Poetry Matters with Rebecca Schumejda & Hosho McCreesh

In his new collection A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst, published by Artistically Declined Press, Hosho McCreesh deviates from his earlier conventions and delivers an unputdownable coming of age poetic memoir. On the surface, drinking seems to be at the emphasis of this collection, but as you ingest the work, you will find there are deeper philosophical meanings to thirst, a yearning that goes beyond the bottle. McCreesh starts on a facetious note, which is unusual, as the tone of his earlier work is overwhelmingly solemn. Although, McCreesh “maintains that [his] earlier work is “solemnly hopeful!”

In the first poem, the narrator and a friend are at a loss when they run out of alcohol and resort to drinking a bottle they find in the garage:

“Good christ, it’s awful,”
you say, passing the bottle
to your buddy.

He takes a hero-pull
then growls out of it,
and slams the bottle
down on the table.

You both nip at it awhile
as your younger brother
stares at you,

And when the bottle’s
half gone, you say, “I
can’t do it man.
I’m not drinking
another drop of
that poison.

McCreesh captures a relate-able desperation in this piece then follows it up with an anecdotal twist when a month later his brother asks him if he remembers when he drank a bottle of his mother’s artisan vinegar. Then he recalls, “pulling mustard and dill seeds,/and maybe a long strand/of celery string/” from his mouth. When asked why he didn’t stop them, his brother confesses that he thought that they looked like they knew what they were doing.

Another distinct deviation in style is how McCreesh uses second person narrative, strategically thrusting the reader into the action. Often second person is difficult to pull off, but McCreesh is able to write from this point of view in a seemingly effortless manner. This first sip demonstrates how this collection has more breadth than a bunch of poems about getting wasted. I took the opportunity to ask McCreesh a few questions:

I feel that this collection is far more complex than a bunch of kids drinking and getting into trouble. Do you think running the full gamut of experiences made this book have many layers?

It had to be if it stood any chance of mattering. Every 13 seconds someone comes along claiming to be “the next Bukowski” because they’ve written a little chaplette about drinking and getting into trouble. Someday we’ll figure out that there’s much more to the man than the world seems to give him credit for. There are a million different things drinking can be, and can mean. This was everything I could think of it meaning to me. I’m no world-class drunk — nor do I want to be– but I’m no slouch either. It’s a kind of biography (and autobiography) by booze. And precious little one-note poems bragging up their idiotic drunkenness would’ve been death for a book like this. So I’m glad you see complexity here. I do too. Humans are both fascinating and infuriating…who else works so diligently toward their own demise? That amuses and horrifies me. Drinking is like installing a dictator in an oil-rich country somewhere: sometimes it works out, other times not so much. And if you’re talking about drinking, you gotta tell the whole story.

If you are familiar with his earlier work, you may be surprised how organically McCreesh takes on this narrative style. This ease is evident in a piece where McCreesh writes about coming to the defense of his brother, who got hit in the face by a coworker:

And you’re getting ready to charge him,
when the manager, a nice older lady,
gets in between you and says,
“Sir, you can’t be back here…
it’s for employees only…”

“Well hell¨C“ you say, “get me an application!”

Recalling our stories and writing about them from an older, “wiser”, perspective poses challenges, and taking on a more narrative style is a risk, so I asked McCreesh about his process:

These pieces are written from the perspective of a young narrator coming of age, can you discuss the process of writing this collection as an “adult”?

I don’t know if it’s the years so much as the mileage. Writing them now, as opposed to when I was younger, probably just means I’m a little better at getting out of my own damn way. It’s a terrible thing — thinking that just because something happened to us, that means it is interesting. And that’s the curse of bad writing — at any age. I think the first drafts tend to come out better when you’ve been writing for a long time. Doesn’t mean they’re any good yet, just that they start off better, and there’s often less work to do on them to get them shaped up. But a blank page will always be a blank page…a place filled with both terrifying potential and no easy answers. It ain’t no trip to Cleveland.

The pieces in A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst are more narrative than your earlier work. Can you talk about this shift?

I know that, as a collection, it’s gonna feel like a seismic shift from my past work…but I honestly can only guess as to why. I published my first “funny” poem a few years ago — a byproduct of a conversation with justin.barrett. He asked me why I’d never written funny poems. Frankly, I didn’t have an answer for him. I guess it just never occurred to me. To me, poems were something else — more of a battle-cry than a giggle. Justin, of course, had a much more wry and clever approach to poetry — so I owe a lot of this shift to our conversation. The rest was born of my personal life. For the first time in my life I truly understood what Henry Miller meant when he said “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” Call it a just-don’t-give-a-fuck aesthetic. And so began the Henry Miller years.  And so began the dancing on filthy corpses, so began joy as the only excuse, and love as the only aim. Anytime you’re worried about something, remember this: someday the sun will devour everything we have ever done or made — save the 3 or 4 pieces of space-junk we’ve blasted beyond our solar system. That is terrifying, sure, but also very liberating! We have no business worrying, and judging, and hating, and ravaging our way across this planet, or each other…we are but a Pale Blue Dot, in a warm little cast of cosmic dust…and, honestly, it doesn’t fucking matter. None of it. We were made for two things: love and creation. The rest is white noise, it’s too many people trapped in their concepts and mythologies. Love your people. Do what you love. “Everything’s gonna be fine…even if it’s not.”

“Everything’s gonna be fine…even if it’s not.” resonates throughout the collection in McCreesh’s quirky humor. As seen on page here:

At a late-night hot dog cart,
and a pretty girl,
drunk and ravenous,
asks, “You wanna
bite of my hot dog?”

But before you can answer
your buddy says,
“You know what’s
in that don’t you?
Lips and hooves!”
and she doesn’t think
it’s nearly as
funny as

By now, you’ve noticed that titles have not been quoted, that is because the collection contains no titles. The lack of titles is also a major change for McCreesh, who is infamous for titles that are at times longer than the actual poem. This in conjunction with his non-linear approach in ordering the pieces create the effect of a long and crazy drinking binge. Titles often make you stop and consider the message that the author intends the reader to receive, by eliminating them, McCreesh gives less direction, allowing you to interpret meaning for yourself. I asked McCreesh about his decision to go title-less and about the process of organization:

None of the pieces are titled, which is quite a departure from some of your earlier work (especially where some of your titles are as long as the poems) Can you talk about this decision?

Yep — no titles from “the title guy.” Almost all my artistic giants utterly refused to stay in one place, refused to stop pushing themselves — it’s a quality I deeply admire. It’s easy to rest, it’s easy to do what’s worked in the past. Maybe I’m done with long titles, maybe not — I suppose time will tell. To me, the answers are in the work itself. And at no point did I ever feel like titles would add anything to this book. It made keeping track of the poems tricky business, for sure, but nothing — not the first line, or even the first few lines, not some memorable phrase — nothing felt like it could stand a title, and nothing felt like it needed one. So instead of wrenching up the entire natural feel of the work by imposing something on each piece — I just said to hell with it…no titles and just wrote.

Did the pieces ever have titles?

To keep them straight, so they could be edited and eventually ordered, I used numbers…but I never intended to keep them. I did know I needed a way to re-find poems…and, after months of worrying about it, I posted an ad at The American Society of Indexers. They were awesome — and I immediately had an army of talented folks to pick from. I settled on a great guy named John Barkwell, who was so excited by the book and had so many ideas, that I knew he was the right guy for the job! Poetry is rarely indexed, so that combined with the source material made for an interesting project. The book will be indexed by specific drinks, locations, first lines, and other memorable details and phrases — so that the reader will hopefully be able to say “I want to read the vinegar poem again” and immediately be able to find it. I think it’s that final piece of the puzzle, one that will make this book a scream from start to finish. And that idea never would’ve happened if I’d slapped some titles atop each poem because “the title guy” was supposed to…so I’m glad I didn’t try to force it. I’m really pleased at how it’s all worked out. See what I mean?– better at getting out of my own way!

How did you go about ordering the pieces?

Like the kick-ass film this book should be! It’s a kind of spiritual order, if anything. The imposition of an external chronology didn’t feel right — but, if we’re learning things as we grow and age, then a chronology does exist. Basically we start as rubes, and eventually we begin to know better…start figuring out how to avoid similar mistakes. But booze, like anything, is just a vehicle — a way to know more about who you are, and how you fit in the world. It’s a way to find your limits, and push through them. Sometimes. Other times it’s just a drunken, idiotic punch-up. You just never know! Anyhow, a spiritual journey was the only way I could see to really tell these stories, and then piece them together into a much bigger yarn.

When you ordered the pieces, how deliberate were you? Did you labor over the decisions?

Very deliberate. It wasn’t a painful process, but it was a very specific one. Early readers helped me with the poem order after we’d talked about the very specific vision for the book (msm, & T especially). Spiritually, life is one long discovery…and that’s the only real narrative to be found in our experience — the only order that made any sense…even though it’s one we all make after the fact. Like Buddha, it’s a liquid kind of knowledge — changing as it absorbs more, lets go of its own outdated concepts in favor of the present. It’s like the scene in the film High Fidelity when Cusack says he’s gonna reorganize his record collection “by biography.” We’re lost, all of us, and only the bright ones really admit it. And the moment we stop discovering, the moment we stop asking questions, stop being curious about ourselves and each other — we die. If not physically, then emotionally and spiritually. That’s a compelling human story right there! I cannot stand people who think they aren’t lost…think they have all the answers, people who refuse to revisit the bullshit they think they “know.” No one deludes us better than ourselves — because we know all the best tricks, know how best to bamboozle ourselves. And people who don’t appreciate that are exhausting. There are things we “learn” based on “the shifting phantasmagoria that unfolds before us” — but to assume that any of them are “true,” and will always be true is one of life’s cruelest, dumbest jokes. Judging the world based on our experience is simply our best guess…it’s what we’ve got…sure. But it’s ridiculous to believe that it’s anything more than a card trick we pull on ourselves, then intentionally forget how we did it. This is the essence of a spiritual journey, and this is how and why these poems were ordered — to chronicle one.

I felt like the pieces, ending then beginning created a feeling of one long drunk night….was this intentional?

Absolutely. If you didn’t come to drink, get drunk, and maybe fall off your bar stool — you picked up the wrong book! I wanted them to run together as one long mosaic — as so many of those nights tend to eat their own tails and fold back in on themselves! We’ll likely stick a tiny glyph at the end of each individual poem to help signal the reader, and keep drastic changes in location from poem to poem from being confusing…but otherwise, it’s not strictly a point A to point B narrative that Cronkite could report.

I also liked how sometimes it took a second to gain your footing in a piece, because of the shifts, was this also intentional?

I definitely wanted the order of the pieces to keep the reader off balance. Like a bar in Mexicali where they pour tequila in your mouth then shake your head, it should feel dazed, and confused at times. No one should know what’s coming next — not even me — that’s the whole fun of the damn thing! I wanted the reader to be jostled around: New Orleans, Switzerland, Albuquerque, Nogales, Japan, Cannes, Edinburgh, Pensacola, Juarez… For years I was able to live like a “jet-setting vagabond” so that all felt like a natural way to write: fast and lose, who knows what’s next, any and every drunk story I could remember — all of it part of one long story.

In the midst of drunken lunacy, life goes on, and life ends. One counterpoint to the comedic moments is when the narrator discovers that one of his best friends died via a phone call from another friend looking for contact information:

And your buddy
needed to know
if you had any
contact information
for his parents,
the cops needed it
they needed to
notify them.

And you couldn’t do it.

You just couldn’t do it.

You couldn’t search
through the address book,
or the goddamned phone book,
you couldn’t remember
their names, or the
streets the parents
lived on,
and you were
on your knee,
and your brain
was still screaming
no no no no no
no no no no
no no no
no no
and you had to
tell your buddy
you’d call him

McCreesh’s ability to skillfully interject sobering moments, like this one, into the collection adds depth, proving he is not simply writing poems about being drunk. He is writing about life and how at times our thirsts are ravenous. We want to be able to escape the sadness that settles to the bottom of our glasses, even though we know that this is an impossibility. I asked McCreesh about his decision to start the collection with humor and end with a picturesque moment:

You are able to capture a great mix of drunken moments, some that are hilarious, some that desperate. Can you talk about your decision to start the book in a humorous way, the vinegar poem, and to end it as an “adult”? Why did you do this?

Well, first and foremost, things have to be fun…otherwise we won’t do them. From seeing movies to cooking to exercising to having sex — we basically do what we want, as much as we can, for as long as we want to. As it should be. And drinking is a lot of fun. Always has been, for me. I wish America was more like Ireland. I wish the way we knew each other was through an afternoon pint, and little music, some fumbling, drunken kisses, and some laughter. It’s not without its drawbacks, of course, but booze is — at it’s best — something really fun. And so these poems had to know that, reflect that accurately. And, for me at least, part of the fun is how it can turn on you: an afternoon can go sideways on you, and the next thing you know, you’re mixed up in a real jackpot…trying to figure out how the hell you got there. More so when we’re young — but truly, it’s the kind of thing that cannot be completely owned or controlled or outwitted. Sometimes that fucking scorpion stings you — it has to, its in its nature. Drinking, like poetry, should delight and surprise you! Sometimes it will be sublime; sometimes it will be awful. Just like life.

McCreesh absolutely captures “just like life” in this propulsive work. In addition to a great piece of literature, McCreesh, is also an incredible artist. You can buy shirts, sweatshirts and other merchandize with his artwork here. I asked him about his art.

Can you discuss your process as an artist and how it impacts you as a poet?

I suppose I paint the same way I write in that I do it when I am motivated to do it, I don’t force too much, and I paint what I feel like painting. Sometimes it’s huge flowers on a big canvas; other times it’s watercolors of one of my artistic or spiritual heroes. I’ve been commissioned a few times, but even then I try not to force it, and don’t paint the pieces until I “see” them — which probably frustrates some would-be art owners! But I want it to be a genuine expression from me, not some blank, unholy product. I want to be invested in the pieces and give the projects my best. So, apologies to everyone who is waiting for pieces…I promise you I’ll finish them someday! As for how that impacts my writing, I guess I’m the same: it’s not written until it’s written, and it’s not done ’til it’s done. Like many writers, I rushed to get early work out — I was ambitious and impatient. Looking back at some of it — it’s embarrassing. But it’s my truth, it was genuine, and it was as well as I could do at the time…so I won’t go back and change it much — like some trickster archeologist trying to rewrite history with a new Holy Grail. Being free to do your work without rules or restrictions is about as good as it gets. As soon as it is commodified, and other people have some sort of stake in what you’re doing — it gets complicated, and, in extreme cases, compromised. That alone is a tremendous reason to give up on ambition.

Artwork has also been a pivotal component of the promotion of this book. The DrunkSkull on the cover of the collection, which was created by Ryan Bradley at Artistically Declined Press, has been adopted by McCreesh as his logo. You can purchase merchandise bearing the logo, like shirts, necklaces and earrings can be purchased here, here and here. This type of innovative marketing in the poetry world is refreshing to see.

You can check out his worldwide promotion on Facebook here & on Tumblr here.

Needless to say, McCreesh is extremely prolific. I asked him about upcoming projects and his new collection co-authored with Christopher Cunningham that is due out from Bottle of Smoke later this fall.

What are you working on now?

For the last few years, I’ve been working on longer fiction: a book of short stories (a few are available on smashwords); and 4 different novellas. I have one more poetry manuscript basically put together — but haven’t tried placing it. Who knows when any of them will be done — but I’m enjoying the process, and the work. It’s amazing how much goes in to a longer piece. Even this book of drunk poems, as Bukowski-fat as it is, was originally done in a burst. Poems are like that — they are hard, tight diamonds reflecting facets. In longer fiction subtly reigns…so there’s lots to consider. But I love all of it. Jezus, I love writing.

Can you talk a little about the letters that Bill, from Bottle of Smoke, will be releasing?

The forthcoming BoSP book is actually poems and paintings — all of which were born from the book of letters Cunningham & I had printed by Orange Alert Press —  a companion book, we’ll say. Chris and I plucked lines from each others’ letters — and each wrote poems using the lines as titles. These poems were included on the “double-sided manuscript broadsides” that came with all the hardcover copies of the book. I typed my poems on one side of some nice laid cardstock, signed them, then mailed them to Chris — and he typed and signed his poems on the other side. Until now, that was the only place you could read any of those poems — if you owned one of the 26 lettered hardbacks of the book of letters. The paintings were done for the “presentation clamshell” copies — given to all the principles involved. So Chris and I both did seven paintings, and each clamshell got one from each of us. Collecting the poems and the paintings is a great way to bring that entire project full-circle.

A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst is a must read and will be available from Artistically Declined Press and his poems and paintings book with Christopher Cunningham will be available from Bottle of Smoke Press. You can find more about Hosho McCreesh at HoshoMcCreesh.com.

Rebecca Schumejda is the author of Cadillac Men published by New York Quarterly Books in 2012. Falling Forward published by sunnyoutside press in 2009, The Map of Our Garden published by Verve Bath Press, Dream Big, Work Harder in 2006 and the postcard poem “Logic.”. Her first chap-book The Tear Duct of the Storm was published by Green Bean Press in 2001. She earned degrees from SUNY New Paltz and San Francisco State University. She lives, teaches, and writes in New York’s Hudson Valley. You can find out more at RebeccaSchumejda.com.