After I finished Graham Irvin’s new book, Liver Mush, I biked to the grocery store to buy some liver mush. In the frozen meat section, there was one solitary block of liver mush left—almost like it was waiting for me. I ate the liver mush on a pillsbury biscuit with American cheese, like Graham suggests in Liver Mush. The liver mush was phenomenal, an unexpected and great discovery. Liver Mush is also phenomenal, also an unexpected and great discovery. Two brand new delights in the course of an afternoon. It made for a good day. And you can discover them, too. They’re waiting for you, too. I had the pleasure of talking with Graham about liver mush and Liver Mush.
First of all, for the uninitiated, what is liver mush?
Liver mush is a type of breakfast meat that originated in the Appalachian area of North Carolina. Shelby, North Carolina claims to be the birthplace of liver mush but Marion, North Carolina I think takes a lot of credit, too. Both towns have liver mush festivals. I was born two counties over from what is considered appalachian. But my dad’s family grew up there then moved to Kannapolis to work in a textile mill.
Liver mush contains pork parts, corn meal, sage, pepper, and flour.
The pork parts that often go into liver mush are: livers, hearts, jowls, skin, tails, snouts, and spleens.
Liver mush originated in Germany as pannhaas then came with dutch immigrants to Pennsylvania and changed slightly to scrapple then traveled down with people in the 1700s to the mountains of North Carolina and finally became known as liver mush.
Now that I live in Philly I eat scrapple more than liver mush.
‘new friends in the city’ was one of my favorite poems in Liver Mush. After I finished Liver Mush, I messaged you on twitter and said that Liver Mush was like Crapalachia meets Trout Fishing in America, “but also obviously its own beautiful thing,” along with other acclamations (I really love your book, dude). You said that the couple from ‘new friends in the city’ actually introduced you to the works of Richard Brautigan, and mentioned that Scott McClanahan has also had a huge impact on you as well. So keeping on that track, I’d like to talk about the writing that influenced Liver Mush, or books that you looked to as a sort of guide for how to write a book with disparate parts, but that ultimately centers around one thing. And since this is your first book, I’m also curious about books you’ve read that made you think something like: ‘Oh shit, I could write a book.’
Thank you for all the kind words, dude. I’m glad you liked the book. I love that poem so much. It makes me laugh every time I read it. It’s so much more aggressive than the truth.
The couple lived in the apartment next to us. They had this cement porch that was right below our bathroom window. So we’d see them out there every day and we didn’t have any friends in Philly so my girlfriend, Kaitlin, read their names on the shared apartment mailbox and found them on instagram and messaged them. And despite that sounding incredibly creepy (Kaitlin is maybe the best diffuser of bad vibes I’ve ever met) we eventually hung out with them. I wrote about it a little in my review of Giacomo Pope’s Chainsaw Poems & Other Poems.
They both grew up near Philadelphia, so I talked to them about scrapple and kind of drunkenly ranted about what liver mush means to me. Then later the dude showed me his shotgun cause it was new and he thought it was funny that he, a contemporary man, had it. Like a little .20 gauge by their bedside. But I love imagining them pissed at me so hard they put a gun in my face about poetry.
When I first wrote the poem, I put it on instagram and tagged them. Then the next time we all hung out the gun was gone. Which is also extremely funny to me.
So I was already working on the book at that time but the guy gave me a copy of a Richard Brautigan collection that included Trout Fishing in America, In Watermelon Sugar, and The Pill vs. The Springhill Mine Disaster. I’d heard of Trout Fishing in America, I knew the deal with it but hadn’t read it. It felt like kismet that he brought it up because immediately I knew I could follow Brautigan’s lead in terms of repetition of words.
But I didn’t know how good his poetry was. He’s one of my favorite poets of all time now. The poems are short and simple and funny. I was sending them to my family and I’ve never done that with writing before. I just knew it would click with them. So it revamped the way I saw mush as an idea rather than what it actually was. Anything grey could be it. Any cube could be it. Anything at all could be it.
And Crapalachia is a perfect book. I think anyone writing a book should read Crapalachia. Scott is a damn genius. I read it a few years ago and then read it again out loud to Kaitlin while writing Liver Mush. I would cry 2-3 times each chapter and have to stop to catch my breath before getting back to it. I had just started taking Wellbutrin so that might have influenced the crying, but I stand by the emotion. If I have to leave that part out to convince someone to read the book I will.
The section or chapter “Rhonda” in Crapalachia is the best piece of writing I know. Scott ends it with a recipe for fried chicken and it’s brilliant. That chapter made me write the recipe at the end of my book. But beyond the recipe, I like Scott’s move of trying to get the reader as close as possible to an experience, even if it is kind of a trick. Even if the recipe isn’t Ruby’s actual recipe. I tried to do that same thing with “Liver mush is an essay about my mom.” Get the reader there with me.
Sam Pink does a similar move at the end of his poem “MANNEQUINS THAT SWEAT BLACK INK AND NEVER HAVE ANY FUN” when he says, “I love everyone who reads this.”
Walt Whitman does it too in “Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand” when he says, “Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you” (and the entire poem really).
Philip Levine’s poem “Salami” inspired the book a lot, too. The thesis of the poem is basically all parts of the world work together to form a beautiful whole. The salami. “Liver Mush to Everyone” is kind of a reimagining of the ideas in his poem.
Writers like Sam Pink, Bud smith, Troy James Weaver, Shy Watson, Mira Gonzalez, Chelsea Martin, Megan Boyle, Elizabeth Ellen, Tao Lin provided blueprints for my writing. Not everyone specifically for this book, but just the way they approached voice and content and narrative. Obviously, they’re all very different writers but they inspired me so much when I first read them and I would have never kept writing if I didn’t know they did it the way they did it.
Your novel was a big influence too. I remember how happy it made me when I read it. The feeling of friendship that permeated it. College Novel made me reconsider how to write about people in my life.
Specifically though, Zac Smith and his book 50 Barn Poems was a huge influence in writing about liver mush. I had been tweeting about liver mush during the early months of Covid, I was out of work and missed home and was talking to Kaitlin about what we didn’t have in Philly that I used to have in North Carolina. If it wasn’t for scrapple being a thing up here I probably wouldn’t have been able to sustain my annoying campaign in real life and on Twitter. Eventually Zac DM’d me and said, “You should write the liver mush poems.” So I started writing it. I read 50 Barn Poems over and over during the first 15 or so liver mush poems. And even before he and Cavin were going to publish the book, Zac read a very early ugly draft and gave me a lot of great feedback. After that it started to become its own thing based around my home and my family and my history.
The poems at the beginning of the book are really funny and inviting, and enjoyable to read on their own, but I think they also function to draw the reader in, and once you’ve drawn them in, you hit them with heart. ‘Liver mush is an essay about my mom’ feels like the heart of the book to me. It’s where Liver Mush stops being ‘parts of a pig and corn meal and some other shit’ and becomes about your home and family and history, like you said. “It means we have time to get burgers and shots at The Diamond and I drive home drunk forty-five minutes on the interstate at 4am and even though we try our hardest to be quiet we set off the alarm and wake up the dog and my mom says, “Grahamer you okay?” and asks if I’ve been drinking when she smells it on me and I always deny it. It means we don’t brush our teeth and sleep in my high school bed together.” The arrangement of the poems/prose in the book is masterfully done, is what I’m saying. The book feels so free, like it does whatever the fuck it wants, but at the same time, the progression and flow of the pieces also feels very calculated. So that by the end of the book, I really am there with you. So I guess I want to ask you about the process of arranging the pieces in Liver Mush. When did the order click for you?
The arrangement of the pieces kind of fell together naturally. It’s not exactly chronological, but close. The first section and the epilogue recipe were the most planned. I wanted some introductory poems about liver mush and the book itself. I wrote the recipe because, like it says, a lot of people don’t eat meat and a lot of people don’t live in North Carolina. That needed to go at the end because it was the most literal, informative writing in the book. The bulk of the writing, the middle, is ordered chronologically how it was written. The changes in the arrangement were only slightly and to emphasize what might be the reader’s annoyance or boredom with the repetition of the word “liver mush.”
When I started writing it, I saw it as a collection of poems about liver mush, but eventually it became a kind of narrative in my mind: I’m obsessed > why am I obsessed > I’m bored with my obsession > my obsession is renewed > maybe this is why I am obsessed.
I tried to blend writing about my own mental health and other problems with the liver mush obsession. Drinking too much, fucking up relationships, starting therapy, starting a new job; I had a Wellbutrin poem in there at one point but I took it out. Liver mush was the sickness and the cure.
I also cut poems about Liver Mush, a character, doing keg stands at a party, dropping a ziplock bag of joints off at a YMCA, getting sober and wearing nice sweaters. Also a few fiction pieces about Liver Mush working as a 3rd shift fry cook and his nemesis, the 1st shift fry cook, Gravy Biscuits. I couldn’t find a good place for them.
Finding the order was really easy once I found the narrative of the pieces, even if that was just what the pieces meant to me when I wrote them.
Do you follow the same cycle (obsessed, bored with obsession, obsession renewed) with writing? What’s your process like, generally? You mention in the book that you work in a warehouse. How do you balance work and writing?
For this book that cycle made the most sense because I imagined a reader who felt the same way about the topic. Kind of like I’m ranting about something and notice a person is starting to lose interest, so I check back in to say, “No, I get it, but listen.”
Other stuff I’ve written has obsession in it somewhere. I am interested in that energy. Everything becomes connected and, to the obsessed, truth doesn’t matter. The obsessed can find a way to bring everything back to their favorite topic. If I find myself thinking about a topic or image or idea over and over for a few days I know it’s something I should write about. And it becomes more real or more tangible what to do with the information after I start writing about it.
This book made me stick with the topic of obsession longer. Other projects I assumed were finished when I stopped feeling that energy. Now I know to find a different angle. To read something new. To listen to a podcast or something related to the topic I’m writing about when the obsession starts to wane.
As far as work goes, I don’t really have a lot of time to myself. I’m on my feet most of the day and work with my hands. It’s not very strenuous. I’ve definitely done harder shit but there isn’t much of an opportunity to write while there. Sometimes I keep a notepad with me to jot down quick ideas. Rarely anything is fully fleshed out in the warehouse. I try to wake up early on weekdays. 5 or 5:30am is my sweet spot so I’ll have a couple hours before I need to leave. Writing after work isn’t as easy. I’m usually tired. I fall asleep around 10 or 11. Weekends are when I do the bulk of my writing. On a “productive weekend” I get up around 7am and work until lunch. Rest a bit. Work a few more hours. Drink a beer with dinner. It’s not a rigid schedule. Those are just the times I work best. I take days off. I watch a lot of TV and listen to a lot of podcasts. I read if I don’t feel like writing.
Blake Middleton lives in Florida. He wrote College Novel (Apocalypse Party) and An Actual Person in a Concrete Historical Situation (Clash Books). He tweets @dough_mahoney.