Author Interview: Cody Walker
The author of The Trumpiad on poetry’s relevance, going where sounds take you, and the necessity of laughter
Cody Walker’s latest book, The Trumpiad, unpacks a multitude of complex, frightening realities. The speakers of this collection are of the current political moment. They see things they don’t want to see, they feel things they never thought they’d feel, and as if those were not enough, they realize there is still time. Time for what exactly? Well, for starters, laughter.
Walker’s fiery wit, astute ear, and poetic resistance will make you laugh at things, people, and arguments, which previously forced you to uncontrollably shudder. Still, these laughs are not free of contemplation. What starts as a giggle will eventually morph into a thought. One which, given the strength and acuteness of these poems, you will wish to discuss with those closest to you. As Sherman Alexie suggested, “Cody Walker is smart and funny. And this book is smart, funny, musical, and angry. I love this poetic takedown of the orange mess that we have as president. You’ll love it, too, and you’ll be supporting the ACLU.” Alexie’s rhyme is correct: all proceeds from this collection will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Cody Walker will be reading from The Trumpaid at 7 PM on Tuesday, April 18th at Literati Bookstore. In the days leading up to the reading, I was fortunate enough to ask him a few questions — some difficult, others silly.
To argue that America is currently witnessing a surge in political protest is an understatement. Within the past few months: the Women’s March, A Day Without Women, A Day Without Immigrants, the occupation of airports in response to a travel ban on Muslim nations, innumerable grassroots movements and demonstrations, and on April 22, the March for Science. At a moment in time where citizens are using their collective bodies and voices to forcefully resist, what does poetry have to offer us?
Auden calls poetry “memorable speech” — and I think if politically minded poets are able to write poems that rise to that definition (no easy thing to do), then they can affect the culture, in the way Auden himself did. It’s not likely to happen, of course — but every once in a while a poem takes hold and is read by more than the usual number (ten? zero?) of readers. We’ve seen it happen a few times in the past year — with, for example, Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” and Fatimah Asghar’s “If They Should Come for Us.” These are poems that have mattered to people. We could be having this same conversation, by the way, about almost any other art form; I don’t mean to elevate poetry’s power above that of sculpture or photography or dance or whatever. But poetry’s the art form that I know best, and I do think it’s particularly good at framing certain kinds of feelings and experiences. I spent about ninety hours in the classroom this semester, and most of those hours are going to pass from memory. But I’m unlikely to ever forget the final five minutes of class on Tuesday, January 31 — a class that met in the wake of Trump’s first travel ban. I read aloud Auden’s “Refugee Blues,” written in March of 1939. “Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said: / ‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’; / He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.” I felt like the poem was speaking to us, directly and urgently, from a vantage point not so different from our own. Nothing about it was unclear. We let the words hang in the air; we silently exited the classroom.
The first poem in The Trumpiad is titled “The Mad Realtor’s Song.” In each stanza, the speaker starts by witnessing one image which is quickly traded for something else: a “Tonka Truck” becomes “Ivanka,” the “Sleepy Suburb” is actually the “party’s standard-bearer.” It should also be noted that this poem primarily uses iambs in addition to an ABCBDB rhyme scheme. What difficulties did you come across in adapting meter and rhyme to a poem fixated on the duality of perception? When did the allusion to Lewis Carroll’s work become a part of the poem?
I’ve been using Carroll’s “Mad Gardener’s Song” stanza for nearly two decades — so it’s a form I’m deeply comfortable with. (I’ve written about my affection for the form in Poetry Northwest and the Kenyon Review.) The metrical and rhyming demands of the stanza are, for me, generative. I almost never have a destination in mind when I begin a poem; instead, I go where the sounds lead me. For the past year or so, they’ve often led me to Trump. For a while I was calling the book we’re talking about The Mad Realtor’s Song; I liked how it foregrounded the opening poem, and I liked how it reduced Trump to something rather ordinary (a realtor being a step down from a mogul or titan or magnate). Plus, he is mad, right? I mean, I hope we haven’t lost sight of the fact that we’ve elected a near lunatic to lead our country. But perhaps I digress.
“Sitting on a Sofa in a 1925 Bungalow in Ann Arbor, Michigan” ends with the speaker proclaiming the pointlessness of their poetic endeavor: “I have wasted my life.” After reading this line, I find myself thinking of a passage from Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. At one point in the book, Ruefle writes, “I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness surrounding the possibility that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility… something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous.” I don’t wish to suggest that the writing of poetry, or your poetry, is useless — quite the opposite. Instead, I find myself confused: how, or more importantly, why, has the speaker wasted their life?
I love that Ruefle line. It reminds me of a passage from T. S. Eliot: “As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.” But no, I don’t think of poetry as pointless — and I don’t imagine that James Wright, whose poem my poem riffs on, thought of poetry as pointless, either. (In a 1978 interview, Wright described that line — “I have wasted my life” — as “a religious statement, that is to say, here I am and I’m not straining myself and yet I’m happy at this moment.” My speaker’s less religious, less happy.) I wrote “Sitting on a Sofa” two weeks after the election; it closes out the first section of the book. It’s depressingly autobiographical: I really was sitting on a sofa; I really was watching chicken hawks chase after cabinet posts.
“Thought Experiment” is as evocative as it is goosebumps-inducing to read. Where did the idea to adapt a viral sound clip as a poem come from? Was this poem written during the Billy Bush / Donald Trump scandal or was it written in the aftermath of the media craze?
I had to go into the “Properties” field of the poem’s original Word doc to be certain — but yes, I started writing the piece on Saturday, October 8, at 1:21 a.m., about nine hours after the Washington Post broke the story. I remember being in my campus office on Friday and seeing the story on Slate; I remember the Trump Apocalypse Watch being lowered “to an unprecedented 0.25 horsemen.” It’s a bit painful to revisit those hopeful days! Later, when I was putting the manuscript together, I wasn’t sure that this piece belonged: it’s so different from the rest of the book in tone, in execution. But my friend Jason Whitmarsh told me, “We have to use all the means at our disposal.” So, if you don’t believe that Trump and Clinton were held to grossly different standards during the campaign, this poem would like to have a word with you.
This collection is filled with a bevy of short, hilarious, rhymed poems that poke fun at the current administration. “No Thank You,” “The Immigration Debate,” and “Trump University” are some of my favorites. In many ways, they read like bits being performed by a stand-up comic — at times I wanted to read them in a Rodney Dangerfield voice. Where does your desire to write comedic verse come from?
Thanks for that. I’ve been writing jokey political poems — squibs, really — for a long time. My first book takes aim at Bush and Rumsfeld; my second book goes after Romney. And I have scores of poems about lesser figures: Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, on and on. I want to believe that Twain was right: “The human race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”
What are some of your favorite protest poems? Are there any other examples of protest artwork that you find yourself drawn toward?
In my poetry workshop, we’re reading an anthology that came out recently called Of Poetry & Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. It features poems by Harryette Mullen, Tyehimba Jess, Kwame Dawes, and forty more African-American poets. I like what Dawes says in the preface to his selection: “I am not a political poet. I am a political person. And so my poetry becomes political. My poetry seeks to confound silence, and so by speaking into the silence, I am enacting something wholly political if one understands politics to be the business of how power is used in human society.” I think I’ve had my antenna up lately for poems that take an interest in “how power is used in human society.” Some, like this series by Jaswinder Bolina, aren’t overtly about the election, but they feel informed by it. Others, like Richard Kenney’s “Commander in Tweet” (“We mustn’t slander our Twitter Commander, / he’ll burble our bird and snatch our bander”) and Eileen Myles’s “The Vow” (“It’s not / even evening but I / thought I’d get / a little nazi / in early”) could only have emerged from our current crisis. (Both poems will be featured in a forthcoming Knopf anthology, Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now.) As for other examples of protest artwork that I’m drawn toward? I’ll say standup comedy (I’m thinking of Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue: “We’ve actually elected an internet troll as our president”) and whatever it is that McSweeney’s does. When McSweeney’s published an unaltered version of Trump’s Black History Month remarks, it felt like a turning point in the history of satire. Trump has outrun our imaginations; we’ll have to try something new.