Casey Thayer is the author of Rational Anthem, which was a finalist for the Miller Williams Poetry Prize, and Self-Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur. His poems have appeared recently in American Poetry Review and Poetry and have been honored with the Cow Creek Chapbook Prize for his collection Love for the Gun, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship, among other prizes. He lives in Chicago.
I spoke with Casey Thayer via Zoom in mid-June, before the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Association, with the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo still on my mind. He called in from his home in Chicago, while I zoomed from Brooklyn. During a summer full of good then bad news, it was not only fascinating to discuss his fiery, moving, and relevant second collection, Rational Anthem, but a real pleasure to speak with someone who’s so thoughtful and generous in engaging with the world through poetry.
Reuben Gelley Newman: Thank you for being here, Casey! Rational Anthem begins with a poem called “[trigger • 1.,]” doubling as a definition of the part of the gun and a trigger warning for the subjects this book addresses: gun violence, masculinity, death. You write: “this content can upset, what’s inside you, / how it explodes in moments / of weakness, being / every day amazed by / the willingness of strangers / to meet with grace this bare expression of weakness.” Other dictionary entries appear throughout the book, for a bullet, a silencer, a sight, and a stock. How did these poems come about formally, and what “grace” do you think these poems, especially about such serious topics, ask of the reader?
Casey Thayer: The trigger warning poem shows an exhaustion with folks who dismiss the legacy of trauma and argue that we need to ignore it or move past it without working to resolve it. It’s placed up front not just for the trigger warning positioning, but also because in some sense, I think that’s the larger goal of the collection: to try to delve into the legacy of trauma and to see how it’s connected to language, how it’s further exacerbated by language.
The definition poems, in a larger sense, came about out of a desire to try to strip away inflammatory context from the language surrounding guns and gun culture, and to reach some kind of objective, concrete meaning behind the different words that we’re using. I wanted to see if I could pare back to what was most necessary in order to understand the different tangible instruments that are being used to further perpetuate this violence. Obviously, that’s a project I failed at because the poems aren’t literal definitions. They’re not trapped by literal meaning, but they use language and sound-play to reach toward the figurative.
This goal, which I don’t think the poems are wholly successful at accomplishing, was not allowing readers to escape the literal reality of a mass shooting, but to center them on that specific violence and trauma: not the debates surrounding it, but the real violence enacted on the body.
RGN: Yeah, maybe even if they’re kind of going to the concrete and then away from it, I think metaphor has another purpose in getting to the emotion of that. Another definition poem, “[silencer • 1.],” meditates on a blue whale: “how it eats…how it can hold its breath for an hour…the loudest animal on the planet, it passes at the speed of a commuter train rolling through an intersection, calling in a frequency we can’t hear.” Thinking about that and a sequence of poems for friends like Randy and Kai (who you call “my Aquaman”), which are very heavy, but beautiful and also very tender poems, what role does the water imagery and language play in such a serious collection?
CT: I would first say, who could resist the symbolic resonances of writing about the world’s largest animal, an animal that has an aorta as wide as a dinner plate? Hopefully, the resonances and the connections between masculinity and the symbolism of the whale come through in the poems. The middle section of the book is really a more direct attempt to address the emptiness in a kind of cocksure bombast, the swaggering confidence of hypermasculinity. Bro culture is just a pose, and a self protective one; we wouldn’t need to wear armor if we didn’t feel under threat—I mean, it is no great revelation to say any of these things. But these poems are an attempt to address and critique masculinity through different symbols: the whale and the lifeguards and the different friends in these poems. There’s the line in “[silencer • 1.]” that talks about the whales calling in a frequency that we can’t hear. I’m hoping that resonates with the way we fail to recognize the damage that masculinity can leave on young men, that it’s not a strength, that it’s just a pose, that it’s, in one sense, protecting a weakness and a vulnerability. The poems find a sense of liberation in turning away from the demands of masculinity.
RGN: I think that’s very powerfully done in the section, and I think reaching toward that quieter kind of space through the metaphor is really effective. “[silencer • 1.]” obviously does that with the imagery, but it’s also the power of that and the loudness and the power of an animal like the blue whale.
CT: A lot of the language I’m drawn to presents sonic fireworks and dense rhythms, repetitions of sound—these are things that really excite me. But I would say those are probably more closely aligned with a certain brand of masculinity: a loudness, a positioning of masculine voices over others. I’m certain there’s like, a social conditioning element to that entitlement of being able to speak. I think this section is trying to counter some of those louder moments in the collection, to have these more quiet lyrics that are not focusing on language and delighting in rhythm, but instead trying to focus on the more humane, potentially.
RGN: I really appreciate that, and I think you can still have really intricate, beautiful sonic moments in here too. Here’s “Randy Be Drowning”: “Reconstruct, the reef—the staghorn, / bottlebrush, cat’s paw, cluster coral— // and the subaquatic glow the moon / coaxed from the lattice-work undergirding.” Like that’s just beautiful.
CT: I’m going to get a big head listening to you.
RGN: Well, I mean, that’s what interviewers are for, probably.
CT: That might be.
RGN: [Laughs] Let’s move on to the next question and the title poem, which is one of those bigger poems, “Rational Anthem.” It refers to classic American songs like “We Will Rock You,” “Our House,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and I’m a musician, so I’m always curious, what was your soundtrack while you wrote this book? How did that inform the poems, and I guess particularly the sonic qualities—the louder ones and the quieter ones?
CT: Well, first I would say I can’t listen to music when I write, which is frustrating, because like you, I love music, and I think it’s a really wonderful source of inspiration. But it’s so distracting that even if it’s instrumental music, I can’t focus on the work itself. But the music that really does inform my work is music that has some kind of density in the lyrics, some kind of literary quality to them. And I think you can’t find a better model for what’s exciting about language than hip-hop. So certainly that’s a touchstone for this work.
In particular at the time when I was writing a lot of these poems, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap was a very important album. A lot of his strongest work has this very interesting language. I’m going to blank on the title of the song, but it starts “Okie dokie, alkie, keep it low-key like Thor lil’ bro / Or he’ll go blow the loudy, saudy of sour Saudi” [from “Cocoa Butter Kisses”]. The language there is so dense and exciting, and the artists are often doing things with parallel forms, syntax, which is very interesting to learn from. This was before Kanye went a little bit far afield, but I was right in the wheelhouse for prime Kanye West years, so he was a touchstone. Obviously Kendrick Lamar, MF DOOM, Tyler the Creator: those are some of the hip-hop artists who are most instructive to the work, I think, to hear how they use language.
RGN: Yeah, awesome. I can definitely see that in the density of some of these poems, and I need to listen to that stuff more too. I mean, it’s great.
CT: I’d like to be like a friend of mine, Grady Chambers. I remember taking a long car ride home with him, and he was listening to classical music and knew all the different songs that were coming on the radio, and the artists, and the movements. I would like to have that knowledge, too. But I need the lyric. That’s certainly what excites me.
RGN: Yeah, and there are a lot of lyrics in this book, too, as in lyric poems. Even when there’s a narrative, the concentration of your lyric energy is really compelling. Thinking about lyric voice, you have that title poem, “Rational Anthem” and a lot of other ones like “My God,” “Our Congregation of the World Weary,” and “The Problem With Poetry”; they have a lot of irony in them. How did you modulate voice in this collection? Because at other times there’s a pretty earnest first person speaker, like in that quieter section.
CT: For sure. I think it’s always a challenge for me to find a sense of tonal consistency in the work. And so I think that’s always something that I struggle with. Some of the books that I respect and return to most often have that sense of consistency in voice and tone, which I tie to a sense of consistency in identity. And potentially one of the reasons for this modulation in this work is that a lot of the poems you’re pointing to in this question are poems from my MFA program or poems from when I was younger. I think there’s a sense of energy of youth in some of those pieces and a sense of engaging in the debate for the first time.
In my experience, as I’ve aged, there’s a sense of exhaustion. I mean, we see this every time a new shooting hits the news: it’s harder and harder to sustain energy and outrage. We saw it with the last administration, how quickly outrage and surprise are exhausted by the next news cycle. And so for me, the result of the change in age and the change in energy is a tonal inconsistency.
Ultimately I just try to take the poems as they come. I think it’s easy to self-censor our voice when it doesn’t fit with the collection that we have in mind or the poems that we’re writing, and I try not to think too much about the larger chorus of voices that these poems are going to make. I just try to think about laying each down like a line of melody and then seeing how they might harmonize or create dissonance.
RGN: You can definitely see that change over the course of the book, too. The chorus of voices, to use that metaphor, resolves and shifts in very interesting ways. In another vein, you also play with form often. In addition to the definition poems, you have “The Hurt Sonnet,” whose amputated last line refuses to rhyme; “Echo,” an elegy for Kai that reverses itself midway through to the beginning; and “How-To,” an adapted abecedarian that largely contains lines from a mandated active-shooter training you attended at the campus where you worked. What do stricter forms do for you?
CT: I always find them generative. I know they can be seen as constricting and limiting and they can close off the work by closing off the possibilities. But for me, writing with form is like getting thrown into the deep end of a pool. They give me a wall to push off of, they give me something to push against.
You’ve pointed to some of these forms, but to be fair, I don’t stick to the traditional parameters. I use form as a starting point. I find it very difficult to write a true villanelle or sestina or pantoum, but to use the ghost of that form for me is helpful in moving through a piece and working on a piece, but also in thinking about how it balances out other work. Form can add texture to a collection of poems. It delights on a less visceral level and a more academic level, so on that alone, I think it’s helpful to play around with form, even if you move away from it.
RGN: I think all the other free verse poems have a really solid attention to their form, too, whether that’s couplets or something else. But I really like that idea of a wall to push off of; I think that’s very generative, and I find form generative, too. Thinking about form again but in a different context, in “How-To,” which is a really resonant and heavy poem, especially now, you’re talking about punctuation, and you mentioned this a little bit earlier, but the violence of language itself: “Punctuation: to mark with points or dots, how a clip full of bullets punctuates the body with periods, a series of full-stops.” Can you reflect on that potential violence, and what can poetry’s role be in combating or upholding that?
CT: As you say, it has a sense of resonance and relevance, and I’m discouraged that the book is still relevant. I certainly stand behind the work and hope it finds a readership, but I would’ve been satisfied if it was totally irrelevant to be talking about gun culture in 2022. Just the fact that these tragedies continue to occur—and I would say in some sense, tragedies that could be preventable if we had sensible gun rights restrictions—it’s discouraging that this is still a topic. But the dialogue is changing. We’re not satisfied with “thoughts and prayers” anymore. People are demanding action.
Ultimately what poetry can do against the ways that language can be weaponized and harnessed to perpetuate violence, is that poetry itself demands attention. By being a poet—whether you’ve gone through any kind of official training or not—you are a person who is more skilled than most at examining language or considering how language works, a person who considers the messages that language sends. For readers of poetry, there’s an expectation that the language is carefully considered. That alone might allow you to be a critical reader in other contexts. When we actually examine messages and videos and the media, we become much more informed and can resist some of these insidious ways that language is used.
RGN: I’m thinking about syntax especially in the case of those generalities that you’re combating in “How-To,” pointing all that out, looking at the language of the active-shooter training manual itself. I think that’s kind of a really important use of language and poetry these days.
My next question is about a different topic that’s also very present in the poetry, the setting of Michigan, especially since there’s a lot of wonderful poetry coming out of the Midwest, but also because the poetry world is traditionally dominated by voices from the coasts. What does it mean for you to be writing about the Midwest?
CT: Certainly it’s a natural tendency and a natural response to draw on what seems foundational to you as a poet. Like I’m certain, when you sit at the page, Reuben, you’re writing from an East Coast sensibility, whether you intend to or not. With this book in particular, though, it was important to really write and examine the kind of gun culture that I grew up in and the different ways that gender stereotypes are upheld in the Midwest, the ways that a man is a man, the way that a man acts like a man. I grew up in Wisconsin, did my master’s program in the Upper Peninsula, so the Midwest and a Midwestern sensibility is certainly a foundation that I’ll probably continue to return to. And this is Middle America: the representative sample, the middle ground, so potentially, that gives my work the perspective of a common person. [Laughs]
RGN: That makes a lot of sense. And that made me think of a lot of the earlier poems in the collection, like “Hymn for the Colt” or “Play.” I think Patricia Smith is right in quoting those lines from “An Anatomical Study Concerning the North American Whitetail”: “You can love a man and find some shared action / in which he tolerates that love.” Or when the speaker pulls the guts out of the buck: “Sometimes / I believe in small acts of kindness.” So maybe that’s a good place to end the conversation on something a little lighter, but also serious.
CT: Well certainly once you field dress a deer, and you have that actual intimacy with that animal, it changes your perception of hunting. As someone who comes from hunters—my grandfather, my dad, my brother, my father-in-law, and my brother-in-law are both still big hunters—I respect it and understand its appeal, but for me it really emphasized and highlighted the differences in the ways that I identify as a man, and my brand of masculinity, and what is usually held up in the Midwest as the stereotype.
RGN: That makes a lot of sense. It’s really powerful how you show that in that poem. And it comes across throughout this conversation, too, so thank you again for talking with me about these poems.