Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
“These were pieces I had written along the way never thinking it would be collected in a book. If anything, I was like, ‘What am I gonna do with all these things? I’m a poet, after all.’”
I think Daniel Nester just insulted me. When I told him that I didn’t understand his chapter, “A.I. Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night”—a 20-page-plus “interview” mocking a real interview between NPR’s Terry Gross and Gene Simmons circa 2002—and how it fit in his latest book, How To Be Inappropriate, the poet and college professor’s response was, uh, unexpected. Geez. I thought we had something special, only to be slammed 13 minutes later. Rough start. Of course, keep in mind, I could be projecting. After all, the dude just penned an entire book about being crass, gross and sometimes douchey.
Turns out, Nester is really quite funny and engaging, and his book is a reflection of the man who can easily (and rather beautifully) weave the word fuck throughout an entire interview. Ah, a man after my own heart.
Actually, How To Be Inappropriate is an interesting, mostly humorous look at people’s overly polite and politically correct attitudes. Lesson one: people are people and humor is humor. Just ask Geoffrey Chaucer. His bawdy tales still make college kids (or at least this former college kid) crack up. (See page 120 of Nester’s book.)
Composed of several different “Memoirettes”—a Nesterism since he doesn’t like to call his vignettes “personal essays”—the book chronicles his life before, during and after life in New York City, and the various random acts of inappropriateness he encounters along the way. Something any New Yorker can appreciate, as well as several serious examinations of the inappropriate, including a piece about the appearance of flatulence in poetry.
I talked with Nester about his book, farts, mooning and that one chapter that nearly ruined our relationship.
Talk to me about the idea behind the book—you have many different vignettes, so it almost feels like you had these different things happen to you and then you woke up one day and realized, “I have a book!”
That’s basically what happened. I had been writing non-fiction memoirettes and little strange pieces for a long, long time. And there seemed to be a couple themes running through them. One’s just the regular memoir—my life theme, and then there’s a couple of obsessions, cultural stuff…I’m sort of a pop-culture geek, but the challenge for me was to put them together into a piece that was cohesive. I basically had double the amount of material and I put it all into one big Word document one day when I was really bored. It was really big. I mean it was 150,000 words or something, but I just started chopping it down and trying to figure out what made sense next to each other. That’s how this ended up.
How did you ultimately extract the theme of the book, being inappropriate?
I was initially going to write a big essay about it. At one point, I became fascinated with how people use the word “inappropriate” in all of these different contexts. It could be anything from “molestation” to “giving somebody the stink eye at a party.” It was just all over the place. I think I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s book, How to Be Alone, and there seemed to be a lot of How To Be… books around, so at some point I put those two together and then I split the essays up into little mini-essays because I thought, this seems to be the running theme through the whole book—how I do wrong things. Not like carnal, horrible, bad things, but just like awkward moments.
Do you do those things on purpose?
Probably. Sometimes. Yeah.
How did you decide which pieces you would keep in the book? You had a tremendous amount of material to work with.
Most of the pop-culture stuff went. My first two books were about my obsession with the rock band Queen. There was always this debate about how much pop-culture stuff to stick in the book, and at the end of day, I ended up getting rid of a lot. For instance, it’s since been published, but I wrote an essay about the Outfield, this band has a song called “Your Love,” I don’t want to lose your love toni-ight…. [Nester is singing the song to me.] And I’m obsessed with that song as are other people—apparently not you—and I was going put that in the book as well as like five or six other pieces like that, but it didn’t make it. It just didn’t seem to fit.
What I ended up leaving in there was the more memoir-driven things, the confessional stuff. So you know like the essay about mooning, where I do some scholarly research, while still confessing how I’m sort of obsessed with the different nicknames for “moons” and stuff like that. Liking a corporate rock 80s song would be a stretch to keep it in the book.
My favorite chapter was the farting chapter. I have a personal fascination with farting and the art of farting. Well, I just find it so funny, but I never thought about fart in poetry.
For me, putting that in there connects with my leaving New York and leaving the New York poetry scene. It just seems like the second something becomes really solemn [like poetry], I want to do something wrong with it. I cant help but think it has something to do with being an alter boy. Suppressed laughter at a casket is just the most wrong thing.
I think all of us Catholics have a twisted sense of humor.
I think it has to do with that: Solemnity—and then wanting to break through that. Poetry stands in for a casket.
The one chapter I had a hard time with was the Fresh Air/Robot Gene Simmons chapter. What was that about? I read it and I was like, “What am I reading?”
It’s conceptual writing. It might have gone over you head.
Maybe. It’s possible.
There was a famous Gene Simmons/Terry Gross interview—or maybe not so famous— where Gene Simmons said all this wrong shit to Terry Gross. It was the only Terry Gross/Fresh Air interview that was not archived. You would see the list of all the Fresh Air episodes, and Gene Simmons was grayed out. It became this bootlegged thing that people would pass along or put on the web. So there’s that…and then I thought if I replaced all the obnoxious things that Gene Simmons says with a robot’s voice… well, it’s a pretty extended type of thing.
I think I might should have cut that from the book. There’s the one rare person who will say, “Oh, Robot Gene Simmons was my favorite chapter!” So when I’ve cycled through the entire regret of including it in the book and think if there’s going to be another edition, I’m going to cut it out, some schmuck will walk up to me, and it’s always a dude, and say, “Robot Gene Simmons, dude.” It’s like 20 pages of what the hell is going on.
How did you choose in which order the vignettes would live?
There’s a rough timeline of me arriving in New York and leaving New York, and then I made up a rule that if an essay mentioned my teaching job or New York, that ruled the placement of it in book. So other than Gene Simmons, it’s pretty simple.
The Gene Simmons chapter was sort of…
I meant it to be an interstitial, but it sort of bloated out when I got carried away. It’s coming back to me—the process. Originally, it was going to be four or five pages; I like the idea of having small pieces followed by longer pieces. So it was going to be a shorter piece that people would get, or like or not, and move on. That’s the way I read books. I think with the exception of Joan Didion, it’s going to be a process where I like more chapters than others. I think that’s a carry over from writing poems where you look at a book of poems and some are your favorite and some you’ll maybe appreciate later in life. It’s kind of like a mixed tape or album—that was sort of the idea of putting this together.
What was your process in terms of coming up with these different chapters?
I just wrote the pieces. It wasn’t like—other than the title essay and maybe the Mooning essay—I didn’t really think this was going to end up in a book called “How to be Inappropriate,” and it’ll be X, Y, and Z. It was more like I wrote these discrete pieces that ended up having something in common with each other, which is basically me.
These were pieces I had written along the way never thinking it would be collected in a book. If anything, I was like, “What am I gonna do with all these things? I’m a poet, after all.” I was pretty much a self-identified poet and poet only. While I had these fucked up stories that I’d like to tell people, I never realized the fucked up stories would bring me great fame and wealth, but it was fun to put them all together. I’m surprised I didn’t do it before, to tell you the truth.
You know, I have to tell you I thought you were going to be more inappropriate, and maybe this says something about me. Am I totally off base or, as a reader of your book, a little numb to inappropriateness?
Maybe that’s it, or maybe its false advertising. Maybe it’s just a title. It’s a nice tie-together for the book as it’s written, but I think my definition of inappropriate is a human one. It’s not a really crude one for me. I find myself watching things like Curb Your Enthusiasm and turning it off because I’m so skeeved out.
So you’re not cool de-la?
No, no, no. But it’ll happen when I’m watching Friends, too, for God’s sake. I feel like I have more empathy than people who are appropriate do. But those human moments are what I like to examine, but I like to examine it in a way that’s maybe different than say the confrontational stand-up comic. I don’t like to itch at a spot and keep scratching at it. I like to think about it from a human point of view.
You know, one chapter I’m proud of is the “Goodbye to All Them” essay about leaving New York. I think I completed a lot of circles in that piece that I might not have in, say, the Mooning essay. I felt like I somehow discovered some things when I was writing it. I wanted to be revved up and inside a writer’s scene for 12 years and what about that experience made me want to leave and say, “Fuck it… I’m out of here.” I felt like I figured out stuff while writing it, and that was a pretty cool experience.
Which chapter was the hardest to write?
Probably the one about doing in vitro fertilization, and it wasn’t hard because my wife said don’t write about it. It was hard because how would I write about it? It was weird; a lot of people asked, “Isn’t your wife embarrassed by you writing about all that stuff?” Well she’s the one who inspires me to write about it. She wants people to know this stuff and put a human face on it. In a lot of ways that was really hard. I felt like I met a lot of women who’ve gone through that as well. And you know, all the dudes have to masturbate in cup or stick needles in people’s butts. There’s nothing heroic about it. I really wanted to make sure I got the story right. I worked on it really hard.
Obviously, this chapter wasn’t funny. There were parts of it that were, but why include it? I mean, dude, you’re going from one extreme—mooning people and farts and a chick who let some dude lick her feet— to this really difficult time in your marriage when you were trying to conceive.
I wanted to show the whole spectrum of what I write and how I am. There is a side of me that is fascinated with mooning and weird stories, but I’m also a human being, as well. I just thought it would be dishonest not to have some serious pieces in the book. I guess I didn’t want to write a completely humor book.
And finally, Daniel Nester, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Guitar god trapped in husky pants.
Kathy Ritchie is a freelance writer and founder of My Demented Mom (mydementedmom.com).
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