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5Q - B.J. Best

An interview with poet B.J. Best

Your newest collection of prose poems references the classics—classic video games, that is. But Our Princess Is in Another Castle is considered by your publisher an “ekphrastic project,” a way of providing commentary on a work of visual art. Are classic video games art?

Certainly. Pop Art, but art nonetheless. We can look at these blocky, vibrant images and see the world refracted back to us. Classic video games are art because they use a minimal palette of colors to paint something transfixing to behold; then they make us respond, almost viscerally, to the scene before us. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has already anticipated this, and began displaying video games as part of its collection in late 2012.

Probably the two movements in visual art that are most complementary to classic video games are Abstract Art and Surrealism. Due to the original—and extremely limited, by today’s standards—processing power of the games, representations were by nature abstract: a rectangle is a ping-pong paddle, a triangle a spaceship.

The linear geometries and primary colors of Pac-Man are something an abstract painter like Mondrian might love (and in fact, Pac-Mondrian is available to play online). And a surrealist like Magritte would likely enjoy one of my favorite lesser-known games: in Mr. Do!, you are a clown who can shoot energy balls at the dinosaurs that are chasing you while tunneling through the earth to collect cherries. You can also drop candied apples on the dinosaurs’ heads.

Certainly these games are visually hypnotizing, but they also offer cultural commentary.Pac-Man, for instance, could be viewed as a critique of rampant consumerism: no matter how many dots you eat, they’re never enough. You will eat and eat and eat and then you will die. (This critique is ironic, as the game was so popular in Japan as to cause a shortage of yen coins.) The story of Super Mario Bros. is inherently political: one monarchy has been overthrown by another. When do we decide to meddle in other nations’ affairs, and if we do, who is best suited to resolve these crises? (Lone Italian plumbers, apparently.) And although in Space Invaders you are blasting aliens, it’s easy to conceive their relentless, ordered attack as mirroring an imminent—at least in 1978, when the game was created—attack by Soviet forces. My poem about that game continues that thought.

On a more basic level, classic video games cause us to feel more than think. And they trade on some rather dark emotions. Death is omnipresent, and intentionally so—the faster players died, the more money machines would make at the arcade. You are constantly hunted or haunted by ghosts, aliens, robots—even evil pickles and hostile fried eggs in the case of BurgerTime—and there’s an anxiety to outwitting these villains (not to mention paranoia about where they’ll be coming from next).

But there’s also a fierce sense of independence that surely resonated with the initial demographic of teenage boys: It’s you versus the world. You have been called upon to defeat those evil pickles. Only your joystick-burned hands and button-mashing fingers, and yours alone, will determine the outcome. In some ways it’s a digital version of Horatio Alger’s American Dream. If you play well enough, you can become a local hero—you started with a quarter but finished with 83,429 points!—and your initials on the high score screen will be a testament to all the mortals thereafter who dare try to best you.

Some of your chapbooks are published in nontraditional forms. How does the media in which your poems are delivered affect their interpretation?

I’m very interested in the form of my books, both internally (in terms of organization of the poems) and externally (in terms of the physical manifestation of a book). Mimesis is important to me, as it shows my work is in dialogue with and companion to the actual world it represents, rather than some abstraction removed from it.

Thus, the structure of my books is very intentional. In But Our Princess, for example, there are a total of eight “worlds”—not coincidentally the same number as the classic Nintendo game, Super Mario Bros. Each world has either six or seven poems in it, mimicking how video game levels are often of similar lengths.

In Birds of Wisconsin, the book is divided into three sections to be birdlike: the first and third sections are long, to represent wings, and the second section is a compact body. In Mead Lake, This, there are three main characters and the number three is very important: three sections, each with nine poems. The exact middle poem of the book is “walking the bachelor’s avenue bridge”—a division and connection between the first half and the second. Drag: Twenty Short Poems about Smoking has twenty poems because there are twenty cigarettes in a pack, and so on. The physical presentations of my books are very important to me. I’ve been fortunate to work all along with publishers who care deeply about the physical object of the book as a work of art in itself.

In Milwaukee, I’ve published three chapbooks through Centennial Press, most recently Drag. Charles Nevsimal, the editor, approached me with the idea of producing the book to look like an old-time pack of cigarettes. Thus the chapbook is delivered in a box with a gorgeous wraparound cover, and the poems are printed separately on cardstock about the size of business cards.

For But Our Princess, the editors deliberately chose a seven-by-seven-inch book size because it’s reminiscent of a TV screen on which you might play some of these video games at home. State Sonnets is five-by-six inches, not just because sonnets fit nicely in that space, but also because it’s approximately the size of a postcard.

All these examples show that words printed then glued into an eight-and-a-half-by-five-and-a-half shape do not necessarily the best book make. We do in fact judge books by their covers, at least when considering whether or not to pick one up, so I appreciate each of my publishers—they’ve made my books look professional and intriguing. They’re compelling to pick up.

How does your life in West Bend—and in Wisconsin—influence your work?

I grew up on Big Cedar Lake, outside of West Bend. With the exception of my schooling and a six-month stint in northwest Illinois, I have always lived in Wisconsin. I currently live in the house I grew up in with my wife and son, having bought it from my parents.

The strongest influence is the natural landscape around me. This is probably most evident in Birds of Wisconsin. I never considered myself much of a birder, but I had absorbed enough through osmosis, thanks to my family and neighbors. The names for birds—indigo bunting, goshawk, nightjar—are beautiful and evocative, so I’d unconsciously retained them until I realized they could become poetry.

Having lived next to a lake for almost all of my life, I also get a little antsy when I’m not near a sizeable body of water; this was problematic going to school in Des Moines and St. Louis, where there are rivers, but they aren’t the same as lakes to me. At least one Wisconsin lake is mentioned in almost every book of mine—Big Cedar, Mead, Tichigan, Winnebago.

The glacial landscape is also deep in my bones. Big Cedar is a moraine-dammed lake, and I’ve carried the glacial language with me ever since I learned it in sixth grade. My poems have used kame, esker, and moraine—and it doesn’t trouble me if people have to look them up.

The landscape in which we’re raised determines our vision—what we can and can’t see—for the rest of our lives. I can’t see cities very well; they seem like nervous places to me. But I can read the wind on the water, or what the clouds portend. So that’s what I choose to write about.

Are there other Wisconsin poets or writers you admire?

I think Wisconsin has a very strong community of very strong poets. I’m particularly grateful for and impressed by the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets (WFOP). At the biannual conferences, the WFOP brings poets together from all over the state to meet, socialize, and discuss serious issues of craft and theory. I’ve met some of my closest poetry friends through that organization.

It’s difficult for me to single out any person for recognition, because there are so many poets here I admire. The thing that pleases me most is a strong majority of them don’t teach at a university level. I’m extremely grateful for my teaching job, but I find academia can be isolating—we tend to be our own little enclaves of writing. Organizations like WFOP remind us there are many, many good poets in Wisconsin who don’t teach for a living, and who are interested in building a broader community of writers.

two people I particularly admire—as poets, and as people—are the poetry sisters Cathryn Cofell and Karla Huston. They recently released a collaborative chapbook, Split Personality, and each has a new book in 2013. Karla’s A Theory of Lipstick was just released, and Cathryn’s Sister Satellite is coming out from Madison-based Cowfeather Press in the fall. Their works complement one another’s well. Karla’s poetry is measured, carefully deploying imagery to achieve resonant themes of love, desire, regret, and loss. Cathryn’s poems are explosive, at times ebullient and other times like shrapnel, ripping open ideas of womanhood, death, sex, and faith.

Your collections generally revolve around themes. Why is this? What themes or projects are you exploring or planning for the near future?

I believe a book should be greater than the sum of its parts, and themes help accomplish that. In addition to the meanings of the individual poems, I want my books to offer a larger commentary about the subject (video games, birds, travel, etc.) as a whole. That’s how we expect most books in other genres to operate, because it yields a richer experience. I’m usually not as fond of books that are simply an assemblage of an author’s good poems—it’s like visiting island after island, all of them fairly small and similar, to the point where they become indistinguishable and blur in memory.

But there’s a practical reason, too. I simply write better and more easily when I’m given a fenced-in area, rather than the entire world, as a surface subject. It’s much easier for me to sit down and think, “Okay, I’d like to write another poem about a video game today,” rather than, “Okay, I’d like to write a poem today.” Of course, the theme is often strictly superficial—what the poems are really “about” are the old, good abstractions all literature is about: things like love, death, and faith.

My next book is due out from sunnyoutside press by the end of the year. “I got off the train at Ash Lake” is a novella-in-verse set in about 1920 on an inland lake in Wisconsin. It has a full-fledged narrative, including characters such as a clairvoyant, a magician’s assistant, and the King of Milwaukee. I love Big Cedar Lake, but often find it hard to write about, because I know it too well. But I wanted to set a story there. Thus, this “I got off the train” is removed in time but also reality—Ash Lake is a surreal and often dark place.

Beyond that, my next manuscript deals with the surface subject of weather—all the humidity and blizzards and rain gauges I’ve assimilated into my life by virtue of calling Wisconsin home.

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Contributors

B.J. Best is the author of But Our Princess Is in Another Castle (Rose Metal Press, 2013), Birds of Wisconsin (New Rivers Press, 2010), and State Sonnets (sunnyoutside, 2009). He is also the author of three chapbooks from Centennial Press, most recently Drag: Twenty Short Poems about Smoking (2011).

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