Monday, March 13, 2006

Brian Beatty, The Long-Promised Interview

**UPDATE: Go here to read Brian Beatty's new McSweeney's feature, Jokes By Brian Beatty.**

Brian Beatty is a poet, and a standup comedian. And a guy with a beard—though that is not his. The Reader of Absurdist books (me) also has a beard—though that is not mine.

So, I thought I might inter view him, and ask him about his beard.

I forgot to ask him about his beard.

Here's the interview. I'm normal, he's boldfaced. His beard is better. He has a bolder face. So, his words are boldfaced. Get it?

Please provide readers with your vital statistics.

I'm 36 years old. To use the parlance of the fashion industry, I'm "big and tall": 6' 3", 275 lbs. As if to defy all common sense and medical advice, I have a beard.

I have, quite briefly, mentioned your work on this site, in the context of a description of a Charles Simic poem that seems to use the joke as its starting point. You seem to do the same in your work—especially the shorter pieces. Can you talk about the way a poem and a joke function? Compare? Contrast?

My short pieces are often no more than jokes broken into lines or written out in paragraph form. That's how performing stand-up comedy changed my writing. While my poems and prose poems had always featured a bit of humor, I came to really appreciate the one-liner form once I started getting on stage in front of people who were impatient for a laugh.

Economy of words is probably the common denominator between jokes and the poems I appreciate most as a reader. Jokes and poems should both surprise the audience, too. Or I think they should. As a function of their structure, jokes lead one direction, then divert to the reveal or punchline. I like poems that betray readers' expectations.

What poems offer that jokes typically don't is the opportunity to explore genuinely large ideas. Jokes can be about important topics, but seldom will they encourage contemplation the way the best poems can. Reading and stand-up are such different "art" experiences, from both the performer's and the audience's perspective.

Simic was certainly an influence on my writing when I was in college in the late 80's and early 90's. So were James Tate, Bill Knott, Russell Edson and Kenneth Patchen. But the poems I wrote back then looked more like imitations of Larry Levis or Norman Dubie, because that's what would get me published in the lit journals.

I think I'm interested in your views of the joke/poem interaction when it comes to onstage performance. So, first, tell me about your standup experiences.

I got into stand-up by taking a comedy class offered by a local comedian/club owner. I got into that class by pitching a magazine article to a local Twin Cities monthly. Graduation from class was a three-minute set on stage at the teacher's club out in the burbs. My graduation night fell just before the holidays, so the club was sold out to two company holiday parties. My three-minute set ran about four minutes. My jokes about my family and friends in prison went over in a huge way. And I was instantly hooked on the immediate response. So, I wrote the article about what it was like to take a comedy class and get up on stage for the first time, then began hitting open mics.

(You can read that article here.)

Because I was already a writer and I thought that gave me an advantage, I challenged myself to come up with three new minutes of material every week or two. That was a ridiculous goal, I realize now. But as a result of my stupidity, I quickly built up a healthy collection of bits. I sent some of my best stuff to Judy Brown, who edits a series of stand-up comedy material for Andrew McMeel. She included my material in two of her books, Squeaky Clean Comedy and The Comedy Thesaurus, then invited me out to perform a promotional showcase set at the Improv in Hollywood. That was last October—my three minutes of fame.

On New Year's Eve, I opened for Louie Anderson as part of a contest put on by KQRS, a radio station here in the Twin Cities. Performing in front of 5,000 people was a real rush. That set included two of the short joke poems I've published around the Web.

The poems crept into my sets as I prepared for Hollywood. Prior to that trip, I did a series of guest spots around town, trying out every idea I'd ever had that might get a laugh. It turned out the poems got a great response—in part, I think, because I actually introduce them as serious poems, and that causes people to fear the worst. That tension builds to a great release when the audience realizes it's all a joke. Then they keep laughing because the poems are so ridiculous—and obviously not the audience's rather limited idea of poetry.

I like doing the poems because they allow me to treat certain jokes as little works of art, and it's something of a hook for the audience to remember me by. There are a lot worse things total strangers can say to you after a show than, "Hey, you're the guy that reads those weird poems."

A cardinal virtue in comedy is timing. A good beat between setup and punchline can make all the difference in a joke. A similar thing happens in a poem with line breaks, it seems to me. Can you talk about the way you find line breaks in your writing? Do the lines break where they do to create a visual beat, as with, say, "Superstition" (third poem down)?

I'd never given the similarities much thought, but I do believe you're right. I use both line breaks and punctuation to suggest rhythm. When I perform, I'll simply pause—and talk very, very slowly.

Even if my poems don't, my sense of poetic line remains pretty grounded in the traditional literary education I got back in college. I think it does, anyway. I still do my best to avoid what I was taught were weak breaks. I use nouns and verbs to push the reader along to the next line or stanza, end-stop punctuation to create emphasis.

What I like about "Superstition" is how the second line isn't even half the length of the first. I hope that makes the pay-off seem apologetic and scared. That was my intention. I wanted it to be funny, but in a frightened way. That's probably a lot to expect of a two-line poem.

I just recently started reading Hal Sirowitz, whose work Jonathan Ames calls a mixture of "haiku and Borscht Belt." The latest Believer features this review.

So, is funny the new serious in poetry?

Sirowitz has always seemed to me more of a spoken word performer than a poet for the page. I don't detect much sense of literary tradition when I read his work. (Though I'm sure he'd be a fun guy to invite to an S&M all-nighter, Jonathan Ames should probably keep his opinions about poetry in his pants.) I find Bob Holman both funnier and better written. And Sparrow. And Mike Topp. And Kenneth Koch, who has the respect of the literary community.

Jennifer Michael Hecht's FUNNY just depresses me. I've been cobbling together a chapbook ms. called JOKE BOOK. It was supposed to make me rich and famous. But, seriously, Shakespearean sonnets? What the fuck is this woman thinking?

Funny probably is the new serious in poetry. I can only say, it's about time. If poets hope to compete with pop culture and capture readers' imaginations, comedy is sure a lot quicker route than pathos.

Here's an observation: one difference between a joke and a poem is that a poem has a title. Jokes have repeated conceits (men walk into bars, priests and rabbis hang out, blonds do things that call into question their capacities for higher level thought, etc.), but almost never have titles. And the reasons for this are in the way they are presented—in a chapbook or over a beer.

So, when you write a poem that seems like a joke, you have a choice: you can give it a title. And you can decide whether or not that title is a bit of information necessary to understanding the poem or not—"Two Against One" versus "Lucky Me", to use two poems that have found homes on Yankee Pot Roast as examples. In the former, the title is sort of like a jokes setup, and the poem becomes the punchline. Do you choose to use the title in this way to keep the work short? To offer information in as concise a way as you can, and in a way unburden the work the poem does?

The joke conceits you mention are common to classic bar jokes of the sort still printed on the back of PLAYBOY centerfolds, but not so much seen in contemporary stand-up comedy. Really, I can't imagine anyone getting laughs by standing on stage telling a blonde joke. Unless it were done in a meta-comedy fashion.

I typically use poem titles to establish premises for the joke that will follow, as in "Two Against One." I also like to use titles that are basic bits of language everyone thinks they know -- so I can deny readers' preconceptions.

If the poem is a joke that can stand on its own, I'll choose a title that hopefully suggests something larger than the joke itself. "Lucky Me" is an example of a joke I do on stage, strictly as a joke (not as part of the poetry reading portion of my set). I never preface it by giving it a title, but when I was compiling that batch of pieces for YPR, I wanted to include it. So I came up with a title that I thought suggested two unique, terrible ideas: "scoring" in the teen romance sense, and I myself not needing a service dog. But the idea of being sexy to a service dog is still the joke's punchline. Because dogs will hump anything, given the opportunity. And I thought, what if someone decided to hump back? Plus, there's the initial self-deprecation of only being attractive to a blind person. Which, in my case, is true.

The website cafepress makes it possible for everyone to share their not-at-all funny t-shirts with the entire world for free. What should be done about this?

We should all lobby our employers and loved ones to let us wear nothing else but terrible cafepress t-shirts. With our jeans, khakis, cargo pants, skorts, whatever. (I'm wearing skorts right now.) I can't believe you had to ask. Are you sure you're in a MFA program?

Other Brian Beatty:

Exquisite Corpse
Really Small Talk
Really Small Talk II
Elimae II
Elimae III
Elimae IV
Elimae V
Elimae VI
Elimae VII
Elimae VIII
Elimae IX