My earliest encounter with Sadie Dupuis was when the Internet, courtesy of a streaming service algorithm, brought her band Speedy Ortiz’s second studio album Foil Deer into my feed. Upon giving it a first listen, I didn’t expect straight-from-the-shoulder lyrics such as “You want a blue sky, how provincial” would have me hooked. Three years after that moment, upon nonchalantly tweeting out a hope to connect and converse into existence, I am talking with Dupuis about her debut poetry collection Mouthguard.
United around the theme of personal mythology, Mouthguard lingers like both nostalgia and dream. A teenage diary entry combined with magical folklore, an urban legend for the complex self. Bundled with blurbs from the like of Melissa Broder, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, and Dorothea Lasky, this book is comforting for those who don’t want to be comforted. “It’s selfish to immolate in the middle of a funeral procession,” Dupuis writes in one poem, “as no one can mourn what’s cold in the coffin with a live one on fire.”
Via email correspondence, Sadie Dupuis and I talked about building personal mythology in Mouthguard, embarrassing poems from younger days, her love for dogs, and the power of the Internet.
The Rumpus: Mouthguard opens with a poem titled “In Order to Skin a Goat You Begin,” and there are some more animal imageries throughout the book, from pets like dogs and rabbits, to some less domestic ones like horses and snakes. Could you share your relationship with animals, and how writing about them fits into your account of personal mythology?
Sadie Dupuis: My mom always told me bedtime story folktales in which sentient animals were the protagonists. And my mom’s boyfriend for most of my childhood was a dog trainer—at any time there were at least ten dogs living in his house, and his backyard was filled with obstacle course and agility training tools for the dogs. I would run around with the pack, and my childhood imaginary friends were dogs, too. I actually recently found a picture book I made as a kid, and when I drew my author bio, it was me as a schnauzer. So. I always had an easier time relating immediately to animals than to other people.
Then when I was in middle school my mom moved to very rural Connecticut, in the middle of woods populated by bears and coyotes and bobcats and opossums and beavers. She also lives down the hill from a dairy farm, where there are cows and calves in crates. Seeing their suffering in captivity made me a vegetarian, eventually a vegan. When I left home, I fostered a few dogs, and eight years ago I adopted Buster, my pit bull, who shows up in the book. So my relationship towards animals is one of cohabitation and respect, whether in my house or in the woods, and that’s why they’re significant in my writing.
Rumpus: In the collection, you write a lot about various people, especially your friends—or, rather, F•r•i•e•n•d•s—a lot. How much do others animate this body of poems about personal mythology?
Dupuis: I always liked the idea of being in conversation with my contemporaries and frequently used my songs or poems to refer to my friends’ work, or to make little inside jokes. My first serious poetry instructor was William Corbett, and he had his class read a lot of the New York School poets—James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery—and I couldn’t believe how often they referred to one another in published poems. I loved that decades later I could read a record of their friendship, a testament to how important those kinds of relationships are to art. So I’m constantly slipping in references to my friends, even when they aren’t obvious.
Rumpus: Yes! I love that Frank O’Hara referred to John Ashbery as “Ashes” in one poem and just straight up wrote his full name in another. I love that you share this sweetest sentiment. How do your friends react to this? Do they ever catch the least obvious references?
Dupuis: Sometimes if I do a song or poem that references a friend’s work, I’ll just send it to them directly. I do have one poem that says “Magic isn’t real”—a reference to the Pile album—and a couple times Rick, the band’s lyricist, has been at a reading and it’s sort of a haha moment.
Rumpus: In the titular poem “Mouthguard,” the speaker confronts questions about whether they are “qualified” at their age to properly reflect on past choices. At one point, the speaker says “…at the same age I found you / I wrote my world around you / and got teeth every night / all of them silver.” At the age you are now, do you perhaps still find yourself writing your world around a person?
Dupuis: That particular poem is poking fun at obsessive passion that inspires an artist to get prolific—when it happens to you more than once, you’re kind of like, Ah, maybe this hormonal reaction shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of my creative practice. So even by the time of writing this book, I was wary of writing earnestly about romantic love.
Rumpus: Why were you wary? Too much “drawing material from the internal?”
Dupuis: I just don’t think strictly devotional love stuff is very interesting, at least not when I write it.
Rumpus: Knowing that many things, in your life and the world in general, had changed once you finished writing Mouthguard in 2014 and would continue to change by the time it was published, what was the editing process like?
Dupuis: There were a few poems I cut from the original 2014 manuscript—if I couldn’t get the gist of them other than This looks cool or This sounds cool, they didn’t make the book. Then there were word choice edits—I had a different tolerance for and understanding of violence when I wrote the book, so some of that imagery had to be altered, and then there are words whose connotations had changed for me as I’d gotten older and needed a substitution. I like my art to be a little funnier than I did when I first wrote the book, and so some of the heavy-handed dark and mystical poems got joke-y titles to temper those elements. But beyond it stayed somewhat close to the original poems I pulled together, and it was a matter of finding an order for them that made me and my editors happy.
Rumpus: What I remember the most from my first time reading the book is the deliberateness with which you put one poem after another, such as “First Date” after the titular poem and “When I Was Younger I Was Young” followed by “Your Legs Look Alright to You,” to perhaps define an ambience. Had they been put in a different order, I would have not remembered them as much without reading again. I would like to know the thought process behind the architecture of this book, the way you’ve arranged the poems and divided them into the various sections.
Dupuis: The idea for five sections came from my editors, and then I did what I assume a lot of poets do—printed out all the poems and then obsessively rearranged them on my floor over and over again until I had an order that felt right, then go away to a coffee shop for a while and read through the manuscript and try to see if my attention waned or if any transitions felt abrupt. It’s not that different from sequencing an album except instead of sitting in my car driving around listening to twelve songs over and over again, it’s rereading eighty-eight pages of poetry in different neighborhood cafés.
Rumpus: The longest poem in the book, “The King Chooser Has Come,” stands alone in its own section. Could you give us the background on this particular piece?
Dupuis: I had completely forgotten this poem was named after a Pavement lyric—like, no memory that was where it was from—until just now when I googled it. So there’s that. Gramma [Press, the publisher] had the idea to give it its own section, which makes sense since it’s so long and has so many sections which are all tonally quite different. Without getting too much into my own biography—and because I think the poem does a more interesting job of telling the story than I would—it’s about loneliness, geographical isolation, fear of the body, fear of medicine, and fear of death. But it’s very grounded in the scenery of Northampton, MA, where I’d just moved—its cemeteries, mountains, rail trails, and its hospital.
Dupuis: I’m lucky that I had four years in between finishing my first draft of the manuscript and publishing it. Any poem I’d grown away from, I didn’t have to include. I’m sure I would die of embarrassment if I had published any of the poems I wrote in college ten years ago. Time is the best editor.
Rumpus: I remember one photo you posted on Instagram, a picture of you during a show holding guitar in front of a mic and all, to promote a Mouthguard reading event, with which you captioned— and I am paraphrasing—“imagine this is me but with a book.” That is interesting. How does being a musician inform your being a poet, and vice versa?
Dupuis: That was sort of a joke about the differences in performativity between a rock show and a poetry reading. When I play with Speedy Ortiz, I’m wearing a wig or extensions, I’m wearing a full face of glitter, I probably have on a prom dress or some other traditionally feminine outfit, and that’s all because I feel very strongly about pushing back against the outdated stereotype that guitar is a “masculine” instrument. Plus there’s the physicality of playing that kind of music—hopping around onstage, swinging your guitar around. Those visual gestures are things you can’t really do in a poetry reading, or at least I haven’t figured out a way to do so without distracting from the work. And when I read, I don’t really feel the same imperative to make a statement about gender—it feels less crucial because women haven’t really been excluded from the poetry canon to the extent we have from rock.
Rumpus: In what other ways would you say the poetry scene bear resemblance to the music scene, and in what other ways do the two differ?
Dupuis: Similar in the obvious ways: people rallying around local art and inspiring one another to create. Booking the poetry tour myself is reminding me of when I used to book Speedy Ortiz tours, except as far as I can tell, people in the literary world are way better about replying to emails quickly than musicians. One thing I think is amazing about poetry is that it’s a lot more age-diverse than rock music—it’s strange to feel like I’m “old” in my career as a thirty-year-old musician when so many of the poets I admire do their best work when they’re twice my age and older.
Rumpus: Have you ever felt a kind of imposter syndrome when switching between these artistic mediums, i.e. feeling more like a poet when you’re in the music scene but then feeling more like a musician when you’re amongst the poetry scene? How do you navigate that, if it happens?
Dupuis: Since I’m better known for music than for poetry, I do get that impostor syndrome sometimes, especially since I took about three years off from poetry altogether to pursue opportunities with Speedy Ortiz. Those were three years where my poet friends were working really hard, submitting, publishing, teaching, making connections, writing chapbooks. And then I just sent my manuscript out one day, it was accepted, and suddenly my first book was here. So I do go into that negative feedback loop, like, Ah, I only got this opportunity because of the band, not on the merits of my poems. But then I remember the years I spent writing and editing the manuscript, where I was doing readings with friends and sending poems out to journals and getting my fair share of rejections, and I try to quell those voices in my head that tell me I’m an interloper. Because all of that is hard work, and there’s nothing wrong with letting your successes in one artistic discipline benefit another area of your life. Or so I’m telling myself.
Rumpus: How about your other work such as making art, teaching, or managing a record label? How do those different areas end up benefiting one another?
Dupuis: Different aspects of your personality go into any job you work, so it’s nice to have a lot of weird part-time gigs so that all of my weird part-time moods get a chance to shine.
Rumpus: Do you happen to keep particular things for company during a book tour the way you keep #tourbook while out on tour with the band?
Dupuis: It’s kind of the same—if I’m traveling and not driving, I like to read or sometimes write.
Rumpus: Would you like to use this space to brag about sharing a stage with Liz Phair?
Dupuis: She’s a genius and a sweet person to boot and I felt very privileged to be in her presence for six weeks. She’s got a book coming out this year, too, and I can’t wait to read it since I’m sure it’ll be as brilliant as everything she does.
Rumpus: I like the Internet, for it gave me a way to access your art, and to shamelessly tweet at you for advice a few days after someone dumped me (thank you for that). Could you describe what your relationship with the Internet is like?
Dupuis: You know how I said I had an easier time connecting with animals than people when I was a kid? The same was sort of true of the Internet. I had an easier time making friends on message boards and chat rooms and LiveJournal than I did at school. I think I’m okay at socializing now—although I am a major homebody when off tour—but I still have a lot of fondness for dogs and the Internet above all else.
Rumpus: Do you remember life before the Internet? Do you think someone at that time might have still hit you up with a question on how to deal with a breakup?
Dupuis: I got my first AOL account in 1995, which, to prove my point about really liking dogs, was [email protected]. So I can’t really remember life before the Internet. But I do remember sending a fan email to Patrick Wilson from Weezer not too long after that, and he replied, which I thought was extremely cool. That makes me always want to reply to folks’ emails when they reach out. So, in short, send me all your breakup questions. Most of my answers will be about ice cream.