Kings of the Fucking Sea, Dan Boehl's new poetry collection from Birds LLC, is a phantasmagoric adventure about dissolution, loss and pirates. I talked to him about the role of painters in his work, the considerations in putting together a first book of poetry and his writing process (which did not involve a parrot or an eye patch).
Can you explain the plot of the Kings of the Fucking Sea?
Hmmn, yeah. I can explain the plot. There is an unnamed man in his thirties who works at an art museum. He is married. He owns a house. He has a dog. He feels trapped in his life and wants out. So, one day he skips town and ends up joining a crew of polleros, human traffickers. These polleros are Kings of the Fucking Sea. First he smuggles Mexicans into the US through Galveston. Later he smuggles Chinese.
At first this work is freeing, but pretty quickly he recognizes the evil in the practice of human trafficking, of making a living taking advantage of the hopes and fears of others. As he thinks about this the Kings find an abandoned boat in the ocean off the coast of China. The boat belongs to a rival pirate crew, the Cobra Sombreros. Locked in a shipping container are a dozen or so Chinese people who have been suffocated and cooked to death by the sun.
The Kings are not without honor. Seeking revenge, they go to war with the Sombreros, attacking that crew in the islands off the coast of Asia. Though the Kings are outnumbered, they destroy their rivals. Many people die, and the Kings hang the bodies of their enemies from a tree.
And the Kings celebrate their victory. They receive medals, are paid, and they dance with whores. But the unnamed character remains uneasy, and his thoughts drift towards home, the life he left, and he wonders if there is any real difference between his life home and his life on the sea.
But it hardly matters. As the Kings embark on a new voyage their ship is attacked by Megamouth, an unworldly shark with breath like god’s very navel. Everyone but our hero dies. Our hero washes ashore onto an abandoned island, a broken resort hotel on the beach, washed out by a tsunami. Using the debris he finds on shore to fashion a raft, he sets back out onto the ocean, searching for home.
At least I think this is the plot. Not all of this account is in the poems, so it is open to interpretation.
Can you tell me about the persona you use when you read poems from KFS?
Persona. Funny. My press mate, Sommer Browning, just said in an interview at Faster Times that she does not regard poetry readings as performances. Well, I do, and when I read I try to communicate to the audience the darkest, most shameful place inside of me. I try to show them the shame that is stamped onto my soul, my soulshame. When I read I want to approach the precipice, look over, consider breaking, and then not break. And the audience does not want me to break. They want me to make it, to survive, to heal, and to carry on.
Sam Starkweather once told me about your book, that he loved the way it challenged the potential of what a book of poems can be, was that something you intended to do?
At the outset of writing Kings I was not interested in pushing the poetry book’s limits. I simply wanted to write poems that deepened the meaning of the art that my collaborator Jonathan Marshall was making. At first I had 20 poems and I was going to add them as the last section of what was going to be my first book, a collection anchored by what became my first chapbook Work. But when talking to Sam about the Kings poems I realized I did not want my first book to be a collection of poems. I wanted my first book to be a book that happened to be made of poems. I wanted the book to be whole.
One of the most interesting things to me about poems and collections of poems is the manner in which they come together. Can you recall how you went about constructing KFS?
I had about 20 poems and knew I wanted more. Sam told me that if all the poems were the same, running down the page in those crazy line breaks, it would wear out the reader. Sam said, “You have to learn to write a different kind of poem.”
So, I decided to sprinkle in the prose poems that profile the Kings crew members. Where the free verse poems are all lyric, the prose poems are designed to profile the personalities and histories of the various crew members.
After I added the crew poems and wrote a few more lyrics, I was about 18 poems short of a book. Jonathan Marshall and I were talking a lot about Joseph Campbell at the time, and I knew that the plot of the book would follow the traditional heroic journey. I had the departure and return narratives figured out, so I just had to figure out the initiation stage of the hero.
Luckily, that was around the time that the museum where I worked put up a series of 18 prints by Jacques Callot entitled Les MISERES et Les MAL-HEURS de la GUERRE. The prints depict a series of battles where soldiers do battle, slaughter people, and engage in torture. Each image had a little French poem under it. I took the titles from each print, translated them, modified the title to suit my needs (“Discovery of the Enemy” became “Ambush of the Cobra Sombrero,” for example), and wrote the poems to fit the titles. Almost instantly I had 18 new poems.
The front and back covers of KFS are both images by Jonathan Marshall. There's an insert in the middle of a book that has 16 color prints by him as well. One of the things that struck me about all the images was how they encapsulate and inform the content of the book. What was your thinking behind including the visual element?
Kings of the F**king Sea began as a collaboration with Jonathan and it was his artwork that gave rise to the narrative. Jonathan was making all these nautical themed paintings and in this way he provided the setting for the story.
Jonathan and I wanted the images and the writing to inform each other but not describe each other. I didn’t want to write ekphrastics (a mostly terrible method of writing) and Jonathan did not want to make illustrations. Both the writing and the art had to be able to stand on its own merits while informing its counterpart.
By including Jonathan’s work in the book he is expanding the narrative. Like the wooden leg. That leg exists. It is real, carved from wood. Those flags are real flags and the maps real maps. They are artifacts that populate the Kings universe.
Can you talk about how you came to collaborate with Marshall and how that collaboration came to shape KFS?
Jonathan approached me and asked if I would collaborate with him. I said yes and he started sending me drawings he was working on. His painting the Attack of Megamouth was up at a local gallery in Austin and seeing it caused me to write what became “Megamouth”, the poem central to the entire Kings narrative. Without Jonathan’s intervention I would not have written Kings.
I like working with Jonathan a lot. Right now I am writing a script for him so we can make a movie together.
Can you talk about the role that painters play in KFS (especially with regards to Mortherwell, Rothko, and Johns, who all all crew members of the Kings of the Fucking Sea).
Kings is about living in a world where meaning is arbitrary and chaos rules. It is a book about what it is to be an artist, what it is to be a writer, what it is to try and make a life for oneself that is satisfying while defying the conventions of society.
When I wrote Kings I was working at the museum and I was surrounded by the work of these painters. I was taking an art history class and I was stealing passages from the readings and dropping them whole cloth directly into the poems. But this is not evident in the text. I wanted a way to tell the reader that this is a book about art making while maintaining the nautical adventure trope. To do this I made the crew painters.
Motherwell was an okay abstract expressionist, so he is Jack Spicer’s first mate. Johns is the most innovative of the bunch, so I made him the shipwright. (Just a note, my dad is a ship builder.) Rothko killed himself trying to complete his masterwork so I made him captain of the Cobra Sombrero, an Ahab figure whose work consumes and destroys him.
Les MISERES et Les MAL-HEURS de la GUERRE, KFS's central section was released as a chapbook from Greying Ghost. Did that work come about before or after you came up with the concept for KFS? How did you go about integrating it into the full-length ms?
As noted above, Les MIS was the last section I wrote for the book. It was also the most cohesive because of the way it was written almost as an exercise in form. I had sent the section to Greying Ghost calling it a single poem, and Carl said it was too long for his journal, would I like to put it out as a Greying Ghost chapbook?
The Greying Ghost chapbook is somewhat different from how the work appears in the middle section of Kings, though.
There are a lot of considerations for a poet putting out their first book. I feel like KFS takes so many admirable formal risks, but I also feel like releasing it under your own press imprint (Birds LLC), is another knotty choice. What's it like to have put out your first book on Birds?
The Kings manuscript was a finalist in the Black Ocean open reading and the Octopus April open reading twice, and when those two presses passed on the book, I thought the thing would never be published. Those presses were the only ones I thought could tolerate a book that pushes as many boundaries as Kings. Copper Canyon wasn’t going to put it out. Four Way, not a chance. So, I was pretty discouraged.
But then Birds, LLC put me on the publication schedule. And when that happened I knew that Kings was going to be the best book it possibly could be. It would have the attention of four talented editors who wanted to make the best books in the world. It would have the cover art I wanted and it would be the length I wanted. Most importantly, it would contain full-color art from Jonathan. There was no other press in the world that would do that for a first book.
Birds, LLC was the perfect fit for Kings. They take risks, care about their authors, and seek to honor the intent of the poems. And, this I think is the most important thing, Birds, LLC recognizes talent, not manuscripts. Unlike a first book contest manuscript, which has to be damn near perfect and pretty fucking boring to win a uni-press prize, Birds, LLC picks writers they believe in and works with them to make their books come to life. It is a lot of work but it pays off.
Can you tell us what's in line for Birds in the future and some more about projects you're working on in your own writing at the moment?
Birds, LLC are slated to release Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow and Dan Magers’ Partyknife this winter. The editors are editing away as I type. Emily’s book is like walking into a field of black telephones ringing, it’s an instruction manual of the imagination, where everything is strange and beautiful, and through some kind of magic, real. Dan’s book is like making love above the flames until moans make the bed break and fall through the floor, crushing your lover’s ex who has been listening in bed below, or to quote Partyknife, “Everything that feels good is good.” I think readers are really going to dig these.
As for me, I am putting together another collection of poems, Self-Improvement, which is about the breakdown of my marriage, changing jobs, getting hit by cars, and Mickey Rourke. The book is a lot of prose poems written over a three year period, and I am not sure how yet to present them to a reader.
As an experiment I am self-publishing my first novel, a middle grade book set after all the gasoline runs out, Naomi and the Horse Flavored T-Shirt, on e-readers. So, I have hired and experienced young adult editor, am revamping my website, and am hiring a designer to do the covers, the HTML, and a print-on-demand version to be sold on Lulu.
Jonathan Marshall wants to make a 30 minute movie, so he has asked me to write him a scifi/post-apocalypse script using some of his specifications, and I am right in the middle of that. If the experiment in self-publishing goes well, I may use the same model to fundraise for the movie by e-pubbing the novella version of the story online.
Ben Mirov was born in Northern California. He is the author of Ghost Machine (Caketrain, 2010) and the chapbooks Vortexts (SUPERMACHINE, 2011) I is to Vorticism (New Michigan Press, 2010) Collected Ghost (H_NGM_N, 2010). He is editor-in-chief of LIT Magazine and general editor of pax americana.