LOVE IS A SHITPOST FROM THE SOUL: A Profile of Cash Compson by K Hank Jost

LOVE IS A SHITPOST FROM THE SOUL: A Profile of Cash Compson by K Hank Jost

“You ever waste much time with this guy?”

Cash has removed from the bookshelf a tattered volume of Hunter S. Thompson. He holds it aloft with a smirk I will come increasingly to recognize as punctuation to a dry joke. 

The both of us are now newly in our thirties, young but fresh in our next decade, and our trip to the bookstore has largely been a coming to terms with all that we once read and held sacred. Kerouac. Bukowski. Thompson. Hemingway. All the etceterated, quintessential, sensitive but itchy-fisted guy-reads. The one, though, that we mutually hold in unshakeable esteem is Faulkner, blooming a brotherhood, a surprise in finding your counterpart sits on the same side of the great modernist divide as yourself. Had Cash been a Heming-bro, I don’t think we would have gotten on as well as we did. We both like a ramble. 

RE: Faulkner—: “What is it about him, do you think?”

“I couldn’t tell you, man.” Cash says, flipping through a brittle-spined Absalom, Absalom!, “It’s just good. The best anyone’s ever done it…”

I’m tickled to bits…

Here’s the thing: Cash Compson is a Connecticut boy. It may seem, and certainly is, retrograde, especially coming from someone who gave undergrad a shot in Indiana only to move to NYC on young man’s gamble, but I grew up in Georgia—deep swamp and red clay Georgia—and I still carry with me many of the class-anxieties and regionalist biases that a backwoods, guns-for-Christmas upbringing will imprint on the softer parts of one’s soul. All to say, Connecticut doesn’t register much for me as a place folks I’d get on well with originate from, much less proudly hail as home. Regardless, a friendship formed fast and the day passed, honestly, too quick.

I’d reached out to Cash about a week before to do an interview. Seeing as he’s close enough to the City, I figured best do it in person, make a day of it, see how deep we could get the thing going. 

Sweat-palmed and nervous in a way our mutual literary hero (and many of his characters) would surely understand, I met Cash out front of a coffee shop in the East Village to kick the thing off.

Any anxiety I had toward meeting a stranger from a strange land was quickly quelled. Cash moves through interactions with all the humility one would expect from a poet. I’ve mentioned above the dryness of his humor—but, there’s more to his mannerisms. Though he claims to feel he gesticulates too wildly or meanders too widely in his discourse, I found nothing further from the truth. Cash speaks at a sure and pointed clip but is never one to fill dead air for the sake of its filling.  

Perhaps I’d read too much into the title of his debut poetry collection, People Scare Me (published by House of Vlad), which occasioned this interview. I’d expected someone much haughtier or even brooding. My private reading of the collection ought to have prepared me for the generous soul with whom I was about to share the totality of a NYC St. Patrick’s Day…

After the bookstore, we arrive at a bar in which I used to work—I’ve convinced the owner to open up early for us and lock us in so that Cash and I can speak uninterrupted. The green-clad masses peer in during our conversation, knock on the glass front, ask us in window-muffled shouts when the bar opens.

I have one great burning question regarding the collection: “These are love poems, right?”

“Oh yeah,” He says, grins.

“But there’s, like, an arc to them.” I’m unsure in my questions, wary of possible misreadings. As a prose writer, my conception of poets—regrettable, and with apology to any who may be reading this…—is that they’re precious about their work.

“What do you mean?”

And here the fear confirmed—that I’ve overstepped, proposed some great hermeneutic architecture on a text meant to be opposite of whatever it is I am about to say. But I say it anyway, stuttering all through: “I mean, like, look, at the beginning there’s this idea of love all over the place, this consumptive, all-consuming, nearly destructive, eviscerative, notion that I don’t know: a turn-me-to-mush-put-me-in-a-bucket-and-carry-me-around-in-that-bucket-forever idea of love, but then by the end—I mean there’s that beautiful moment of the poet, the narrator, you or whoever, looking at his wife while she’s sleeping and… The idea of love changes over the course of the collection. You know what I mean?”

“Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, listen,” Beer down, brow thought-twisted, “Where the book begins—to be totally honest, I started writing a lot of these poems in 2020, going into 2021, a relationship had ended, and I was living alone. It was still COVID times, and I felt very isolated and, yeah, there was this idea of love as this kind of intense, all-consuming thing—a toxicity that I’ve identified with a lot of relationships and loves over the years. Later on in the book it’s not that, it’s like actual real love that I found. The first chunk goes from somebody who’s very scared of everything, of people, of everything around, of myself—I don’t know if I identify it in the book, but I have bi-polar disorder, and that’s something that has shaped my life—and in that first chunk of the book there’s a lot of feeling unsafe, and then by the end we’re looking at a sense of safety, and nobody’s made me feel more safe that the woman I married last year, so… for me that’s the narrative push, the arc, that’s what I latch onto, it feels like the collection is telling that story…”

Now we’re cooking: “For sure, but at the same time I don’t want to make it seem like the idea is that this collection comes to a milquetoast, middle-class, panacea point about love—the chaos remains in these poems. Love doesn’t serve to abate the chaos of life and mental illness, it doesn’t get rid of it.”

“Yeah, no… I’m still myself… Falling in love is happening while all the rest is happening.”

“One of the big things I noticed in the book is this wild, sometimes line-by-line, oscillation between the poet’s feeling very small and very large—the jump from the squished and smothered to this almost heroic or epic grandness…”

“Sure thing. I mean, I’ll have a feeling or be in a mood of a certain way and I’ll have this thought of like, is this the bi-polar making me feels this way, am I having the beginnings of an episode, or am I just feeling life? And in the book there’s that constant toggling between the two, and honestly that’s just kinda something that for years I’ve felt in my life, for years I’ve wanted to make that go away, and I’ve just had to realize that that’s how I am. If we’re looking at one line or page versus the next—I mean, there’s a section of the book called Blowing My Brains Out on Your Foliage!! It’s all there! Honestly, the poems are just me writing down what’s going on and I think it all shows up there, it’s just a big pile of a lot of different things…”

“But, how do you go about getting that stuff down? There’s so much life in this collection, real lived-life, true shit—what’s the process like for you? Are you setting time aside or—?”

“When I was growing up I’d read about writers like Stephen King getting up and writing 10,000 words, I’d be like ‘Oh my God, I didn’t write 10,000 words today, I must be a loser!’, or reading about Toni Morrison who talks about getting up at the absolute crack of dawn—that all sounds great, and that’s awesome, but me…I’ve just constantly had a notebook with me since I was a teenager and I’d slip off to the bathroom or go somewhere and write a couple lines and revisit it later, or more ideally I’d sit down and write for three to five minutes and it’s there, you know, that feeling where it’s just coming out and you’re not really thinking at all, you’re just doing something—and then afterwards you do a lot of revisions and stuff like that. So, I’m just writing poems at random times and then going on the computer at home and editing them that way, and honestly once this collection got going it was just a word document with a lot of poems in it: I’d have more poems, put more poems in the document, and it would just be like a line or two that would start it. Long hand, occasionally typing on my phone—I get obsessive though, once something starts, I’m not moving until it’s done, obsessively returning… I’m glad this book is out in the world so I can stop fucking writing it… I haven’t heard from a lot of people who are like ‘These are brilliant love poems’ I’ve mostly heard that ‘wow, there’s a lot of fucked up shit in this book…’”

But People Scare Me is, in fact and without a doubt, fundamentally a book of love poems. And they’re damn good love poems. The aforementioned arc toward that purity of care and fascination which defines true love aside, it’s the fact that the love survives within its environment of chaos, not only of mental illness but also the general anxieties that plague our generation here at the edge of apocalypse. 

This positioning has too often made writers of this generation ironic or flippant in their tone—trafficking so much in ‘a lot of fucked up shit,’ and the fucked-up-edness acting as the metric for their work’s value. Everything must be crazy, twisted, and fatalistic in its humor. What stands out about Compson’s collection, other than its clandestine centering of the arc of learning what love really means—and it is clandestine, covered over with all the internet’s baroque referentiality, irony, and shit-posting—, is his treatment of these millennial trappings, superseding the merely ‘fucked up.’

If you’ll allow me a moment’s exegetic digression, there’s a few poems that stand-out most clearly to my reading wherein the indie-lit, internet poetry mode reaches a clinamen, twisting and breaking onto a path of sublimity:

The first of these blasts its colors in the title: I Watch TV All Day: If Gilmore Girls Was Rebooted by HBO. The following several pages of verse reimagines the saccharine, no-stakes comfort watch with all the egregious grit we’ve come to expect from so-called ‘premium’ television—the imagery itself imbued with the purple, blue, and orange of Euphoria and A24’s ‘bisexual lighting.’ It’s a brilliant dig, a funny thought to spend some reading time with—but, it’s masterfully underpinned with complex feelings beyond the joke’s wit. The central question is our relationship with media, particularly television, and what we expect it to tell us of the world we live in. Even an updated Gilmore would be as much the lie as the unremarkable innocence of the original—the amount of evil and venom Cash imagines in the gritified version is almost too much to bear, bounding into the hilarity of its spectacle only a few short stanzas in:

 

‘Richard Gilmore makes

his money

from child labor

and wears a monocle

and Emily 

is nevermore

after an uprising

of all her fired hired help

leaves her hung crooked

from a chandelier in the room

where they once had drinks

at Friday Night Dinners.’

 

In a poem reflecting on the practice of writing in the present day, Why I Am Not the Next Great American Novelist, Compson tackles again the question of whether or not things can ever be as they were—this time, though, without any nostalgia and a tad less venom. The question posed is one woven through much of the collection’s work, and perhaps the reason my reading became so hung up on the love poems—in that they build an argument for some forever-notion, some attempt at truth in the storm. It’s that anxiety over forever, over having missed out, over the words we grew up knowing the definitions of changing their definitions—the fear that there might not be any more great writers, not because nobody reads, but because the world won’t allow for a sustained moment of silence and calm, because no writing can get done anymore:

‘He [Jonathan Franzen] does that. He is

the Great American Old Unfazed UnWoke UnBrave

novelist who

is a flash of luddite

brilliance and 

he does not say sorry

even when what we do now

is say sorry, a lot.’

 

And this sentiment reaches its highest expression in the closing poem of People Scare Me. I’ve half a mind to print the whole thing here.  It’s a perfect cap on the building gesture of the collection. Here, just listen a moment:

‘So this is as good as writing into nothingness, vacancy,

about you and the way smoke clings

when the air is almost all ocean. I do it

because we’re here.

Hello, wind.

Hello, Keats.

Hello, Sexton. Vuong. Lowell. Emily.

In 70 years we’ll be the same.

Unremembered. Beauty-less and unnerved

At the end of us. I hope it’s a pasture.

I hope I’m never alone.’

 

…In 70 years we’ll be the same…

The collection’s end, expressing an increasingly common anxiety among millennial artists, myself included: That we’ve missed the opportunity to leave our art to the future, because there’s no future to have. The fatalism in this sentiment is one that every artist I know is currently fighting against. Some have cow-towed the certainty of extinction and history’s end by giving up the grind altogether, plowing headlong into games of clout and short-term ladder-climbing, or they’ve surrendered art completely and sat themselves in the dying stream of bourgeois aspiration, clambering at fake email jobs, bullshit startups, or the hollow promise of crypto-currency’s supposed and soon-to-be-seen supremacy—either way, all grabbing what little flotsam of economic security they can before the imminence of collapse becomes the immanence of regular catastrophe.

Here too, in the fundament of love Cash has built his debut upon, lies the sweetening of this millennial bitterness: this arc of love, from selfish and destructive to selfless and constructive, is one that hinges upon the hope for things to come. ‘In 70 years we’ll be the same…’ We’ll still be in love. We’ll still be writing poems. We’ll still be celebrating the poems of those who inspired us to write poems. We’ll still be inspiring others to write poems. We’ll still be… Together…

About a month after Cash and I spoke, had our rollick about town, and formed a friendship, KGB hosted the release party for People Scare Me. If the singe and cinder of nostalgia for a literary world that matters encapsulated in those few lines of his collection’s last poem could be prescribed a salve other than raw, naïve, dumb hope, a reading and party like this would surely be the first course of treatment of most medical professionals. A near-carnival of twitterati, NYC locals and travelers alike. Jillian Luft, Bud Smith, Lexi Kent-Monning, Danielle Chelosky, Emily Laura Costa, Kirsti Mackenzie, Catherine Spino, and, of course, Cash himself. That’s just the readers! In the audience that night, and spilling over into the bar downstairs for lack of seating in the upper room, were yet more indie-lit writers, people known mostly by their posts and publications in our little rambunctious internet rags. 

…In 70 years we’ll be the same…

Brother Cash, we’re the same now! The Algonquin folks got nothing on the party that followed that night—whether it was the East Village spanning bar-crawl after the fact or the reading itself! This is the literary world now! The Beats ain’ shit! Big 5, take a hike. 

We spend an afternoon perusing the bookstore, nostalgic for days and movements dead long before our birth. And good, we learn from that stuff. We’d be nowhere what we are without Daddy Faulkner! But, damn, look at us go!

We’re the same now: chasing something worth building a forever on, redefining love, smoking too many cigarettes, drinking the sun up, publishing in our generation’s versions of those lost mimeographs, zines, and reviews, partying with our peers, reading each other’s work.

Goddamn right, ‘Hello, Keats!’ It’s nice to see you!


K Hank Jost is a writer of fiction, poet, and editor born in Texas and raised in Georgia. He believes language is the only remaining commons, and through its meaningful deployment all lost commons may be rendered fresh. He is the author of the novel-in-stories Deselections, the novel MadStone, and is editor-in-chief of the literary quarterly A Common Well Journal–produced and published by Whiskey Tit Books. His fiction and poetry are recently featured/forthcoming in Vol.1 Brooklyn, The Burning Palace, Hobart, and BULL. He is currently seeking representation/a publisher for his newest novel, Aquarium, while he works on his fourth book. He has led fiction workshops at the Brooklyn Center for Theatre Research, writes event reviews for the New Haven Independent, and is the Reviews/Interviews Editor at X-R-A-Y Lit Mag. Residing in Brooklyn with his partner, he reads as much as he can, writes as much as he can, and works as much as he must.

Read Next: HERO WORSHIP LEADS TO CULTS: An Interview with Brad Neely