ANDERS CARLSON-WEE‘s Disease of Kings showcases a mastery of tone and voice, an uncanny ability to talk to you (reader) like a friend and confidant, while telling you the hardest truths— truths that might actually change your life, truths the world doesn’t necessarily want you to know. These poems are urgent without being demanding, confessional without being sensational, and indirectly lead us to reconsider the nuances of relationships, how our lives are structured, and ultimately the big questions of what matters most. Disease of Kings tells a fierce, uncompromising narrative, yet also manages to be deeply vulnerable and do away with pretense and artifice, embracing a primal need to “Lay It Bare,” as one of the poems is aptly titled.
JOY BAGLIO sat down with Anders to discuss Disease of Kings, touching on his impulse toward narrative, crafting vivid imagery, honing voice, and more.
Joy Baglio: Reading Disease of Kings, I couldn’t help but imagine each poem as the punctuated tip of a larger narrative iceberg, an underwater novel of sorts, which unfolds only in the sharpest and most striking moments above the water. For example, with “Snow,” which chronicles our narrator and his only friend, North, as they shovel snow to save on rent, I’m struck by how it stands alone, yet also advances an overall narrative, like a chapter in a novel. Can you talk about creating narrative pull through the collection, and your relationship to narrative in general?
Anders Carlson-Wee: That image of icebergs tips feels apt, because while writing this collection, I drafted a ton of poems that didn’t make the cut, but helped me flesh out the world in my head. For example, three prose poems appear in the book, but I drafted more than fifteen. And in order to create Oscar’s monologue in Section II, I wrote more than twenty individual monologues in his voice before finally composing the one that stuck. For me, drafting so much extratextual material is crucial—I could never arrive at the poems that work best without all that trial and error. I need to be inside my characters, and inside their world, far more than just the amount I grant my readers access to. As for working in a narrative mode in general, it’s not really a choice. I just happen to have a very narrative mind, and my poetry reflects that.
JB: One of the first things I felt upon reading these poems was their raw honesty, a laid-bare quality. The narrator doesn’t shy away from revealing unflattering details about scamming, lying, crippling loneliness, and his own shame. And when he runs a B&B during North’s absence, we get a number of poems in the voices of the people who stay there (“Lou,” “Barb,” and “Oscar”) who similarly share their life stories in raw, honest rants. In each, we get a sense of a life lived fully, gushed out urgently, as if it’s unfolding in a real-time conversation. Can you share how you think about voice and capturing the voices of your characters?
ACW: Voice has been important to me from a very young age. I have dyslexia, and due to my dyslexia, I struggled to learn how to read and write. All of my early writing is in a form called “mirror writing,” in which the text is written backwards, beginning with the final letter in the word; if you hold it up to a mirror, it looks correct. I even wrote my name this way, beginning with a backward “s.” Due to my dyslexia, I don’t trust the written word as much as I trust the spoken word, and I have an overdeveloped knack for memorizing and reciting large amounts of language. As a poet, I’ve taken a big interest in how individuals talk—their diction, syntax, speech tics, the phrases they repeat, and so on. When I’m creating a character, I don’t say, Okay, this is Joan, a prep cook from Minnesota, and she went to public school in St. Cloud, and on weekends she volunteers at a no-kill pet shelter and her dad’s a local Minnesotan and her mom’s from Mississippi—therefore, how does Joan talk? No. I don’t do that. I hear a voice in my head. It talks to me. I write down what it says. Then I say, Okay, if Joan talks this way, who’s Joan? The voice is everything. I come to understand my characters through their voice, not the other way around. It’s an intuitive approach and seems to be the opposite of how most writers go about building characters.
JB: That process is fascinating to me. The more voice-y poems really do beg to be performed or read aloud. Given your knack for memorizing and reciting, and as someone who has made films in the past and been interested in film, do you find yourself influenced by screenwriting, monologues, or the idea of the poem as “performance”?
ACW: Yes, absolutely. I read lots of screenplays and dramatic monologues, and I certainly think of my poems as an oral form. They are meant to be experienced In Time, in voice, aloud. But even as a reader, you can do that for yourself: you can read poems aloud, engage with the meter, feel them shape your breathing. You can memorize poems and have them with you wherever you go, inside your body. Then no one can ever take them away from you. Poems can be kept and treasured in the body, in the breath. Your body becomes the instrument that plays the poem. I believe that’s one of poetry’s greatest offerings: that it can be embodied.
The voice is everything. I come to understand my characters through their voice, not the other way around.”
JB: I’m curious about the challenge of creating poems with meanings that feel potent, but not overt, and your approach to that balance and fine-tuning. Can you take us through the thought-to-manifestation process of a poem coming into being for you? And how does revision play a role?
ACW: Each new poem demands a new approach, which keeps writing engaging, and also makes it maddening. But in general, I tend to get a narrative situation stuck in my head and it won’t leave me alone. So I visualize it and look at it from various angles, as if I’m a cinematographer choosing an angle. Then a line will come into my head that might work as a point of incision—a way to begin addressing the material that’s interesting to me, and is compelling on multiple levels—usually both narratively and sonically. Once I find a line I like, I repeat it in my head and begin attaching additional lines to it. At some point, I start writing some of this down on paper, but for me, all the important work happens in my head and in my body. Writing it down is an afterthought: a way to record what’s already happened. Once I’ve drafted a poem, I work on it day after day for perhaps a week or two—facing it again and again, slowly thinking of improvements. During this stage, I write in the mornings and exercise all afternoon. The morning at my desk is essential, but tends to be more of a grind; my good ideas arrive while I’m exercising—but without my mornings at the desk, my subconscious mind would never come up with the ideas that I receive while exercising. I don’t know how it works, but it does. Eventually, when I can’t think of how to improve it anymore, I share the draft with a trusted friend, then I edit again based on their ideas, then I set it aside for maybe a month, then I edit it again, then I set it aside for three or four months, then I edit it again. I’ve rarely completed a poem in less than a year. Some of my poems have taken five years.
JB: Your sense of exercise being essential to your process is so intriguing. Do you find that some forms of exercise work better than others, in terms of helping with receiving ideas?
ACW: All movement helps me. But I think the best is repetitive movement that sort of half-distracts my mind, but doesn’t require acute attention. Running, hiking, swimming, lifting weights. That said, I also do a ton of rock climbing, and while that demands exacting attention, I often experience ideas popping into my head right after climbing. And sometimes those ideas are especially potent, perhaps coming from deeper in my subconscious, since I haven’t been consciously thinking at all.
JB: Disease of Kings explores friendship, and also its inverse: loneliness. The narrator and North team up to live frugally off society’s discarded excess, yet we see them contrasted with each other in countless ways. I found myself coming back to a set of lines from “Listening to North in the Morning,” which seems to capture the push-pull of their relationship—and friendship in general: “Isn’t that the secret indulgence / of friendship: being near what you / can never be?” What are you trying to convey about friendship here, in this line, but also throughout the book?
ACW: My friendships are extremely important to me, and have held increasing importance as I’ve grown older. But I don’t understand how friendships work: what makes one last, while another implodes, while another dies quietly over the passage of time? What makes a friendship rise from the grave twenty years later?—and be more precious than ever before? I don’t know if those lines speak to all friendships, but I believe they speak to certain ones—this desire to share space with a spirit so different from your own, a chance to rub against that otherness, to love it, and, to some degree, vicariously become it.
JB: Your book also exposes many dissonances, such as the seemingly contradictory visions of humanity meditated upon in “I Feel Sorry For Aliens,” or the various instances the narrator does (and doesn’t) feel shame. These inconsistencies seem like contradictions, yet they can be read as masterful portrayals of the nonsensical messiness of this world: alarming and unexpected, just like life.
ACW: Yes, the protagonist’s life—like all lives—is a rash of contradictions. He is selfish, miserly, fearful of the people around him, and profoundly lonely. As his confidence ebbs and flows, we see jolts of activity, bursts of bravery, but we also see moments where he cowers before the world, hides his intentions, masks who he is. This is his nature. Like the rest of us, he contradicts himself, behaving in different ways at different times. Ultimately, through a series of choices that unfold across the book, we see him isolate himself to a tragic degree. Yet even at the bottom of his personal darkness, he is curious and grateful to be alive, and reaches out for new—if humble—forms of connection.
JB: Yeah, I particularly love the strong sense of gratitude and connection we feel in the final poem, “Contact,” which presents an almost magical encounter between the narrator and the dumpster: It’s the first time the dumpster speaks back, in a way, through messages an employee who works at the corresponding store has written on strips of cardboard. It’s a final poem that feels both “surprising, yet inevitable” (Aristotle’s Poetics) and has really stayed with me. In general, what makes a good ending poem in your eyes?
ACW: That’s a difficult question. Some of my friends wanted me to end on “The Mattress”—a moment of total despair. But that didn’t feel true to me, from a character perspective. The narrator in Disease of Kings is broken, no doubt, and by the end finds himself terribly alone, but there’s much more inside him: a profound curiosity, for one thing, and a faith that there will always be something delicious to find in the dankest corner of a dumpster. His bizarre lifestyle has garnered him with a sense of spiritual hope, and I wanted the ending to convey that. As for ending poems in general, I’d say you want less a period than a question mark. Less a perfect circle of stones and more a circle of stones with one stone slightly askew.
JB: I’m struck by the stark, visceral, and incredibly vivid imagery in these poems. In “The Mattress” we get the almost cinematic image of a moldy mattress falling “down through the dark / where it lands on the black coal and pulls / north like shame itself on a conveyor belt, / the mold gazing up at you like the aborted face / of what, all by yourself, you have made.” How do you craft such hard-hitting images that speak specifically to the individual poem and at the same time broadly across the book?
ACW: When I was young, my first artistic love was drawing. I don’t know if I can fully convey my process of creating images, but I can say it is an extremely demanding act of imagination—of actually imagining thousands of images in a state of sustained focus. And once you’ve begun to build an image in your head, the process requires lots of refining and reimagining, working to select the best angle, the ideal distance from the object, and deciding whether the image is still or in motion. All of these choices will profoundly affect the words used to describe the image—the verbs, the nouns, the syntax, the length of sentences, and so on. The finished image in a poem represents a herculean effort, one that occurs almost entirely inside the mind’s eye, and also in the ear.
JB: A big question at the heart of the book is how to exist in society. In “Ambition” you express what feels like the narrator’s philosophy—to “suffer none of it. / Money, work, or obligation. // To face the days free / of roles. No title. No position.” You’ve talked in the past about your own choice to live a more frugal life in order to create time for writing. Are these poems rebelling against a throwaway culture of mass consumerism and time-stealing? Do you see the book proposing another way of life?
ACW: I live the way I live in order to have time to create art. The culture doesn’t want me to do that; it wants me convinced that I need things, and in order to have these things I need to trade away my time. A long time ago I said no to all that. I decided that my time was the most precious resource I had, and if I wanted to keep it, I needed to find a way to live without money. So I eliminated all expenses. I began dumpster diving for food, clothes, shoes, tools, etc, and no longer bought anything. I paid $195 per month for rent. That was my entire budget. I didn’t spend money on anything else. I lived that way for all my twenties, and that lifestyle allowed me to become a poet. If this was radical, it was radical because our culture is insane. For me, the idea of conforming to our culture is profoundly inhuman.
The finished image in a poem represents a herculean effort, one that occurs almost entirely inside the mind’s eye, and also in the ear.”
JB: Your previous collection, The Low Passions (W.W. Norton, 2019), follows a transient youth who travels cross-country by freight train and stays in the homes of strangers. In contrast, Disease of Kings shows us a narrator who’s settled in one place, eking out a domestic routine. I’m curious about the relationship between the two books.
ACW: Disease of Kings is a bit of a mirror image of The Low Passions. While the protagonist in my first book is an adventurous traveler who’s eager to be altered by the wildness and grandeur of the world, the protagonist in Disease of Kings is isolated, fearful, stuck in his ways, and terrified of losing what he already has. These are two sides of my own personality. While they clearly contradict one another, each is equally true to who I am. On the levels of structure and craft, there are other echoes. For example, while The Low Passions has a series of dramatic monologues from the perspectives of strangers who are hosting the protagonist in their homes, Disease of Kings has a series of dramatic monologues from the perspective of guests who are staying at the narrator’s seedy B&B. So in my first book, the protagonist is the guest, while in my second book, he’s the host. That’s just one example. The two books are certainly in conversation, but they explore divergent impulses of the human heart.
JB: What’s something important for aspiring poets (and writers in general) to remember?
ACW: Writing is communication. If you want to express yourself, have a conversation with a close friend or keep a journal. But the moment you want to share your words, it’s no longer about you—it’s about what your work has to offer the world. So make sure you’re invested in communicating. If you’re not, you’re misunderstanding the calling.
JB: You’ve mentioned you’re currently writing some fiction in addition to poetry. Can you share anything about what might be on the horizon for you?
ACW: Over the years I’ve tried—and failed—to draft a lot of poems on subjects that have proven to be too large and unwieldy for the form. I’ve kept a growing list of these failures, and at some point, I realized that most of the narratives on the list could work beautifully as stories—and that’s proven (I think) to be true. So I’m at work on a collection of stories, but if my previous efforts are any indicator, it will take a long time to finish it.
Anders Carlson-Wee is the author of Disease of Kings (W.W. Norton, 2023), The Low Passions (W.W. Norton, 2019), a New York Public Library Book Group Selection, and Dynamite (Bull City Press, 2015), winner of the Frost Place Chapbook Prize. He is represented by Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents. www.anderscarlsonwee.com
Joy Baglio is a Northampton MA-based fiction writer and the founder/director of the literary arts organization Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop. Her short stories have appeared widely, in journals such as The Missouri Review, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Tin House, and elsewhere. Recent honors include fellowships from Yaddo, The Elizabeth George Foundation, and The Kerouac Project, among others. She is represented by Peter Steinberg at United Talent Agency (UTA). www.JoyBaglio.com and www.PioneerValleyWriters.com.