An Interview with Anders Carlson-Wee

18 mins read

By: Taneum Bambrick

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Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Fellow, 2015 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow, and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, AGNI, Best New Poets, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he holds an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University.

Taneum Bambrick: Congratulations on receiving a 2015 National Endowment of the Arts grant. Did you apply with an intended project?

Anders Carlson-Wee: To be honest, I didn’t have an intended project when I applied for the NEA because I never entertained the notion that I might actually be awarded the grant. But it wasn’t hard to decide what to do with the funding. First, I’m going to live off it so I can spend my time writing. I’m a frugal man, and for the past ten years I’ve been getting the bulk of my food from dumpsters behind grocery stores, paying minimal rent, and traveling cheap by bicycle and freight train. I used to study wilderness survival, and that brought a kind of primitivism into my life, as well as my writing. Living cheap has allowed me to focus the bulk of my energy on poetry, which has been a great blessing. The NEA grant will allow me to continue this lifestyle, and I’m forever grateful for the support.

One of my specific projects for the year will be making poetry films with my brother Kai. We’re about to release one called RIDING THE HIGHLINE, which follows a trip we took hopping freight trains across the country and incorporates our poems as part of the narrative structure. I’m using a chunk of the funding for video equipment toward making these films. We’re shooting another one this summer, but I won’t spoil it by giving away the story.

Portland BridgeTB: In a recent article, the NEA described the ways in which this year’s grant winners emerged from different “walks of life,” referencing your experience as a professional rollerblader. One of your professor’s at Vanderbilt, Kate Daniel’s, also describes you as having “an entire life beyond and besides poetry.” Can you elaborate on the relationship between what you’ve lived and what you write?

AC-W: All of my poems are personal myths, born from the raw experiences of my life. I grew up rollerblading in Fargo, North Dakota, obsessed with the aesthetics of the human body on skates. I ran from the cops a lot, got arrested at eleven, broke a bunch of bones, filmed skate videos, and hung out with homeless dudes who frequented the same spots as the skaters. It was a real raw scene, out in the streets everyday. The landscapes of the city determined the kinds of tricks you could do, and as a writer that influence has become the personal narratives I mold to build poems. At Fairhaven College I designed a major called “Writing Through the Body,” trying to form a creative process for writing that mimics that raw, physical process I used on skates––and it works for me. I believe in the body’s influence on the heart and mind, and I generate my poems from the physical rhythms of my body. I hear language more than I see it. I feel it more than I think it. You have to trust that the important stuff is nailed to your poems with the hammer-strikes of emotion and story and image and song.

As an example of this process, my poem “Riding the Owl’s Eye” grew out of a train-hopping trip I took in 2011. After hitchhiking across the border into Canada I hopped a junker from the Vancouver railyard, Alaska bound. But the railroad tracks only run halfway up British Columbia, so I had to hitchhike the Cassiar Highway to Whitehorse, Yukon, where I hung out with a fingerless cowboy before going west to Alaska. On the way back south I rode a Canadian Grainer, which has a hiding spot called “The Owl’s Eye.” It’s a big metal hole you climb inside. I was facing backwards, watching the aspen trees conceal and reveal the mountain peaks. In Alberta the rail-cops caught me. Good-looking officers. Polite. Well-shaved. And thorough. After they cuffed me, one of them found my buck-knife in a frisk and I said, “That’s for camping,” and he said, “I know. You should see what we find.” It’s a long story, and I was almost banished from Canada forever, but in the end these gentleman gave me seven days to exit their nation. “Riding the Owl’s Eye” was born out of that train ride through the Rockies past white-capped Mt. Robson, which I was lucky enough to see before I was caught.

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TB: Many of your poems center on experiences and traditions that exist in isolated spaces. “Icefisher,” selected for Best New Poets 2014, for example, begins with a man setting a fish house on a frozen lake, shifting later to describe the “gray ghost” owl that, like the icefisher, only emerges in the winter. In a poem like this, which encapsulates a location-specific process, what is your motivation as the poet?

AC-W: As a person and as a writer, much of what I do is rooted in primitivism. For a few years I studied wilderness survival intensely, attending outdoor schools to learn about shelter building, fire starting, flint knapping, hide tanning, tracking, trapping, camouflage, and primitive cooking methods. I lived in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State for two years, where I slept in trees and did a lot of trout fishing. I have a sort of minimalist narrative imagination. In my dreams, there are usually only one, two, or three characters, and there’s an action-packed narrative to the scene. From talking with other people about dreams, this doesn’t seem to be true for everyone. My daydreams are similarly built, and so are my poems. I basically write how I think: in simple action-packed narratives that usually focus on one problem and one relationship. My characters are often lacking a basic necessity, such as shelter, water, fire, or food, and my narratives usually follow the process of attempting to fulfill the need. I’m interested in writing adventure poetry, in which active scenes are the primary vessel for expression. My poems are built of these concrete external scenes, but are designed to represent and grapple with the internal life. They attempt to offer a twofold experience: a real adventure story built of concrete action and imagery, and also a figurative, subconscious experience. In this kind of poem, the subconscious experience hinges on the power and engagement of the literal narrative.

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TB: You and your brother, Kai, have both published in Best New Poets and The Missouri Review, often write about each other, and collaborate on creative film and poetry projects. Can you expand on these projects and on the relationship between you, your brother, and your poetry?

AC-W: My brother and I have been best friends and co-conspirators for a very long time. We grew up rollerblading and filming together in Fargo, North Dakota, and in more recent years we’ve gone on long freight-hopping trips across the country and worked on making these poetry films. And as you mentioned, we both write about our relationship––partly because we know a lot about having a brother and being a brother, and––more importantly, I think––because we strive to know about it.

Kai and I have a tendency to get into these crazy misadventures together, where everything goes wrong and gets really complicated. One time we hitchhiked from Minneapolis to Chicago and each person who picked us up was more insane than the one before. This one dude told us about the heart attack he’d suffered after snorting too much coke at his 18th birthday party. That night we slept on a church roof that we reached by climbing a cedar tree. The next day the man who picked us up had fresh wounds on his face, which he’d earned in a fistfight over his friend’s four puppies. Basically, according to this man, his friend was neglecting the dogs and he fought his friend and won, and then stole the puppies in an attempt to save them. His next move was picking us up, hoping we’d have water for the dogs, which we did. That’s a long story. Another time we were riding freight trains from Minneapolis to Seattle and ended up switching trains three times before we made it out of Minnesota. Days and nights and days without sleep. Poison ivy, thunderstorms, hallucinations. On the fifth day we were out of water and got caught in the deserts of eastern Washington when BNSF used a second train to search the first train for us. That’s another long story. We have a way of getting into trouble together, but we somehow manage to get through it––not unscathed, but with some small level of sanity left.

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Regarding the collaborative projects, working on them together is pretty fucking awesome. Kai and I have differing aesthetic tastes in many ways, but we also share a large amount of common ground and common vocabulary from our childhood of skating together, as well as being the sons of two Lutheran pastors, and being from northern Minnesota. When we’re filming a project, I can reference a shot of the skater Erik Burke doing a trick called a tabernacle in the skate video Puppets of Destiny, and Kai knows what I’m talking about. It puts us in a unique position for collaborative work, which has been a great source of energy and creativity in our lives, and is something I’m proud of. We’re working on some other co-projects as well, so keep an eye out.

TB: I am struck by “Polaroid,” up on The Paris American, which relates a scene of two brothers “trying to kill each other.” The poem focuses on physical injuries—goose eggs, loose flaps of skin—but ends with the image of a father character photographing the aftermath of this violence between his sons. Considering this piece, what social issues, ideas, or obligations do you feel influence your work?

AC-W: During the writing process, I don’t feel obligated to anything. Freedom is critical to the generative impulse. Agendas are stifling at best, and, even worse, they’re likely to be in poor taste, aesthetically speaking. That’s not to say that poems don’t address the big social issues––they do––but poets shouldn’t sit down to write with an agenda in mind, especially on a first draft. The imagination is wild and personal and untamable. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, but I’ve learned to trust my basic instincts, to name my obsessions and desires. I expend a lot of energy trying to tap into my basic feelings, and those feelings prove to be universal human experiences.

DYNAMITETB: Your chapbook, DYNAMITE, recently won the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Contest, and was recently published later this summer by Bull City Press. Jennifer Grotz, who selected it for the prize, described it this way: “The poems in Anders Carlson Wee’s Dynamite are, as their title suggests, dramatic and volatile, filled with an explosive and masculine energy. And yet it’s the subtle but ever-surfacing lyricism radiating out from stunning understatements coupled with precise and nuanced detail that makes these poems unforgettable. Dynamite is a collection that first affects the reader strongly and swiftly—and then achingly and hauntingly over time.” Tell us a little about the chapbook.

DYNAMITE is sort of an action-packed thrill-ride about brothers––their bond and their violence, their closeness and distance. The poems are about freight trains, fires, floods, wilderness survival, childhood games, strangers met on the road, and living on food found in dumpsters. You can buy DYNAMITE here:


My brother hits me hard with a stick
so I whip a choke-chain

across his face. We’re playing
a game called Dynamite

where everything you throw
is a stick of dynamite,

unless it’s pine. Pine sticks
are rifles and pinecones are grenades,

but everything else is dynamite.
I run down the driveway

and back behind the garage
where we keep the leopard frogs

in buckets of water
with logs and rock islands.

When he comes around the corner
the blood is pouring

out of his nose and down his neck
and he has a hammer in his hand.

I pick up his favorite frog
and say If you come any closer

I’ll squeeze. He tells me I won’t.
He starts coming closer.

I say a hammer isn’t dynamite.
He reminds me that everything is dynamite.