Joyless House Interview: Alex Mussawir
(not Alex's actual head)
Every time I visit Columbus, Ohio, I manage to have some swell, life-affirming experience. Whether it's meeting the Grave Blankets, playing with the Cheater Slicks or Tommy Jay, coincidentally witnessing the Ohio State Buckeyes' homecoming parade the day before watching them beat Russell Wilson's Wisconsin Badgers in forehead-slapping fashion, or dropping acid and preaching to street people from Kevin's porch, I always leave with some lasting memories. In June of last year, we took the Joyless Road Show to Used Kids Records and I was lucky enough to read with a young local poet named Alex Mussawir. Alex displayed the morbid reticence that is the sure calling card of a true artist. Sure enough, I was duly impressed with his reading. To get an idea of Alex's style, imagine if Steven Wright and Stephin Merritt somehow managed to have a baby and weaned him on Joy Division. You get the picture?
Some time after June's Joyless in Columbus, I got around to reading Deadpan, a short story collection of Alex's published by Monster House Press. I knew that I had to reconnect with this hep, talented young cat. What better way to toot his eccentric horn than by hosting a rambling, incoherent interview? Right. Alex agreed right away, and here it is:
Joyless House: Hi Alex. Thanks for joining us. Do you care for something to drink? Coffee? Tea? We do have a full wet bar. Alright, then . . . let's get started.
When did you first begin to consider yourself a writer or poet? Or do you consider yourself a writer or poet?
Alex Mussawir: I always think "ummmm" for a long time when someone asks if I consider myself a writer or a poet or something. I don't know how to answer it. I used to say "No, I'm a line cook" when people asked because I was working full time in a kitchen, but I don't work that much anymore so I don't know what to say.
JH: Fair enough. Next question: Were books, poetry, etc., a big part of your childhood?
AM: I didn't read very many books growing up. I didn't really know anybody who read a lot. I grew up in a mostly working class neighborhood on the north side of Columbus. I don't really remember anybody seeming very interested in literature. You grew up in Wisconsin right? What was it like for you? JH: I happened to have a family that read a lot. And I was insomniac as a kid so my mother would give me comic books, to take to bed then, later, mystery novels and shit. Also I had no friends in the neighborhood.
AM: Nice. In middle school and high school I started reading the lyrics of bands. I remember really liking the lyrics on the blue Adolescents record. I didn't start liking novels and poetry until Junior year of high school. I started reading a lot then.
JH: You seem to recognize the overlap that's possible between music and literature; song lyrics being akin to poetry and what not. Do you find that, in Columbus, anyway, that there is an overlap in people's interest in these areas? Are people who are very into music more likely to be interested in literature? Like, am I barking up the wrong tree trying to sell novels to punk rockers and hipsters?
AM: I don't know if there is an overlap. I have no idea what people are interested in. Like instead of reading novels a person might grow vegetables in their yard or work on cars or something. I usually read a few hours / day, but I try to avoid thinking about what other people do or don't do. Sometimes I will give a book to somebody if I think they might like it. My friend Aaron Miller regularly gives me books and that feels good.
JH: I see. I am incapable of growing vegetables or fixing cars, or anything practical. So I write. As soon as I can convince other people that they are interested in reading, I will do that.
AM: Yeah, for sure. Sometimes I wish I knew more practical things. Doing practical things makes me feel better. Would be cool to have a large backyard with a lot of wood to chop or something. I have never chopped wood before, but it seems like something I would like doing.
JH: It's funny that you mention chopping wood specifically: currently I write all my shit while I'm working; it's some sort of right-brain/left-brain reconciliation thing. When I think about how I would write if I didn't have to work a job, I picture going into the woods and just chopping wood. It's a healthy endeavor.
AM: What do you do for work?
JH: I work at a factory.
AM: I see. I understand the left brain / right brain thing. I don't have that anymore because I work door at a bar and I just sit there for 6 hours while drinking coffee. I should walk into the woods for a week.
JH: Take food if you do. Just in case. I am from a very small town in Wisconsin. The place has had a great influence on my writing, my perspective. Do you feel like the great, sprawling city of Columbus, OH has had a big influence on your writing or your identity? I've always had a fine time in Columbus, by the way.
AM: I have always lived in Ohio and don't have any plans to leave. I think I can relate to people from Ohio. I like riding the bus around and like eating alone at diners. It is quiet. Things are cheap. One of my roommates works two nights a week as a bar back and can pay for food, rent, and utilities. Everyone I know who lives in New York has to work all the time. I like Wisconsin too. I have only been to Milwaukee, but I liked being there. Columbus is good. People will come here and not understand why anyone would want to live here. It is hard to explain, I think.
JH: You make a good effort. What can you tell us about Monster House Press?
AM: Monster House Press is a small press organized, for the most part, by my friend Richard Wehrenberg Jr. who is from Ohio but currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana. I view Richard as a source of constant and unending support. In a past life I think Richard may have lived on top of a mountain. Some writers involved with Monster House Press are Danielle Gagliano, James Payne, Jordan Castro, Morgan Eldridge, Aaron Miller, Wendy Lee Spacek, and Mallory Whitten. I have enjoyed reading books by all of them. Monster House Press will probably publish a lot of books in the next five years. Probably none of the books will sell many copies because everyone involved lives in the Midwest, doesn't know anything about marketing, and dislikes capitalism, to some degree, I think.
JH: I think in a past life I may have lived under a bridge and accosted innocent passers-by and riddled them with intrusive questions.
The publishing industry, like the music industry and everything else in America is dominated by big money. It would be easy to just assume that nothing truly different or independent will ever become popular or make money. The encouraging thing is that regular people now have more access than ever before to the means of disseminating information. The emerging generation of writers has the technical skill to make use of these new means. Does any of this give you hope as an artist?
AM: I don't know. I like working on things, writing in particular, for a lot of reasons and I don't think any of them involve other people. I actively try not to think about what other people are / aren't doing. My default setting is 'critical and negative' and I want to be something else. Just kidding, there is no hope and life in America is an unending nightmare.
JH: I won’t argue that point. I do enjoy every second I spend writing. It's fun. Trying to sell one’s self is not necessarily fun. I think it's cool that you're willing to go out and do readings when you're obviously not a major extrovert. Do you enjoy reading in front of people? When I saw you do your thing I was really impressed. You gave the impression of being nervous and uncomfortable, yet you maintained good command of your voice and your tempo. Pretty powerful stuff. Like you fought a battle and won.
AM: I don't know, I think it would be funny if I was really extroverted. Sometimes I can pretend to be outgoing and charismatic, but never for more than a few hours. I have been smoking weed a lot recently, which has caused me to feel less introverted, I think. Thank you. I do enjoy readings. I try to read different things at each one, even if I just read old emails or something. Damn, fought a battle and won. You always kind of win.
JH: What writing projects do you have in the works? Maybe this is where you should give kind of a rundown of what you've written, where it can be found, where it will be found in the near future, you know, the details that really get the kids foaming from their mouths.
AM: Right now I am editing a full length poetry collection that is being released later this year by Monster House Press. I think I am going to name the book after the corner store near my house. During the past year I wrote about 300 pages of thoughts and observations onto "google docs" documents without editing them very much and then divided everything into smaller poems / stories. It is similar to making a collage, I think. The poems are about a 22 year old person walking around his neighborhood and thinking things. Nothing happens in the book and there is no intentional theme or message. The final draft will be less than 100 pages.
I also wrote a small short story collection called "Deadpan" when I was 21. It is out of print but on the Monster House Press website somewhere.
I have a an idea for a novel where every time the main character leaves his apartment an acquaintance approaches him and asks if he's still in a band and then expresses some degree of disappointment when he says that he isn't.
JH: The last time I was in Columbus a fella at the corner store in Kevin's neighborhood was very friendly to me while I was getting money out of the ATM. He then graciously offered to "make me a whole lot of money". But I was in kind of a hurry.
AM: Damn. Might be the same place. Hell yeah.
JH: I like the novel idea. I've noticed that people who haven't been in bands have a really outsized idea of what it's like to be in a band.
Here is what’s called a topical question: are you more sad about a) David Bowe passing; b) Glenn Frey passing; or c) not sad about either?
AM: I had to google search Glenn Frey. I am not sad about either
JH: Sorry. I feel like I perverted your innocence with the Glenn Frey thing. I only ask because people have really unpredictable reactions to the deaths of celebrities. I like some of David Bowie's music and I can appreciate how he made an impact on people; but it seems like such an abstraction to be sad about the inevitable death of a stranger. Do you think about death a lot? What's your take on the "Big Inevitable"?
AM: I think I like some David Bowie songs. I haven't listened to a lot of them. I don't think about music very much anymore, or at least not right now. I just tried to think of a band I like to type here and I didn't think of anything for like 15 seconds. I like Mazzy Star and Joni Mitchell a lot. I don't know. I used to think about death a lot. I don't really think about it very much now except when thinking about someone specific.
JH: That's probably fairly healthy.
Ohio and Wisconsin are usually considered "battleground states" in the presidential election. Are you ready for the onslaught of political ads and pandering coming our way? What level of interest do you take in politics?
AM: Yeah, I remember Barack Obama campaigning in Columbus so much in like 2008. I don't really see many advertisements due to not having a television or using the internet very much, but remember the bus was always late or stuck in traffic.
I like thinking about politics. I am interested in observing / learning about things as opposed to regularly expressing opinions about them because I am aware of how little I know and because it is likely that my opinions will change. I feel irrational paranoia about the government, cops, and people with money. I will probably vote but I will feel bored and disillusioned while doing it.
JH: That's a refreshing take. I find that a lot of times the louder a person trumpets his or her opinions, the less he or she really knows. If your interested in getting a really human, in-depth view if how American politics work, I strongly recommend The Power Broker, and The Years of Lyndon Johnson series by Robert A. Caro. It's dumbfounding how politics really work sometimes. I don't think your paranoia is irrational at all, unfortunately.
AM: I thought of that Nirvana song about being paranoid and then listened to it on my laptop and it sounded really good to me. I think everybody is an undercover cop anytime I go to a coffee shop or restaurant or something. Kurt Cobain refused to sit down in a restaurant unless he was facing the door. Just kidding, I made that up.
JH: You are a wry one, Mussawir . . .
So there you have it! You've been introduced to a legitimate, contemporary artist and a damn good and UNIQUE writer. In this day and age, those words make a mouthful. Now that you've been introduced, go here: http://www.monsterhousepress.com/deadpan/
and follow here: https://twitter.com/alexmussawir
and here: https://twitter.com/MonsterHouseLit
If you are not quite convinced, here is my review of Deadpan: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18942146-deadpan?ac=1&from_search=1#other_reviews
Alex Mussawir and Joyless House thank you for your time. You may now return to your regular, non-literature-centric lives.