Shy Watson lives in a basement bedroom with no windows. She greets me with coffee even though it’s after 9 p.m. A curtain divides the room. We sit on a couch in the half she’s converted into a common space. There’s a portable mattress on the floor strewn with shark-shaped body pillows. She uses the wall above it as a projector screen. In the corner, she keeps her paintings and books, along with a pile of dyed blond hair that she’s recently cut off.
That long blond hair is also on the cover of her debut poetry collection, Cheap Yellow. She tells me she took the photo for the cover with her publisher Michael Seidlinger’s phone in the bathroom of a restaurant. I think it’s a fitting choice. Watson’s poetry feels at once spontaneous and carefully considered. She claims not to edit. I don’t know if I believe her.
Reading Cheap Yellow is like walking into a party and hearing snippets of conversation clanging together but all of the people talking are Shy Watson. The book is confessional and funny as hell. Those terms, however, feel reductive. Her poems take place at jobs, on bikes, in the mall, at parties, after breakups, and in bedrooms. They are all spun from a mind that is young and elastic and omnivorously alive. She renders language in bright, inviting colors. They encourage engagement like a stranger you would ask for directions on the sidewalk.
Recently, Watson and I discussed social media, writing long poems, and interviewing Mira Gonzalez.
Rumpus: Your social media presence is so diaristic, and kind of reflects what you’re doing in your writing and your life. There are recurring characters and people and moments that track through your book and social media.
Watson: It’s definitely a compulsion—social media, tweeting everything and constantly having an Instagram story and posting everything I write as soon as I write it. I just have this exhibitionist urge. I want everyone to be seeing everything I do, all of the time, or I want them to be able to. And I don’t think that what I’m doing is important at all, and to a lot of people it’s probably really uninteresting, but I just want it to be available. People have messaged me and said really nice things like, Your Instagram stories make my day every day! If anyone’s enjoying it, why not?
Rumpus: It reminds me of the lines in “MET poem”: “text Alex my thoughts / text Theo my thoughts.” It’s a record of all these different Shys.
Watson: I do think when I write it’s kind of therapy or having to tell someone everything or maybe writing it gets it out of my head? Like, instead of just knowing it as the person who writes it or experiences it, I also get to take it in as an observer once I remove it from myself and it becomes farther away from me? I like being my own voyeur in that sense, being able to read about my experiences on the page instead of just in my memory.
Rumpus: What was your process of taking all of this stuff that was already public and bringing it back into a book?
Watson: I didn’t edit very much of it at all. I think it was just a gathering process. And I didn’t share all of them, I don’t think. Perhaps I did, but definitely sporadically enough that someone wouldn’t be able to have a memory of the last thing while reading the new thing, whereas with a book you can just turn back to the previous page. I just kept gathering poems in a Word doc and they were just this big huge jumbled mess that had no structure or anything, and once I had a certain amount of pages, it’s like 166 pages or something crazy, I was like, “Oh shit, I have to turn this into a book now.” You know, it’s definitely past the minimum page requirement.
Rumpus: Some of the most unique stuff in the book is your long poems. What’s your referent for that or how did you start doing that?
Watson: I took a long poem class at Naropa. I think it had to be fifteen or twenty pages or something like that, and I wrote this really long poem called “Nineteen” and it was about all this shit that I did when I was nineteen, like going on sugarbaby dates and taking acid and all of these memories from that year, because that’s the year in which I lived the most or had the biggest variety of experiences. I mean, I go out all the time now but it’s mostly to a bar. I drink alcohol, I hang out with these same people, but when I was nineteen it was just constantly new experiences. So I think that the material of that entire year was pretty easy to form into a large narrative poem. Plus we read work; we read The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley.
We also read Paterson by William Carlos Williams and The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos. I think most of my poems are only, like, a page or so, but I like the longer ones better and I’m definitely more proud of them. I think sometimes it’s a little too easy to make a one-page poem but whenever I make something like “Park Slope,” which I think is eight pages, I feel a lot happier about it. And I respect them more when they’re long.
But that poem in particular I wrote during a day off when I first moved to the city. In late August, I guess, because those are literally the first two words of the poem. I biked to Prospect Park and then I parked my bike and was walking around Park Slope and the lines just kept coming into my mind all day and I’d stop and add more to the poem. So it’s not like I sat down and wrote it all at once. it was just kind of throughout the day—I kept adding bits and pieces until I had this huge-ass thing and then the next morning I went to the coffee shop and transferred it from my journal into my Word doc and that’s when I broke up the lines and stuff.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you said the first one was about when you were nineteen because a lot of your work is about capturing youth in some way. Or even the idea of being young.
Watson: That’s true. I don’t wanna grow up.
Rumpus: I remember you saying to me once that you always want to be friends with young people.
Watson: Really? Yeah, I do. I don’t want to lose touch with what’s cool or interesting to people in this age range or younger than me. The kids got good taste!
Rumpus: Were you a Tumblr kid?
Watson: Kind of. I think I got Tumblr when I was eighteen? There is a girl who is the coolest person in the world, and when I was in high school, I always wanted to be like her. She was like my best friend but she had two cool older sisters and I did not. I just had two stepsisters who I only saw so often. The older one was just a druggy. Haley had a Tumblr, and it was so aesthetic and cool and I thought that her sense of aesthetics (I still do) was awesome. And she’d just reblog beautiful images of statues or kitchen sinks or, you know, that kind of quotidian aestheticism. She was really good at that. So I’d just reblog that kind of stuff. Images, artsy shit. I had, like, a private Tumblr of nudes.
Rumpus: You had a private nudes Tumblr?
Watson: Yeah. I ended up deleting the nudes private Tumblr in a fit of OCD guilt. I was, like, “Oh no, I have a boyfriend, but I also have a nude Tumblr!” It wasn’t private-private, just no one knew it was me. I had followers and stuff, like people who did not know me, because my face was in a lot of the pictures or whatever. But I felt so bad, one day I was like, “Oh my god, how disloyal of me.” I think I even emailed Tumblr and was like “Help me delete this Tumblr page of my nudes I feel bad about!” and they were like “If you don’t know the password you’re fucked.”
Rumpus: Tell the Mira story. We want it on the record.
Watson: Okay, fine. When I was in LA, I was there to interview Mira Gonzalez and she’s actually the first person I ever interviewed, so I was extremely nervous. My friend let me borrow her car. I literally stopped at Target to buy ASAP Rocky’s LONG.LIVE.ASAP on CD so I could listen to it while I was driving to Mira’s so I could get hyped up because I was nervous and the radio is bad.
So at that Target, there was a Starbucks. And I bought a triple shot iced soy latte because I wanted to have energy for this interview and it made me very anxious. I had drank the night before, I mean, so that didn’t help my stomach. So I pull up to Marina Del Ray, which is not a very public place. It seems really residential. There are all these boats on the water, condos. And I cannot find a public bathroom there. And the coffee had settled in and I, like, really had to shit and I didn’t know where to go and I was panicking because I was like, I can’t walk into Mira Gonzalez’s apartment and immediately be like “Can I use your bathroom?” and like tear it up with horrible caffeine poop mixed with drinking the night prior and just come out and continue to interview her like nothing happened. So I went into her apartment manager’s building on the common grounds or whatever and just ran in and was like, “Hey, I’m about to interview one of your tenants and I really need to use the restroom can I just please use yours before I go?” He let me go and I went and, uh, washed my hands thoroughly, then went to talk to Mira, who offered me more coffee and, um, everything was bright and terrible.
Rumpus: What’s next for Shy Watson?
Watson: Damn, I don’t know. After this came out, I was telling everyone that next would be a novel. But I knew even as I said it that that was ambitious of me. I do have an old fiction manuscript. I might try to bring that back alive, my novella from when I was twenty that I kind of abandoned. But I’m still writing poems, for sure. I like most of them but I’m probably not writing that often. I’m only writing when I’m experiencing intense emotions and, um, I’m not dating anyone right now so I have to find new things to care about, I guess. I need to read more books. I told myself that my next manuscript wouldn’t be like Cheap Yellow, that it wouldn’t just be confessional, narrative, autobiographical poems but that it’d be informed by something outside of myself. I’d like to read a book or really research a topic and make poetry about it just because I’ve never done that. I don’t really study things; I just think about my life a lot and I want to push myself to become more studious. I wanna go to grad school, too. I wanna, like, just not have to fucking work. I’ve worked since I was eleven years old. And I would really like to just have that time to focus. I can’t even imagine having forty more hours in the week to, like, dick around.
Rumpus: Would you use that time to paint more?
Watson: I do like painting! I’m not very good at it but I do like to make little watercolors with paint and gouache. If I can’t write, it makes me feel like I’m not a scumbag, to do something else creative. Like, when I can’t write I can paint, even if it’s terrible. I should show you my current horrible paintings that I started. I’ll go grab them, because it’s hilarious. [Retrieves paintings]
Sometimes I’ll have an idea where you have what you want to create but what comes out is so often not at all what you’d hoped for. You can’t translate it onto an image or a poem or what have you. This [gestures to painting] I was trying to paint Alex and Theo outside smoking cigarettes…
But yeah, I love painting and I wish I were a painter. I want to be taught how to paint because the reason my paintings are so goofy is because I’ve never really taken an oil painting class as an adult or even a watercolor class. I mean, I know there’s ways that you can layer watercolors and I don’t know what they are or, like, you’re supposed to use different brushes for different things. I’d like to marry a painter, I think, that’s another thing. I really romanticize the idea of the painter. They’re so patient. I’m not! It’s funny that I do watercolors. I think it takes a certain amount of discipline and sensitivity. I think of the painter as a lone wolf, just alone in their studio making these things with their thoughts and their feelings all alone and I think it’s so hot.
Rumpus: And what do you think of the poet, conceptually?
Watson: Oh god, the poet sucks! I love my friends, but I would say that most of us are scumbags, me and my poetry friends, one way or another. I’m probably the worst of them. But I just feel like being a poet or my conceptualization of a poet is just someone who’s kind of sloppy and impulsive. Probably drinks and does drugs and is kind of, I don’t know, self-pitying and has self-perpetuating cycles of emotional mistakes and then sitting around and wallowing in it and writing about it and feeling like a victim. I think of the poet as kind of pathetic, but there’s something to that. I mean, I’m always attracted to the underdog types of people. I like tragic characters.