Interview w/ Noah Cicero, the "Godfather" of Alt Lit, re his "Collected Works" volume, a Korean bartender, religion, politics, saying "yolo," etc.
1. First things first—let’s get this out of the way—you have a book that just came out, “The Collected Works of Noah Cicero.” I imagine this volume would be a good pick-up for anyone who wants to check your stuff out, get acquainted. Say something else about it. Also, aren’t you a little young to have a “collected works” volume out already haha? I guess you have enough material to make a “collected works” book, but it seems kind of tongue in cheek, to me, for a relatively young writer to do this.
I think saying, “young writer to do this’ is basing things off the old paradigm of publishing, when major presses ruled the world. But in the small press world different things matter and can be done. I wrote 6 books in 7 years, the books on average had 40,000 words. If I was a writer with Random House in 1985, all books would be out and sold efficiently at Barnes and Nobles, like they did with Kathy Acker. But big presses don’t do that anymore, they haven’t brought up an indie writers’ books in two decades and sold them individually (not that I know of.) I want my writing to be accessible and to be a nice new package. I thought a Collected Works would be an efficient way to do that. And seriously, I love “basic works” style books.
2. I describe you as “the godfather of alt lit.” When I was first trying to figure out this whole online lit thing I remember reading interviews with you in which people tried to get you to define “alt lit” etc., & you usually seemed to have a pretty good grasp on what’s going on with this whole contemporary online literary world or whatever—you were able to talk about it without sounding like an ass. I won’t make you define “alt lit” again, but do you have any thoughts on the current state of “the game”? In your Return to Relevancy vlog you talk briefly about how when you started there wasn’t really shit online, but now there’s a lot of shit.
I’m really happy about internet literature right now. I like seeing so many people gathered around the idea of literature. Usually something comes out every couple weeks that I enjoy. I really enjoyed Walter Mackey’s pokemon thing, watched it like 5 times. I don’t know if alt-lit is good or bad, i don’t care. It isn’t my job to judge people and their writing. I do what I do and try to have fun, that’s all.
I feel like alt-lit is kind of like New-Formalism or the Black Mountain Poets, little weird lit movements that will produce some writing that will end up in anthologies, maybe. I think to us, it is the biggest thing in the world, we are always meeting people, and doing our thing, and we assume it is amazing. But when we look back on movements, it is usually only a few things that survive. But I don’t think, as of right now, we can tell what will survive, and maybe nothing at all. Maybe it won’t end up being anything but a Tao Lin poem and a Sam Pink short story in a writing anthology in 100 years.
3. I think your subtly a very “political” writer. By “subtly” I mean you’re able to write politically without sounding like an ass. Most of my favorite “moments” in your books involve a fed-up character making some sort of diatribe against “the system” or “America” in an uncharacteristically large paragraph. For example, “The Insurgent” has this extended metaphor about society being a “monster” we don’t control anymore, “Best Behavior” uses the words “The Constitution” a few times, “The Human War” is about an American war. “Nosferatu” & “The Living and the Dead” satirize modern society’s fuckedness in a way that’t not far off from, say, George Saunders or someone.
A lot of writers in “Alt Lit” or whatever we want to call it seem either afraid or unwilling to write something I’d call “political,” I sense. I see a lot of people back away from making bigger claims amid their punchy prose & absurdism, but I feel like you don’t.
I grew up in a political family, on my mom’s side, my aunt is the head of the Republican Party in my county. You can look it up, just google “kathi creed.” My mother’s whole family is obsessed with Republican politics, they even go to the convention every four years. On my dad’s side (all democrats), my great uncle was mayor of a local town for like a decade, which made the family political. I grew up around people talking about politics all the time, politics is just part of me. I don’t have to ‘try’ to be political, which might be the difference between me and most writers. I was raised surrounded by politics, and when I went to college I got a political science degree, it comes naturally to me.
I don’t think alt-lit people in general know a lot about politics, but most Americans don’t, and strangely most politicians don’t. I also don’t think writing about politics is worthwhile, alt-lit writers have a very small audience, they aren’t going to reach the masses so why try.
When I write about politics, I try never to write about politics like it matters. In Best Behavior I tried to show that the Constitution is crumbling, that it isn’t working as a foundation anymore. The next year Republicans wanted a budget amendment, a marriage amendment, people fight constantly about amendment 2, people started fighting saying that campaign donations are out of control. The constitution is not just political, it is a psychological issue in America, and I tried to deal with it as psychology and not politically.
4. I find it hard to imagine your day-to-day life, whereas I can easily picture a lot of other online writers’ more or less. What’s a day in the life of Noah like, these days? Maybe it’s something about the way you maintain your web presence that makes it hard to picture your daily life. Your books seem maybe autobiographical but probably exaggerated.
Currently, I am home in Ohio. I got back from Korea two months ago and plan on going to the Grand Canyon to work as a cashier in a week. But currently, this is what I did:
Woke up at 8AM- checked email, drank detox tea.
Jogged around block, did 4 sets of 15 push ups.
Showered, went to coffee shop and worked on philosophy book.
Went to post office and sent a broken computer to an alt lit person that wanted it, and then returned movies.
Went home and ate hot dogs. The hot dogs had mustard and sauerkraut.
Went to store for friend’s mom, got her potatoes, water, and coke etc.
Got two books of Jatakas. Jatakas are books on the previous lives of the Buddha. There are a lot of Jatakas, so I needed two books. I read the introduction to one of the books.
Been sitting in this hot ass room doing interviews for a long time.
I tanned for awhile, I listened to KPOP while I tanned. When I listen to headphones, I close my eyes. I let the wind hit my body, it is good.
Then I mowed the grass, the mower kept going on and off, it was annoying.
Then I went in my bedroom and read Pageant of the Popes, it a book about the history of the papacy. I am reading it because I want to read Lives of the Saints, and the Lives of the Saints reference Popes constantly.
Yesterday I had a different day, I went to the Indian Buffet with Brittany Wallace for lunch. I think my favorite thing in the world is eating Indian food on a sunday with Brittany Wallace.
Then Brittany dropped me off and I went and brewed beer with my IRL friends Vince and Paul. Vince is the one who designs the beer, we just sit and talk. We drank a Galaxy IPA from Alaska which was amazing and a Dark Lord stout. The Dark Lord stout was insane, it is a beer that that contains 18% alcohol, but doesn’t taste boozy, and is full of insane flavor. Personally I liked the IPA better, but I respect the genius of the Dark Lord.
We sit around and just talk about beer for hours. I don’t think anyone suspects that I do that with my time.
5. You were in Korea. What the hell was up with that? Talk about Korea.
I went to Korea because Brittany thought it would be cool to go, I thought I needed to travel abroad. It made sense. Teaching in Korea was fun. I used to go down to a bar and play darts on the weekends days alone. I would sit at the bar and play games on my phone. I would play the game hearts. I would sit and the bartender would tell me I had beautiful blue eyes. She would say, “파란 눈 파란 눈.” She would stare at me for a long time. I would have to stare back, letting her look at my eyes. It was funny. We would play darts together. She couldn’t speak any English and I can’t speak Korean, so we played in silence. One night the owner ordered fried chicken pieces, she fed me the chicken pieces with chopsticks. Korean women always fed me, no one feeds me. I am like really lonely now.
6. From namedrops in your writing I get the sense that you’re a pretty avid reader. Can you namedrop some influences? & but also say "why” these particular writers “vibe with” you?
I don’t know who my influences are anymore:
When I go to the Grand Canyon, I am bringing these books:
Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddhist Scriptures, The Jatakas, Digha Nikaya, Lives of the Saints, Upanishads, and Saint Teresa of Avila. I have read half these books already, but I do not believe I have read them enough. I am trying to get into religion, feel like I need more religion, feel like I hear people say, I’m fucked” all the time. But like, people have always been fucked, they didn’t have antidepressant medication or cognitive behavioral therapy, they had religion, so I want to enter the world of religion, to see what is there.
Also, I found out that Buddhists have an abundance of literature, Buddhism has folktales, dialogues, long stories, poems, etc. Buddhism is an endless resource for avid readers.
I usually read books in groups- like for a year I read nothing but history of books, I would buy books that said, ‘History of Latin America” “HIstory of Jews” “History of the Black Plague” and then buy it and read it.
When I was in Korea I read epic long novels, Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666, Sometimes a Great Notion, East of Eden, etc. Just long novels, one after another.
I read one to two hours everyday. I just read, it keeps my mind centered.
7. Another “online lit / alt lit” question (“sorry”): I get the sense there is, at this point, maybe a “first generation” & “second generation” of alt lit/ online writers, with yourself, Tao Lin, etc. being the “first generation” & with ppl like Steve Roggenbuck, myself, & a whole flood of other ppl being part of a second generation of onliners—Do you feel me at all on this?
Another thing I’ve noticed in this “generation gap” maybe is that the 1st generation seems to be characterized by pessimistic / bleak tone, whereas the 2nd seems to be characterized by some sort of new love for positivity / optimism. It’s a crude dichotomy I’m trying to draw here, but I think it more or less exists. Do you have any thoughts at all on what I’m saying or is this far off? Personally, I don’t really favor either posi or neg lit; I feel there’s a necessary place for both. I definitely characterize you as more neg / bleak.
I don’t know what pos lit is? Like saying yolo or something? Saying yolo is just pleasure. Telling people to live their dreams is just capitalism, that is what capitalists say to people, “Live your dreams.” The reality of the situation is that my generation and younger are condemned to underemployment, global warming, unwalkable cities, a corporate state, endless war, and strip mall suburbia. It is horrible. The only thing that has saved me is I barely own anything, I own nothing but a Chromebook, guitar and an iPhone, clothes of course. Besides that, I own nothing. And I don’t seek validation from the television media standards. I don’t watch television, don’t read the newspaper, I try to participate at least as possible with corporations and the government. Not because I want those institutions to collapse but because I believe corporations and governments make me mentally unhealthy.
I was walking through my friend’s the other day and there was a show on about aliens, the alien aficionado said, “We can’t get the government to say there are aliens.” I yelled at the TV, “Why do you need the government to validate you.”
I think that is ’positivity’ to me, is when someone doesn’t seek validation from standards set up by governments or corporations.
This is a hard question for me to answer, the person who wrote my early books doesn’t exist anymore/ feel like he died around age 28, I’m 32 now. I’m not interested in being bleak or not being bleak, I’m not interested in being happy or not being happy. I make of a list of things to do and I do them, and usually I feel fine or happy and sometimes sad. I try to be mindful of the people and things around me, I don’t know, is that positive, is that negative, what’s the truth here?
8. I will admit to starting to write at Denny’s because of things you have said about Denny’s. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Respond to this embarrassingly.
I love the Denny’s slamburger.
9. Do you have a Netflix & if so what do you watch on Netflix?
The only shows I watch are It’s Always Sunny and Archer. I watch them over and over again, I study them like a preacher does the bible. Sometimes I watch Paul Newman movies like Hud, A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sometimes a Great Notion.
10. “Go to work and do your job. Care for your children. Pay the bills. Obey the laws. Buy products.” I’ve seen a bunch of images with this apparent title on it. Nice title. What’s the deal with this (I assume) upcoming book? Why are people making image macros with the title?
People are making image macros because Mathew Revert made a prototype copy, then Cameron Pierce publisher for Lazy Fascist showed everyone. People really liked it. Then I told Rachel Bell it was just a fake cover, she responded, “I want to make a fake cover.” So she made a fake cover and then everyone started making fun covers. It was funny.
Thanks to Noah for the thoughtful answers. Buy his new book or something; he’s cool.
I feel okay. I am sitting here. I know I’m going to do this. I keep thinking when I move back to Ohio, I will buy a camera and take pictures of wild turkeys roaming the forests of ohio. I have to learn how to use a turkey call, which kind of stresses me out.
2. where were you born?
I was born in Youngstown, Ohio.
3. where do you live now?
I live in Seongnam, South Korea. Which is a city of a million people connected to Seoul. Basically Seoul.
4. where would you like to live?
If I could, it will probably never happen. It is just a pipe dream, but I would like to live in Estes Park, CO. it is just a sad pipe dream though.
5. do you think you’re interesting?
This question is weird. It can be taken two different ways, “is your life interesting?” I don’t think my life is very interesting, I haven’t done anything awesome, I’m not amazing like Michael Jordan or someone who fought in a war, or beat cancer. I have a bachelors degree and have owned cars, just like every other American. I think I can make myself sound interesting. I have a talent for articulating the events of my and other people’s lives. But here in Seoul, I meet people who have traveled all over the world, and done a million crazy things, but at the same time, they don’t have the ability to articulate it. They just list all the places they’ve been to and the shit they’ve done, and you are left standing there, wondering where the story is. People are weird though. The stories are there, the feelings are there, in that person’s mind and soul. But they can’t say it. It is weird.
6. how is your love life?
My love life is good, I have had the same girlfriend going on 3 years. She is here in Korea, also.
7. what were you like as a child?
I was a very bad child. I got terrible grades and was very violent. I couldn’t really talk till i was 4, the public school sent me to a speech person to teach me how to talk before i was in kindergarten. Then i couldn’t really read till i was 8, I am a really slow learner. I was a really dumb child. To this day, if you met me, and didn’t know anything about me, and just had to work with me, you would probably think i was dumb. I’m inept at so many things. For example, I had air conditioning all summer and ever figured it out, because of what god knows. my boss asked me last week, why i lost so much weight, and i said because i don’t have air conditioning, and she laughed really hard, and told me (She owns the apartment i live in) to uncover this thing and turn it on. And I did and now my apartment is an ice box.
8. what did you eat today?
I ate mcdonalds, a sandwich called “The taste of Europe.” A pumpkin bread thing from Paris Baggete. Korean corn chips, Korean beef jerky and bulgogi pizza.
9. have you ever created culture or art?
That is for other people to judge. I know I am trying my best, to do what I can.
10. do you like drinking alcohol or using drugs?
I like drinking and taking adderall. There are no drugs in korea though. But a lot of drinking. I drink all the time here, I have to, to deal with missing people.
11. what kind of people do you hate?
I don’t like people, i like plants and animals. I love the Grand Canyon which is a rock and a river.
12. what are your goals, if you have any?
My writing goals is to put out a book every two years. If society collapses, I will write my books on rocks and trees.
13. do you have any depressing stories about your life?
My dad got a cat in 1998, his name was Tom. He was cute, orange and white. He was so cute. We had an inclosed porch, but my mother wouldn’t let the cat in the house. And she thought it was a good idea, to let the cat outside to walk in the yard. Of course the cat got hit by a car. We only had the cat for like two months. Then my father and I got the cat and buried him up on the hill. As my dad shoveled he said, “We’re never doing that again.” His voice sounded so sad. My mother is a bitch. Fuck why did you make me remember that?
14. who are your favorite authors?
steinbeck, erskine caldwell, richard wright, murakami, dostoevsky, chekhov, walt whitman, tang era poets
15.what will you be doing ten years from now?
dude, i don’t know. Ten years i was 21 and was convinced i was going to graduate college and become a high school social studies teacher. My girlfriend was 14, which is mildly creepy. So I don’t know. Now I am in Korea, and I graduated last year, but I do teach, but english to Korean kids. lol
could you please recommend some like, idk, sad poetry books? like about life and depression and stuff? because im really tired and really fucking sad and everything is crashing down so im hoping i can seek solace in those words or something, i dont even know, man. thank you! (if not it's alright)
not all of these poems are going to be about sadness but most of these authors are mentally ill to some degree, and thus write about depression and sadness
darshana suresh, “howling at the moon”
a. davida jane, “every dark waning”
scherezade siobhan, “father, husband”
lora mathis, “the women widowed to themselves”
sylvia plath, “ariel” and also “the bell jar” (not poetry, but good)
I can’t use logic concerning my feelings, my feelings demand musical notes, violins, guitar solos, the stomping of feet, poetic language, metaphors, poetic lines about birds or deserts or tree-crowded forests.
Why is everyone so angry?
There seems to be an obvious contradiction in the media and in the US government and everyone can now see it.
The US government gives billions in aid to Israel, I guess 8.6 million a day. Israel is a small country located far far from the borders of America and produces nothing that we need. Have you ever owned anything that said, “Made in Israel?” Israel is obviously bent on the absolute eradication of Gaza and Palestine, which is not chill.
There might be a reason to be friendly to Israel, but to give them 8.5 million a day seems just odd.
The US Government is giving so much to a counrty that has almost zero to do with America while black men seem to be shot and put into prisons at an irrational absurd rate, 11,000 people die of gun shots a year in America, which is more than most warzones right now, and no one seems to care.
I think everyone is coming to the common sense conclusion that maybe we should be spending 8.5 a day million on helping poor people in America instead of helping people on the other side of the planet eradicate other poor people.
If you are working for $5.15 an hour, you can’t pay all of your bills, half of your friends are crack heads or drunks, you have cavities and no matter how little you make the government will not help you, you have not eaten a good sized meal in over two months, some days you barely eat at all, the rising gas prices just took all your fun money away (what little you have), you sit reading letters from your friends in prison, you know several people living in motels, and you can’t raise the thermostat in your house above sixty degrees because you just can’t afford to pay the bills, and if you have kids all that is even worse. Then the word ‘meaning’ means a lot to you. How much gas cost means a lot to you, how much food costs means a lot to you, if your car breaks it means a lot to you.
You better watch yourself. Because if you let your guard down, for one second, I’m gonna find a way. To crawl into your heart, and you won’t even notice. Till long after, You’ve fallen in love with me.
Valentine’s Day is coming again, so i’m going to write a love letter. Anyone can use this love letter for their lover.
There are a lot of butterflies on the planet. But none in the winter. You are my winter butterfly.
I want to lick the inside of your belly button. I want to lick the lint out of it and then kiss you. Then you have the lint in your mouth. We are naked and you laugh.
(If you are a straight man or lesbian) I want to grab your pussy. I want to cup your naked pussy in my hand. Your pussy is like a leaf with dew on it on a July Morning. That means I like when your pussy is wet. I like your pussy more when it is wet than when it is dry.
(If you a woman or a gay man) I want to hold your soft penis in my hand. Then I want to caress it until it becomes hard and then I’ll call it a cock. I want you to do things with your cock that will make me moan and make strange sounds.
I want to eat candy with you and check our facebooks sitting close.
We need each other like poor people need food and politicians need votes.
We need each other like cell phones need signals and books need readers.
Right now I’m yearning for your genitals to be near by, for your laugh, for your arms, and your legs to wrap around me and pull me deeper.
I can never get deep enough into you.
I want you to have my babies. I want our babies to look like us.
We will raise our children to be nervous and strange and to love music like we do.
I keep seeing your belly in my mind, your belly flat, I rest my head on your belly, your belly is soft and we watch a movie. A movie staring Will Ferrell. Everything is right with the world. We have good credit and our grades are good.
I want to fuck until both of our genitals are chafed and sore.
There are a lot of butterflies on the planet. But none in the winter. You are my winter butterfly.
We went to the Sindorim mall In H & M, looking For boots- Couples were in H & M- a girl Was helping her boyfriend Try on a cardigan-she kept Fixing his cardigan- He had bright green shoes on-
Went to taco bell- a man and woman- Singing a duet of Lucky- by Jason Mraz and Colby Caillet- (Made my Grilled Stuft Burrito Taste so much better)
Feel safe in the Sindorim mall- Like-nothing can hurt me- Like my dad is a tiger-a really Vicious bad ass tiger- And I’m just a little baby- In the Sindorim mall-looking for- A hat-
Went into a place called Muji’s (Muji’s has a really nice Wood paneling look) If I ever get a house- I want it to look like Muji’s
CUCUMBERS IN THE ALLEY
Behind my work In an alley
-I have to smoke-back there- Rule the boss made-in the alley- Old men play games-drink soju- Old women-smash acorns To make funny jelly things
There are cucumbers In blue plastic baskets- They have been there In the alley-three weeks
I look at them every weekday- Before work (I’ve never seen- A person go near the cucumbers) They are getting smaller-smaller- Shriveling cucumbers
Does anyone want these cucumbers? Has someone discarded the cucumbers? Where is the owner of these cucumbers? I know-there isn’t a cucumber police- But this alley has no law-cucumber anarchy- Here in Korean alleys
excerpt from 'Go To Work and Do Your Job. Care For Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products.' by Noah Cicero
“Now we must learn about over the counter medications. An over the counter medication is like Tums. Do you know what Tums are?”
“Yes, a thing for heartburn.”
“Yes, Tums are for heartburn. Every day we give the residents Tums. If they want Tums, they come to the counter and we give them Tums. We sign three pieces of paper recording who gets Tums. It is very important that we watch them eat the Tums. They must chew all the Tums in front of us. It takes a long time for the Tums to be passed out. If we do not watch them, they might not eat the Tums. They might go back to their room with the Tums and sell the Tums for food at lunch, commit suicide with the Tums, or even build a weapon and attack someone with Tums. Everyone in here has a criminal mind. They cannot be trusted with Tums. Every time you give them anything, they will take it and try to find bad things to do with it. We cannot allow them to do bad things. We must fill their heads full of positive thoughts. We want positive, good citizens that eat their Tums. They could take the Tums and make a key out of it, then use the key to open the doors and get out of the building. Then we have escape issues. We have to call the police, the police come, then the media comes. The media tells everyone that a criminal has escaped using Tums. Then the politicians in the capitol refuse to fund our facility because people escaped using Tums. Then you are fired because you didn’t follow the Tums procedure. Do you understand?”
“I am glad you understand. Do you like fantasy football?”