Shane Allison: He Remembers
“You have to decide how honest you want to be in your writing: if you want to leave it in your diary or put it in a book. Yes, the experiences are intense but you have to allow yourself to go there, to cross that line.”
At the heart of Joe Brainardâ€™s I Remember is a counter-intuitive nostalgia for unbelonging. In his long form poem-cum-memoir, Brainard shares glimpses of his childhood and early adulthood that evoke lusty contradictionsâ€”the pleasure, pain, and curiosity of growing up different in America. It is a tribute to the self that survived, and the selves lost along the way.
In the same way Shane Allisonâ€™s own version of I Remember, published in 2012 by Future Tense Books, also evokes a sense of wonder, frustration, joy and sadness. Both books are rooted in the personal, yet through the mention of cultural touchstones, and the simple repetitive form of beginning each line with â€śI remember,â€ť something communal is formed. A portrait of America emerges, as does a testimony to the survival power of writing, unflinching seeing, and a queerÂ world-view.
Chatting over email, Allison is candid about why he wrote his version of I Remember, and his fears on how it will be read. He gives us a preview to the second I Remember he is working on, and discusses People Are Starting to Talk About You, an anthology he is editing. He also shares his longing to return to New York, and the role intergenerational relationships, and physicality, play in his work.
Hi, Shane. It is a rainy, humid Monday night in Brooklyn.
It’s a good thing you don’t live in Florida. It rains almost every day here. Sometimes it drizzles for a few hours and then there are days when it storms and there’s just a constant down pour, which I hate.
I hope you’re holding it down in Brooklyn, Theo. Can I call you Theo? I miss New York. I was much happier there. Lots of good times. I think now is a better time than any for me to return.
Of course you can call me Theo. I think it is a good time for you to come back too! New York is a great place for writers. When you were here for school did you go to a lot of readings? What were some of your favorites?
One of the requirements of the Creative Program at The New School is that you go to readings and then write up a short report of the reading you attended. I used to go to the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe on Friday nights. That place is always rocking with some great poets and the performances are amazing. The Bowery Poetry Club was also a frequent hang out. I read there once to promote a literary magazine based out of Paris. I used to go to the KGB Bar for the Monday night poetry readings. I hope I get the opportunity someday to read there.
Itâ€™s late into the night as I send you these questions. Yet I bet based on your prolific output this email will find you awake, reading and writing. Am I right?
Yes. I spend a great deal of time writing and/or reading. Sometimes I will have a book in one hand and a pen in the other. One never has anything to do with the other, though, for the most part. I read not just to be entertained but as a learning tool in different styles of writing. I have a stack of books I want to read, from Chester Himes to young adult novels. And right now I’m in the process of finishing up my first book about a brother who falls in love with his sister’s boyfriend. There’s lots of family turmoil and drama involved.
It’s difficult sometimes to focus on it all, so I have to stop and focus on one thing or none of them will see completion. I work a great deal, and I enjoy what I’m doing and where I am right now.
The purpose of this interview is to discuss your book I Remember. How would you describe your book in relation to Joe Brainardâ€™s I Remember? Is it homage? A riff?
Oh man, I don’t want people to think that I am somehow the next Joe Brainard. There can be only one. I would never want to have to live up to the great legacy of art and writing he has left for us to enjoy. The book is definitely homage, though. I was introduced to his writing and artwork when I took a poetry workshop at the New School with David Trinidad. I was blown away; Brainard explores a new way of looking at, and approaching memoir. I Remember is informative and entertaining in regards to being schooled on an era in bits and pieces.
Did you like I Remember right away or did it take you a few reads to get into it?
I loved it right away. When I first encountered it, I thought it was some kind of comic book novel, yet when I started getting into the pages, I couldn’t put it down. I would read 10 to 20 pages at a time. Even when I initially finished reading I Remember I found myself revisiting. The book is just too many things to ever be just one thing. Within the nostalgia, there are those memories that make you say, â€śWow.â€ť The great thing about I Remember is the human connection. It’s one man’s story that connects us all.
What made you write your own version? Did you know you what you were doing when you started it or did it just kind of emerge one day?
In David Trinidad’s class we were assigned to write a couple of pages of our own memories. What started out as a few pages went on, for me, to be well over 60 pages of material. It just snowballed into this book years later. It allowed me to unload so much shit that I had gone through, and managed to climb out of. It was very therapeutic. Some memories were hard to put to paper and were later left on the cutting room floor. This process has healed me in a way, to throw it all off my back once and for all and leave it there.
That sounds intense. Do you have any tricks for dealing with the scary places writing can take you?
You have to decide how honest you want to be in your writing: if you want to leave it in your diary or put it in a book. Yes, the experiences are intense but you have to allow yourself to go there, to cross that line. Start with a toe, then a foot, then a leg and before you know it, you are swimming. That’s how I approach dealing with intensity.
I love how physical your I Remember is. I get a sense of your body and what you do with it. You share with us your experiences with race, flesh and desires. Was this something you were conscious of as you were writing?
Not at all and I have never looked at it that way. I always set out to be as honest as I possibly can in my work. Lay it all out. In the gay community there is such a narrow definition of beauty. If you’re not a thin white boy with a big dick, then you’re the other. As a black gay man, I get fetishized. I’m supposed to be aggressive in bed, cutting men in half with my 16-inch dick. So if I’m not conscious of my body and my race, there are those out here who are quick to make me well aware of such things.
Brainardâ€™s I Remember was a collection of four books. You are working on your second I Remember. True?
I am. I don’t think I will go as far as Brainard did, but there’s a great deal of work that didn’t make it in this book that I am working through that has yet to come full circle.
Like what? What can we look forward to?Â
I remember thinking that I ‘m going to die penniless.
I remember being very depressed about things.
I remember waking up one morning and deciding that I would no longer be depressed or have thoughts of suicide.
I remember a man named Monty who had long fingernails and a hung dick that was very smelly.
I remember finding blood in my underwear.
I remember “Whatcho talkin’ about Willis?”
I remember wondering how I would die. Would it be a painful death or would I go quietly in my sleep?
I remember owning a pair of black wing tips that I wore with everything.
I remember watching the TV show “The Incredible Hulk.” At the end of every episode they would play this terribly sad music while David Banner sauntered off hopelessly to another town.
I remember thinking that I would never have a boyfriend. (I still think that.)
I remember wondering what it would be like to be white for a day.
I remember Mr. Good Body.
I remember trying to cut open a coconut with a knife.
I remember wondering if my friend Nat was hairy all over.
I remember drinking from his flask and thinking that in a way, I was kissing him.
I remember when Kelis performed on the Arsenio Hall show.
I remember blowing a very tall man in his red Mustang.
As a current student at the New School, I loved reading I Remember and trying to figure out who and where you were writing about. Has any one from your time at school read it, or reached out to you? Has David Trinidad said anything? In I RememberÂ Â you mention having a conflict with Trinidad. Do you feel like taking about what happened with him?Â
I’m not sure if the book has gotten around to any of the New School people. To make a long story short, I wrote a poem about David, had it published on a website while I was still a grad student at the New School. He wasnâ€™t too happy with that. I ended up taking the poem offline to make everyone happy. I apologized to David and that was that. I wasnâ€™t too happy about everything that went down but it was what it was. That was years ago and I think we have certainly moved on from it. I love his work, so Iâ€™m a fan for sure and this is not me kissing ass.
I feel like a theme of your work is intergenerational relationships. Am I being romantic or is this something that is important to you?
That’s the idea, yes. I am not interested in anything that comes off as self-indulgent, but something that connects us all on some level big or small.
Like the anthology you are working on?
Yes. As a gay boy in my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to soak up as much gay literature and poetry as I could. Poetry anthologies were a big influence on me. I wanted to be like the writers I read about, to be this big New York writer on the scene. There was a strong sense of community with the New School Poets by way of supporting each other’s work and what they were doing. Up until recently, there was this every man for himself idea, but there seems to be a renaissance of new poets that are emerging like Stephen Mills, Matthew Hittinger, Ocean Vuong, Daniel W.K. Lee, Bryan Borland and a ton of others. There are new presses that are publishing some amazing work. People Are Starting to Talk About You is an amazing anthology that enlists work predominately by new gay poets along with new work from veteran scribes. It was fun to see so much talent come across my desk. I’m pretty psyched about the project.
When can we expect you back in NYC? What will be the first thing you do?
I hope hoping to return next year. Small towns are just not my thing and for nine years I felt New York pulling at me, and now more than ever. I like being in a place for once where no one knows me, where I don’t have to worry about bumping into a cousin or some asshole I hated in high school. The first thing I’m going to do is have a corned beef sandwich. I can’t find a place in Tallahassee that serves up good corned beef sandwiches. I miss the hot dogs and Gray Papaya too. Sauerkraut is my friend.