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Anders Carlson-Wee

 04-19-2016

 
Anders Carlson-Wee
 
Birdcalls

I crept around the dark train yard
while my brother watched for bulls.
Two days deep into the Badlands
and all our water gone. We had a birdcall
for if you saw something and another
for if you heard. A silent yard eight strings wide
with a few junkers parked. The horizon
a dull burn. The rails lit dimly by dew.
I was looking for the water bottles
the conductors used and threw out the windows
with maybe a sip left inside them.
I found one by stepping on it.
I sucked it like a leech. I stumbled
up and down the ballast and found five more,
unbuttoning my shirt and nesting them
against my chest upright and capless.
We had the sandpiper for if you should run
and the flycatcher for if you should hide.
I can't remember why we had the loon.
I crouched in the space between coal trains,
cradling the bottles and feeling the weight
of how little I had to spill.
I rubbed coal on my face. I felt crazy.
I thought about being found like this.
I tried to imagine what my story would be.
A version with my brother in it.
A version with no brother. I swear
I could smell rain a thousand miles away.
I could smell rain in the soot. I folded my hands
around my lips and made the gray ghost,
which told him where I was.
And also meant stay alert.
And also meant some other things
only owls understood.

 

Gathering Firewood on Tinpan

I bundle them against my chest, not sure
if they're dry enough. Gauging how long
they'll keep me warm by the thickness.
I step around carefully, looking for the deadest,
searching the low places
for something small and old that will catch.
I pick up the dander loosened
as my father folds his hands, lowers his head.
The rolling thunder on the surface of a nail.
I pick up the cross that seesaws his chest
with each step. The day I lost my faith.
The night my dog ran away and came back sick.
The battery-pump of her final breath.
Still wondering if she left alone,
or if my father walked her out of this world.
Still wondering what he used for a leash.
I go further into the trees and find
more fuel. My friends faded on oxy
and percocet. My cousin Scott
buried young in the floodplain.
My brother and the ways I burden him.
Living it over and over each night.
My father walking into every dream.
My fire not bright enough to reveal anything.
Not even his face. Not even the leash.

 

Listening to a Rail in Mandan

I've heard it said that you can feel it coming
in the tremor of the tracks, that you can cock
your head and cup an ear to the smooth steel
and sense it coming in vibrations, in rattles,
that you can gather the blaze of friction
as it builds, the heart murmur climbing the pass
through the mountains inside your head.
I stand at the edge of the brake and listen
for far-off signs: whistles, footfalls, gravel
ground under truck tires. I crawl up the grade
to the raised beds and the rails, the bull-run
on the far side of the yard lit by overheads,
each pool of light like a crude betrayal
of the darknesses between. The rails
take parallel trails of light past the sidings,
past the curve at the end of the yard,
past the bottleneck at the Heart River bridge--
two aisles of light like childhood brothers adrift,
like a father's eyes carving the dark land
beside the dark river. The shape of a tree.
The shape of an owl grinding the sky.
I've heard it said that you can feel it coming
from as far off as a mile, the distance erased
in the pump of a vein, in the flicker of overhead lights,
the bull-run laying in its own dust wasted,
the tire tracks zigzagged and stacked
where the rail-cop makes fate his listless routine.
I shoulder against a fishplate and lower
my head to the rail. I wait for a chime, a shiver,
some thunder to ride past the overland silence.
I've heard it said that the kingdom of heaven
surrounds us, though we fail to see.
No stars tonight. No fire. No brother by the junkers
awaiting my call. No father walking toward me
on the tar-blackened ties. No dog's eye
catching the searchlights. Not a single sound
fleshing this tank town as the rail begins to shake,
as the train begins to whisper my name.

                                   -from Dynamite

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellow and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. His work has appeared in Narrative, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, AGNI, Best New Poets, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. Winner of Ninth Letter's Poetry Award and New Delta Review's Editors' Choice Prize, he holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University. In collaboration with his brother Kai, he co-directed the poetry film Riding the Highline, which won the special jury prize for Innovation in Documentary Short Film at the Napa Valley Film Festival.

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

A Review of Anders Carlson-Wee's Dynamite by Francine Conley, first published at The Adroit Journal

Anders Carlson-Wee’s newly published and thoroughly engaging chapbook, DYNAMITE, gives heart to the art of concealment.   A winner of the 2015 winner of the Frost Place Chapbook competition, the nineteen poems included in this vibrant collection reveal much by restraint.  The poems are riveting and action-driven, showcasing a bold new voice of a spiritual insomniac who trespasses danger, willingly, and—at times—playfully.

The title poem “Dynamite” opens the book on hazardous fun between brothers who view nature as artillery.  Pinecones are grenades, and pine sticks are rifles.  But when his brother disappears and reappears with a bloody nose and a real hammer in his hand, the stakes are raised, and we don’t know what to expect next. 

Indeed, each poem that follows “Dynamite” carries a degree of menace and suspense, delving into familial bonds (especially brother-brother and father-son) and beyond.  We learn about the formative years of a poet who spent much of his youth wandering from home, exploring yards, hopping trains, dumpster diving, and hitchhiking.  This wandering unleashes language and insight, as well as a degree of concealment, from hiding in train cars to dumpsters.  Even the wounds of others the poet encounters are hiding places that help him access the language of compassion and comparison.  He lets others speak, almost as a way of understanding his reason for being.  But as much as Carlson-Wee advances the chapbook’s themes in each poem, he crafts distance as measure in style and subject matter, as if to withhold or prevent explosion.  There is no end in this book; there is only journey.

On a stylistic level, Carlson-Wee is a deeply curious poet.  He exploits muscled and sonically dexterous language, and shift points of view effortlessly.  He wields sentence fragments like choke chains, such as in a wonderfully short-tempered poem, “Northern Corn,” which carries the rhythm of passing train cars.  End-stopped, unruly and abrupt, each line reads like a measured burst, felt best in the portrait of a ninety-year old father sketched this way: “The size of his hands. / The size of one finger. / The flathead prairie of his calloused / thumbpad.” Such fragments fall down like sacks of flour from a train car and beyond; we find compound words that enhance the tonal compactness of the poems in which they appear.  This is bulk realism.  This is the mind of a bona fide survivor with a less-is-more approach: coal-dust, wind-eddies, blue-faded are expressions, that recall Gilbert or Larkin’s influence, while showing Carlson-Wee’s comfort with both depth and obscurity.  He is terribly insightful of the protective mechanisms by which we (and he) abides. 

Two standout poems showcase the art of concealment.  In “Moorcroft” the speaker chances an overnight stay in the home of one who admits a past murder, and adds of his heinous act: “I wouldn’t change it.”  A parallel is drawn between the yoke of one man’s violence and the continued but unspoken menace the book’s opening poem ignites.  Why share this story?  The man concludes, “Family is family,” before he brings the poet “clean sheets for my bed.”  So the hardness of one tale juxtaposed with another lets the reader into what inspires this writer into danger, as much as the soft shell of a bed in which he’ll sleep so close to danger. 

This is a poet willing to risk his life in order to get closer to what hurts inside himself and others.  “Gathering Firewood on Tinpan” might be about gathering wood, but the imagined father and the tender tension felt in the image of his “folded hands,” is interrupted by an abrupt, declarative fragment that speaks deeper: “My brother and the ways I burden him.” Again, Carlson-Wee exposes the double bind that familial bonds necessitate, and how these attachments between men magnify once out in the world.

To that end, “Shoalwater” is an aria and one of the most complex, nimbly constructed, and important pieces in the chapbook.  A hybrid form that interweaves his past with an external landscape, this poem articulates beautifully how the external shapes the internal:

Waves grind the shoreline and darken into pools.
Crabs shuffle sideways, lost in the washed-up eelgrass.
Seagulls spit littleneck clams to the rocks
and don’t even eat the shattered bodies. 

Carlson-Wee’s use of nouns—waves, pools, crabs, eelgrass, seagulls, and littleneck clams—intensifies the interdependence between all moving parts.  Yet, the assertive verbs (grind, darken, shuffle, spit) view menace in love’s rare movements that surround the speaker, and furthermore, the tension of the unspoken is palpably felt in such modifications as darken, crabs shuffle sideways.  Love shuffles in the dark, is lost and guarded, and then flares as it does in a dream in which his brother appears and disappears from his gaze, as if a reverse Orpheus.  Feeling is camouflaged in all things until some force comes along and breaks us open:  “We leak every time / we are opened.  Out beyond the waves, / love says the same of itself.” 

What follows is a striking reverberation as the speaker walks down the beach and throws stones at water.  As if out there love necessitates an act of aggression, like in the opening poem, “Dynamite,” to shape itself into words.  When he spots a seagull drop a clam against a rock, he notices how it shatters as much as he names the bird’s unabashed disregard for its insides.  The horrified innards sit exposed on a rock, but what holds our attention is less the breaking than the moment before the clam’s shield shatters, before the deed is done.  Violence comes before the act, in other words, and for this reader, such unique insight intensifies the book’s thematic pursuits. 

Love is a clamshell’s first touch against rock,
whatever tenderness can be found
in that contact before the crack.  It’s been years
since I was last out on the water.  The night sky tightens
like that familiar mouth.

“The thud of a body surrounded by hollow” reveals the sound love makes in the absence of feeling, and then a moment in which the speaker offers a rare admonition: “It’s been years / since I was last out on the water.”  The night sky “tightens,” like his brother’s familiar mouth.  So much is suggested in silence, in so little space.

Dynamite is thus a dynamic exploration of restraint, and evidence of how physical every feeling can be contained and distilled.  The body appears everywhere in the book, but in “Shoalwater” it’s as indecisive as shoreline water, as breakable as the shell seems firm before it’s dropped.  “This is the best we can do,” Carlson-Wee writes.  So we commit heinous acts, but we survive by being resolutely vulnerable.

Standing at the edge affords Carlson-Wee his own education, or how he was trained to see by standing apart and listening: “Listening to a Rail in Mandan” ends the chapbook not at a shoreline but “at the edge of the brake” where the speaker listens for the sound of oncoming trains. Where others failed to see, this speaker ironically learned how to observe, as he continues to do: “No stars tonight.  No fire.  No brother by the junkers awaiting my call. / No father walking toward me.”

Closure comes as the speaker admits he learned to note what’s been lost and overlooked. Surely the brother and father are measurements of the speaker’s identity, but their absence in the last poem signals a vital shift, as if alone this speaker can no longer hide.  The formative relationships of his youth are gone: he can only be a witness to himself.

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

An Interview with Ander Carlson-Wee by Taneum Bambrick, first published at Sonora Review

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.

TB: 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.

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.

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.

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.

TB: 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.

AC-W:  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.

 Click here to read and interview with Anders Carlson-Wee at Speaking of Marvels

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

 Click here for a reading by Anders Carlson-Wee at New Books Network

 Click here for a reading by Anders Carlson-Wee at The Southern Review




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Click here to buy Carlson-Wee's book

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Anders Carlson-Wee



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