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Conversation with Thomas Mixon

Thomas explores hand-binding a novel, guerilla marketing, Whitman memorization, old bands, and the art of selecting words for poems.

Conversation with Thomas Mixon

Thomas Mixon has been nominated for multiple Pushcart prizes, has attended the Kenyon Review Workshop, and has poetry and fiction in Rattle, Sundog Lit, At Length, and elsewhere.

Thomas is also the author of the poem “The Problem Is” from Radon Issue 3

Q: What was the impetus for your poem "The Problem Is"?

On and off I am drawn to restrictions in writing. I can never remember which comes first, the restriction or the content, but they’re linked, often entangled. This poem came out in four-syllable line bursts, with the further restriction of the stresses falling on the second and fourth syllables. Like a punk rock beat. I think it’s sometimes hard, to think of ourselves as one species, when we’re so spread across the planet. Every time we’re falling asleep, someone else is waking up. It’s already tomorrow halfway across the world. How do we act in concert with each other, when our lives only overlap asynchronously?

Q: What different forms of poetry do you gravitate toward?

I used to walk in the graveyard by my mother’s house, growing up, memorizing Whitman. The stakes in poems always feel so high to me, because with poems one truly has a chance to captivate almost anyone—due to the length of fiction, even short stories, it’s difficult to keep a stranger’s attention. A person has so much else they can read, think, do, see. In a poem, with each line, one either keeps the reader/listener, or they slip away. That slipping thrills me. 

Q: How has the volumes of Whitman you’ve memorized informed your life?

That there is elegance in asymmetry, in lyric legato rolling hills next to jagged scraps of trash. That such landscapes, ideas, may not work against or with each other, but that their simple presence on Earth is enough, that some days juxtaposition just wants to be identified, and sung to. That you can work on a poem your whole life, and that everything you write can be one poem. A stray line or two from Whitman’s will pop into my mind, and I feel larger than I am. His verses keep on encouraging me, years later, to touch the grass, to not shy away from defeat, regret.

Q: What short fiction and poetry has captivated your attention lately?

I’ve loved the new short stories from Rivka Galchen and Rachel Cusk. For poetry, I’m often drawn to writers that also write fiction, like [sarah] Cavar and Ben Lerner. But I also am drawn to news articles, magazine essays. I’ll make big HTML files and drag lots of writing from one online journal to my eReader, and go through the whole thing, lying in bed, or waiting in the car at an appointment. For me, taking text, and making it all the same font, increasing the size so that I can only see a paragraph or so on the screen at a time, helps me not get distracted by stylistic choices that aren’t actually part of the prose or poetry pieces.

Q: You used to be the singer and guitarist for a band called Eminent Resistance. Will you ever revive the band?

I still sing, play piano and guitar, but that passion has evolved. That passion came from being in middle school, spending so many cold winter afternoons in the basement, stretching out stiff fingers on the frets, figuring out how to play the songs I heard on the radio. I learned by ear—each time I tried to take a lesson, it was, fortuitously, thwarted, by chance or fate. I would spend so much time alone, so that I could then spend some hours with my best friend, the drummer of our band, showing him what I had created—in order to then spend a few minutes in front of strangers, sharing that music. 

Q: Tell us about the journey hand-binding your first novel? 

This was also about strangers. The Great Recession had just officially ended, but things didn’t feel normal. I bought a winter tent and other gear. I memorized the camping rules for state forests across the Northeast. The plan was to drive across the cold states, learn something new. But instead, I stayed in place. I started writing. I quit my part-time jobs and by 2010 had something that resembled a novel. I felt oddly detached from it, giving it to friends and us never talking about it—probably because it wasn’t good! So I started leaving them in public places. I conjured up ideas about strangers, fueled by what I read in books whose authors, likewise, didn’t know me.

Q: Do have more novels and guerilla marketing ideas in you?

I wouldn’t want to go back to that period of time. It was beautiful, but it was also lonely. I thought I was more intelligent than I was. I pushed people I knew away, in favor of those I’d never meet. I also just enjoy stories, articles, poems, and essays more, these days—more than novels. I still have a soft spot for the sprawling, but find myself more challenged by, and attracted to, fulfilled by, the condensed.

Q: How do you select words and phrases to form your poems? Do you find different forms of inspiration for poetry versus fiction?

They overlap, a lot of times. Occasionally, it’s about timing—if I’m driving, walking, it’s easier to hold individual lines in my head, than a complete narrative arc. I don’t carry around anything to write down thoughts. I approach the desk when I can’t hold them in my brain anymore. I used to write by hand, but it somehow feels more organic on the computer, now—I let everything distract me, keep a throng of open tabs, pull into my Word doc whatever random Wikipedia entry graces the screen. Because there’s a wildness in the current moment, in disparate source material. It may not make for the best writing, but it has a vitality I find encouraging, I find, ultimately, human.

Q: What is next for the writer, the thinker, the poet, the Thomas Mixon?

I have no idea. I go through periods where I think I’ll never write again, but they usually only last a week or two, sometimes a month. But summing up one’s output, one’s creative work, by merely what one’s put down on the page, for me I don’t find helpful. After the first novel I actually wrote two more, and didn’t leave them anywhere. The third I abandoned after more than eighty unclosed parentheses, tangent upon tangent. I took a break for a half a dozen years and (tried) to learn Italian. I’m often caught between routine and impulse, novelty and self-soothing. I think this is okay. I remember a quote by John Cassavetes, in the foreword to one of his screenplays. I can’t find it anywhere online, but it went something like: “We have to be kind to ourselves. There must be ways to hold ourselves accountable, artistically, interpersonally, societally, while also being kind to ourselves.”

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