I WOULD LIKE TO STARTLE THE READER: An Interview with Mike Topp

I WOULD LIKE TO STARTLE THE READER: An Interview with Mike Topp

Mike Topp is a brilliant writer who has been in the game for decades. His writing is a unique mix of wit, wordplay, and absurdist humor that at times evokes old-time jokebooks, Buddhist koans, New York School poetry, the funny papers (Nancy, Dagwood), Kafka’s diaries, and something Groucho Marx would say if he felt especially poetic. His works are often just a few sentences long–perfect for business cards, bathroom wall graffiti, and tattoos that take up most of your back. Mike Topp is a jewel of a writer because he has created a literary style, tone, and universe that is unlike anyone else’s. His fans include Garielle Lutz, Eileen Myles, Jonathan Lethem, Blake Butler, Chelsea Martin and Aram Saroyan.

Here are some examples of his work:

INTUITION

Is intuition what I think it is?

NOTE

My blood alcohol level has been high lately so I’ve been drinking less blood alcohol.

VASE

I was at Mom’s and I dropped this vase. I was upset cuz it was her favorite and there was no way to replace it. I remembered I was playing a record when I dropped it. So I just played the record backwards until the broken vase came together again on the floor and hopped up to my hands.

His twitter handle is @MikeTopp and you should follow him right away.

Chris Dankland: How do you want a reader to react to your work?

Mike Topp: I would like to startle the reader! That’s the main aim. I like reversals. The literary term is paraprosdokian, a Greek figure of speech (which I always have to look up to spell) where the second part of a sentence or expression is rendered in such a way that the first half must be reinterpreted. Not all of my writings are paraprosdokians, but I hopefully want to compel the reader to read something again, just to make sure that all the pieces line up (even if they don’t!). Anyway, that’s what I have been trying to do for the last year, since March 2022. My editing process was if Raymond Pettibon retweeted it, then I was good to go, no kidding. I just listened to a podcast featuring Ray (The Surfer’s Journal) and he mentions how tight he is with Twitter, he really likes writing on it. Ray says he approaches Twitter “as a way of working with form,” not content.

CD: How do you know so many artists? The William Wegman and David Berman pictures in your book Shorts Are Wrong are so great, and the Raymond Pettibon collaboration Born On A Train is incredible. I saw that you were once the managing editor of Artforum—what has your relationship with the art world been?

MT: My relationship with the art world is funny. I moved to the East Village in NYC in 1981, right before a ton of galleries opened up. I’d routinely see Keith Haring painting in the subway when I’d go visit my girlfriend on the Upper West Side! I’d see David Wojnarowicz sitting on the curb smoking, Basquiat at his openings at Mary Boone, etc. But the real reason I got involved with the art world was because I was super poor and galleries were free! 

I got to know quite a bit of art just because I would go to lots of galleries almost every day. One gallery owner, Holly Solomon, used to let me sit in the back of her gallery and let me look at hundreds of William Wegman drawings! I worked at Franklin Furnace, an early art venue, and I worked for Lucy Lippard in her apartment–she was one of the founders of Printed Matter in New York. I guest-edited some art magazines in the late 1980s and early 1990s and I published Raymond Pettibon art, David Lynch’s paintings, Eileen Myles poems, Joe Brainard recipes for potato salad, etc. The poet Ted Berrigan said you should just write to anyone and ask to publish their work, so that’s what I did!  An artist named Lucio Pozzi would pay people to guest-edit his magazine New Observations and I guest-edited two issues. 

Then I applied for the Artforum job and I got it, it was great! But everyone on the staff except me was pretty much a trust fund person or had some extra income. So I didn’t stay long because the pay was terrible! but people wanted to work there no matter what. Once I worked at Artforum I met a lot of different people. I knew David Berman tangentially because we had a mutual friend, Jeff Johnson–we are/were both friendly with Jeff (@fittedsweats on Twitter) so I met David a couple times and we corresponded after that (we both had Hotmail accounts then!). Jeff was a roadie for Pavement, that’s how he met David, I believe.

CD: How much of a role did you have in the design of Shorts Are Wrong? I love that book so much! I think it’s my favorite book of yours. What do you think is your best looking book?

MT: As for book design, the cover photo of me on Shorts Are Wrong first ran in Italian Vogue (they were spoofing The Sopranos) and the book was designed by my friend Stephen Conti. Stephen pretty much designs most of my books. So I like Shorts Are Wrong for the look, and The Poetry Jug, and two early letterpress ones, Six Short Stories & Seven Short Poems and Basho’s Milk Dud. I like Happy Ending too, cover by artist Bill Anthony, who just passed away. And of course I like Born On a Train

CD: Can I ask more about the Italian Vogue picture? How did that happen? That’s such a great picture!

MT: The Vogue photo is an amusing story. I am convinced it happened because I was walking around with one of my friends (below) and Jennifer Venditti, the casting director for Calvin Klein and others, saw me with my glam friend and asked me to call her. I was 42 I think when I started my super brief “modeling” career, ending up in Italian Vogue and doing tryouts for Prada and others, haha. I think she just asked me because I was walking around with my blond friend and I was wearing a trenchcoat at the time.

CD: How long have you lived in New York City? In my mind I associate you with NYC, but do you associate yourself with NYC? Or is it more like another place that you’ve lived? I know for many people the city is a huge part of their identity and I wonder how you feel about it. From the outside it seems like you have a lot of connections that go back to the city.

MT: I’ve lived in New York City since 1981. I lived in Rhode Island before that and two of my friends asked if I wanted to drive to NYC with them to buy heroin in 1980. I’d never been to NYC so I said yes and we drove up in one car to the Lower East Side. It looked scary! One of my friends asked for directions and the guy they asked reached through the car window and punched my friend in the face. It was at that moment I decided I wanted to live here–it seemed so exciting!

I would say NYC is a big part of my identity, I’m hardcore. I’ve lived here for over 40 years now and it’s burned into my brain. I’ve never been anywhere else like it. I’ve lived almost exclusively in the East Village except for a brief foray into Brooklyn during the 1990s. My first apartment was on Sixth Street in Manhattan between Avenue A and B. The rent was $325 a month and had a wood-burning fireplace. It said “Ufficio” on the street-level window because that block had been used for the filming of The Godfather and they left a lot of the “redecorating” they’d done on the tenements. I remember walking to meet the landlord. I asked a woman for directions and for some reason asked her if I looked like some rube out-of-towner. She said, “Yes.”

When I lived in Brooklyn it was the early 1990s and crack was very big. I learned to distinguish gunshots from other sounds. Sometimes we’d lay in the bathtub if there were a lot of shots being fired. In the summer I could look out my window and sometimes see shirtless guys chasing each other and shooting one another. One of my junkie friends visited me one night in Brooklyn and I told him to be careful on his way home. He said he’d been in the South Bronx at 3 in the morning and he wasn’t scared (tough guy). The next day he told me I was right to be cautious. He was waiting for the subway after he’d left our apartment. It was around midnight. The train pulled in, the car doors opened, and my friend said there was one guy in the car–he was sitting on a bench and he’d just been shot in the head!

CD: I saw the picture of your backyard that you posted on Twitter the other day and boy has the city changed.

MT: That photo of my backyard–that’s upstate. My wife and I bought a house there about two years ago and we go back and forth from Manhattan to Stanfordville. 

CD: What’s the least favorite place you’ve ever lived?

MT: As for my least favorite place I’ve lived–probably the suburbs in Illinois when I was a kid. Why hadn’t they invented the internet back then? It was so boring!

CD: When did you start writing? When do you feel like your writing started getting “good,” aka settled into the form that feels the most natural or successful to you?

MT: I started writing when I was about 19. I lived in Rhode Island before I moved to New York City and met some poets and writers in Rhode Island. I worked in an apple orchard in Scituate. Later I went to New York University to study poetry. I thought I might someday write like Garcia Lorca or Georg Trakl, haha. I was just not in their league. I had a reading at NYU when I was about 23. It was really funny (later) because the poet Steve Cannon was there. He really loved to heckle people. I was reading my bad poems and in between bad poems I was telling some stories and Steve said I should quit writing poems and instead tell funny stories. So I followed his advice. 

Then I started getting some stories in a magazine called Between C & D around 1982 through 1986 or so. Some, like “Five Stories” were anthologized, in Brandon Stosuy’s Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992. I like “Five Stories,” but then I feel my writing declined a bit in my late twenties. In the mid-1980s I met and became very good friends with Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press. We’d go out to his place in East Hampton every weekend and we’d play pool in the city every Tuesday night at his loft. Moving along, Andrei Codrescu started a magazine called Exquisite Corpse. He featured a lot of my writing in the 1990s–Andrei always claims he got me started. But when I look back at that writing a lot of it is not so good to me. I like some of it. I think I’m lucky though. Every couple years a new magazine or a new scene would come along. When Jonathan Lethem was a teenager he started publishing a magazine called Idiot tooth and he put me in two issues. Right when Dave Eggers was starting McSweeney’s, he invited me to a barbecue in Brooklyn. The invitation said “just you, not your friends–your friends are assholes.” Quintessential Eggers. Some of the McSweeney’s stuff is okay. I’d say around 2010 things started picking up. I’m always interested in what the young people are doing. I started getting published by the Publishing Genius people in Baltimore. I think my favorite writing has been from the last fifteen years.

CD: What was your first book? What were the circumstances that led to its publication?

MT: My first book was Local Boy Makes Good. I was a big admirer of the artist William Wegman (who is a great writer also, sort of like Joe Brainard) and he let me use one of his drawings for the cover. Wegman’s studio was a block away from my apartment and we wrote to each other a couple times. At the time Kim’s Video opened up around the corner (it also was a dry cleaning shop) and Wegman did an ad for Kim’s Video that read: “I rent all my dry cleaning from Kim’s Video.” Ron Kolm, a guy who is a big story all on his own, arranged for Local Boy Makes Good to be published after he had invited me to do a few readings with him. I met Ron when he worked at St. Mark’s Books. He had worked at the Strand Bookstore before with Patti Smith. It’s funny, I really treasured my anonymity when I first moved to NYC. Then when I went into St. Mark’s Books I was really taken aback by this nosy guy (Ron) always asking me why was I buying this book? Why was I buying this particular magazine? But I succumbed to his charms. Ron later had a key role in starting the poetry group the Unbearables.

CD: I compiled a list of all your books that I could find online:

  • Local Boy Makes Good. 1993
  • Six Short Stories & Seven Short Poems. 1997.
  • Wild Wives/High Priest of California. Collaboration with Sparrow. 1997.
  • Basho’s Milk Dud. 1999.
  • Bad Luck. 2001.
  • Happy Ending. 2002.
  • I Used to be Ashamed of My Striped Face. 2001.
  • Happy Ending. 2003.
  • Where We Found You. 2003.
  • Own Your Own. 2005.
  • Shorts Are Wrong. 2007.
  • Sasquatch Stories. 2010.
  • 29 Mini-Essays. 2012.
  • Born on a Train. Collaboration with Raymond Pettibon. 2015.
  • The Double Dream of Spring – A Peg Sluice Mystery. Collaboration with Sparrow. 2016.
  • 30 One Liners. 2018.
  • The Poetry Jug. 2021

Out of those books, are there any that stand out to you as being some of your favorites?

MT: I think out of this list Six Short Stories & Seven Short Poems and Basho’s Milk Dud really were game-changers for me. I remember going into the NYU Fales Library and checking some stuff out–all of a sudden Marvin Taylor (who was the head librarian at the Fales and responsible for putting together their “downtown” collection) came out and asked if I was the same Mike Topp who’d written Basho’s Milk Dud. So that was the greatest! I also like Shorts Are Wrong, Sasquatch Stories, Born on a Train and The Poetry Jug. But I think I’m really very happy with what I’ve written in the last year. 


Chris Dankland is the co-founder of X-R-A-Y. His head is made of smoke.

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