Caterpillar Diaries: An Interview with Tyler Gonlag
Tyler Gonlag has worked for circuses, school districts and music festivals, which all require eerily similar skill sets. He's been published in many literary magazines, bathrooms walls and his name can probably be found carved underneath a rock or two in some desert on the West Coast, where he used to spend most of his time until coming to New York.
His poems are small and concise but take huge leaps through worlds natural and enchanted, whimsical and dark.
I spoke with Tyler via email about caterpillars, surrealism, his roots and his many talents.
- Alisha Kaplan
AK: What are you working on?
TG: Right now, I'm working on a project essentially focusing on my identity as a first generation Dutch-Indonesian. The poems are voiced through the persona of a caterpillar and generally are propelled by a surreal, magical engine that focuses on the modality of myth-building as a means of telling and sustaining a complex story. They've been very fun to write and allow for a great deal of playfulness in their ultimate attention to a serious subject.
AK: What draws you to persona poems and surrealism?
TG: I used to hate persona poems, but have now found an amazing freedom through them. Degas said that he didn't paint what he saw, but rather what would enable people to see what he sees. That's how the persona poem works for me, especially the ones I'm writing now. They operate mechanically but the cogs are more intuitive than anything else, which is what draws me to surrealism. The painting of an image and the expression of a line are both such unpredictable alchemies and can sometimes yield incredible revelations! When I sit down to write a poem, I open myself up to that "other world," a kind of reservoir I like to think of as a lagoon. It's really just a matter of rolling up my pant legs and pulling the weirdly colored fish from the water and putting them in my own little glass bowl, which is the poem.
AK: Speaking of pant legs, you're very tall. Why a caterpillar?
TG: 6'5 with my cowboy boots on! The caterpillar is such a vulnerable creature whose sole purpose is to prepare for some strange, magical transformation by voraciously eating everything it can. Nature blows my mind! But when I think about the history of Indonesia, especially when my family was there during the Second World War, I think of this relentless predation both exacted by and toward colonial oppression. Everything wants to eat caterpillars in the wild because they're so tasty and protein-nutrient rich. Trauma is very persistent and has a debilitating pervasiveness especially within families, and in the case of my caterpillar poems I think of addiction, abuse and silence as primary manifestations of that trauma. I also think about the crazy defense mechanisms certain caterpillars have been able to adopt through evolution, and the ways both families and individuals cope with survival.
AK: Are there particular poets who've inspired these poems or your writing in general?
TG: Jack Spicer is a huge influence, and I loved Richard Brautigan and Robinson Jeffers growing up. I'm from California, and am naturally drawn to both the physical and metaphysical landscape of water. Robert Hass is great, too!
AK: How does where you come from inform your work?
TG: I think about this a lot, and it's always in the back of my mind. I grew up close to the Pacific Ocean but technically in a desert, which is a strange combination of geographies. There's a starkness to both landscapes, a real magic in their austerity. The ocean is just so bottomless and harbors an entire world we really know nothing about, and the desert seems so barren at first glance but actually harbors an incredible level of biodiversity. I guess in this respect they're both similar, and in my work I try to use a simple vocabulary in order to elucidate images that are basic on their own, but when grouped together create an otherwordly, surprising texture.
AK: Favorite quote about poetry? Let me guess: something Jack Spicer said.
TG: There are so many! Sometimes I feel like a machine shouting them out all the time. My poor students just have to deal with it. Jack Spicer's lectures are full of great moments; here's one.
"Words are what stick to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to. I repeat – the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary."
AK: You are a man of many talents. Other than write wonderful poems, what can you do?
TG: I've been a hockey goalie for years! I played flamenco guitar for a while and now concentrate mostly on folk and country music. I was also a circus performer on the West Coast and still practice my fire juggling from time to time. There are actually a really limited amount of places in New York City to juggle fire. Californians are totally used to the absurdity and kind of embrace it. I'm always afraid that somebody is going to call the cops on me here.
AK: Tell me something magical.
TG: Halloween (my favorite holiday!) just passed, so here's a little poem by Richard Brautigan with my other favorite thing in it.
“I saw thousands of pumpkins last night
come floating in on the tide,
bumping up against the rocks and
rolling up on the beaches;
it must be Halloween in the sea."
For your reading pleasure, here is one of Tyler's caterpillar poems:
caterpillar diary, passage to atlantis
the amber tide of the living room is
somewhere only an idiot would lay
their ear over every shell listening
for the ocean outside themselves.
but my mother is no fool, she knows
this is how a city is buit: with beams
and then the whole moon follows
itself down a well to where drunks
take turns swinging. it's near noon
and I am seven again and watching
a plot in the yard where I've buried
pennies. my grandfather who stinks
of rye whiskey is the closest thing
to a pirate to have appeared all day.
his ship burned years ago, a fallen
lantern drew every moth for miles
and everything that eats moths