THE MOANING SALMON ROADTRIP INTERVIEW
A joint interview with Caroline Rayner on her book-length poem, The Moan Wilds,
and Sebastian Castillo on his new novella, SALMON.
By Oscar d'Artois
Recently, I flew to America (United States of) to go on a book tour with Sebastian and Caroline, in celebration of the release of their brand new books, fresh out on cool new indie press on the block, Shabby Doll House. (Press.) (I’m not sure if there is a ‘press’ in there or no.) Or, rather, I accompanied my wife, Lucy, who published the fine volumes, on the tour. To be honest, I didn’t have much of a function, apart from cheerleading & merrymaking & simply enjoying. And so I, or someone anyway, figured I might as well make myself useful and interview the pair of them about their books, which I had just recently read. At one point, fairly close to the beginning of the tour, as it happens, we had to drive from Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, where we’d fêted the books at a lovely purveyor of independent literature, Iffy Books, to Easthampton, Massachusetts, where we were set to do so in a vegetable patch. By which I mean a very large & decked-out backyard that happened to feature tomatoes and herbs and chickens.
At any rate, the drive from Philly to Western Mass is a long, tedious, and rather ugly one, at least in parts, and involves traversing a zone that can only be described as hell made manifest – I am referring of course to that barren wasteland of twisting grey highway ramps somewhere a little to the west and north of New York City, a maze of metal and concrete slabs that seem to loop in and out and under and over each other for as far as the eye can see, nearly blotting out the very sun. And so, seeing my chance, and maybe also in part to keep us entertained, slyly I – like a panther quietly approaching its prey – pounced these questions upon their unsuspecting ears. That is, the interview was meant as a surprise, though the proverbial wildcat may have been let out of the bag a little earlier than I had planned, so I think they may have known that something was afoot. In retrospect, my plan was somewhat complicated by the fact that Caroline was also the driver taking us safely to our destination, for which she deserves extra kudos for managing to multitask on this one. Not least because the AC in her car was down, and it was 700 degrees outside, and that in order to get a halfway decent recording, we had to keep the windows up throughout the interview, while my subjects bravely sweated their way through my questions and frequent interruptions from the GPS. And since, as it turns out, Sebastian unfortunately fell ill and was unable to join us for the rest of the tour after this leg, also in retrospect, I suppose the timing of this interview was fairly serendipitous, seeing as the four of us were on a group high the dynamic of which was shortly to take a dark, twisted, and unhinged turn when we went from being a quartet to trio.
Just kidding, the entire tour was a blast, really, and a fun reminder, for me anyway, that we are all here on earth living out our weird little writerly lives in various corners of it, a feeling that maybe by virtue of the relative isolation from one another in which we spend the majority of those lives, I too often forget. And so in that sense it reinjected me, and I hope others, with a sense that we are all, well… Out Here Being Artists. Still, we were sad to lose Sebastian, our sole expert on the marine world and the fish that dwell within, even though truth be told we would only be navigating by land. Anyway. Below you’ll find a transcript of 30 minutes of me asking them about their works, both of which I am a massive fan of – as I am of the authors behind them. I hope that if you aren’t yet one too, your interest will be piqued enough here to make you one; and that if, like many, you already are, then you will find some further insights into the inner workings of their brilliant œuvres over the course of these scant pages.
Oscar: So, I had this plan to interview you guys in the car but I didn’t get a chance to write down that many questions.
Lucy: You don’t have to say that…
Oscar: I know I don’t have to say it! It’s just for me [laughter]. Okay. Where do we start? I guess I want to know a bit about the genesis of the books. Maybe Sebastian you should answer first, since Caroline’s driving.
Sebastian: Yeah, I’ll answer first.
Oscar: Ok... When did you start it?
Sebastian: I started the first version of what would become SALMON in late 2019 or so, and I wrote a whole draft of the book, it was maybe only 60 pages, but I –
GPS: Speed checks are forthcoming on I-684 North.
Sebastian: I didn’t know where to go with it, I was just sort of spinning my wheels, and so I abandoned it and I started it again from scratch. And I realized that the book would have to be about a person who wants to go to this place but they never get there, even though they’re very determined to go. And so with that in mind, that’s how I started.
Oscar: And how did the title happen?
Sebastian: The title is actually even older than the book. The title comes from when I was teaching the book In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan to a class of creative writing students, and it’s a really kind of trippy, weird book, and in it there’s a place called inBOIL which is a weird - I don’t even remember what it is - but it’s in all caps. That just started bouncing something inside of me, thinking about a place in all capital letters. I don’t even remember why I landed on SALMON. I had the title for years before I even started the book.
Oscar: Yeah, it’s a good, quirky title. How is Inboil spelt…?
Sebastian: Yeah, I think it’s like i-n lowercase and then B-O-I-L uppercase...
Sebastian: Yeah, it’s a bizarre book. It takes place in this not real world...
GPS: In 2 miles, take exit 9 East to merge onto I-84 West, towards Danbury.
Oscar: Caroline, how about you?
Caroline: So, the first draft of The Moan Wilds was my MFA thesis and I feel like it really wasn’t a full – sorry, I’m trying to answer the question and also make sure I don’t miss the next exit – okay so yeah, it started as my MFA thesis and I kind of always knew that that was just a partial version of what I ultimately wanted it to be, or it was like notes towards something larger. And I guess as far as the genesis of that, well, we were talking earlier about short poems and I always felt kind of dissatisfied with those, I felt like I never had enough space to do what I wanted to do. And then I heard Tommy Pico read from IRL and he was like, ‘This is a long poem, a book-length poem,’ and I thought, ‘Excuse me! You can do that?!’ And then I think about it more and I realize actually I did read a lot of book-length poems over the course of my education, I guess, if you count The Odyssey and The Wasteland and whatever else, but it never felt like a form that was available to me. It was always something to be studied, it didn’t seem like something anyone could do. And then I found IRL and a bunch of other more contemporary things and I realized that was something I could do. And that it was kind of the poetry I’d always wanted to write.
Oscar: Yeah, it kind of makes more sense, as a form, the long poem, than a bunch of collected things. If you’re trying to say something, with a book, it seems easier to do.
Caroline: Yeah, I was talking to Rachelle (Toarmino) a little about this but I wrote pretty much the whole first draft in my last year of the MFA, which is kind of an insane thing to do. I feel like a lot of people, I don’t know, I think an easier way to do my thesis would have been to collect things I had written over the course of that time, but I just decided I wanted to do something new and long and it was hard but also really fun and I’m glad that I did it.
Oscar: It’s cooler to kind of throw the energy that you’ve gathered over that time into something new.
Caroline: Yeah, I agree.
Oscar: Also you seem very long-poem rather than short-poem.
Caroline: Yeah, I don’t know... I can’t shut up! Ever!
Oscar: But that’s fine. You’re taking us on an aesthetic ride. It’s like, you throw a lot of candy out there.
Caroline: Exactly. I love that.
Oscar: So it’s kind of pleasant in that way. What the hell is a Moan Wilds?
Caroline: That’s a great question and I don’t really have a good answer to it. I guess that title, I didn’t initially think of it as the title, but the phrase just kind of... came to me. Which feels so annoying as a way to put it, but --
Oscar: Like, in a dream?
GPS: In 10 miles --
Sebastian: Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt but it’s related to what you were asking before about SALMON. It also just came to me. I just don’t know. But I’ve been telling people retroactively that the first chapter is really influenced by the opening of Moby Dick. And so that’s a big book about a big fish, and this is a short book about a smaller fish, which is why it’s called SALMON... You can just make up reasons, after the fact.
Caroline: Yeah, I guess with The Moan Wilds, the first draft of it was kind of more straightforward in some ways, and more obviously about specific people and a specific moment in my life. I was kind of remembering everyone I was friends with when I worked at this really chaotic brunch job in college. And after work we would often take a bunch of wine from the restaurant and drive up Blue Ridge Parkway and watch the sunset. Jesus, that’s such a… I don’t know, whatever. [laughter] It’s just so, ‘You’re 22 in Charlottesville, Virginia.’ So, I was thinking about that and thinking about some of those people and just the sort of mess and also sweetness of that time, and that’s when The Moan Wilds came to me. And I thought, oh, this feels like something I could do something with. And for a while it was just a phrase that was rattling around the poem and then I thought, ‘Hmm… this is kind of title-worthy.’
After the Philadelphia Reading,
L-R, Oscar d'Artois, Sebastian Castillo, Lucy K Shaw, Ted Rees, Alina Pleskova, Caroline Rayner
Yeah, and it’s funny about … Sorry, just, I started writing a book about a boat a little while ago, and it’s really hard to get away from Melville whenever you write something about ‘The Sea.’
Sebastian: Yeah, he really owns it. You know what’s funny is that Melville was younger than me when he wrote it, and he wrote it in 18 months. It took me 2 years to write a book that is like one tenth of the length.
Oscar: Yeah, well, he didn’t have a phone.
Sebastian: That’s true.
Oscar: And he was miserable when he wrote it.
Oscar: So, jumping off of Melville and the 19th century, I really like the voice that you came up with for SALMON. Let’s see, I wrote something here… ‘It reminds me a bit of the inner monologue you have when you’re eighteen, or that I did anyway, where you’re familiar with a lot of older writing but not so much with recent stuff and so maybe, when you’re thinking literarily, thinking in a kind of anachronistic voice like that because you also are writing or thinking these thoughts in a vacuum, sort of solipsistically, and not in conversation with anyone.’ So, that’s kind of what it reminded me of. I’m wondering how did you... did the voice come to you in a dream as well? It seemed very original, refreshing and different from a lot of the writing we do.
Sebastian: Thank you. I have, in the past, enjoyed writing in this sort of old-fashioned voice, and so I wanted that voice to have a reason for being in the book. And so one of the, probably the primary characteristic of the main character is that he’s very, he has a very high regard for himself, a very lofty image, and he also has this incredibly old-fashioned idea of what it means to be a poet, but he clearly doesn’t live in that kind of world. I sprinkle a few references to suggest that, like there’s a mention of video games at one point, and phones, and whatever else. He lives in a contemporary world, or at least one that’s analogous to our contemporary world, but he doesn’t speak like it. And so it felt then like a form of impersonation because it’s so formally distinct from how I speak or how anybody I know speaks, and so I had to go off books that I’ve read from that era. And in fact, there are a number of somewhat obscure words in the book, and that’s a product of my reading a bunch of older books when I was writing it. Anytime I would come across a word like tatterdemalion I would write it down on my phone and know that I had to slip it in at some point. And so yeah, that’s how I was able to kind of mimic that.
Oscar: Yeah, I’m not sure when was the last time I’ve read a book by a friend where I’ve been like, I don’t know… I might need a dictionary maybe...
Sebastian: Yeah, I would say that there’s probably at least one or two words in the book that I know what the word meant when I wrote the sentence, but now I would probably have to look it up because I’ve forgotten what it means.
Oscar: Yeah that’s always funny when you reread old stuff and you’re like, wow I was so smart back then, look at all those words I knew.
Oscar: Cool. Okay, and what about Alphonse the pig?
Sebastian: I don’t know why...
Oscar: Or is it (pronounced) Al-phaunse?
Sebastian: Yeah.. I’m not sure... The name came from, I read the memoirs of Alphonse Daudet, the nineteenth century French writer. He, I think, the book is called In The Land of Pain, or something like that. It’s about, I forget what disease he has, but he has a very long and slow, painful death and he wrote about it, and just you know, that whole thing of, when you’re in physical pain it’s all you can think about and so pain becomes your identity and it’s a very moving book, but for whatever reason, that name stuck out. Because it’s also a very old-fashioned name.
Oscar: Yeah, very nineteenth century.
Sebastian: You don’t really hear it anymore. And so I thought it was just kind of funny to name a pig after Alphonse.
Oscar: I remember what I was going to ask: one thing about the character, I guess it’s not modern of him but it’s at least semi-relatable, is that he works in a liquor store, which is something I believe you also did, personally. So, to what extent is it…?
Sebastian: Yeah, I would say that’s the only autobiographical detail in the whole book, is that I once worked at a liquor store. And I think the main character’s predicament mirrored what I felt then. I had just graduated from college and I did really well in school and I had great grades and I had at least one internship under my belt, but it was only two or three years after the 2008 financial collapse and so jobs were still really hard to come by. And I ended up getting a job at a liquor store and making like $10 an hour. A job I could have gotten while I was still in high school. And I was also getting bills in the mail saying, you owe us $35,000 for your education which is essentially useless.
[sirens blare in the background]
My bosses, in particular, also just treated me like a child and so I remember just feeling very lost and kind of bitter that I wasn’t able to do something meaningful in my life. And so that feeling, I guess you could say, was translated into the book.
Oscar: Yeah. It’s a very relatable feeling of that time in your life. It’s probably the next big Bildungsroman for that reason. Everyone feeling that they need to go out and make something of themselves, or prove that they’re an adult or whatever.
Did you also, like the character in the book, storm out on your boss?
Sebastian: No, no, you know my bosses were sweet but they didn’t know how to have... It was a family owned business and they would once in a while hire somebody to...
Oscar: A scrubbing child? [laughs]
Sebastian: Yeah, I remember at the time they were about to send their daughter to college and they said, ‘So you must have done really bad in school, right?’ And I said, ‘No, I was really good.’ And they said, ‘Why are you here? Why are you our employee? I don’t understand, like, why don’t you have a good job?’ [laughter] So, that was kind of... Sorry, what was the question again?
Oscar: Did you storm out on them?
Sebastian: Oh no I didn’t storm out. I eventually got work as an office temp, which was slightly above what I had been doing, by like $2 an hour. And also I was working at a desk so I was like, ‘Okay, I’m official now.’
Oscar: I’m a real.. I’m a secretary! Which is also a character, or what he pretends to be.
Sebastian: I actually ended up working at HarperCollins, the publishing company, for a few months, and it was just utterly miserable. So then I said, you know what, I should go to grad school. (laughs maniacally) So that’s what I did.
Oscar: Cool. Caroline, my next question for you is: is there any narrative to The Moan Wilds?
Caroline: Ummm… no. [laughs] No, I was… No. I don’t know, I guess that’s not really how I... I was going to say it’s something I’m not really interested in doing but I also feel like I wouldn’t even know how to do it. Things kind of happening in order and where there’s like a beginning and an end. I like going on tangents and doubling back and kind of staying on one thing for a long time and then kind of doing it like, I like kind of being messier, I guess. So, there isn’t a narrative in the sense of like–
GPS: In 2 miles, keep right onto I-81, towards Waterbury.
Okay, sorry. There isn’t a narrative in the sense of something linear that you can follow through the poem, but I feel like there’s maybe kind of like...
Oscar: There seem to be echoes of stories. I felt reading it that I could almost, but not quite, piece together, you know, maybe several different stories, I’m not sure.
Caroline: Yeah. It’s more kind of like, kind of a collection of sensual and emotional flashes of moments or situations.
Oscar: Right, it’s like they’re, not muscle memories but something like that. They’re very… graphic? No, not graphic... Visceral! I feel like that’s what you get out of it, that’s what kept me in it anyway.
Where does the line about a thong dangling where a wind chime should be, come from?
Caroline: That comes from... I’m trying to remember what I was thinking about when I was writing that part... I had this idea about, I’m just trying to switch lanes... I had some kind of scene in my head about being on a screen porch and it’s about to storm, or is actively storming, and there’s some kind of --
GPS: Use the right two lanes to keep right onto I-84 West towards Hartford.
Caroline: Like there are several lovers who are fighting and there’s combative sexual tension. And then I don’t really know where the thong...
Oscar: People are throwing each other’s thongs at wind chimes.
Caroline: Kind of, yeah, it’s like some kind of insane sex situation in which the thong ends up dangling.
Oscar: It’s funny because, well, it’s a poem, and it’s always assumed of poetry that it’s telling the truth, that it’s “non-fic,” basically. If you had to describe your own poetry, or maybe this long poem in particular, would you say it’s “fic” or “non-fic”? Feel like this isn’t a question that I ever ask of poetry…
Caroline: It’s funny because I feel like the first version of The Moan Wilds felt a lot more “non-fic,” because I was using everybody’s real names, talking about things in a way that was a lot closer to what actually happened, and when I started going back through it, I felt like ‘I actually don’t want this to edge on a poem-essay sort of thing.’
Oscar: A semi-confessional type thing.
Caroline: Yeah. Which, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just not what I wanted to do. But at the same time, even if the scenes or the images or even if the scenes or images are dramatized or extreme in some kind of way, there’s often a non-fictional or real kind of...
Oscar: Like a truth to feeling, at least.
Oscar: I guess that’s what people assume, that there’s an honesty to it. Yeah and also maybe you started with something relatively true and then you’re kind of layering as you build it and changing as it goes, kind of thing?
Oscar: Can you, Sebastian, explain what is meant by the land of SALMON being a place where they “say they love you but then they fuck you to death”?
Sebastian: Oh, actually I have an amazing reason for this. You would never know this otherwise, it’s a personal reason. I had a friend who went through a phase where he was torrenting very old pornography, for the purposes of just watching dialogue in scenes. And he found one where, there’s a scene where a woman goes into a doctor’s office and the doctor tries to have sex with her and she says, ‘I’m going to call the police on you!’ And the doctor says, ‘Yeah? The cops will fuck you to death!’ And so me and my friends always found this line extremely funny because the delivery of it was just absurd and very silly. And so anytime we would see a police officer we would say, you know, the cops will fuck you to death. And so when I was writing, I don’t know, that memory just came to me and it was very funny to characterize the culture of an entire country as, ‘they will fuck you to death.’ It seemed to work in terms of the atmosphere of the scene, where the protagonist wants to know so much about it, even though he sort of chooses this country randomly, but then develops this earnest interest, and every time he learns something about it, it seems extremely dismal and then he’s just like, ‘Ah, whatever, I’m sure it’s fine.’
Oscar: He’s keen to know about it but then I feel like he stops listening five minutes later.
Sebastian: Yeah he blocks it out. He’s like I don’t want to know about this anymore. So yeah, that’s the origin of that phrase.
Oscar: Okay. I love how so many elements of these books have come to you guys in visions. Visionary literature. That’s all my questions, I think. Do you have anything else you want to say about your respective books?
Sebastian: No, but thank you for interviewing us.
Caroline: Yeah, thank you.
Oscar: Alright, SALMON and The Moan Wilds, out now! I don’t know whether I’ll be able to use the recording of this, but…
Lucy: You won’t.
Lucy: Can I open the window now?
Before the Easthampton Reading,
L-R, Lucy Wainger, Rachelle Toarmino, Aidan Ryan, Caroline Rayner, Lucy K Shaw, Jayson Keery, Elizabeth Mikesch