by Hollie Hardy, former Poetry Editor
A few days after the spectacular release of Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review Issue 16.1, Poetry Editor Hollie Hardy rendezvoused with Brooklyn-based contributor Austin LaGrone to discuss his unpublished poetry manuscript, Ascension Parish, and to ask questions about important things like women, liquor, cigarettes, religion, poetry, and New Orleans. As you read excerpts from the interview, try to imagine the poet’s answers in a delicious southern accent, drawled with the rhythm of extemporaneous poetry.
14H: Your poem, "Goosing the Muse" [from Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review Issue 16.1] begins, “So tell me about your hat, your cane, the penguin tails and the bottle caps nailed to your shoes…” How did these sparkling details of character emerge?
Austin LaGrone: I guess there are two types of characters that I have in my manuscript. There are those that I observe in the world and I render them as accurately as possible. And there are those personalities that I get a touch of when I meet them, but I can’t fill in all the blanks. So I add details in order to create something that I probably encountered in the world but only noticed subconsciously.
For example, in New Orleans, there are these young kids that go down the street and they put bottle caps on their shoes and tap dance for quarters and dollars. They’re really talented and sharp. I’ve always thought they had a real cool style. So that’s where that idea came from. And then there’s the cigar store Indian. I’ve got just a spot of Indian blood in me and so the whole idea that the Indian chief symbolizes the smoking man; the whole idea of like, rendering a culture into this stupid little thing that’s smoking. It is an absurd, offensive, American thing to do, right? But I still kind of love them. Because I see them on the street, and I’m like, that’s a bad-ass cigar store Indian! So I’m on both sides of the coin. And [in "Goosing the Muse"]… I imagine my crazy friend Alex getting so mad that he shadowboxes a cigar store Indian. And that’s where all those ideas come from. A little spot of reality goes through my twisted imagination and comes out the other end.
14H: A Wittgenstein quote prefaces "Goosing the Muse": “One forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense.” Can you talk a bit about what that quote means to you? There is a lot of naming that occurs throughout your work, of specific people and places, and yet the ending of the poem whispers something different: “the two of us more than bodies/ gesticulating behind the caged edifice/ of a truly private language.”
AL: Wittgenstein’s principle point is that a lot of problems in philosophy are actually just problems with language. He’s arguing with Socrates who was always taking a phrase and turning its meaning a little bit, forcing people to admit that they don’t know the specific meaning of a word. Wittgenstein will say, Actually, the non-specific word is better, and here’s why. In this quote he’s saying that before we even begin to communicate there’s this underlying thing that we have access to… culture or something else embedded in the world and when I’m speaking to you it’s by way of a kind of shared experience.
There is also a secondary source, a philosopher named Kripke who states that there can’t be a private language, and he draws that argument out of Philosophical Investigations. So this is my sort of underhanded way of arguing with Kripke, saying, No, in fact we do have a private language, but it’s strictly bodily. That’s the only private language we have. Of course it doesn’t really defeat Kripke’s argument in any way, but it makes for a naughty ending.
14H: I understand there’s also a story behind "Psalm", your other poem in the new issue of Fourteen Hills?
AL: It’s a prompt that a friend gave me, for a sonnet poem, where you walk fourteen blocks and you write a line of poetry every block. You use three pieces of overheard language and three things that you observe along the way. The only principle rule is that you have to be somewhere interesting that you’ve never been before.
I walked into an old curio shop in the East Village and I treated the fourteen aisles as the fourteen blocks and I encountered there a painting of Mother Mary washing the devil in San Cristóbal. Which struck me as very interesting. So it began with that image. And then I built around it. Carlos is the man that seduced my wife. But here he is a trash man, so in some sense I’m working black magic. I’ve never met him…if he walked in here… then you would see a great bar brawl. But I’m not going to go look for him. I was just thinking of creating a narrative around this idea of washing the sins away.
When I talk freely about the way I write these things I feel like I’m admitting to a kind of really deep psychosis, because it’s such a strange way of inventing things. A painting, some grudge I bear someone from the past; that these things find a home in the poem is probably good.
14H: Ascension Parish is the title of your current manuscript, which contains the poems "Goosing the Muse" and "Psalm", both published in Fourteen Hills 16.1. There seem to be two elements at play in decoding that title: the religious connotations of “ascension” and “parish,” and the fact that “Ascension Parish” denotes a specific area, a county or district of Louisiana. This duality parallels your explorations of specific places (like Acadiana, Jackson Square, One-Eyed Jack’s and Trixie’s Palace) but in a subtler more off-handed way, religion is there, just below the surface (like “the love doll we resuscitated by the church bus”). Can you talk about the title and the significance of place?
AL: The whole notion of Ascension Parish is sort of absurd and beautiful, the idea that all the members of the county between Baton Rouge and New Orleans—everywhere else they are counties, in Louisiana they’re parishes—every member of that community has bodily ascended into heaven and now they are back among us—gambling, drinking, dancing, doing all the shit they were doing before, but now they’re somehow holy. That’s ultimately the meaning of naming a parish “Ascension.” And I think that’s sort of interesting and strange.
But for the manuscript, I’ve extended the borders of the parish to include Louisiana on the whole. Because this idea of redemption—it’s a Whitmanian notion, a Whitman-esque notion; wherein which Whitman is sort of a turbo-Christ almost, a turbo-redeemer. Christ is down with the prostitutes and the taxman. But Whitman is like No, everyone! Not just the prostitutes and the taxman, even more! Whitman is basing his language and his rhythms in large part on the Old Testament. He was deliberately trying to bring everyone in. All the bad stuff and all the good stuff collectively. So in some sense the title suggests that each of the characters, however flawed they are, have themselves bodily ascended. Characters that I’ve invented and characters that I’ve known. Like my friend Sunny Michelle, when he got a bottle broken across his head and he stood up with blood running down his forehead and said, “It takes two. It takes two bottles.” Now Sunny Michel is a crazy human being, but in my manuscript he is redeemed because of this title. All of my characters are.
Then there’s also, Ascension Parish, just hearing it. If you were just to hear it, you would probably assume perish p—e—r, as in die or destroy. And in that sense it’s quite the opposite, Ascension Perish, this idea of finding one’s community, finding salvation here among the living. This is a very Gilbertian notion—Jack Gilbert—this idea of finding the things that will redeem us not in a different world, but right here in the normal rituals of existence. Whether it’s through intimacy or risk or whatever.
14H: There’s an authenticity to your descriptions of Louisiana. People are named and rendered in gritty details that feel genuine and nonjudgmental. Is this a part of what you are trying to communicate with your poetry?
AL: Well, I’m guilty of a fair degree of ancestor worship. I know what it was like to be sitting around—my grandmother had a little place, with a ping pong table, that kind of thing. And my family has funny names. My grandfather’s name was Sly. Because he was the oldest one, he was Daddy Sly. As a young man he worked at the refinery and saved up money and got him a ranch. But as a younger man—I hear crazy stories about him being a real brawler. When men are young they can be very unwieldy. Very wild, wild things.
When I met him, of course, he was just as gentle as he could be, but there was a kind of weird power that he had. If he just sat in the room. Maybe the war left something on him, I don’t know, but I often think about someone like Daddy Sly as a younger man. And I use that as a template.
I have other old peeps that I’ve met too. Old musicians. When I’m at a table with someone or at a bar with someone and they begin to speak… I will shut the hell up and I listen. I have a love for that. It’s what makes living in taverns and traveling kind of interesting. It’s these stories that you gather.
14H: That comes through in your work too, the dialogue, the monologues, the little snippets of language overheard in bars…
AL: I like [Frank] O’Hara’s mandate to let things of the world enter the poem at the point at which the poem is being written. So, if I’m writing and someone enters this café and something happens—it doesn’t have to be a Tarantino gun shootout, it can be very mild and subtle—but some event that changes the way I’m perceiving the world, momentarily even, I like for those moments to enter into the poem. People say the most interesting things and I don’t want them to be lost. It’s a little chaotic element that I allow. It makes living in the world fun.
14H: Your poem "High Water Blues" is one of the most authentic-feeling poems I’ve read about Hurricane Katrina. Where were you during that tragedy?
AL: Ah hell, I was in a college town in Bloomington, Indiana. My father had been the assistant DA [in Louisiana] but when my grandmother died, his mother, we moved further north. But it’s always been a kind of home for me. It’s where I learned to walk. It’s where I learned to talk. So it really affected me. I had a little money in savings and I took all of it. I gave my car to my dad and borrowed his truck and went down to New Orleans to help out a bit.
When I saw all of the destruction, I stayed. It was a fascinating time. You could drive clear across the city with no red lights. All the cops were downtown guarding the French Quarter so the whole town was cop-free. You could speed anywhere you wanted to go. All the bars were lit with candles. There was no electricity. Acoustic guitars. And for the people who came back early, there was this huge camaraderie. There’d be 500 people if you went to a block party. Because everybody would be at that party.
But my favorite day there was a big rain storm that we had. You can get torrential rains in New Orleans. And this is maybe nine months after it hit. I’d been helping friends all day, so I was a little skuzzy. And I put on my bathing suit and got my shampoo and my soap and just walked out in the middle of the street, right where the trollies used to run and just bathed right there. It was just coming down and you could literally just soap up under a tree and then step out from under it. And I remember all the people looking at me because as far as they knew, that was my life. In fact, I was choosing to be there, but I remember seeing some local people who were like, Man, I got it better than that guy. [laughs] So that was a fun moment…But I started writing a lot down there, and those were poems that just came out of the stuff that I saw. But I’ve only written two poems that attend to [Katrina]. It’s too sacred to write too much about.
14H: There’s a poem toward the end of the collection called "Celebrating Brenda’s Telethon" that captures the cultural importance and joy of southern food. Is that something you miss since you moved to Brooklyn to go to New York University?
AL: I’m pretty well traveled, and New Orleans has—to my taste—the best food in the world. Hot cultures make good food. Cold places don’t, generally. Cold cultures tend to import good food but their dishes tend to be bland. So if you go to Bangkok the food is really spicy and delicious. You go to New Orleans it’s the same way. If you go up in the Alps maybe you’re just going to get some meat and potatoes; it’s just the way things roll.
But that poem was just to get some of my favorite dishes in a poem. And then of course it has the final line which I like because it’s totally rhythm-based “…when Father Rocky Prophet lays his hands on the gravy don’t hold your breath because this holy-roller likes to double-down on the corn bread, the dirty rice, and the chicken fried steak.”
14H: In addition to an affectionate view of the ordinary lives of poor people in the South, there’s a good deal about drinking, smoking, women, cheap motels, and people-watching in bars that goes on in your poems. Are you a fan of Charles Bukowski?
AL: If you ask anyone how they feel about Bukowski they downplay their love of him and they’ll tell you something like, well I love the way a broken old man can blah blah blah. They create a kind of distance. But I find him incredibly tender. And I think that he has a really beautiful secret heart. If you are easily put off, you don’t need to be reading him anyway. You should go back to the Crystal Worship Isle or something like that.
14H: Your poem "Peach Flavored Cheyennes" (those are cigarettes, right?) begins: “I’m not sure how things come together to make a life, or at what nexus we choose our heroes…” Who are some of your heroes and/or favorite writers?
AL: The greatest living writer is Jack Gilbert. Hands down. Bar none. End of story. He’s an itinerate, old-world poet, non-academic. A huge hero to so many of us. He’s very ill now and he won’t be with us very long.
Then the other poet that I’m very influenced by is Yusef Komunyakaa. I moved to New York to study with him. I wasn’t going to apply to NYU, but my mentor, Michael Heffernan said, “Austin, if you don’t apply to NYU, I’m going to cut off your head, shrink it and shove it up your goddamn ass.” That is exactly what he said. And of course I got in. And Yusef is a fantastic teacher. And a key voice there at NYU. And frankly makes the program what it is.
Austin LaGrone was born in Baton Rouge. He got his first rifle at nine and his first Chevy at thirteen. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brilliant Corners, Black Warrior Review, and The New York Quarterly. These days he lives happily without weapons or trucks in Brooklyn and is an MFA candidate at New York University.