, it alters my mind in small ways and changes the way I write. Prozac speeds up the lines. Wellbutrin makes the descriptions more vibrant. Ativan has a deadening effect and the language gets very literal. Seroquel prevents me from writing altogether. It’s messed up to realize how powerful these drugs are. But then again, the same thing happens with coffee or cigarettes, even Vitamin B. Every psychoactive substance has an effect, however slight. I’ve found that the more I try to control my poems and make them consistent, the more the writing suffers, but the more I allow myself to adapt and improvise and accept my mental state (whatever it is), the better the poems become. 

I felt, while reading THRESHER, very much aware of William Carlos Williams, the red wheelbarrow, the sense of concrete reality of objects, “there has to be.” Have you felt that imagism and/or Williams in particular have been influences for you?

The poem THRESHER is definitely a nod to imagism, you’re right about that. It’s trying very hard to create a physical world, even as it feels that world slip away. When I started to write this poem I was trying to imagine the movie I’d make about Fargo, where I grew up. I was thinking about what the director might say if they listed the necessary scenes. “There has to be this, there has to be that,” etc. In one way it’s about a pastoral ideal, a romantic and cinematic vision of place, but it’s also about the illusion of that ideal, the fabrication of it. I’m pushing against what regional poets of place have done in the past. These are poets like Theodore Roethke, James Wright, Richard Hugo, Robert Frost, etc. They all wrote imagistic poems that worked to mythologize specific landscapes. I see my work as a continuation of this thread, but one of the big differences is that my poems are invested in a nomadic, decentralized sense of place. They aren’t invested in a static landscape, but in shifting landscapes that represent shifting psychological states. The speaker is always moving, watching the world disappear in a series of flashes. He’s losing his mind, basically, and THRESHER is the vision of Eden from which he departs. The poem begins with a “tree,” which is a biblical nod, and then ends with the “leaves” in the pool. The “images” of the poem are essentially being scattered and the physical world is starting to dissolve.

What is hard vs. what is great about “salvage” in a general sense? I liked the abruptness of the final line of SUNSHINE LIQUIDATORS. Are you conscious, when writing about deprivation, salvage, of risks of voyeurism of past deprivation now that you are a Stanford Lecturer? Can you offer advice to poets/ writers writing that past – present dichotomy of past deprivation / current comfort? 

I think we all have contradictory elements in our identities. We all ‘contain multitudes,’ as Whitman says. The poem SUNSHINE LIQUIDATORS is about dumpster diving with my brother. We used to go to this discount food store called Sunshine Liquidators and dig for food. It was a way to save money, but it was also a way to use perfectly good food that was otherwise going in the landfill. There was a need-based reason and an environmental reason too. I wrote this poem about 12 years ago and it’s been a while since I’ve gone dumpstering—I have a job now, a little more money in the bank—but there was a time when I didn’t have those things and going dumpster diving was part of the scene. It was a harder time in some ways, but there were benefits to living that way too. I traveled a lot. I had plenty of time to write. The thing is, when I was living like that, I didn’t see myself as a ‘traveling kid’ or one of these titles that gets thrown around. I was depressed, I was living with my parents at times, I was staying on couches with friends, etc., but I was also the same person I am today. I think in the writing world there’s a pressure to imagine ourselves as ‘types.’ We think we need to be marketable, and sell our identities in a way that fits neatly on a book jacket. X poet writing about Y subject. Oh you know, they’re that kind of poet. This is mainly a product of capitalism and the publishing industry. Audiences have a limited attention span and they need to know quickly (and briefly) what an author’s identity is. They want dynamic poems, but less dynamic poets. For the sake of the poems, I think we need to be open to all experiences we’ve had, all aspects of our identities. We exist in this life in many different costumes, many identities surrounding our actual self. As writers, the ‘voyeurism’ is part of the job. 

I think the poem DEPRESSION is an incredible, visceral account of the “heaviness” (leadenness”) of depression clinical syndromes. Wow. But also – with the poetic spark of “setting off flares in the train yard.” I think my favorite line in it is “Now my face is hard to look at when I sleep” because of how it conjures both the impossibility of ever doing that, of ever seeing yourself, as well as a moment of empathy during a depressive episode (common) where there’s this flash of insight and often pity for people who love a depressed person who have to “look.” Can you, as a way for readers to fully enter this poem, talk about how it is “after Robert Bly” and any influence of his work you’ve found helpful?

Robert Bly has a poem from his first book called “Depression,” and I connected with that poem at an important time when I was living in the mountains. It just hit me so hard. There’s an image he uses of feeling like “scaffolding engines standing only on planks.” And then another line where he says “I want to see nothing more than two feet high.” I was just reading those lines thinking, Yes! That’s it! That was very much how I felt at the time and I wanted to write my own version, which, obviously is different from Bly’s, but it owes some inspiration to him. The line you mention, about looking at your own face in your sleep, is about the feeling of not being able to “see” yourself when you’re depressed. You sometimes feel like you’re looking at a fake life, at a stranger. But it’s also a contradiction because you’re constantly examining yourself to figure out what’s wrong. There’s this experience of self that is very intense, very dramatic and visceral, and at the same time illusory and obscured. I think the poem is trying to create the impression of that confusion. 

OK – how is THE FOG AND THE SOUND not a short story?

It is! It’s a short story and a poem! It tells a little narrative and it’s also written with rhyme and meter. It’s made out of long lines (so not obvious right away), but there’s an anapestic meter running through the poem and consistent clausal end-rhymes. The sections are justified, so it looks like prose on the page, but I tried to make the sentences flow like poetry. I’m not a huge fan of genre limitations and I think there’s a lot of overlap between narrative and poetry that isn’t currently explored. Back in the day narrative poetry was the first ‘form’ people wrote in. It was the original vibe. Most of the oldest poems we have were a blend of music and storytelling. We’ve traded this impulse for plot generation and straight information (at least in prose), but I think, deep down, there’s still an appreciation for the blend. Again, the way the publishing industry markets books has a lot to do with this. I think hybrid books are hard to categorize at Barnes and Nobel, so they don’t sell as many copies. Readers in the twenty-first century are more open to fluid genres and multi-media, so maybe this will change at some point. Maybe there will be room for numerous genres between poetry and prose. Prose poems, poetry films, poetry albums, verse-novellas—things like that. 

MENTAL HEALTH so accurately and subtly portrays the notion of “burden” but also hints at so much possibility. “Think of your favorite places to hike.” What are your thoughts about resilience and recovery, and what works have you read about mental health (poetry or otherwise) that have been important for your art?

The big fear I have with depression is that things won’t change. I won’t feel normal again. My brain will be permanently damaged. There’s a way in which depression makes you feel like you’re swimming through glue and there’s no forward momentum. It feels desperate and static at the same time. On the surface you might seem muted, or unhappy, but internally there’s this gigantic battle going on. There’s an endless attempt to heal yourself, get level again, and make things move forward. The poem Mental Health is basically just a list of the things I used to do to cope with depression. It explores the contrast between a fairly mundane activity (riding the bus) and the struggle going on inside. It’s written in the second person, so it sounds like a directive, or a list of prescriptions from a psychiatrist (“Half an Ativan under the tongue”). I think I wrote this one because I wanted to draw a line between the inner and outer journey. As I mentioned before, a big theme in RAIL is travel, and this poem is basically saying, Look, the subject of the book might be travel, but the real journey is psychological. I think all the best travel stories are psychological. The end of the poem moves away from the pills/medications toward an idealized location (“mountains extending”), which is obviously unattainable. At the end, the speaker is looking for hope, for a spiritual prescription, but he hasn’t found the way. He ends up in the Kmart parking lot. I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but for serious mental health issues, resilience is simply surviving. Whatever you need to do to survive and find hope. For me, the most important factors of recovery were traveling, writing, and time. 

“The straight line is perfectly clear.” No, it’s not. That’s a great line. Can you talk about formal influences on your poetry and how you approach revising a poem with respect to sound, rhythm, structure? 

That line is a little poetry joke. The line before that one is: “The train you are riding will only / go forward,” with the linebreak pulling the words “go forward” back to the margin. It does the opposite of what it says. Straight lines, in terms of poetry, are often broken, clarity is often obscured. It’s a moment where the form of the poem is moving in contrast to the content. We hear what the speaker is saying, but the poem itself is implying the opposite. I’m not the first poet to make a metaphor out of linebreaks, but I’m always interested in the way form interacts with the content. When I sit down to write a poem the form is often revealed to me through sound. Sometimes it takes a couple lines to feel out, but the music is always present. Once you hear those first few notes, the first change of chords, the rest of the poem can grow. Your job, at that point, is to follow the music. The shape of the poem, the form it takes, is determined by the sound. I feel like I don’t make ‘formal choices’ so much as follow certain sounds, certain intuitive moves. When I started to write Rail, I was feeling a train rhythm, which is an anapestic meter, and I was feeling single stanzas, which I was imagining would link together like train cars. I wanted the whole book to gather momentum, building off musical riffs, symbolic themes, recurring images and characters. I wanted the book to feel like a novel, or a concept album. There aren’t many examples of this in poetry, but writers like Larry Levis, CD Wright, Jack Gilbert, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, WB Yeats, were all influences. 

Portland recurrently appears in these poems. Is that a meaningful place for you? Can you talk about this city in your poetry, as well as your feelings about the current events in Portland now?

When I was in my early twenties all my friends were moving to Portland. Rent was cheap. The city was alternative and literary. It was seen as a promised land for artists and hipster kids in the West. This was like 2003-2004. You started hearing whispers that everyone was moving to Portland. Rich kids went to Brooklyn. Poor kids went to Portland. There were other scenes too, obviously, but for a short period of time, Portland was a place where third-wave hipster sensibilities where being explored. I hate to use labels like “hipster” and “third-wave,” but it was definitely the vibe. Kelly Reichart and Miranda July were making films, Eliot Smith had just died, The Shins were playing shows. It was sort of like this moody emo punk town where you could bike everywhere and drink good coffee. This was all parodied later by Portlandia, but when I first started going to Portland it felt like a kind of discovery. In RAIL, Portland represents the mirage of an ideal, the unattainable “West” the speaker is traveling toward. It represents a kind of heaven, but a heaven of transience, dark energy, and desire that can’t be fulfilled. The myth of the “American Dream” and the “American West” is a similar brand of mirage. It represents an ambiguous, amorphous ideal, which can never be actualized. What’s happening with the BLM protests seems related in some way. Both Portland and Minneapolis are cities that see themselves as progressive and liberal, but are also majority white populations that haven’t contended much with race/racism. The protests seem directed at the self as much as at the police and/or the other. It’s a protest about gross systemic injustice (and murder), but also about divergent generational approaches to an American ideal. The younger generation is fed up with the hypocrisy of the older generation, and is redefining the ideal. Police brutality, systemic racism, environmental collapse, Covid-19, these issues all feel convergent right now, and they require a massive change. 

Can you talk about Roberto Bolano and the influence of noir and mystery on your work?

Bolano is one of my favorite writers. He created a whole world in his writing. There are some writers who write individual poems, individual novels, and then there are writers like Bolano, or Faulkner, who create a whole universe across their books. They start with a vision and then collect stories and characters around that original seed. With Bolano it’s the pulpy detective story. He’s obsessed with mystery, desire, the line between good and evil. In Bolano’s world there are always people “hiding in the dark shadows,” as Donald Trump would say. His characters get caught in webs of deceit, lies, sexual liaisons, crime, misadventures. There is a mystery at the center of his books that propels the action forward, even his more poetic stuff like Antwerp. As far as my own work goes, I’m interested in cinematic genres and wanted to pay homage to them in my book. The genres I’m working with are the Road Trip (journey story), the Western, and the Noir. The journey story is the oldest narrative genre (going back to the Odyssey and Gilgamesh) and the Western and Noir are more recent. In the Western you have the American landscape operating as a central character, and you have trains as a symbol of progress and modernization. You have character archetypes (like Cowboys and Indians) and you have a plot development marked by violence. Noir, as a genre, is similarly violent, but the tension is more psychological. There is a self-interrogation, a doubling of self, and the line between good and evil is blurred. Often there’s a sense that the protagonist is losing their mind, or is vanishing into the greater subject of the mystery. The story I’m trying to tell is about mental illness, not about riding trains out west, so that’s why the Noir aspect comes into play. There’s a nod to Robert Bly and imagism, and there’s a nod to Roberto Bolano and Noir. I see them as two sides of the same coin (interested in psychology, obsessive imagery), similar to the parted identities you find in crime dramas.

Riding the Highline. Much to unearth here. Really panoramic in a Terrence Malick “Tree of Life” kind of way. Can you talk about your approach to this poem, why you think it has been so well received, and craft advice about how to write and revise long (more than 1 page) poems??

It’s interesting you mention Terrence Malick because his films are huge inspirations. Badlands is my favorite film of all time. Days of Heaven is also incredible. His films are visual poems. When I started writing Riding the Highline I was thinking cinematically, but I was also riding on an actual freight train. I wrote a lot of poems in my book while traveling, and this was one that I started in real time, within the experience itself. I think I wrote the first two stanzas in my journal and then a bunch of disconnected notes. I was very dehydrated and sleep-deprived at the time, and was taking a new anti-depressant that suddenly kicked into gear. It was a positive feeling, but it was also a gigantic rush of emotions that slammed me back into these childhood memories. The poem began to cross boundaries of time and extend beyond the train. Again, the poem is tied to the Western genre, but it’s also about the unraveling thread of history and reliable narration. It’s about the search for a cosmic mystery and it gets beyond the idea of manifest destiny (“It became a country. A possible God.”). There are allusions to cinema, but, like the poem THRESHER, the scenes are mixed up and their connections are intuitive, rather than logical. This is one of the things poetry can do better than cinema or prose. When you thread together different timelines in a longer poem (different stories, themes), the payoff can be very powerful. I like to write all kinds of different poems but my favorite kind is the very long metaphysical poem that grows and grows and grows. You can build up incredible amounts of energy in a long poem, and if you build the momentum and end it right, the emotional weight can be devastating. 


Kai Carlson-Wee is the author of RAIL (BOA Editions, 2018). His photography has been featured in Narrative Magazine and his poetry film, Riding the Highline, has screened at film festivals across the country. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and is a lecturer at Stanford University.

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