An Interview with Poet Noah Cicero
The morning of the 2015 Oscars, at a kitchen table inCalifornia, I read Noah Cicero’s poetry book Bipolar Cowboy (Lazy Fascist Press). I opened it again on St. Patrick’s Day, as New York ground through another snowfall and drunk blonde girls with green glitter shamrocks on their cheeks straggled through the streets. I read it for the third time recently, sprawled in my hallway back in L.A., and noted yet again the seductive and oxymoronic strength and flexibility of its poetry—the way a single poem or a single image could remain the same, but reflect completely differently, depending on the angle at which I perceived it. Each time I read the book I saw a new reflection: during a turbulent few months it was a quiet little anchor, a way of rationalizing change, a way of finally accepting flux.
Bipolar Cowboy is, in a sense, brimming with love poems—poems about the kind of love that digs in where it hurts, and changes (sometimes for the worse), and disappears with little explanation. Love not only for a person (although there is a lot of that) but for places, for music, for feelings both unknown and unknowable. Cicero’s practical language couches a deep and searching spirituality; his poems address the minutiae of individual personal experience alongside the larger philosophical implications of imposing too much meaning onto any one instance. Cicero does not offer, or seek, answers; indeed, one of the most refreshing elements of the book is its refusal to either prescribe or proscribe any one path. Instead, Bipolar Cowboy works to isolate the instant, and to acknowledge the ultimate absurdity of love, and to pepper the reader’s mind with answerless questions—and to help us make peace with the fact that we may never fully make peace with anything.
Beyond love, which, it is implied, has attained such a spiritual and cultural significance—especially for the Western mind, codified by pop culture—that it may well be a new religion, Bipolar Cowboy is a book of poems about traveling to foreign places both physically and mentally, about becoming so immersed in your surroundings that your own appearance comes as a vivid shock. It’s a book that places the familiar and the alien on the same shifting ground and spins them around in a verbal shell game so that it becomes difficult to distinguish what we know from what we’ve never seen.
Reading Bipolar Cowboy is an exercise in self-examination, because through the lens of one specific relationship of Cicero’s—crafted for the reader by memories, allusions, musings and metaphor—we are encouraged to think about our own truths. Our own methods of communication, our own obsessions, our own specific madnesses. And, ultimately, the absurdity—and absolute necessity—of taking it all so seriously. Bipolar Cowboy is a book of love poems of the purest sort: it describes the type of love that’s like a shot of mezcal buzzing to the brain, or an unexpected layover in a foreign city, or a grueling hike to the top of a mountain solely for the sake of the view.
I sent Noah a few questions after reading Bipolar Cowboy. His responses are below.
I. I KEPT QUIET AND LISTENED
THE BELIEVER: Bipolar Cowboy is a book dedicated to “all those who loved so deeply it crossed into mental illness.” It’s clear that addiction, obsession and similar behaviors occur frequently in the author’s relationships. What role, if any, do you think obsession plays in our modern understanding of love? (Feel free to define “love” however you want, and “obsession,” for that matter, too.)
I am particularly interested in the concept that, as suggested in “Lo Siento,” “maybe one day, when I’m / not paying attention, someone / will slip into my heart.” Do you think we orchestrate our own loves in such a conscious fashion that we have to be unconscious for another to replace them? Or that we create alternate characters for those we love, even those we know with true intimacy, and hunger for them to act the way we want—like in “Say It To Me Now,” with the closure script? (On a related note, you create an alternate character for yourself in Bipolar Cowboy, as Noah Cicero is generally spoken of in third person rather than in first).
NOAH CICERO: A lot of people nowadays are addicts. William S. Burroughs and David Foster Wallace talked about this. Consumerism is about addiction: buying more things, having more things, getting more experiences, gaining total control over our lives. Even being addicted to knowing the future. I would define obsession as addiction—needing to get your fix, whether it is Starbucks, heroin, or a text from a lover.
It is weird, it’s like we “know” when we meet that person—something happens in our bodies, some kind of electricity. And it is because we have deep unconscious needs, mainly wounds that need to be healed from childhood. Our brains process all this data quickly, and we become excited and fall into a dream when we like someone. The question is always: can they heal my wounds? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes the wounds are too deep, or too weird, and they can’t be healed. When I was writing Bipolar Cowboy I was thinking a lot about single people in their 40s and above. I met an old Navajo woman who had been single for decades after having horrible abusive relationships. When people asked her if she would date again, she would respond, “Never again!”
I think in general a lot of people can emotionally handle relationships—their wounds are not too deep, their needs not too great. But there are some (just look around your life, you’ll find someone) that just stopped looking one day. And I think this is because some wounds lead people to being attracted to controlling/violent/manipulative/lying types. And they realize this, and being single is protection against that.
“Say It To Me Now” Noah is a good example of mentally ill behavior: the man wants the woman to say what he wants, he wants control over her in the end, but she doesn’t give it. And she isn’t even conscious of it, because if she was, the line would have been “Oh shut up” or something. But instead she playfully writes back for him to enjoy a movie.
BLVR: When Noah goes to Angkor Wat, he describes the experience thusly: “There seems to be magic there, but their western minds have a hard time trying to understand it.” There are a lot of references to other cultures throughout Bipolar Cowboy, largely Eastern and Native American. Yet there is always a disconnect—as when Noah and his girlfriend watch policemen fish in the river for a human body and don’t “feel compassion/but interest as foreigners/seeing Korean suicide rituals.” How do you push through the outsider or foreigner feeling into the initial attraction that calls you to these places?
NC: When I lived in South Korea I knew I was not part of it. I could leave at any time. If North Korea attacked South Korea, helicopters would have come and flown me away; my students would have to die or fight a war while I was back in America. I knew I was white the whole time. Sometimes I wouldn’t see another foreigner for five-day stretches, and I would see myself in a mirror and feel terrified—my own face looked so alien to me. I had no disguise to wear, I became conscious for the first time in my life of my face and body, that it was a white man’s face and body.
When I was in Cambodia we had a tuk-tuk driver named Sokohn. He spent all day driving us around. We would go to Angkor Wat and he would sit with the other drivers and talk or sleep. I don’t know how he lived or what he ate all day—I never saw him eat. At the Grand Canyon there were Hopis and Navajos, living completely different lives from my Midwestern white life. How did I push through? I drank alcohol, lots of it. I did whatever they wanted me to do. If they wanted me to sing karaoke and drink all night, I did. If they wanted me to eat some strange food, from silkworm pupae to dog, I just did it without question. When my students wanted me to listen to K-pop, I did it. When I was at the Grand Canyon, reading the Hopi and Navajo books, they told me to go to the capital of the Navajo Rez—Tuba City—and eat some mutton soup. I did it. I kept quiet and listened.
NOW IS THE SAFEST PLACE TO BE
BLVR: In the initial chronology, the Noah Cicero character is constantly on the move—through states, alternate realities, relationships characterized by pseudonyms. In the “end,” Noah has “direction, not a goal but a direction… a job and friends and he feels okay.” This happens, according to chronology, after Bipolar Cowboy is written over the course of two months in early 2014. As you say later in the book, in the movie version, “the sad character would decide in a perfect epiphany / that she needed to… get on with life,” but “sometimes there is no redemption.” Could you talk about why you felt the pull, then, to add this postscript—is it a sort of acknowledgment of the catharsis produced by setting the poems to paper, to untangling the thoughts in your head in some sort of formal fashion, or is it just one of those states that settles in waves and retreats as quickly as it came?
NC: I started the book because I wanted to write some poems to read at local readings in Las Vegas. I thought it might give my life some meaning to read poems at readings and make friends. But then I kept writing and couldn’t stop. I did not set out to write a poetry book—it just happened. I didn’t have a full time job—I worked like 17 hours a week at Family Dollar as a cashier, I had a lot of time to write.
I don’t know if I am over anything. I know that I am mostly functional now: I go to work, I respond to emails, I don’t cry or have panic attacks. But I am still single and I never think about dating anyone. It just never occurs to me. I am so different from who I was before—the 28-year-old Noah that started that relationship, where did he go?
I do feel a catharsis—I walk around peacefully now and smile a lot. I hike mountains every week, exercise, travel, I live in wonderful Las Vegas. I am not doomed in any way, I’m just single. Yeah, I think it is like waves, because probably in the next week I’ll be hit by a wave, and I’ll know, this is the misery wave, and I’ll have to live through it.
BLVR: On that note, the one where there’s maybe a raw hope bubbling up through the seams—there are moments of acknowledgment of some greater cosmic force at play in the book—like the arbitrary Best Teriyaki restaurant “inside a forest on the western edge of North America” signifying that anything could be possible, or the three-pronged Douglas fir, whose capacity transforms from cursed to blessed by virtue of its abnormality, and subsequently becomes almost canonized by tourists. Or maybe God is an “all-loving ball of super energy thing” that can create universes (and therefore destroy them). Yet Noah says early on in the book that he doesn’t believe in anything, although he prays, non-specifically, shortly thereafter. It’s way too broad to ask you to define your own personal religious/spiritual viewpoint, but I am curious to know what continues to drive you in your seeking, and how, if at all, writing helps.
NC: My own spiritual views are funny. I think they have two aspects—one being that I’m obsessed with ghosts and magical places. When I lived in Ohio I would go to a place called Five Points where hauntings occurred on some back road, and take pictures and hang out there in the middle of the night. I’ve gone to places like Angkor Wat, Buddhist temples on mountains in Korea, Mesa Verde, lots of ancient Native American sites throughout the west. My current favorite place is to go to Spirit Mountain, about 80 miles south of Vegas, which is the creation spot for Yuman speaking tribes. It is always magical there. Something weird always happens: thousands of butterflies swirling around you, or one time my friend dropped her cell phone in a bee’s nest and we had to take the challenge and get it out. Once a soft peaceful rain fell on us. I really believe in magic places. People have always had magic places. Go to a magic place. Google ancient mounds or things in your area and just go; I promise it will be a fun day.
The other aspect, concerning real spiritual things: I began reading Buddhism when I returned from Korea and couldn’t stop. When you first start reading Buddhism, you just name things and learn the chronology and facts. Then you get a little farther and you figure out what direction suits your psychology, what medicine is best for you; some go down the Theravada or Tibetan road, some stick with Japanese zen with Dogen. I felt a kinship with Tang Dynasty Zen, the Lankavatara Sutra, Bodhidharma, Hui Hai, Huang Po and Lin Chi. They all kind of discuss the same thing—realizing that life is nothing but mind, and mind is projection and discrimination. We are always projecting our wants and demands. Every time we call something good we are calling something else bad and vice versa; instead of just letting things happen and spontaneously interacting with people and objects, we are like, “You are this, I am this, this is that and that is this, and because of these projections and discriminations I must behave like this.” My spiritual view, I guess, is: the now is the safest place to be. You don’t have the triggers of the past nor the worries of the future. There is always something in the now to be aware of, to be with in amazement.
III. BE HONEST ABOUT HOW STUPID YOU ARE
BLVR: Some of the most powerful, intimate moments in the book come from those particulars of a relationship that attain significance way beyond their actual existence—and whose power is often noted only by the absence of the other form, as when Noah “makes two scrambled eggs instead of four,” or a pack of sour patches that inspire a choked scream. When reading the book I found myself mentally substituting specifics from my own personal experiences. Of course, you say in the beginning of the book that these are all personal experiences, no universals. But isn’t the only way to tap into the universal to isolate, and empathize with, the personal?
NC: I wrote that line because I wanted to state, “I’m not a scientist, I haven’t figured out love. But I am inviting you in to see my world, and if you want to discuss and feel it, you may.” I just don’t want to be seen like Harold Bloom or Jonathan Franzen, like this white guy sitting in a chair bitching at everyone about how they are wrong because I’m a white man who knows shit.
I’m not a gatekeeper, I’m just a guy. I work at a grocery store, I exercise at a gym, I don’t teach at Harvard. I think writers should go deep with self-examination but self-examination is expensive. If you go deep enough, it will break your ass. This is why people don’t do it—this is why so many books are just random words strung together hoping for the best. Because people don’t want to lose it. They’re afraid. I think for most writers and academics it is more important to be smart than daring. Seriously, what is the point of being so smart? You got one life, this one, this is you, and you’re gonna waste it impressing other people, trying to look smart, trying to get tenure, trying to create viable projects that you can show your mom and friends, so people at AWP will pay attention to you? Seriously, this is it! This is the deal, this life, this body and this face. Express everything now. Be honest about how stupid you are.
BLVR: Music is a through-line in the book, whether referenced directly, as in the George Jones poems, or metaphorically: the sense of communion Noah attempts to feel while trying to become the notes of a song. “I want to be a pure feeling, that may lead to heaven,” or the lovely concept that “everyone is playing a song all the time, and when we find someone who plays a song like our song, then we become friends, and if the song is close enough, then we become lovers, even if it is only for a night.” In the middle of “Stupid Ex-Boyfriend Writes Bad Poem” you wonder about the “song” of your relationship, and later, in section 18, you urge the reader to put on a specific version of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love.” What drives you to compose poetry rather than music? Could you speak about the balance between the two?
NC: I tried to become a musician. I got a guitar when I was fourteen and started learning chords, but I soon found out I didn’t have an ear for music. I persisted, though, and can play the guitar; I just play chords and have fun by myself.
In the woods outside Portland, Oregon, I had a break with Western culture. Post-Renaissance culture tells you one thing over and over again: “everything can be figured out.” Sartre even wrote a four volume book on Flaubert completely explaining every behavior Flaubert ever did. (My eyes are rolling just writing that sentence.)
Life makes no sense. There are no answers, there is no resolution. Don’t even try to find answers—you don’t need them. Music is like this: music is a collection of noises that make sense together because of math corresponding with other math created by human imagination. But why do we feel compelled to hear certain songs again and again? We can’t describe why we like a song, we just embrace it, we cling to it. I read in Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild that songs used to come from shamans: the shaman would go off into the forest and speak to the spirits and get a new song. I feel like that is still true. I can’t prove it, but to me, Rihanna is a shaman, she can’t help but reveal herself and have total vulnerability for the sake of the tribe.
Love is like this for most people. Most humans never become vulnerable, they never let their guard down except when they fall in love, and secretly, in a dark room, they reveal themselves. People, when they fall in love, get to be little artists. Each human is a little song making noise, and then they meet another human song, then they see: if the math corresponds, embrace it.