Lewis Mundt "Each Piece Is a Tiny Person with Something to Say"
Lewis Mundt "Each piece is a tiny person with something to say"
an interview with V. S. Ramstack
I met Lewis Mundt in 2014 while interning at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. His desk was diagonally across from mine, but in a separate room. So, if we wanted to chat, we had to peek through a doorframe. After a handful of hello’s, how are you’s, and the occasional FYI: there’re doughnuts in the kitchen, I found out he was a fellow poet. After swapping our go-to inspirational poets and a few incredibly angsty pieces, he gifted me a copy of his chapbook, Salsa Shark.
His writing feels like he knows why / how you live and the ways in which you want to be better. His writing asks you to look at yourself as though you are young / old, meeting / not meeting, you / not you – as though it’s okay to be silly when life isn’t.
Less than a year after we met, his first full-length book, The God of the Whole Animal, was published by Beard Poetry. I had the pleasure of attending the book launch and hearing multiple pieces aloud. Even now, almost two years later, this work still gets to me. I caught up with Lewis via email to learn more about the process of writing The God of the Whole Animal and his writing philosophy in general.
What is your writing routine usually like? If you fall “out of touch” with your routine, what do you do to help get back on track?
Am I allowed to just say “No?” Hah. I’m incredibly inconsistent as a creator – no certain time of day I check in, no monthly page goal, no real rhyme or reason to any of it. Most often I end up working on or editing a piece when an idea strikes. The upside, I guess, is that I don’t end up spending a lot of time looking at a blank page and waiting for something to come out, which is kind of a writer’s literal hell. The downside is that means I can go months without doing any creative work...which is kind of a writer’s literal hell. But when it works, it works.
I try not to stress about it too much, because I’ve been creating like this since I was a kid. The work always comes back, so I don’t worry about “losing it” completely. I do think there’s a lot to be said for a writing routine as a muscle and that there are these long stretches where mine goes completely unused, but then sometimes I hit a groove and flip a few cars over. Literarily.
What is your earliest memory of writing a poem you were proud of? Do you recall what compelled you to write said poem?
The first poem I was proud of was, unsurprisingly, a probably pretty bad poem called Rain as a War. It was for an assignment in junior high where we were just supposed to write five or six couplets using similes. “Staccato raindrops like bullets,” “the thunderboom of a cannon,” stuff like that. It wasn’t great, but I felt great about it – I loved that I’d been able to successfully turn one thing into another and engage readers.
I grew up wanting to be a large-scale magician, because I loved the way illusionists could take reality and make it into something else; a tank disappears, someone transports across the stage, someone escapes a glass box with a flash. I want to say that’s what writing poetry is for me, some enactment of this childhood passion to achieve now-you-see-it now-you-see-it-differently presentation, but honestly this is probably just an inspirational speech I’d give if I was a writing professor in a bad movie. I don’t know if they’re connected, but I do a lot of writing by just babbling out onto a page until I hit on something that feels like the right thing. Welcome to the thick of my creative process, I guess.
The contents of The God of the Whole Animal were written over the course of five years. How did you go about selecting the pieces for the book? (themes you considered, etc.)
Okay, now I have an analogy that I actually do believe in: When I think of my poetry, each piece is like a tiny person with something to say. That’s how I know when a piece is done – when the tiny person saying it is making sense, speaking with conviction, and satisfied with their expression or outburst or joy or whatever takes shape. So I have essentially these folders full of tiny people, and I have a tiny relationship with each one.
When I think of putting together a collection, I think of it like throwing a dinner party where I know what’s on the menu ahead of time, and I think about who I’d invite that would fill the party with good conversation, be able to talk to each other, and enjoy what’s being served. We’ve all been in settings with big groups of people who don’t get along; that, to me, is what it feels like when a collection is assembled with the wrong pieces, or at least not the ones that make the most sense to group together. I think about who/what I want in the room, hoping that at the end of the party they’re all full and had a good time (or an appropriately miserable one, right, depending on the book.)
The God of the Whole Animal was an appropriately miserable dinner party – not that I’d put that on the cover. I’d spent a lot of years writing to escape some really difficult things I was going through; I was in a very hard relationship, I was coming to understand my anxiety without real space to address it, and other general human-with-a-body things. I’d been doing all this work about these things and – I don’t think consciously – wanted to put together a book to kind of reveal them to the people in my life. So when I went to talk to my little poem people, the ones who stood up with real miserable bastards and that’s the dinner party I ended up throwing. I know, I’m not really making it sound like the feel-good read of the summer. But I’m grateful it’s the collection it is. Binding and releasing that work helped me realize that a chapter of my life, creative and otherwise, needed to come to an end. That’s where the title comes from: it’s the “whole animal” of a very specific time I lived through, and being able to express the depth of it and publish that book was my way of not letting the pieces go to waste. It was really a moment of reclaiming my life via the one safe channel I felt was available.
Who / what are you current poetical inspirations?
Always Hieu Minh Nguyen; if I can write one poem someone loves the way I love Hieu’s poems, it’ll be a life well spent. For a lot of the past year I’ve been thinking of Ross Gay when I sit down to write, because he just seems so unapologetically in love with the world. Karen Finneyfrock is my first poetry love and I take her work with me always. More recently I’ve been reading a lot of Clair Dunlap and Hasani Harris, whose books I’m releasing this fall [through Beard Poetry], and just being able to be near their work is incredible – I really think they’re the future. I also can’t talk about being inspired without saying that my partner Anna is an amazing person to share the world with; a lot of the works I’m creating lately are little praise pieces for/to/from her, our little dog, and our little home in south Minneapolis.
It sounds like you’ve found a creative process that really works for you / the logistics of your life. If a budding writer wanted to find their “work style” (whether it be akin to yours or not), how would you suggest they go about it?
Try everything. Well, not everything, but a lot of things. I’ve known a lot of writers who are very prescriptive and definite about the writing process advice they give – “Write for ten minutes every morning,” “Produce five poems a month,” “Always make sure to write when the sun is out,” et cetera. That’s just not me. I’ve tried a ton of different ways of sticking to a writing process and none of them have worked, but what does work is just being really inconsistent and letting it happen. I wonder about all the time I (personally) wasted, sitting down and letting a cursor blink at me for an hour at a time.
So that’s all a very rambling way to say that my advice – maybe unhelpfully – is to give everything a shot. Try a really rigid routine. Try a silly routine. Try to carve out a physical space you write in and see if returning there at the same time is what works, or if you can just always get things done there no matter when you sit down. I’m someone who doesn’t find a lot of personal satisfaction in forcing myself to create, but I do find a lot of satisfaction in playing around to see what works, and I think there’s a lot of reward in experimentation.
After you’ve “babbled onto the page” do you return to it and edit? What does your editing process entail?
How surprised are you that this is something that varies with me? A lot of the time I end up “finishing” a poem and then editing it right away; more often than not I go from idea to third draft in one sitting before I give it room to breathe. It’s not uncommon, though, for me to babble for a bit and then just kind of poke at it for a week or two after I’m finished, changing line breaks, thinking about words, saying things out loud to see if the conversation of the poem seems like one I’d want to be in.
One thing I do a lot when I edit is to write the piece a second time, repeating everything verbatim. I try to see if it feels natural and comfortable the second time I write it, and if it doesn’t, I write it a third time and try to feel where the snags are. It’s like spinning a bike tire that’s not true (the rim is a little bent): At first you just know the tire’s wobbly, then you can kind of figure out what side of the rim is out of whack, and slowly you can hone in on where exactly the problem spots are. It’s the same thing for me when I edit: The initial poem is a poem that works, like a tire that you can still ride, but it’s just got a little bend in the rim. I hone in on it by riding around for a while, then I figure out what tool’s handy to bend things back into place.
If you had to assume the life of any famous artist (writer or otherwise / living or dead), who would it be and why?
Maybe Eboo Patel. I was able to see him speak when I was an undergraduate and was very taken with the way he composes himself and considers everything around him. He wrote a really lovely memoir called Acts of Faith, largely about seeing such expanses of both interconnectedness and disharmony in the world and starting the Interfaith Youth Core out of that. I’ve been moved by how his faith journey enhances his understanding of the world and how that understanding, likewise, funnels back into his using of faith to start something to heal the world. We live pretty different lives, but I admire his quite a bit.
Any more books in the works? And if so, can you spare any details?
Yes; and I can! Hypothetically I’ve got three books in the works. In no particular order:
One is a kind of badly written book that I may only make one copy of. It’s full of the happiest poems I’ve written in the past two years. I’m not exactly practiced in writing happy poems, but I’ve got a batch that’s pretty important to me and I’d like to collect them, kind of like I did with The God of the Whole Animal except the dinner party is a hell of a lot more fun.
The second is one I can’t talk about much because I don’t want to jinx anything. Sorry!
The third is a re-release of my chapbook The Human Panic Attack. I’m working with my friend Holly Rios, who’s a fantastic visual artist based in Colorado, to put together an illustrated version and a limited run of artist books. I’m not sure exactly how that project’s going to come together in the end, but I’m so excited to be working with Holly on it.
BONUS QUESTION – What’s a song that can, without fail, put you in a good mood?
Carly Rae Jepsen’s "I Really Like You." It’s on my desert island playlist – it may, in fact, be my desert island playlist.