COREY MESLER has published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, numerous chapbooks, and 4 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is from Soft Skull Press. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart many times, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife he runs a bookstore in Memphis. He can be found at https://coreymesler.wordpress.com.
Geosi Gyasi: Share with me a brief synopsis of your book, “We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon”?
Corey Mesler: We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon is what I call a collage novel, or crazy-quilt novel. Others might prefer the terms undisciplined and pretentious. But I choose to think that the book’s unconventional style, mixing story, poem, memoir, quotations, real history and invented history, is in keeping with the madcap decade it is trying to limn. But perhaps I am going out on a limn.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “The Ballad of the Two Tom Mores”?
Corey Mesler: That book started as a sort of jape. I had this idea that there was, living in a small Southern town, a man named Tom More, whose life was empty, but who took pride in being the only Tom More in his small town. Then a second Tom More arrives. That was the genesis of what turned out to be an erotic romp, with murders!
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind your book, “Following Richard Brautigan”?
Corey Mesler: When I was a lad I wasn’t much of a reader. Early on I discovered a couple pocketsize paperbacks which led me into books. One was John Lennon’s In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. The other was Brautigan’s The Pill vs. The Springhill Mining Disaster, a wee book of wee poems. So, in a biographical sense, the rest of my life was ‘following Richard Brautigan.’ I decided I would bring him back from the dead and have him visit a young writer of verse in Oklahoma City. Why I chose Oklahoma City I don’t know. I wish now that I had based him in Memphis.
Geosi Gyasi: Where did you actually write, “Frank Comma and the Time-Slip”?
Corey Mesler: I think I should say, in the john. It’s my dirtiest book, my attempt to write a science fiction pulp novel. It’s not entirely successful but there are elements of it I still like.
Geosi Gyasi: How different is your book, “Before the Great Troubling” from “Our Locust Years”?
Corey Mesler: I think of them more as twin books, collections of similar poems, around the themes of recurring troubling and hard times.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you define a novel?
Corey Mesler: I like Stendhal’s definition. “A novel is a mirror carried along a main road.” And Camus’: “A novel is never anything, but a philosophy put into images.”
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about the history of “Burke’s Book Store”? When and how did you start it?
Corey Mesler: Venerable Burke’s Book Store, which has survived the depression and two World Wars, was begun in 1875 as a family business and stayed that way for 3 generations. Walter Burke Sr. gave birth to Burke’s Book Store on Main Street shortly after the Civil War, selling books, newspapers, slates, tin toys, and then, beginning in 1946, public and parochial school textbooks. Bill Burke, who was born above the bookstore, followed in his father’s footsteps and, in 1950, began selling used and antiquarian books, as a hedge against schools selling their own textbooks.
In the sixties, during that great urban purge known as Renewal, Burke’s moved eastward to 634 Poplar, in among the pawnshops, and the original Main St. building and surrounding neighborhood was razed. Flattened flatter than a beaten coin, flatter than the fens of Holland.
In the 1970s, no one in the Burkes family wanted to continue in the book business and they sold the store to Diana Crump. She, in turn, sold it to Harriette Beeson in the mid-80s and Harriette moved the store in 1988 to its present location at 1719 Poplar.
In 2000, my wife, who I met in the store, and I, after working there for over a decade, bought Burke’s and vowed to “keep it cool.” The store has expanded over the years, like a gas, and now encompasses, as its slogan says, “the best of the old, the latest of the new, and hard to find collectibles.” In its present incarnation it has played host to a wide range of writers, honored scriveners of the modern, plumbers of the collective unconscious, including John Grisham, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Anne Rice, Bobbie Ann Mason, Kaye Gibbons, Peter Guralnick, Peter Carey, Lee Smith, Ralph Abernathy, Archie Manning, Isaac Hayes, Rick Barthelme, Charles Baxter, Charles Frazier, Robert Olen Butler, Bill Wyman, and many others, to whom we still genuflect in gratitude.
Visitors—shoppers–to the store include Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, Courtney Love, Gene Hackman, Matt Dillon, Mary Louise Parker, Benecio Del Toro, Judy Greer, Adrian Belew, Carla Thomas, REM, and Will Patton (yes, you do too know who he is).
Today, muddling toward the future, having moved the store to the Edenic neighborhood of Cooper-Young, where we also live, we keep the old flame burning, still cognizant of our role in the community, re-energizing the store’s once semi-active publishing arm, still remembering the signed W. C. Handy autobiography, the book bound in skin, the first edition Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a heady business, a calling, a place of sympathetic magic. Oh, and we still sell textbooks.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you define your voice as a writer?
Corey Mesler: If I have a distinctive voice it is perhaps in my dialog. Early on I figured out that, in storytelling, dialog could reveal personality and human nature as surely as what the character’s job, where he or she lives, what he or she look like. I’ve read a lot of Albee, Mamet, Bergman and Pinter and I pay attention to the rhythms of speech. This is my voice, the voice of dialog.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that it is easy to write poems?
Corey Mesler: It’s easy except when it’s not. Sometimes, and every writer has felt this, a poem writes itself and comes from someplace beyond the writer. Those are days of fire. I remember reading a conversation between Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. Dylan asked Morrison where ‘Tupelo Honey’ came from and Morrison said, “It was always out there. I just found it.” And Dylan said, “That’s how I feel about ‘Blowing in the Wind’.” I wouldn’t begin to suggest that I’ve ever written anything as powerful or as lasting as either of those songs, but I do think there is an element to writing that is outside a writer’s worldly knowledge.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Corey Mesler: Oh yes. My wife is very supportive. Very. My kids seem vaguely interested in what I do… perhaps as if I do bone scrimshaw, or ham radio. But I’m not sure they’ve read very much of what I’ve written. I believe they both say they’ve read the poetry. Maybe other writers have experienced this; maybe it’s the norm. It’s odd, to me.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?
Corey Mesler: Getting published, making money at it. Both are secondary to the whoosh of actual composition but both are key to keeping my writer’s pilot light lit. I’ve never had writer’s block so I don’t understand that, but I imagine it could drive one barmy. I’ve had days when everything I wrote is caca, but that’s not the same thing.
Geosi Gyasi: What sort of preparation goes into the writing of a poem?
Corey Mesler: I think what engenders much of my poetry is reading other poets. It puts my mind in that place. So I sit down, put my fingers to the keyboard, which loves me and swears eternal devotedness, and I open my third eye.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific place where you sit down to write?
Corey Mesler: Yes, at my desk and only at my desk. The only exception is when a poem is suddenly there like a scream I have to release. Then I’ve been known to grab a legal pad and pen.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you read reviews of your own works?
Corey Mesler: Yes, always. I wish I were reviewed more. I want one review in NYTBR before I die, even if it’s a pan. Then I will at least know I have failed on a national stage.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Corey Mesler: Oh too many. Off the top of my head: Nabokov, John Lennon, Steven Millhauser, James Tate, Mark Strand, Kafka, Camus, W. S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Steve Stern, Joseph Heller, John Updike, Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Don DeLillo, William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, Donald Barthelme, Rod Serling, Ann Beattie, David Markson.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as the best part of writing?
Corey Mesler: Those days when the chain engages and drags you along and you look up and a few hours have gone by and you’ve got 750 new words. There is nothing to compare with that. If Satan were to offer me fame and riches, as an author, but I would have to give up that rush, I would kindly ask him to leave me alone and go back to his lair, where he dines regularly with the ex-members of the Bush administration.
Geosi Gyasi: What books are often found on your writing table?
Corey Mesler: 2 good thesauri, various poetry books, sometimes copies of my own books so I know that, at least once or twice, I’ve been successful, a slang dictionary, Dylan’s Lyrics, The Literary Baby Name Book, Strunk and White.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new project?
Corey Mesler: Just finished a 250,000+ word novel that Counterpoint/Soft Skull has right of first refusal on. And I’m about ankle-deep in a new novel set in the 60s. Plus I have a new full-length poetry collection due out in Fall 2015 from After the Pause Books. It’s called Opaque Melodies that Would Bug Most People.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for your works?
Corey Mesler: Today, yes? I average way more rejections than acceptances, in my personal and my writing life.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you often do in your spare time when not writing?
Corey Mesler: I think about writing. Seriously, I work at the bookstore, relishing daily that I get to handle those little talismans called books. And my wife and I watch a lot of movies. Movies are my 2nd passion, after books. But, I am one of those writers who often seem distracted because I am working something literary out in my head. I’m lucky I don’t walk into traffic. When my wife and I go out she uses a leash.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you like to be remembered as a writer?
Corey Mesler: As someone who occasionally wrote a memorable sentence, a sentence that sings, a sentence you might want tattooed to your lower back. And, when I’m dead I want them to say, “He wasn’t always very good but he was really funny.”