The poems in Shy Watson’s new collection, Horror Vacui, speak to the many different lives we lead within a single lifetime and how we understand ourselves within the context of our varied experiences. The collection was published by House of Vlad Press this past January, and in it, Watson explores themes of memory, identity, and the struggle for human connection in an isolating age.
Shy Watson is a poet and novelist. She and I have known each other since we met through the literary community in Philadelphia in 2016. Since then, she has published two full-length poetry collections, Cheap Yellow (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and Horror Vacui (House of Vlad Press), co-founded blush lit, attended the Mors Tua Vita Mea workshop in Italy, had work published in New York Tyrant, Wonder, Peach Mag, [PANK], and Joyland, and has completed her first novel.
We spoke recently about Horror Vacui, the ways relationships impact our writing, finding a balance between stability and emotional turbulence, and “the quiet pain of not being in love.”
The Rumpus: Your first full-length collection, Cheap Yellow, was published in 2018. Horror Vacui feels very different in many ways than Cheap Yellow. One major difference that stood out to me was the structure of the new collection. This book feels more organized and narrative. The poems comprise a single, long section of the book, followed by the waking-dream prose pieces and the quarantine diaries. This creates a very different reading experience than we had with the many small sections that made up Cheap Yellow. Between the publication of Cheap Yellow and the release of Horror Vacui you also began work on your first novel. Do you think beginning to write prose affected how you decided to structure this second poetry collection?
Shy Watson: I think so. I usually write poems in short little bursts. Working on a second, prolonged project at the same time as Horror Vacui, I think the longevity did kind of seep through. Horror Vacui didn’t feel like a bunch of little bursts; it felt more like a chunk of poems I’d written mostly during quarantine and then two projects—the waking-dream section and the diaries.
Rumpus: One of the techniques you apply in Horror Vacui is the juxtaposition of concrete facts with emotional states, i.e. “today is the super bowl / i like you more than i’m supposed to” or “good morning / it is cold out / can’t wait for someone / to see / the good in me.” Placing these exterior and interior details immediately next to each other poses the question of what the difference is between these two kinds of truths. What made you decide to start so many of your poems and stanzas with concrete details about the weather or the time of year? What was the process of composing those poems like for you?
Watson: I think sometimes it’s easier to access an interior if you start from the exterior. Maybe I’m guarded and that’s a reflection of having walls up and having to touch first on objective reality before allowing the reader into my feelings. I think if I immediately started with my feelings that would perhaps feel a little too vulnerable for me, or I would be afraid I was splashing the reader right in and that it would be jarring. Maybe I start with objective observations as a way to sort of “get the reader’s feet wet.”
As far as my process, I’ll usually have the first line reverberating through my head. I’ll think of a line that I like and put it in my notes, then return to it later. I start with the line that occurred to me and then it’s kind of like a portal opens and the rest of the poem pours out of it. If I don’t have one of those lines to start with, it’s more of a draft-y, handwritten ordeal, where I’ll have an event that I decide I want to write about. In that case, I’ll just start writing all these lines that come into my head. Last week I went to this Love Hotel in New Jersey with my boyfriend, and we did acid in this Blue Lagoon-themed room and it was maybe the most intense experience of my life. I wanted to write about it, but it didn’t start with a little line, so I just opened my journal and started writing down details I remembered from the night that seemed poetic or stood out to me. I jotted down a bunch of those and then tried to restructure them into something poem-like on my computer, then tinkered with it until it started to reveal itself as a poem.
Rumpus: I want to talk about some of the themes that emerged throughout the collection. In “MET poem 2” you write “my family loves me / they’re born again christians / I’m wearing a one-piece / & it says Gucci / in gold font.” The juxtaposition of the speaker’s life as it is now and her background is really interesting to me. You document the life of a young, contemporary urban writer with lines like “is this the life i lead / changing my mind / about various warby parker frames / & taking selfies anyway?” and “i could have gone to dinner / with someone who upsets me / i could have felt like shit / with fried oysters in my mouth” but there are also a lot of references to growing up in rural Missouri. The question this juxtaposition brings up for me is how the lives we lead and the decisions we make do or don’t define us. I’d love to talk a bit about the theme of identity in your work. Is this something you intend for your readers to grapple with?
Watson: I think the decisions we make define our lives on the concrete plane. What we’re doing, what we’re interacting with, who we’re interacting with, the choices we’re making, do sculpt our lives in the material sense. The daydreams and the fantasy realm that make up our interior world exist regardless of circumstance, but I think people can only consciously dictate their lives insomuch as they have an awareness of what exists. For example, growing up in the country before the internet, I wouldn’t have known about Warby Parker glasses. There are things I mention that I didn’t know existed when I was a kid. Back then, I couldn’t have even imagined having the life that I have now or being exposed to the things I’m exposed to now. So, I think our life choices do define who we become but I think there’s also some privilege in that. I think our actions and the choices we make do sculpt our lives from the outsider’s perspective, but also that the interior is independent of all of that, and I think both need knowledge to continue to develop.
Rumpus: In the vein of what changes us and how the choices we make sculpt our lives, you also talk a lot about relationships in the book. There’s a strong sense of desire to connect with others and the pain that results from the failure to do so. You write of “the quiet pain of not being in love,” and lines like “my eyes were water / until i met you / and they are still” and “if i threw / a stone into the air / you wouldn’t catch it” seem to imply a sense of isolation and a deep awareness of the ways in which we fail to have a real impact on each other sometimes.
Watson: For me, interpersonal relationships are the most fertile breeding ground for self-growth. I think people are mirrors and I think you’re a mirror to people. Everything’s relative and I think that other people show you what you like, what you don’t like, who you are, who you’re not… So, I love being in relationships, and I love having a lot of relationships, whether they be romantic or platonic or just cordial. I love interacting with people. I think a lot of my writing is about that, because relationships are where I feel the most strongly and where I learn the most about myself. It’s what I spend most of my time thinking about. I’m also really extroverted, so I think that has something to do with it. I get bored easily, so I need people around me!
Regarding isolation, I feel like, yes, no one can ever fully understand us and we can never fully understand anyone else, and we all die alone, and love is a projection. It’s hard not to feel isolated when you’re close to someone because there’s that frustration of never really knowing them, just like you can’t ever actually touch a person because there’s atoms in between… I think there’s a poem about that in Cheap Yellow. It’s something I think about because it’s not only a physical reality but a psychic and emotional reality, and as much as we’re all isolated, I also feel like we’re all one… Maybe that’s because I did acid five days ago but, you know, looking into Kirk’s eyes and knowing we were the same person was also insane!
Life is tricky and being in our human forms—I swear, I’m not on acid now—is tricky. We’re forced into the prison of our own perception and sometimes it seems like we’re connected to others and sometimes it feels like there’s no way anyone could ever understand us, and we have no idea what someone’s going through and we’re just constantly oscillating between these two hallucinations, and I don’t think either of them is real because I don’t think it’s a binary situation. I don’t think it’s that black and white, but I think both feelings are very polarizing and strong and that they come and go in waves.
Rumpus: You often mention people in your life by name in your poems. I’d love to hear about why you made that choice.
Watson: I try not to say anything compromising, and if I do, I ask the person first, but I kind of like that that’s a thing in my poems. It’s definitely present in both Cheap Yellow and Horror Vacui, so it’s like there’s a cast of rotating characters, and I feel like readers get a sense of these people from seeing them in different contexts in different poems. I think it’s kind of cool to have that as a record, too, like reading letters or journals of someone who’s passed away, just to catalog the time: who I’m surrounding myself with and how they impact me and what my feelings are for them. I guess I like to be pretty direct.
Rumpus: The cast of characters idea makes me think a lot about the transition you’re making into writing prose. I wonder if that extroverted impulse and that impulse to populate your writing with people who become characters in the life of the speaker led to your interest in writing fiction.
Watson: Well, I don’t think it led to my interest in fiction, but I do think they’re related, like a chicken or the egg situation. I think I was writing characters in poetry before I ever even considered writing prose, but I do think you’re onto something. Maybe that was like a foreshadowing that I would one day write prose and maybe it was already written on the wall and, you know, Looking back it’s so clear to me now! But of course I would become a prose writer! And I think that may be part of my interest in doing it, too: to have a narrative that continues throughout the poems as well as having each poem contain its own separate story.
Rumpus: In a recent interview, you said that you want “as many romantic partners, as many friends, as many different types of both, as much travel, as many fabrics, as many different lives as [you] can possibly squeeze in.” How do you think this desire for experiences affects your writing, or has an impact on the work you produce?
Watson: I think it makes it much more rich and varied. I want the scope of experience and emotion to be as wide as possible, and I think investing in creating a life where the conditions are set up for that results in having a larger array in your writing. I was thinking about this last night, because I was listening to a podcast with Giancarlo [di Trapano] and he was talking about how you’ve got to live to write, and I was like, oh no, I hope even though I’m moving in with my boyfriend and living this quarantine life and not drinking as much that I’ll still have interesting experiences to write about. But I also think it can be unhealthy to rely on that too much. I don’t want to feel like I have to end every relationship I’m in and start a new one so that I can have a new muse, because at that point it’s all just consumptive. It’s like you only have so much energy and it’s easy to spread yourself too thin.
When you’re trying to have a million relationships and go to a million places, you don’t have time to go deep in any of them. For example, I’ve been in New York for three and a half years now, which is three times longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. I feel like I really have a sense of the place, and a sense of home and community. On the other hand, I lived in Portland for eight months, and I can’t really tell you shit about Portland. I feel like you can have too many experiences and they’re shallow or you can have too few experiences and they’re extremely deep and you’re completely marinated in them. Maybe the goal is to be somewhere between the two. I do think I lean toward having too many thin experiences, so maybe I should embrace stability.
Rumpus: Stability was another theme I noticed in the new collection. You begin Horror Vacui with “every day / a new obsession.” The speaker describes herself as “always in flux” and “in control & then not again.” At the end of “MET poem 2”, she says “i’m shitty until i’m not shitty & then i’m shitty again.” The speaker seems to be of two minds about the instability of her world. At times she seems to revel in it (“i am wet with it”) and at others seems to be ashamed or regretful of this instability. Do you worry about stability decreasing creativity and about artistic stagnation? Do you think stability and growth as an artist are mutually exclusive, or can you have both?
Watson: Honestly, age has changed my relationship to stability. When I was younger, instability was really exciting, and I feel like now it’s really exhausting. When it was exciting, it would help me write, but now that it’s exhausting, it kind of makes it impossible for me to write. I don’t know if that’s just a maturity thing or if it’s like a physical curse that you just run out of energy when you get older, but stability feels a lot better now than it did before. When I feel rested, it’s easier for me to write and to focus. So, I think it depends on the time and place. I’m moving into favoring stability, whereas for a long time I favored instability, but I think it’s good to have a little bit of both.
Photograph of Shy Watson by Tony Tulathimutte.