How to Vote, the last book written by legendary poet Max Winchester before his death, has been edited by Jasper Pierce and published by Urbana’s Spineless Books. Here is an interview with Max Winchester conducted by Jasper Pierce, one of Winchester’s poetry students, and author of the novella Steal Stuff From Work, also locally published by Spineless Books.
Jasper Pierce: The passage about shooting your boss confused me. The obscenities and profanity confused me. I mean, I understand those things. But they confused me mainly because there is an ineluctable, nubilous, almost utterly absent thread of hope and nostalgia running through the book.
Max Winchester: Are you sure about that?
JP: [laughing] No. Not really.
MW: Well, maybe you’re right. If all the people who hate America for all the right or wrong reasons really hated it, they wouldn’t bother hating it. For example, I hate spiders, but I don’t drive around in a truck with a Raid bumper sticker or wave my fist at the Insect Channel or wear a holstered flyswatter. There must be something about the idea of America that somebody still believes in. Or else they’d just ignore it.
JP: There’s an Insect Channel?
MW: Don’t ask me.
JP: When was the last time you voted, like in an election, not in all the metaphysical ways you describe in your book?
MW: I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, because I suspected correctly that Al Gore would win the election. What then happened was more than enough to erode all the fin-de-siecle utopian yearning I had amassed during the previous eight years of decent rock, a prosperous economy, and the thrill of having a president who was sexually active, a bad liar, and winkingly disingenuous about whether he smoked pot. Like me. But what was even worse than Al Gore winning the election in 2000 was voting for the mannequin John Kerry in 2004. That was humiliating. And then he lost. Against Bush and Cheney for a second term. That was humiliating. Embarrassing at best, terrifying at worst. Like losing to the Cubs, if the Cubs had fangs. I voted for Obama in 2008. That felt pretty good, actually.
JP: I was expecting to get some good, concrete instructions on How to Vote, but THIS IS A BOOK OF CYNICAL, SELF-CONTRADICTORY ADVICE. Did you ever have any intention of teaching me How to Vote?
MW: Did you mean how to physically punch the thing, or which pro-war candidate to select? Wait, is that bit in all-caps literary criticism or a telegraph? The thrust of my instruction manual falls outside, or between, the lines. Which thrust is to think of the White House as your own beating heart. Yes, the Red House, pulpy, slick, and fibrous, every hour pumping a surge of four hundred million dollars of bloody money into the capillaries of the nation, trickling life-sustaining nourishment into the schools, hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, and soup kitchens of America.
I want you to so vividly feel how things could be different that they actually become different such that Mitt Romney addressing a convention hall full of balloons becomes not Darth Vader on the bridge of the Death Star but Daffy Duck in a laughable cartoon universe that doesn’t even intersect the world in which you are a bitter, underpaid dishwasher in a country that you own as surely as taxes are withheld from your feeble paycheck. Vote to meet your country halfway; say, “I’m going to go to your little post-Halloween party, but there’s something I’d like in return.”
JP: You say “To vote is to love hate.” That’s a tongue-twister. But, more to the point: is to love hate to hate love?
MW: I wish George Harrison were still 27 — he could answer that for you.
JP: You have some fairly kind words for Obama. How disappointed would you be if he lost next year?
MW: Crushingly, achingly disappointed and sad. Obama, you can believe, would actually read the best letters from his constituents, before giving them back to his handlers to send a form reply. Romney, inconceivable.
Republicans keep lowering the bar. In the past half-decade, the central bipartisan debate seems to have descended from the legality and morality of abortion to the legality and morality of contraception — what sick brilliant think tank mind came up with manufacturing this non-controversy? — and, as if the dragging knuckles weren’t already shooting sparks, Steve King and Todd Akin are busy redesigning the female reproductive system and the word “rape.” The gap between reality and their policies is so immense that they have to retool reality. These apes not only debunk, but discredit the theory of evolution. We’re witnessing an intellectual, moral, and political backslide of about one half-century per year.
Incidentally, if Republican intellectuals are going to position a crypto-misogynist ideology against science, why do they choose the battleground of evolution — one of the best-supported and most lucid scientific claims since spherical-earth theory. Why don’t they rail against the Higgs boson, which almost nobody understands or would miss, and which irritates even us left-wing intellectuals. Republicans keep lowering the bar, and the Democrats keep limboing down to follow, but they are hamstrung in the race to the bottom by their addiction to logic, compassion, a modicum of class, facts, and an outdated, classical idea of maintaining a consistent policy from one speech to the next.
JP: What’s an anarchist to do with an election like this, aside from writing a book about it?
MW: Vote for Obama, but don’t let the Tea Party frame the debate. Remember, the question does not have to be “when to attack Iran,” the question can be, “is war murder?”
Ignore Sarah Palin. Be local. Secede. Smile politely.
JP: “America is a word, and the president is just a font. FUCK FONTS.” That seems strangely anti-typeface for a poet such as yourself. What do you have against fonts?
MW: What? Need I remind you of the colophon in How to Vote?
“This book is set in Kennerly, a type that saved my dog from drowning. Distinctive for its awkward formality and stiff elegance, Kennerly is an uninspired imitation of an unpopular metal type by an unrecognized founder. This font was never completed to the satisfaction of its inexperienced designer, was distributed for free, and spent many years on drink menus in low- level taverns throughout Europe and North America, due to its exaggerated serif and likable, if unconvincing, pretensions of old school class. With its long extenders, the capital W was able to plunge into the river and extract my dog Wagner from the half- submerged canoe in which she had become stuck. For a type with such soul, and a certain unlucky streak we can all relate to, certain kerning problems, including an unusually hapless hyphen, are in the end endearing.”
Fonts saved my dog’s life.