A Conversation with Tyler Raso, Winner of the 2022 Frontier Chapbook Contest
We’re excited to share this wonderful, in-depth conversation with Tyler Raso, whose forthcoming chapbook, In my dreams/I love like an idea, was selected by Tom Sleigh as the winner of the 2022 Frontier Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming in May.
Please read, share, and stay tuned for the full chapbook, which will be available for free download through Frontier‘s website!
MEGAN KIM: Tyler, I’m so excited to talk about this chapbook with you. I keep discovering new details and connections each time I come back to it! One initial question I had was around the prevalence of clinical language / terminology in the book because I feel like that is one of the first things the reader is greeted with as a pattern. I’m curious, because your speaker’s voice itself is so lyric, so fluid and lush, about the tension that maybe arises there. I’d love to know how you see that tension working and what led you to this language.
TYLER RASO: I think in my writing process this was one of the biggest mysteries to me. Like, why do these forms keep showing up? What am I fighting against and why? As a person diagnosed, I think a lot about what my “I” is up against. What language, what narratives, have institutions imprinted over my “I” or scripted ahead of me? I’m drawn toward trying to strange those forms and kind of interrogate or intervene.
So the “I” that’s going through the indexes, for example–it’s sort of decontextualized, but there’s still this central imagination, or lyric identity, of the project, which is working through questions of what it is that I’m undoing and then, what it is I’m trying to craft for myself. Everyone experiences a huge spectrum of self, and of feeling, but for myself and for others who experience what we call bipolar disorder, the range is quite large. There’s so many possibilities and transformations. With the indexes: I look at the statements in them, like “I can weep” or “I can tell time” and part of that is like, what does it mean to try to quantify one’s ability to weep? And part of it is, I can look at those at any point and know I am still in this body, in this mind, experiencing my life, but simultaneously I am so many possibilities on these spectrums of feeling and self. And some of those are more wounded than others, and some of them are more hopeful, but the indexes specifically try to express the range.
MK: Thinking about this spectrum of I’s and the possibility of I, I’m interested in how none of the indexes are actually marked–like the reader is not told what point of the spectrum the speaker is experiencing in that particular moment.
TR: Yeah, so obviously the chapbook begins with a diagnosis, but I wanted that to be the only diagnosis (for both self and reader) throughout. Part of this project is trying to lyrically unravel what it is to live with a mind that others categorize as “this or that.” So I wanted the indexes to be impossible to participate in. Obviously the quantifying/psychiatric presence doesn’t always align with the actual line, so you’re left trying to answer fragments of a sentence, or partial images, or an image that gets complicated immediately afterward–they mirror that psychiatric logic of a self should be predictable enough to give a name to or align with these qualities, but even if you try to participate, you don’t gain anything from it–you don’t gain a term, or a legibility. That “impossibility” was really important to me.
MK: In addition to the indexes, you have the repeated form of the clusterdream, and I noticed that a lot of these particular poems contain more prose-like sections. I was hoping you could speak a little to the process of the clusterdreams–how they emerged, how you see their repetition working.
TR: The clusterdreams were a happy accident. The sort of “lyric journal” process was something I gave to myself when quarantine fully landed and we were all so isolated. I was living alone at the time in Chicago and hadn’t written a poem in months, and then quarantine started and I was like, Well, I’m all alone now. I’m out of a job. I can fill this space with language. And the “music” that I thought of as poetry at the time wasn’t coming to me, so I just started really defaulting to prose–not to say it’s less musical than poetry, but for some reason that’s what was coming.
A couple of the clusterdreams came later, when I was in a class with Adrian Matejka that was centered around inter-genre or genre-less writing, which was a very exciting class and very generative for me. I started collaging some of the clusterdream sections together–I typed them up, printed them out on their own pieces of paper, cut and pasted them in various shapes. The way they look now on the page is kind of top to bottom, but I’d say the ones in the first half of the chapbook–those are collaged after the fact. A lot of the later clusterdreams I actually sat down and was like, okay, I’m going to do this form now as an intentional gift to myself. When I read through, I can kind of feel that transformation.
The meditation and graph poems were adjacent to my morbid fascination with psychiatric forms. I was reading a lot of self-help books, because–and, I don’t know if this is a totally healthy way to think about it–I find self help kind of hilarious. It’s like, camp. And I’ve always tried to understand it. Anyway, I was downloading self-help books off of any torrent website I could find, and just mostly scanning intros and early sections, and I was coming across a lot of this language like, depression is a choice, sadness is a choice, you just have to“choose” better. And obviously I hate that, so I was kind of like, you know what, I’ll take these self help tools and I’ll just have fun with them. So those ended up becoming the equal breathing meditation poem, for example, or the relationship satisfaction scale. In the same way the clusterdream as a prose collage was a gift to myself to in the face of feeling like poetry as I’d thought of it up until that point was no longer accessible to me, sometimes I feel like these forms I find in these books–tools of breath, or satisfaction–aren’t necessarily accessible to me based on how I move through the world. So I decided to craft a version of them to better match my experience, even if sometimes they’re more messy in their truth.
MK: I love the origin story of the self-health books, ha. I resonate with that sense of necessity to rethink your work stemming from quarantine, or whatever other material factor. Like, finding that something that once worked isn’t working any more, or just not translating to your current circumstances. I feel like that also really aligns with this idea of resisting or unlearning a clinical/diagnostic language, as well. Kind of like resisting the “diagnosis” of genre.
TR: Yeah, I think I was subconsciously on this wavelength back when I was writing this chapbook too, but I’ve noticed recently that a lot of my writing is working toward an unlearning. What is poetry? What does it mean to have a self, a mind, a gender, etc? The clusterdream form was a forcible unlearning of what I internalized about poetry–that it needs to look pretty, sound pretty, follow an arc, “look” like a poem on the page, etc. The clusterdreams were a beginning to that larger unraveling. I’m not really interested in categorizing.
MK: The line “I love how nothing looks like itself” really stood out to me because I see that. I see in the poems that the speaker loves that. So many of the poems hinge on the simile, specifically with the word like. They stack on top of each other, often with just “and” as the bridge between one simile and the next. I’m curious about how you see comparison, simile in particular, living in these poems, and what led you to this craft choice.
TR: I love thinking about similes! At some point I need to actually sit down and work through my ideas on them in an essay or something. I started writing prior to a diagnosis, and there were a lot of frantic associations in my mind as I was trying to make sense of the ways in which I didn’t feel in sync with the world. So like was a word that just very naturally slipped into a lot of my writing and has been something I’ve tried to, as much as possible, not train or assimilate out of my language. It’s sort of a darling of mine. I’m not sure if this is a popular take on the simile, but I really love how little bridges in language like the word like or as are kind of gestural. It’s the same as the writer saying, hey, I’m moving, I’m going somewhere new, I’m trying to make this work. I think of it like handwriting. There’s something so personal about the movement of a hand.
With like, I also think a lot about the idea of passing. This is maybe a leap, but a year and a half-ish ago, I had just gotten out of a huge relationship and I was going to therapy, and I was like, Oh it’s kind of lonely to get back into the dating scene. I expressed that sometimes I feel like I’m just waiting for this conversation to happen where I say, by the way, I am diagnosed with this thing, and I don’t know how the other person is going to take it. And my therapist did not respond to that by saying, Oh, I understand why you might feel that way or Here are some ways to have that conversation. She said, Well, you know, people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder and are consistently intaking their medication are more functional than the average person. And I hated that answer. Because what is “functional?” And I was thinking of this idea of functioning. When someone sees me or when I see myself sort of deviating from what might be considered an “average” experience–my passing as a sane person, for instance–or also related to my gender nonconformity, that “passing” can be revoked at any moment. Someone can look at me and think, well, that person isn’t following the script correctly, and that could have disastrous consequences depending on the context, depending on who is doing the looking. And I think about the like a lot in that context, because in simile I’m saying, this thing is not that thing. It cannot actually transform into that thing. But there is a likeness. It’s me taking control of that script of normalcy, or rather, saying there is no script. These things are all just like each other. On one hand, my use of like is kind of a lyric power play, and on the other hand, it’s an anxious response to recognizing I will be looked at and categorized, and the like is the vehicle by which people do that.
MK: I guess also on the topic of like, is there an origin or story behind how the chapbook’s title came to be?
TR: I think a lot about mirrors, which is also sort of connected to my feelings on like because I think about like as us announcing the way we want to look at a thing and projecting in some sense that thing as a mirror to the way we want the world to be or believe it is. So the slash in the title I think of as a mirror.
As a chronic people pleaser, learning to love has been unlearning to transform myself into someone I’m not. Or unlearning the ways in which I conform to the ideas others have of me. And also trying to unpack that this is not a violence that other people intend for me, or at least not everyone. There are perfectly well meaning people whom I love and who love me with whom I still give into that people pleasing instinct. And we all do this, to a certain extent. So loving like an idea is a kind of a recognition or admittance of how I have constructed love for myself in ways that do not actually affirm me or benefit me. But I think it’s also kind of aspirational. It acknowledges love is bigger, and also asks, what is love? It’s both an opening toward a more capacious kind of love and a recognition that it is not always a good thing to fit under the confines of an idea.
MK: The more I read it the more I was interested in how slippery that line is–it can be a neutral thing. But it can also be an aspirational thing, or a harmful thing. And I think the same thing goes for the language or connotations of “dream.” For instance, are we talking about hope, or a projection of the subconscious? I feel like there’s so much possibility in that word.
TR: I think poets and writers of all kinds can probably resonate with this, but I think about how it’s really easy to use dreams as a substitute for living, or as a substitute for loving, and I think that’s not something we need to untrain ourselves in necessarily, but it’s definitely something the chapbook becomes gradually more aware of and more willing to confront about itself as it moves on.
MK: That actually channels well into what I wanted to ask you next, which is when did this project take the form of a chapbook, and what did it teach about yourself as a writer?
TR: What’s kind of strange and beautiful about this one in particular is that it originated in a way way earlier form as my undergrad thesis, which I wrote essentially as a book length project. It was visual and strange, and I painted on pages of the DSM, and did erasure poems, and it took up a lot of space I was experimentally wandering through. A majority of the lyric poems that are traditionally lineated come from that version of the project and have been revised and grown alongside me. I think in–I don’t like the word downsizing because it feels hierarchical in some way–but in spatially making it smaller, something about the chapbook feels much more mysterious than a book, if that makes sense. I don’t know if I’ll feel like that forever but I definitely feel like that right now. Something about the full length book feels like it requires a certain degree of mastery over the topic or lyric spaces it goes, whereas this subject wasn’t something I wanted to bring that thoroughness to. The chapbook, being more confined, also feels more ephemeral.
I had all these poems from when I was twenty-one, and I was like, Okay, these aren’t bad. Something’s going on here, I could do something with these. But I was barely aware of who I was as a person, or a poet. I got here, through my MFA, through quarantine, and was so alone with myself, with my language and my thoughts. The clusterdreams showed up as a kind of disruption into what I thought was correct, fashionable poetic music, and as my writing became more strange, I was like, I just can’t see this as a book (not that books can’t be strange) but I felt the work needed a different space, it’s own little room.
MK: When you were talking about the idea of mystery, it reminded me of what you said about the simile as a gesture. The chapbook feels like a full exploration in itself, but also a gesture rather than a more assertive stance, I suppose.
TR: I like how this speaker is kind of trying to reach toward the reader with this recognition of I’m still growing, I’m still trying to figure this out. I think the chapbook especially is a beautiful container for that kind of experiment in the self, or that experiment within the craft of the self. And I think all of these things can happen in a book, but when you’re “emerging” (whatever that even means), chapbooks just feel more generous and near and familiar. The compactness helps the urgency.
MK: I think I mentioned to you I had this brief conversation with Eugenia Leigh about her book, Bianca, over email. It felt like those poems were very vulnerable and I could imagine them having been difficult to write, so I asked her what she did to care for herself in the midst of writing them, and she told me the question was actually surprising to her because the writing on her end actually began as that act of care for herself through the things she was writing about. I know there’s a poem in your chapbook in which there’s a conversation in this vein between the speaker and the therapist, and I’m curious what your relationship is with this question–of writing and care and how they’re connected for you.
TR: I love this question, and I’m still kind of practicing what it means for me. I was thinking about this when I was putting this manuscript together because, you know, I had to pull together past versions of myself, and semi-current versions of myself in a shared manuscript and kind of revise them to look at each other and forgive each other, or hold each other. As I was doing that, I found I really wanted to cut that first poem, because it ends with apologies. It felt to me that it ended with saying I’m sorry I’m not what you want, but I can teach you to want me, or tolerate me, and so on. And I think it’s doing more than that in the full chapbook, but I was rereading that page over and over again and thinking, why do I always feel the need to apologize for everything? I go to a poem, of all things, and I could say anything I want there, but I’m apologizing? And, I mean, that impulse comes from a million places, but when I was reading through this question and thinking a lot about my relationship with care, I realized it’s just really hard to take deep, restful, restorative care of any kind, let alone when you experience things that are traumatizing, and it feels a lot of time like I’m stealing care back from the world.
A lot of the care within the project comes from moments when what was happening didn’t seem like care at the time–both self care and someone bringing care to the speaker–and the speaker is now returning to those moments to say oh, I have felt love, or someone has brought me into their world, or I have invited others into mine, and that came naturally in a certain way at a certain time, even when I didn’t have a name for it. Poetry has gifted me with being able to re-contextualize what we aren’t taught is care into care. Into something maybe even deeper than what we think of as care.
MK: Wow, yes, thank you. I found the way you phrased putting past and present and even future versions of self into a container and having them forgive each other really beautiful, also. On a related note, “I will meet you at joy soon” is another line that really stood out to me, I think in part for its strangeness–joy becomes an actual destination, and the speaker is speaking with such confidence. It made me wonder, what do you feel like the chapbook’s relationship to hope is more broadly (if you even think about it in terms of hope)?
TR: Yeah, I mean I really do think about it in terms of hope.
This is kind of a rewind, but relevant to this question. Something I was very intentional about as I was putting this whole thing together is the project starts out really webbed up in this clinical language, in projecting this clinical gaze onto the self, but then about halfway through there are tiny emergences where the clusterdreams are absent of that–where there used to be giant meditations or a term that was related to psychology, there’s just empty space. And I don’t think emptiness is hope, per say, but I think in that unlearning, there’s more space for us to fill, or transform, so I think that’s the kind of hope the project is most interested in. Once I’ve removed all this stuff that’s trying to erase or confine me, how much more space do I actually have, and how can I fill it with joy, or others, or rest.
As a student of Ross Gay, the concept of joy is so textured and resilient and strange to me, so I think so much about what joy even is. I might mess it up in the paraphrasing, but there’s this line from Book of Delights when Ross Gay mentions that within each of us is a wilderness and this wilderness is unnameable but it can also be called sorrow, and when we as people put our wildernesses together, we could call that a process of joy. In some sense, sorrow and joy have an alchemical relationship to each other. This project doesn’t want to refuse sorrow. It’s more interested in saying, These things have happened, I do carry them. But even so, where does joy enter into the space between these things, or how can I build room within them for joy? And I think that’s a hopeful process.
Tyler Raso (they/them) is a poet, essayist, and teacher who feels most at home near rivers. Their work has shared space with POETRY, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, Foglifter Journal, Split Lip Magazine, Salt Hill Journal, and elsewhere. They are often wandering, unraveling, or both—but you can reach them on Twitter @spaghettiutopia or through their website, tylerraso.com.