The Rumpus Book Club chats with C. Russell Price about his poetry collection Oh You Thought This Was a Date?! (Triquarterly Books, June 2022), playlists, and the ongoing end- of-the-world. This is an edited transcript of an earlier book club discussion. To join the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming authors include Courtney Faye Taylor, Sabrina Orah Mark, Davon Loeb, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Alysia Sawchyn.
C. Russell Price: I am so excited for this. It’s my first time talking about the book with folks who don’t know me IRL.
The Rumpus: I feel like we might know you a little bit after this book! Though obviously that’s not the same.
Price: I feel like this book is going to give a lot of people the idea that they know me only because of the stakes in intimacy; I’m still somewhat a medical and ethical mystery. Doesn’t it make us feel closer when we hit the hard shit? Like witnessing suffering somehow gives clout.
Rumpus: I love the book’s playlist! I have seen people post them on social media to accompany their books, but I would love to know why you decided to include it in the book itself. Also, there are some songs that when you hear them, you’re right back in that memory. Is that true of the songs you included?
Price: Yes, loving this first question! For every creative project, there’s a soundtrack/vibe I’m working with. If you’ve seen my lil chapbook “tonight, we fuck the trailer park out of each other,” (from the angel babes at Sibling Rivalry Press) it includes a playlist at the back of songs that were in rotation and on repeat during the writing. Those songs were more electric, more frantic. Oh, You Thought This Was a Date took 6 years to write—so the soundtrack to my writing sessions kept evolving—and because the writing took so long (combined with research) there were clear stages of disco, heavy soul, a long long grunge stage after a destructive breakup. So then the ritualization of the playlist creation became part of the book. When I was thinking about location—I thought “cowboys”—that’s how Orville Peck comes in. The music is as much a driving force in the book as anything else.
Yes, I’ve seen other authors posting their playlists, which is fun because you get to know the taste of the author (as questionable as some are), but when I see those, I ask what work is that use of music actually doing? What is the mood that the scene takes on? What CULTURAL significance does the track add? Are you alluding for the shit of it?
This book is demanding you to work. I’m tired of books before the pandemic, how we just kind of went with being spoon feed lyric. This book says get the fuck up and do something. Maybe that’s what I’m wanting of “post” Covid lit—is an active role of the reader than just a consumer.
Rumpus: I listened to the song in each section as I read the poems, and it really does add a whole different element. I was wondering how you imagined the reader engaging with the section/chapter/poem beginnings?
Price: I imagined [the reader] thrown at each one. Like there is something familiar in “definitions” but then there is the erasure of portions and/or the somatic aspects of entering a section, the collision of other artists/writers that lead to that moment. Like the apocalypse as unveiling—to get to that great big epiphany you’ve gotta do more than just read a ‘lil gut-busting poem, you’ve got to take in a whole lived experience AND THEN, you get the doomsday poem.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the inclusion of rituals in your book? They reminded me a lot of CA Conrad’s work, his (soma)tic poetry exercises
Price: Yes yes yes CA Conrad. Their work has been extremely influential to me. That and intense therapy for CPTSD and extreme OCD. Ritual is a constant comfort me, even to my hindrance. It’s my body-keeping-the-score’s way of trying to navigate the neuropathways that are seeking reprieve from chaos. I mean, clearly, the Armageddon from that perspective (before we even hit class or gender) sounds and feels bone deep familiar.
Also the rituals feel like a way of me dropping the curtain between Poet and reader. Like in the Pushkin poem I write, “no one here understands me . . . don’t you see I write like this because I am grieving still.” The ritual is a way for me to say: Can you still not understand how this hurt feels? I gave you a destructive dreamscape and you still don’t get it? Here, try this. Then try this. Then keep trying.
Rumpus: Yes, I think they do work that way, but I also found them comforting. A reminder that the poet was still here, walking the reader through these poems.
Can you talk some about how you put the book together? Like did you work, for lack of a better term on my part, from track to track, with the poems in each section coming out of the ritual and music for that section? Or did you write and then see how they fit together at some later point? Put another way: Was it more of an organic flow that came together from the start, or a process with lots of deliberation and revision?
Price: The final draft of the manuscript that the press accepted in 2020 had a very, very traditional layout of poetry. I used to map collections by the emotional arc of the lyric as the collection moves; I did this by marking each poem with symbols as to what they evoked, the overriding tone, the subject. Then with some handy poster board I mapped out a literal goddamn arc and thought, “Ok here’s where we need a ‘funny’ poem before we get to ANOTHER rape poem.” Then Covid broke out and the press was anxious because it’s business after all and my editor was like, “Hey grrrl, let’s think about this collection differently, why don’t we break it up into sections and [REDACTED].”
I went through the first four months of the pandemic working in customer service for a horticultural business and was like, “Wtf is this world, what do I want from this book that might not ever get published because of ‘fate'” [it won’t stop me from hoping for a cow tipping expedition and boys showing up with a keg in a pick up truck. So I went almost hyper-meditative, and I had the music and I remember imagining the very first ritual of the book and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do. I was so isolated and I wanted the reader to feel a marching band inside them. That feeling of celebration the book feels above the pain.
Then we had to wait two years because you can’t really push a book that starts “Chapter 1: Pretend A Pandemic” while the literal fucking world is full of deniers.
I knew the definitions the second I knew I needed that to be the diving factor, then I compiled all of them by hand in my notebook for this book and spent time with them and threw out anything that didn’t add to the double meanings throughout. Like seeing the word “obsolete” is devastating in a way. To say a use of being irrelevant felt deep for some reason. When we’re approaching something as fucked as child abuse, like to do the legal route, they want just the facts. And using that wordy definition gives ink to something everyone should know but monstrously still don’t. It was by definition, what it was; hence this present reckoning
Rumpus: Right before we came on here I posted a picture of the poem “Trying to Catch a Deluge in a Paper Cup” on Twitter, and one of the more depressing things about these times we’re living in is that it doesn’t really matter when you wrote that poem, it’s as relevant today as it was twenty-two years ago at Columbine.
Price: That was a major fear of mine tbh. If you look at the notes section, I mention the urgency of writing about this, about possible prosecution. I was worried about this not coming out, if my story was silenced in another form of systemic oppression. What if my troubles became irrelevant? My editor assured me, thankfully and regretfully, that the shit I’m hitting in this book is always going to be relevant because we have the means and we aren’t doing a goddamn thing about it and are still surprised.
Rumpus: The “just the facts” part also hit me hard. I responded a lot to “This Must Be the Place” because of the trouble I’ve had over the years working through my own childhood rape. How so often we’re forced to live in close proximity to those who have harmed us, how in my own case I had the hardest time even saying my abuser’s name out loud to my therapist, the hold those things continue to have over us.
Price: Thank you for sharing that with me. Isn’t that such a fucked relatable experience? That the name, the naming, the speakability, the act of utterance, all of that has such a larger magnitude for some people. That I when I say “I have a name” I don’t mean that piece of shit, I mean me, I mean: Here, here, eat it up, baby. [cue Heathers]
Rumpus: When I was a kid, I remember hearing (when these things were first spoken of openly, which was not always) that one in five women and one in ten men had been victims of sexual abuse in their lives and man that number has to be low.
Price: It’s such an unreliable and unreported statistic.
Rumpus: When you do readings for these poems, do you run the playlist in the background at muted volume? Or maybe a better question is what does a public reading look like for you?
Price: A dream is to do a poetry reading in this abandoned Papa John’s near me. We can’t escape capitalism so might as well pimp it out in a poem for image and false familiarity.The music acts as the intro. Readings for the book have been mostly zoomed so I do a lot of DRAMA light changes, sets, stripping . . . The launch is going to be a full visualization of the book—I’ve got a drag performer and a country singer performing songs from the book as breaks between set. I open with Fiona apples 1997 VMAs acceptance speech —“this world is bullshit” one. Everything is aiming to be controlled to unleash the poems themselves.
Rumpus: I’m struck by the poems and number of times you reference Glade Spring, your family background, the poverty “culture” of that area of Virginia. How much of that do you embrace as part of your identity?
Price: When I was younger I wanted to reject it so badly because I was at a “Southern ivy” and so much of my life at that point was class reminders; it wasn’t until I left that bubble and remixed myself in Chicago that I accepted my history and identity and celebrated that. I met folks from different histories who shared class with me. Nothing will separate us more than class. It doesn’t matter who you fuck or vote for, your worth dictates your worth, I mean it’s a constant fight though because we’ve got shit like Hillbilly Elegy acting as posterboy bullshit. I’m not trying to deny that aspect of my past, but would I be safe walking down streets in my mountain town? Would I have to escape into the frump and beige? Would I have to tone myself down for safety? Yes. Maybe that’s why nostalgia plays a roll in the book as well. It’s a wistfulness for a world that really never belonged to the “speaker.”
Rumpus: What have you been reading lately? Anything new we should keep an eye out for?
Price: I’m reading Letters to Wendy’s right now, taking my time, because everything pop subversion fascinates me, and here’s what’s on my nightstand:
- The Seas (Samantha Hunt, a go to, I read it twice a year).
- Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (Pride, duh)
- The Handbook of Lumberjack Lingo (language hunting)
- Marilou is Everywhere (another pleasure read for me)
Thank you so much for having me! I loved chatting with y’all and always feel free to throw a question my way via Insta or Twitter or whatever. I’m so grateful for y’all taking an early look at the rapture and liking it. Have a great night!