Tao Lin is the author of the poetry collection you are a little bit happier than i am and the simultaneously released fictions Bed and Eeeee Eee Eeee, a story collection and novel, respectively. He runs the blog reader of depressing books and various other online publications. I can't express exactly what his writing is or does beyond the fact that I read it quickly and with satisfaction. Resigned yet emotionally attuned, simple yet new, his voice leads the reader through hallways and trap doors and ladders that descend into underground realms of teleporting animals. His poetry makes me feel like a Honda Civic, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions:
Michael Signorelli: Congratulations on your three books. I like each one. When I started you are a little bit happier than i am, I thought the table of contents was a poem, one that I really liked. Has this been a popular confusion among readers?
Tao Lin: A little popular I think. Matthew Rohrer in a blurb for the book said, "I accidentally read Tao Lin's table of contents as a poem; it's a hilarious poem and it hooked me right away." I read the table of contents a few times imagining it was a poem and I liked it. It can be a poem. It is a poem. I will submit it somewhere as a poem.
MS: In general, do you enjoy hearing other people's interpretation of your poetry?
TL: I don't feel excited or good or amused or anything when hearing interpretations of my poetry. Because when I read the poems myself I don't interpret them, I just read them and feel emotions. When I read other people's poems I don't interpret them. If I read a poem and it says, "the sky was orange with satellites. / And satellites know everything," (Matthew Rohrer) I don't think, "What does orange symbolize? What does that line mean? What does it mean that satellites know everything? Is he talking about God?" I just read the words and then feel amused or a little excited. Then I use that excitement to go answer an email that I haven't felt like answering for a while, due to feeling unexcited about life or something, or I go do something for someone, or I go write something, or I go outside and look at a tree. I do something in concrete reality.
But if I thought, "The satellite symbolizes God because God sees everything and people think he is in the sky like satellites are in the sky but you can't see them," I do not feel excitement. I feel bored. I feel inhuman, because I am using my time and energy not to do things in concrete reality that have to do with other human beings, or trees, but to do things having to do with abstractions and concepts, which do not exist in concrete reality but in a metaphysical place, or something. That is not life-affirming, it is the opposite. It is denying that conscious beings feel emotions, denying that pain and suffering exists, and focusing on things that do not exist in concrete reality and that do not therefore feel pain and suffering. I could only do that sarcastically I think. I feel very bored and very unexcited when I hear or read people "interpreting" fiction or poetry in a non-sarcastic way. I feel nervous about this paragraph. I hope it makes sense. I think I articulated this better somewhere else on the internet.
MS: In your poems you often talk of not wanting to exist anymore. Now that your books have been published, will they exist for you? Do you prefer living in a world where your books are published?
TL: My books are just books. I do not "own" them. They are not connected to me physically. People only know that I wrote the books because I tell them my name and then they look at the names on the books and see that the name is the same. There is no concrete connection between myself and my books. A dog or a baby or person who doesn't know my name can look at my books and then look at me and see no connection. My books will not exist for me. I exist for me. I think I was being sarcastic, or not completely literal, when I said in my poems that I didn't want to exist anymore. I do prefer to live in a world where the books I wrote exist, because I like my books. It is okay, and even moral, to like one's own books, as if they were someone else's books. Moral, in part, because to view one's books as separate from oneself teaches that "ownership" is not a thing that exists but was created, as a concept, in order for people to have more power over other people, and make more money, and things like that.
MS: What poets do you like?
TL: I like Matthew Rohrer, Michael Earl Craig, Ben Lerner, and Ellen Kennedy.
MS: Do you like reading to audiences?
TL: Sometimes I do. I have a poem that is a lecture about eating meat and dairy. I like reading that to an audience because I think it is funny. I like reading sometimes because the audience can't argue with me and I have time to lecture them calmly and rationally and in a monotone, while they are staring at my face. A lot of the time when I am reading I feel bored of myself. I feel both the audience's boredom and my own boredom.
MS: What questions do you ask yourself when deciding if a story is complete?
TL: When I worked on the stories in BED each day I would start reading from the beginning, and keep reading, and once there was a part that didn't feel very interesting to me I would do something about it, like delete it. When I had one entire draft, with an ending, I would be aware of whether or not things prior to the ending were in service or not to the ending, while reading each day from the beginning. If not I would try to do something about it, like delete it. Ideally I want every word to be in service of the entire story.
I used to think that people were just being dramatic when they said about a certain writer, "Every word has been excruciatingly chosen," or something. I think almost every writer has had that said about them. I still think people are just being dramatic when they say that. Only Lorrie Moore possibly, out of the story-writers I have read, in many of her stories, has, it feels like to me, "chosen" each word "excruciatingly." I think I "chose" each word "excruciatingly" in a few of the stories in BED. The last story. If a writer uses a cliche of language like "screamed at the top of my lungs" or "give him the boot" the phrase has been chosen, not the word.
MS: Of your three books which came first? Did one facillitate the creation of another? Do you have a favorite?
TL: BED came first, then YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM, then EEEEE EEE EEEE. Sometimes I was working on more than one at one time. I wrote some of EEEEE EEE EEEE before I finished all the stories in BED. And I edited all three of them in different orders in different times.
I think the three books have different styles. BED is Lorrie-Moore style to me, I used strange words and words I wouldn't say out loud, in real life, because I would feel like a pretentious asshole, and I used a lot of metaphors and similes, and the sentences were all very contrived, meaning I felt like I worked on them "excruciatingly." I tried to make the stories "thematic" on the "word-level." I talked about that in an essay on largeheartedboy.
The poetry book uses simple words and some of the poems were written without much editing, and the sentences were not contrived but just what came first to my brain (unless what came first was a cliche of language, then I made sure to be concrete and specific, on the word-level). EEEEE EEE EEEE uses simple words but I did work on the sentences, for sentence variety and "flow" and things like that. It also has some BED-like paragraphs.
My favorite changes depending on my mood and "each moment in time" and things like that. Right now if I had to choose one part of one of those books to read I would read something from BED. I would read "Love is The Indifferent God of the Universe in which Religion is Church" maybe, because I like the tone of that story and I think it is funny and easy to read.
MS: Are you happy with the public's reception of your work?
TL: I don't know. I think the public's reception of my work has very little effect on my mood. A double espresso probably has more effect on my mood than a book review. Because art is subjective. Everyone likes different things. No one is right and no one is wrong. That is why things like Granta's "BEST WRITERS" lists or things like that, or critics who say things like, "GREATEST WRITER EVER," are probably immoral. Yes, immoral, meaning "causes more pain and suffering in the world."
MS: In your fiction, your characters seem to be redeemed in single moments of clarity and newness. Does the world continually renew itself? Must one forget in order to move forward?
TL: I don't think my characters are "redeemed." I will tell you about their single moments of clarity and newness. Sometimes, in real life, I have moments where I feel more and stronger emotions than other moments. Then like an hour later I am drinking soup or something and feeling no emotions. I feel emotions. Sometimes I feel stronger emotions. I think it is proven somewhere that the brain "remembers" more when the human is feeling strong emotions. I had to choose where to end the short stories, what to write about, so I chose to write about moments when the characters feel strong emotions. I thought, "What exactly made the character feel the strong emotions in that one moment?" then I put in all the things, all the scenes, which I think caused the strong emotions, and ended the story at the moment of strong emotion. I feel "epiphanies" all the time. They don't change my life drastically, though, but a little, they do change my life a little, like everything does. Everyone has "epiphanies." Just look at everyone you know. Everyone is always making resolutions and saying things like, "From now on ______," then like a day later they are sitting there depressed and talking shit about themselves.
MS: Are there such things as stupid questions?
TL: It depends what "stupid" means. You would have to define "stupid" within a specific context and goal.
MS: Who wins--adult blue-finned tuna or Al Gore?
TL: I think Al Gore would win. The tuna would just swim away from Al Gore. Later Al Gore would lecture about global warming and then feel hungry. He would order tuna and eat the tuna.