“Metal, Heavy”: An Interview with Poet Micah D. Zevin on His Debut Book by Gillian Cummings

What is more surreal, a world where “a ghost takes the form of a man, / seemingly out of nowhere, and / stabs you with their long knife shaped arm / of martial law” or a world where men with “wolf teeth and dead eyes shout: Pollute! Pollute! Pollute! / from the rooftops as they dump all the chemicals into the sea / and do not sigh but voraciously grind their teeth”? Or, more precisely, in Micah D. Zevin’s debut book, what is more metal? In Metal, Heavy, Zevin depicts both our current political moment with its deplorable injustices and the joys or at least the emotional release to be found in the mosh pit of a Pantera or Tool concert. He writes with righteous anger and tender inquisitiveness about topics such as class struggle, the pandemic, the world of work and of subway commutes, and the meaning of a glass of red wine shared with a loving wife. It was my pleasure to interview Micah about Metal, Heavy, his debut poetry collection released by Olena Jennings and Poets of Queens Press.

Zevin is poet, writer, librarian, and Queens NY native living in Jackson Heights, Queens, with his wife, a playwright. He created and curates a poetry prompt workshop/reading series (now virtually on Zoom) called The Risk of Discovery Reading Series. He graduated from The New School with his MFA in Poetry in May 2014. 

Gillian Cummings: Your book is titled Metal, Heavy and is divided into four sections called “sides.” Many of the poems mention metal bands or attempt to define what metal is or what it conjures, as in the poem “Far Beyond Memory”:

Life is heavy metal and it is heavy,
always encasing us in its snarling jaws
as the power chords bring us to our knees
or make us soar in the mosh pits.

Life is heavy metal.
As we wake we hear the machine noises from cars and
buses and dishwashers and radios and on our phones
like zombies we touch and stare, as we get ready for work.

Heavy metal is sword and sorcery, or so we are told,
or as it is written.
Heavy metal is don’t forget the groceries.

Can you talk a little more about how you define heavy metal, especially as it relates to this book? How did you intend Metal, Heavy to resemble a metal album? Are there any specific metal albums that you wanted this book to be reminiscent of?

Micah D. Zevin: The theme/subject/idea for this book, heavy metal, had been brewing for a long time in one form or another. Teachers and mentors and small poetry publishers had always emphasized the notion of thematic unity in a completed manuscript in order to potentially attract their attention and publish your collection and I had yet to arrive at a group of poems as a whole that met this standard. I began with the stories and snippets of experiences I have had in my existence at hard rock/heavy metal concerts as an adult and how they shaped me and then I attempted to ponder how I could organically speak about heavy metal music as it related to life and all its aspects whether it was living through this pandemic, domesticity, the environment, politics, class, race, industry and more. I grew up listening to the music my parents loved which was mainly folk, some classical, jazz and experimental with a spritz of pop music here and there. But, through a childhood friend, when I was just becoming a teenager, he made me a mix tape of bands like Primus, Boston, Suicidal Tendencies, Metallica, Sepultura and other significant groups in the genre, and this blew my mind. The very first album I bought at Sam Goody in Rego Park, Queens, was the Black Album on cassette or CD I cannot remember. So besides being the genre of music that was the first music I was introduced to that became an obsession and passion as an individual, I started to see how like a lot of things in this country or in humanity in general, how it was connected to many if not all things not just historically but in daily existence as well as fictional fantasy existences. Also, I like giving myself assignments and prompts to send my writing in new potentially surprising or unforeseen directions.

I am not certain if I had one particular heavy metal album in mind when I decided that it would/should resemble one; although as a jumping off point I had Prog-metal bands like Tool, Mastodon, maybe others in mind who often write their albums like a book or graphic novel with sections and characters and specific themes often apocalyptic that make each album distinctive. Mainly, I just was enamored of making my first book of poems an homage to my first musical identity when I was ascending out of my teenage years and into adulthood and about to attend university. I guess I would say there is a sprinkling of metal music throughout this collection. There’s a bit of Tool, Metallica and Alice in Chains while the band Pantera is represented albeit obliquely in the poem “Far Beyond Memory.” The opening poem “Attitude” even references the Misfits (a punk rock band with ghoulish sensibilities) who often inspired prominent metal bands. All of these poems feed my gluttony for language play if not rhyming.

GC: This collection, while ostensibly seeming to be a book in praise of metal music, seems to me to also be, in essence, a critique of neoliberal capitalism. Many of the poems include references to class struggle and the greed of the ruling class that is devastating the lives of so many people and causing ecocide on earth. Can you talk a little about what it was like to write a book that draws attention to the class divide at a time when the powers that be seem to not want us to scrutinize the broadening of inequality in our society and the abuse of power by wealthy elites?

MDZ: Ultimately, the utilization and praise of metal music in this book, was used as a framing device to speak to larger subject matters. Writing about and addressing the class divide in these poems was inescapable for me as a writer, especially now inhabiting a pandemic world which is chaotic, apocalyptic and with massive unemployment, climate disasters and more that brought everything to bear times one hundred. Also, it tied into the themes often if not specifically referenced in metal music such as greedy politicians, nuclear war, industrialization, uber capitalism and destruction of the world.  I can’t remember a time anymore, even when my poems were more abstract or packed, that I wasn’t dealing with overarching societal issues mixed in with more egotistical concerns as I continued to develop as a creative person. As I wrote these poems, I realized how the puzzle pieces were starting to fit together as a documenting of the times and a critique of the widening gap between rich and poor, how it horrified me/stultified and how I could shape them on a small scale to raise awareness of the atrocious class inequities in America, how they were exposed in all their brutal nakedness during this collapse of everything, and moreover, there was no “new normal” or “new abnormal” to return to although the ruling class or establishment try to sell us this fraudulent can of worms. Also, speaking to the class divide and class warfare during this period was a natural progression of what was happening before my eyes: California on fire, police stations on fire, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter marches, corruption, greed, inhumanity and the deaths piling up because of poverty and COVID, even if it was mostly while isolating in my apartment until my job at the library commenced its phased reopening and I slowly returned to some kind of work routine.

GC: Many of the poems in Metal, Heavy seem to have been written during the pandemic, particularly the poems of the final section, “side iv.” Was this book written entirely in the past year or are there poems that date from earlier times? What was it like for you to have been living through such an extraordinarily difficult moment in history and recording your experiences in poems?

MDZ: I would say that part of the book was written before the pandemic and part of it was written after things became more traumatic and real due to the hospitalizations and deaths being right on top of me/us at Elmhurst hospital in Jackson Heights, Queens. I would say I had already written a handful of them three or four months before the pandemic took over, and these were poems in the early sections that referenced specific bands and concerts. At this juncture, it was a serious writing exercise to see where it took me. I can’t remember the exact time or date that Olena Jennings of Poets of Queens Press and reading series asked me if I would be interested publishing a book with her but I thought about it for a second and leapt at the opportunity. I decided my previous manuscript, a series of odes, although full of quality work, had not found a home although some individual poems had been published, and there must be a reason. So, I put it on the back burner and brainstormed and the notion of metal themed collection built like an album with sides was born. To have a project, a creative purpose during the anxiety ridden mental and physical ups and downs of this pandemic was a gift that kept me focused on writing new pieces, editing them and completing them. This helped to keep me sane and away from the precipice or perpetual doldrums in spite of the fact it was difficult to separate these poems from the exhausting current reality. The material that became the final section of the book started out as a kind of creative diary entry but the better ones over time became a hybrid of the central theme in the book, pandemic life daily trials/domestic survival, combined with my thoughts around a bombardment of horrific triggering news from our mostly unempathetic leaders. Living through a kind of “end times” apocalypse made it easy to see how this section fit in with the heavy metal lens through which this book addresses all issues, whether class, identity, the environment or issues of the mind. 

GC: I’ve noticed that you often use humor to navigate our dystopian present world. For example, in the poem “Sad Donut!” the speaker talks about wanting to start a metal band with that name saying,

I will scream “all by my lonesome” over and over again while
chugging hot black coffee. The song will be about the working-
class struggle and the rich who squeeze our resources until they
are dry or disappeared. “Sad donut, sad donut” will be another
lyric in my cookie-cutter death growl …

Two poems after “Sad Donut,” there is a poem that mentions Billy Collins as a poet who is “so metal, so rock’n’roll or / as close as they come, so dry, sarcastic ….” How do you decide when to introduce humor in your poems and when to keep the material as serious as possible? Or does working with wry humor help to highlight the gravity of our current situation?

MDZ: Sometimes I inject comedy into my poems consciously and sometimes unconsciously but first and foremost it depends on the tone and subject matter of the poem. Sometimes, I bring humor into a poem that is not working or without energy, but more often it just happens because of all that I ingest in all genres and formats whether is Kurt Vonnegut, Weird Al Yankovic or the show Black Mirror. For example, there is a heavy metal band called Okilly Dokilly where all the members dress up like Flanders from The Simpsons. Whether indirectly or not, “Sad Donut” and “Lobster Girl, I Feel Bad For You: A Metal Poem” are companion pieces while also joyously mocking heavy metals extremes. I am a fan of satire in all its forms whether literature, music, television or movies. In the poem where I mention Billy Collins, the decision to employ humor is partly because of how much people, mainly in the poetry world, dislike him, so this lightens the mood for those who know or care. I enjoyed his early books like Picnic, Lightning before he became a “big deal” and really enjoyed the sarcasm and simple beauty in those collections so that has potentially made their way into my work. My work tends towards melancholy or dark subject matters so wry humor is a device I sometimes employ on purpose to make this apparent and breaks up the seriousness so the reader can take a breath. However, in certain poems if the humor does not grow organically, it may not come at all or serve the writing. For the most part, I use a lot of understatement when speaking and creating, and I have a tendency towards pun making and word play. Laughter works best when it is the modus operandi driving the writing.

GC: In Metal, Heavy, in addition to Billy Collins, you mention the poets Lucie Brock-Broido, Poe, and Baudelaire. Which poets or books of poetry were you reading when you wrote this book? If you were also reading philosophy, cultural studies, or other subjects, please feel welcome to mention those titles, as well.

MDZ: When I was pondering the creation of this collection and compiling poems, I was simultaneously listening to my own heavy metal music library, jazz, alternative rock, binging streaming shows, while reading Trouble in Mind by Lucie Brock-Broido, refreshing my Baudelaire love by rereading Spleen and Flowers of Evil and utilizing my previous readings and knowledge of Poe’s short stories and famous poems to inspire and inform how I would construct the manuscript. In terms of nonfiction, I began to reread A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I also read collections and books that did not influence my collection thematically but musically, lyrically, tonally, like how the poet Jake Marmer’s most recent book Cosmic Diaspora combines jazz, a beatnik sensibility, Judaism, and science fiction, and how Cynthia Atkin’s Still Life with God speaks about human spirituality and life and death in all its madness and wreckage. Also, I read Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, A Sand Book by Ariana Reines and Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, and perhaps I co-opted their ambition and storytelling and lyrical chops in my book along with the spirit of heavy metal.

GC: Metal, Heavy begins with “Attitude,” a poem about your guinea pigs Salty and Peppa. Salty is described as having a “Heavy Metal Punk Rock attitude,” because she bites and dive bombs from your wife’s shoulder into a cardboard box. The guinea pigs come back in four subsequent poems. In reading Metal, Heavy, I found that these guinea pigs brought a touch of tenderness to often painful political material, and I wondered if you intended them to function in this way. Can you talk about Salty and Peppa and why you chose to weave stories about them through this collection?

MDZ: At first, I don’t think I consciously realized that they tempered the painful political aspects of the material. But whether I realized it or not, in actuality, the guinea pigs functioned as a salve to me and my wife during these extreme and traumatizing times and were a positive fun thing to talk about while speaking to the constant flow of serious and often disturbing news that made it into the work. Guinea pigs, being prey animals, do not want to be touched a lot so are not the best companions to be your therapy animals. Yet, in spite of that, their weird proclivities and distinct individual personalities and sounds were and are a comfort while forced to remain isolated at home. They can be strange and amusing and have soft fur to pet even if they don’t always like it. Also, the ritual of feeding them, putting them out to play, trying to hold and pet them as well as the twice daily feeding brought routine to the day. They were already a part of my affections and being home so much they made it into my daily notebook entries and documenting of my domestic life so I selected the best ones to edit and incorporate into the collection as a true accounting of a domestic existence lived during the pandemic.

GC: What are you working on now that you have finished Metal, Heavy? Do you have a next project in mind?

MDZ: I have continued writing every morning as well as jotting down ideas for new poems. Currently, I am in the thinking phase for a new series of poems. My next project idea is to address magical thinking and magic (such as Houdini) in America specifically the figure of the snake oil salesmen historically and today, and how it applies to me personally and our current situation in terms of conspiracy theories and propaganda that our media and leaders/hucksters promote to sow chaos and fear and keep power. However, this idea is in its infancy and may transform into something else.

Gillian Cummings is the author of The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter, selected by John Yau as the winner of the 2018 Colorado Prize for Poetry (The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, 2018), and My Dim Aviary, winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Big OtherColorado ReviewThe Laurel ReviewThe Night Heron BarksSchlag Magazine, and Tupelo Quarterly. She lives in Westchester County, New York, and can be found at gilliancummingspoet.com.

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