“My Dog Is That One”: Angelo Maneage Interviewed by Zach Savich

“It felt right to be coughing on the ground,” Angelo Maneage tells us in The Improper Use of Plates, his remarkable chapbook of poems. His work is rich with that kind of off-kilter “rightness.” They get “horny in a different way,” slide on their stomachs, crawl around, cough up transmissions that flicker like a “blue bubble geyeser.” Or is it like an “upside-down Christmas tree”? Whatever it is, these are poems that keep setting me right—right into what one of them calls “the middle of a miracle.” We corresponded about the big questions: syntax, “panic and calm,” hypothetical buffalo chasing a real golf cart, “comedy as a byproduct,” how the boops and beeps of perception can calibrate our days.

Maneage is a poet and book designer living in Northeast Ohio next to a Texas Roadhouse. This is his website: angelomaneagethewebsite.com.

Zach Savich: Let’s start at the end. The book’s final words? “Glop. / Bop. Pop, ha. Beep, beep.” It’s not the only moment like that (“ITTY BOP BO”; “bop bop beoep”). Do you think of these moments as pure sound? As song? As types of speech? Something else?

Angelo Maneage: I feel like those almost mechanical boops, bops, and almost-jazz-scattings act like a kind of nervous portal. Or maybe warnings. When they’re around, something is just slightly off; those beepings come from noises that surround waiting, that teeter on the line of panic and calm—a heart rate at a hospital, the vibrating square they hand you at a restaurant, a fire alarm—a kind of chaotic purgatory? Those things that are, like, the breaths of not knowing/alertness? I think they enact something visceral and unsettled, like a guttural, robotic mechanism that has some sort of musical score.

ZS: I love how magic and mundanity mix in your work. In the opening poem, a desire to become as simple as “newscasters” leads to this trick: “and then I started to lift my skin up only like a magician with hooks above a desert and crocodiles and did not die.” I could go on about that passage: the beauty of that “only,” the way the speaker is at once active (“I started …”) and acted on. But I’m curious⁠—when you’re writing/revising, do you deliberately try to balance the ordinary and the impossible?

AM: Deliberately is a cool term. It’s plasmatic. Because I do try to put the average next to the fantastic, but subconsciously—I think that juxtaposition is just built into the deadpan of the work. I like that extremity to get a thing across. Impossible + every-day = insanity. Things that scare me, that seem like torture or perceived danger (crocodiles, hooks on a back in deserts—that image actually came from this Criss Angel stunt I saw in like 2012 or something where he put a bunch of hooks in his back and dangled out of a helicopter over a desert for like 6 hours. Ha. It looked so cool, but so dumb, and so painful, but he wanted to do it for a spectacle? You could see his skin being stretched, but his breathing synchronized and focused; there was a stamina to it. Who knows if he actually did it …), paired with like, scooters, or grandmas, or talking dogs are really funny to me. I like when things are scary and eerie and funny. The whole cocktail. I’d like to say that syntax plays a really big part in a sort of place-making/traveling in my work in this way too. 

ZS: What types of syntax do that for you? 

AM: Jumbled kind of stuff. Things that still work but are a little weird. Like reading in a mirror. A random example: “My dog is that one.” Could’ve been “That one is my dog.” But like, there’s a mystery to that speaker now, with the former; backwards speak or just word mush scares me. It always has. Makes me feel like there’s a spell going on. There’s a creepy/eerie movement to it. And bleeding thoughts or ideas into what seem like sentences is something. I like that. “My dog / is that one my dog.” A bunch of ways to look at one line, and it’s now a question, sort of. Up and down. Line breaks that differentiate semantic relation from the sentence itself.

ZS: “I / write jokes for a living,” you write in “Veterinarian.” I know you’ve spent time doing stand-up. For you, how are poetry and comedy related (or not)?

AM: This is such a great and wild question that I’ve thought about a lot. Weirdly I keep concluding that they’re exactly the same, but aren’t, but are, and so forth. I mean, where is the line for anything in all of art? It seems definitive, but is super nuanced and borrowed from every discipline.

Poetry has a magical element to it that can inform a very certain kind of laugh to the highest degree, I think. I guess the two (“comedy” and “poetry”) are so entwined that it feels like just one singular thing during one or the other. Like they’re separate but while they’re occurring they’re polymerized; they use the same fundamental tools. Comedy is a byproduct of poetic technicalities and technique, I think, too, generally. All the mechanics and algorithms are there in each, the tools for mending all the knock-knocking worlds: Timing, juxtapositions, contexts, concision, musicality, semantics, syntax, pun, pungency, line break. Punching. Kicking. Screaming. (I guess this is all language, ha. And soccer.) 

I’m not necessarily concerned with getting a laugh in standup—I’m almost more concerned with getting a laugh in poetry. Like a nervous laugh. A “why am I laughing?” laugh. That’s a cool thing. The mechanics are there for the “joke” or the “line” only in black and white and so on paper maybe the stakes are higher; one has to trust that the words will do the work where they are in that page-world. 

I was actually watching this weird Pere Ubu interview pretty recently because I was making a piece of art for a publication, and David Thomas is such a weirdo and cool dude. He had this cup analogy where he pointed to it in every direction, all over, when somebody asked what Pere Ubu was about as a band. “The whole cup at different angles is different shapes that, when individual, we aren’t even sure if they’re a cup, but ultimately are all part of the same thing.” Or something like that. I don’t know, it just made me kind of look at these poems in that kind of way. Different shapes that seem to be from other places but are from the same nuanced place of worry.

It all gets blended and grayed when I try to think about it in deep play; I think, in this book, the poems want to be serious, with their numb and deadpan staring, but they just are caught up in this world wherein their reality is bent and twisted so absurdly, so they need to be funny. They want to laugh, they do, but they also want to report and tell what they’re seeing as is. I truly have felt like an outsider in both the poetry and comedy communities, to my own fault, so I guess I like the in-between spaces. Comedy and poetry, maybe, are searching for a place, like a cupcake box, or a dog carrier, that they can fit into and get along in. 

ZS: I love the idea of “comedy as a byproduct.” If everything can be a kind of poetry, what does poetry-poetry (words on a page) do for you that other forms and modes do not?

AM: I remember reading In Canaan by Shane McCrae early in my poetry introduction and just really being drawn by the way he used language to push forward and backward and jump from here to there with so much magic. I just loved the way it twisted my brain in such a wet-concrete and calculated way; it was almost the same on paper vs. aloud because of the embedded meter and rules to the book. 

In terms of my writing, I think poetry on the page holds more constraints or perceived rules that kind of force the thing to fill that box, but they can be completely abstract or hidden or nonsensical with more acceptance. I feel like paper prose has treated me differently in different headspaces; everything ends up becoming a kind of “poem,” I’ve noticed, when I try to write a piece of prose. I guess poetry makes me feel best because I can try to figure out what the poem wants, or what I want, by dancing around points abstractly, and looking for clues I’ve left myself unconsciously. I guess I like the idea of collage and dream-truth, and I can’t explain why poetry lets me try and document that. Poetry just has a lot more secrets with easier compartments to hide them in, where they fit, or at least the things or compartments that I’ve discovered. Excitement lives in blank space, laughs live in a line’s break. 

ZS: I’m curious about the history of this chapbook. How did it come together?

AM: I started writing this chapbook in an independent study with Caryl Pagel in early 2018. The study was decidedly focused on generating a chapbook. By the end, I had about 12 workable poems. It was a way to kind of navigate my way through the happenings and air around and of my mother’s brain tumor diagnosis and surgery at the tail end of 2016. It was some territory my family and I as a whole were just so unsure about, obviously, and I felt like this book was kind of the only way to process it—by sharing the “tale” of it. I wanted to get the fake laughter, tears, numbness, matter-of-factness, all that was going on through my mom, grandma, aunt, pastor, all of it; I wanted to just bottle that confusion and throw it into a lava pit. I hope some people can see this book as a way of driving through familial and personal uncertainty while the world still tells you that you need the WiFi password, receptionists tell you what floor to go to, they’re out of tomatoes at Subway, the news is on and talking about the weather.

It stayed pretty solid until 2021. I started relooking. Rethinking the rethoughts. And it became less precious as a stiff object, and more precious as a fluid one in terms of revision. I sent it to my friend Matt Mitchell to blurb because I was ready to self-publish it, but he told me I should send it to Kevin over at Ghost City Press, and he was happy to pick it up. I cried. He was super amazing to work with and let me have a lot of freedom in the process. I’m pretty sure I sent him like 25 covers. 

ZS: What’s currently happening with your work? What’s next?

AM: Medium, really. Drawings, poetry, film, voice, whatever. It’s just exciting to think about it. Combining all of them. I’m sitting with a new manuscript, it might be a full length, but maybe it’s just a chapbook, maybe it was just practice. I’m also working on another secret project or two. I’m obsessed with cinematography and visual poetry. Words are just difficult to muster out alone, and we need colors and drone shots of a stampede of buffalo chasing a golf cart. 

Zach Savich is the author of eight books, including Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018). Recent work appears in Fonograf Editions MagazinejubilatPleiades, Gordon Square Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art and co-edits Rescue Press’ Open Prose Series.

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