Twenty Questions with Sean Bishop

To celebrate the release of his poetry collection, The Night We're Not Sleeping In, during Sarabande's twentieth anniversary year, we played a game of twenty questions with Sean Bishop. He shared his thoughts on everything from his "Mirado Black Warrior #2 pencils" to how Google is conspiring with the Borg. Read on for this and more!

Summarize your forthcoming book, The Night We’re Not Sleeping In, in the form of an old-school SAT analogy: A:B::C:D.

Ha! I’m just gonna go full-on, over-serious, over-elaborate, armchair psycholo-physicist here:

  Grief : Loss  ::  Space : Universe
          Time                     Time

How did The Night We’re Not Sleeping In get its start—what was the germ?

There’s no true germ, but in the end the book definitely took orbit around the death of my father, which happened in 2008.

What’s the most daring thing you put into words while writing The Night We’re Not Sleeping In?

I think at the end of one poem I suggest that if God exists, what He probably wants most is to watch every human being suffer and die. So… probably that.

Do you write/edit to music? What’s your record of choice?

I’m a sucker for minimalist droney ambiance. I’ve been listening to Jim O’Rourke’s Happy Days regularly for, like, more than a decade. Recently I’m into Dawn of Midi’s Dysnomia.

Do you write/edit to booze? What’s your drink of choice?

Yeah that never actually works out, but my weakness for bourbon occasionally tricks me into thinking that it might.

Describe the moment you knew you would be a writer.

Blegh! I don’t know. I’m skeptical of anyone who “knows” they are “a writer” until a stack of books with their byline makes it an objective fact. And even then I will permit a grudging acknowledgment of writerhood to the public but not to oneself except maybe in moments of extreme self-doubt.

Do you have any quirky writing habits? Any lucky charms, rituals, tokens?

Nope. Well… I only use Pilot Precise rolling-ball pens, and when I write with a pencil I strongly prefer Mirado Black Warrior #2 pencils. I would call these habits “snobby,” though, not “quirky.”

What was your favorite book when you were twenty years old?

Oh boy: an opportunity to embarrass myself in writing. Actually, my favorite book at 20 was probably Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Which isn’t very embarrassing unless you read into it. STOP READING INTO IT!

What is your favorite or least favorite word?

“Little” for both. Specifically in poems. It’s just such a good, easy, playful way to make a serious thing ironically diminutive. And so, obviously, it needs to be destroyed. My book’s infested with littles, and I’m only confessing in the hope that doing so absolves me of my guilt.

What author would you like to lock in your basement to write you a novel?

Well… none. Novels are dumm and they get all the money. Death to the novel! Short fiction is cool, though.

An ice cream flavor is named after your book, what does it taste like?

Mmmmmmmm: death.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors or someone working on their first manuscript?

I’d say, toward the end of writing or assembling a manuscript, don’t trust yourself to know what your book is “about” or its governing obsessions—leave that to a good reader. A couple years ago a colleague of mine, Jesse Lee Kercheval, suggested that I write an ekphrastic poem about a particular exhibition of religious artwork, saying she thought it would be a good fit for me based on my manuscript. And I thought wow, okay, Jesse Lee clearly didn’t read my manuscript! But then I went back and read it again myself and realized for the first time that the whole thing—as in, for real, almost every poem—is a struggle with theodicy. And then that poem she told me to write actually made the cut for the book. So: toward the end of the book-building process I think it’s best to trust other smart readers, not yourself, to tell help you understand what you’re doing, even if the opposite is usually true in the very beginning stages of writing a book.

What’s your research obsession right now? (If you were to camp out for a week in the library, where would you pitch your tent?)

I’ve been researching any and every story pertaining to the Devil (and analogous figures) in canonical and deuterocanonical religious texts and folklore of the major and minor Abrahamic religions, which in part involves a labor-intensive process of scanning collections of midrash, etc., that have never been digitized in English, then making them searchable using OCR software, and pulling out passages pertaining to a very thorough set of keywords. Kind of insane, I know. So I’d probably be camped out near the Talmud, which—no joke—I’m pretty sure is catalogued in or near the “BS” stacks.

If not a writer, what would you be?

I already think of myself as a writer, editor, and print-and-web designer. So if not a writer, I’d just be those other two.

Shout out to your favorite indie bookstore?

Open Books, a poetry-only bookstore in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, probably saved my literary life. Post-undergrad, working a crap job for a garbage wage, I lived three blocks from Open Books, and walking into that store was one of the only things that reminded me there was more to me than the sum of my current day-to-day life. It was a magic book-closet where what I cared about held meaning to people other than myself.

What two authors would you like to see in a celebrity death match?

Brigit Pegeen Kelly vs. the Ghost of Russell Edson. Ghost-Edson would squinch up his face and summon an ape to throw rotten fruit at Kelly. Kelly’s eyes would roll back into her head and she’d summon an antlered swan-angel to drag Ghost-Edson back to poet-heaven. Kelly wins!

     (I have often dreamed of a hack or a skin for the original Mortal Kombat game, changing the fighters into literary figures and devising new “fatality” animations … but I lack the skills to do it myself. So, somebody out there, get on that and submit it to me at, please and thank you.)

What’s next for your writing? Anything at the tip of your pen?   

I’ve been futzing around with a book-length erasure of The Origin of Species for seven goddamned years. It keeps growing and accumulating new ideas. Now, I’m pretty sure, it’s going to be a non-linear interactive e-book as well as a traditional start-to-finish paper book. But I really need to poop or get off the pot on that project. And if I don’t poop I’ll die of not-pooping.

     Plus I’ve got this Devil thing going on (see #13 above), whatever that turns into.

What do the next 20 years hold for literature? Predict the literary climate in 2034.    

“Novelist” will evolve to mean “screenwriter for indie films,” “indie films” will become critic-speak for “bad movies,” “poetry” will become a synonym for “Twitter,” and creative nonfiction will become the only genuine literary form. (Just kidding! We’ll all be dead in 20 years!)

     Joking aside: If we don’t all die soon, then creative nonfiction will expand and distill into more clearly defined genres, hopefully rendering the term “nonfiction” defunct. Meanwhile poetry will keep roughly the readership it has now, and fiction’s readership will shrink to resemble poetry’s. As a result, the overall quality of published fiction will improve.

If only one book could survive the apocalypse, what should it be?                  

If we’re talking about an apocalypse so extreme as to incinerate all but one book, then probably it should be some kind of medical or physics instruction/equation book, right? Because let’s be real: when the shockwave hits the dookie, poetry won’t matter; we’ll just need to make sure Zefram Cochrane is able to invent the warp drive so the Borg don’t install Google Glass in/on all our brains/faces.

Compose a haiku in honor of Sarabande’s twentieth anniversary:             

When the Borg beam down
to old Kentuck’, Sarabande…
you’ll rescue us, right?