An Interview by Alexis Sears
Anders Carlson-Wee’s new collection, Disease of Kings (W.W. Norton), has been described by poet Patrick Phillips as “a harrowing dive into late-empire America, with its underworld of scroungers and squirrelers, dumpster-chefs and honest thieves, who have turned their backs on the gluttony of the Anthropocene”; and The Common said “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.” On behalf of Diode, Alexis Sears sat down with Carlson-Wee to discuss friendship, loneliness, voice, strangers, and other elements of his groundbreaking new work.
Alexis Sears: Disease of Kings focuses heavily on friendship. In my favorite poem of the collection, “Listening to North in the Morning,” you write “Isn't that the secret indulgence/ of friendship: being near what you/ can never be?” Why is friendship (as opposed to romance or family, for example) so compelling to you as a poet?
Anders Carlson-Wee: My first collection, The Low Passions, focused on familial relationships, particularly brotherhood, as well as relationships with strangers formed on the road. After ten years of working on that book, my imagination was hungry for exploring a fresh dynamic. But I didn’t choose to write about friendship—friendship seized my mind and wouldn’t let go. I drafted one poem about the speaker’s friendship with North, then another, and another, and another, as if possessed. Simultaneously, without seeing the connection, I found myself drafting poems about extreme loneliness. Only later, perhaps three years into working on the poems, did I conceive of how these two emotional zones were working off each other. That’s when Disease of Kings took on a structural shape, which is sort of a four-act play, the drama revolving around North’s comings and goings: At first North is there and these two friends are living their bizarre money-free lifestyle; then North is gone temporarily and the speaker struggles to cope with his absence and awaits his return; when North returns, he is changed by his experiences of fishing in Alaska, and the quarrels between the two friends ramp up; then North leaves for good and the speaker is left in a state of desolation, changed against his will by North’s change. Friendship has become increasingly important to me as I’ve grown older, but I’m a loner at heart, so friendship doesn’t come easily to me. Disease of Kings is sort of my song to friendship and loneliness.
AS: North is arguably the most important character in the book. Could you tell us about him? The acknowledgments suggest that he is someone you know in real life, but how accurate were you in your depiction of him as opposed to taking more artistic liberties?
ACW: North, the character, is based on my actual friend North, but some of what happens in Disease of Kings is fictionalized. As a poet, I have zero loyalty to “the truth”; art is concerned with other kinds of truth: emotional truth, aesthetic truth; spiritual truth. I write about my life because that’s real for me, and immersive, and meaningful; it’s what I know most intimately. But the moment the poem will become stronger by abandoning its tether to reality, I begin the abandonment.
AS: How did your experience of writing Disease of Kings compare to that of your previous collection The Low Passions?
ACW: Disease of Kings is a mirror image to The Low Passions. To create the speaker in each, I drew on contradictory aspects of my personality. In Passions, the speaker is adventurous and bold and has taken to the road, eager to be changed by the wildness of the world; he befriends strangers, who take him into their homes; he’s confident, adaptive, and focuses his gaze outward. Meanwhile, in Kings, the speaker is self-doubting, anxious, and wary of the world; by turns, he’s proud of his dumpster-diving lifestyle, then ashamed of needing financial handouts from his parents. Writing Kings demanded a lot more interiority—a difficult element of craft for me. I felt I really had to develop a new muscle. I also wanted Kings to contain much greater emotional range—from over-the-top comic to profound sorrow, from self-loathing to real fear. That pursuit was painful and extremely difficult. Disease of Kings is a more personal project, more exposing, and I felt I had to lean into that, stripping my style down to the bare bones in hopes of granting the greatest possible access to emotions.
AS: The poems are rich with lovely descriptions. While reading, I felt as if I was with the speaker selling lamps at the moving sale, smelling the frittata, etc. What do you think the speaker’s observations tell us about him? In poetry, what can we learn about someone based on the details he discloses about his world?
ACW: You learn a great deal about a character by what they share, what they see, what they fail to see. For the speaker in Kings, North—his only friend—lives at the center of his imagination, so we get a painterly look at him, from many angles, in many lights, like a sequence of portraits. Descriptively, the speaker also places great emphasis on food, which, for him, represents not only abundance and joy, but also a kind of faith: Each night he goes out into the darkness and the cold in search of something—some nourishment—never knowing what he might find, yet he always finds something in the dankest, darkest corner of the dumpster, and he is always nourished by it. For him, this is about as close to a manifestation of the holy as you can get.
AS: Something I really, really love about Disease of Kings is the way you include seemingly minor interactions, even with people the speaker doesn’t know: the juggler, the lady in yoga pants at the moving sale, the stranger who finds the speaker sifting through a Walmart dumpster and gives him a wad of twenties, saying, “I've been where you're at” (“Where I’m At”). “New Place” begins:
Unpacking the last box, I happen on this
picture of him, a stranger I once lived with
month-to-month while I looked for something
What role do strangers play in your work? What is their importance?
ACW: During my years of hitchhiking around the country, I had a huge number of in-depth conversations with total strangers on a daily basis. What I loved most about those encounters was the very particular freedom of emotional exchange that they offered. You know this person for a mere handful of hours and never see them again. You can tell them anything, anything at all about your life—your greatest shames, your oldest secrets, your hidden desires—and they can do the same. Neither of you ever has to face the other again. As soon as it’s over, it’s over. You get a momentary and intense intimacy that is uniquely light on burden. I find that style of encounter profoundly cathartic and cleansing. You’re granted access to a special kind of charged exchange, full of meaning, that you can never have with those you know.
AS: The book also includes spectacular dramatic monologues, such as “Barb” and “Lou.” Tell us about these! Have you always been interested in writing from the perspective of others? Why? In what ways are persona poems easier or harder than others?
ACW: My interest in voice goes all the way back to my early childhood. I have dyslexia, and due to dyslexia I struggled to learn how to read and write. I had to take special classes, my progress was very slow, and I was ashamed. My parents would read aloud to me, and in an attempt to escape the shame I felt, when they finished a page, I would say, “I can read!” and then I’d recite the page they’d just read, pretending I was reading off the paper. Having dyslexia led me to distrust written language, and to rely instead on oral language. I listened intently. I memorized everything I heard. It was essentially a survival strategy. When I began writing seriously, I realized I had a decent ear for dialogue—colloquial speech, turns of phrase, vocal cadences, hidden agendas, etc., and I set out to develop that muscle. Dramatic monologues quickly became a favorite form for me: pure voice, with nothing to hide behind. For me, dramatic monologues are simultaneously harder and easier than other forms. On the one hand, you’re so profoundly limited: anything you want to convey has to be conveyed through voice; if you want a pinball machine in the corner of the room, or a knife in a hand, or someone else in the room who throws and shatters a wine glass and you want your readers to visually experience that, you have to find a way to do it all through voice. On the other hand, the task is so elegantly simple: just one voice. And if you learn how to wield that voice, you have the power to conjure essentially anything.
AS: Disease of Kings is one of those books that you can read and reread, coming away with new feelings and thoughts each time. Overall, what do you hope readers take away from the book?
ACW: I hope each reader has their own private experience with Disease of Kings, and therefore has their own unique takeaway. That’s one of the most beautiful things about art: it’s not rigid or prescriptive; rather, it’s porous; you form your own relationship with it, and what it offers is utterly dependent on who you are, who you yearn to be.
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 and lives in Los Angeles.
Alexis Sears is the author of Out of Order (Autumn House Press, 2022), winner of the 2021 Donald Justice Poetry Prize and the Poetry by the Sea Book Award: Best Book of 2022. Her work appears in The Best American Poetry, The Cortland Review, the Cimarron Review, Poet Lore, The Hopkins Review, Literary Matters, Rattle, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles.