You Can’t Race to Nothing is Happening: An Interview with Noah Cicero 

A couple weeks ago, Noah Cicero posted a tweet.

This tweet was astounding to me personally, because of the video chat I’d just had with my friend, a 20 year old woman who, like Noah Cicero, lives in Nevada and had a really bad childhood. Last year, after she got drunk and fell off of her boyfriend’s roof, I mailed her some books to read while she was recovering in the hospital, including The Collected Works of Noah Cicero Vol. 1, which she loved and related to.

What’s even more remarkable is that toward the end of our latest conversation, my friend told me she’d recently googled pictures of Noah Cicero and that he looked, “like the kind of guy who’d sit around in sweatpants all day eating Apple Jacks.”

A little background in case this means nothing to you. In 2003, 23 year old Noah published The Human War, a short novel about an emotionally disturbed working class narrator in Youngstown, Ohio, on the eve of the Iraq War, who has sex with his ex-fiancé in a trailer park, goes to a strip club, then gets blackout drunk at a bar while the first bombs fall on Baghdad. In between, he engages in hilarious but deeply sincere dialogues with other alienated young people about the meanings of poverty, conflict, mental health, and whether one can be a good person. The book’s unique style influenced the development of both the Alt-Lit and New Sincerity movements, and has since been cribbed by other writers who are more famous than Noah Cicero.

You’ve seen the style of The Human War, even if you’ve never heard of the book’s author.

One to three sentence paragraphs, written in simple language so that almost anyone can understand.

And apparently random line breaks, like this one.

Over the following decade, Noah Cicero published another six novels and two collections of short stories and novellas, all of which were built on a minimalist style that’s accessible to the kinds of people Noah Cicero talked to and liked to write about — poor people, people with addiction and mental health issues, people working 80 hours a week for companies that try to crush their souls.

Then he did something you wouldn’t necessarily expect. He went to teach English in South Korea, then he moved to Las Vegas where he went through an emotionally difficult period, then he became interested in Buddhism and began publishing books of poetry, starting with Bipolar Cowboy (Lazy Fascist Press, 2015). This year, he released two books that are remarkably different from each other.

Blood Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal (Trident Press, 2018) is a book of philosophy, influenced by equals parts Western existentialism and the teachings of ancient Zen Buddhists, but more practical than either. It uses both schools of thought to help discuss the ways people harm themselves with resentment, as well as some strategies for how resentment can be avoided. It offers bits of the author’s personal experiences, both tragic and ecstatic, as well as archetypes of persons doing either a good or bad job of living because of how they treat others. It promotes a spiritual life path by asking questions like, “What if you had to spend eternity with your current shitty attitude?”

Nature Documentary (House of Vlad Productions, 2018) is a book of nature poems about prisoners making toilet wine, the suffering of a pet rabbit, and people either taking or not taking control of their lives, written in a style somewhere between the 8th century Chinese poet Li Bai and Pablo Neruda. This is an excerpt from my favorite poem in the book.

All the boys, covered in sweat, stood
around in a large field.

The sound of cicadas.

Some would grow up to be successful men.
Some would grow up to get married to beautiful women.
Some would know the pain of divorce. A few would die
of drugs, maybe motorcycle accidents.
Some would go on to do low-level jobs because
of the 2008 recession.

But they were all there, standing together.

The sound of cicadas.

John Farley: Nature Documentary and Blood Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal both came out around the same time. Did you work on them simultaneously? What was your life like while you were writing them?

Noah Cicero: I wrote Blood Soaked Buddha in 2015 and then Nature Documentary in 2016 I think. They weren’t written at the same time. I was working at a grocery store named Sprouts. I worked 30 hours a week and got monthly money from previous books that were published. For Nature Documentary, I think that is when I started paralegal school and had a lot of student loan money too. I was having an easy time money wise, and felt okay to write. Nothing crazy was happening in my life. Just imagine a guy in his 30s with no wife or kids, with lots of time on his hands. I also wrote a book in 2016 called Give it to the Grand Canyon but I’m not going to release that until 2019 or so.

Before your 2015 book of poetry, Bipolar Cowboy, you were known as a novelist. Is there a connection between your interest in writing poetry and your interest in Buddhism?

I think my switch to poems has to do with moving to Las Vegas. My life is a lot more bubble like in Las Vegas, and more peaceful than it was in Ohio. In Ohio there are so many crazy things happening all the time, it would inspire me to write them down, to put what was happening around me into words. But in Las Vegas I am a man in his upper 30s. I work a normal job, I think my life is more exciting in terms of the average late 30 something. Like I go on lecture trips to South America or South Korea or Boulder, Colorado, I hike, I do lots of cool things. But the cool things I do are planned and executed. I am sowing now what I reaped from years of being crazy and writing. I think, if say Random House paid me to sit in a lakeside house in Rhode Island with an assistant, I would write a 350 page novel with fully fledged out characters and whatever. But like, that isn’t happening. I am a busy person who lives a well organized life, and the novels I would like to write can never exist because I don’t have time to do it. I have gotten to the point with novels that I either want to stop writing them or make a leap to something bigger, but I would need an assistant and lots of time. I can look back on my own novels and see where I failed, and I don’t want to do that again, but I need money and time not to fail. So I express myself in the best way I can, with the time I have, just like a lot of people.

The poems in Nature Documentary are quite narrative. They offer some surreal images, but compared to most contemporary poetry I think they are more devoted to telling stories about people doing things in places.

“On a hot Friday evening in Texas, teenage boys at football practice, the coach said, ‘I’m going to announce the team captains.’” 

This kind of thing reminds me of the Tang Dynasty poets. I think most Americans, when they think about East Asian poetry, probably think of haiku. But when you read The 300 Tang Poems, it’s mostly stories about people in this world of exiled friends, politics and the backdrop of war. Were those poets an influence, and if so, how did you discover them?

When I was in high school I read The River-Merchant’s Wife, the Pound translation. Man, I was hit, I mean, like blown away. I was like, “This is it, this is it!!!” I’ve always loved the Tang Dynasty poets.

I had this cool moment though. In 2012 I was living in South Korea, working as a school teacher. During the first three hours of my shift, I had barely anything to do, but I couldn’t go on Facebook or read a book. But I could utilize the Internet all I wanted to, pretending to make assignments for class. Instead of doing work, I found several sites with Tang poems on them. I would read them everyday. Then I would read Korean poetry for hours. And eventually I got a book of Shijing poems and read that. That is my favorite type of poetry, and that’s what I’m imitating. I really like how it is about longing, friendship, drinking wine and being sad. I just went to the 300 Tang Poems website, flicked through and found this:

But since water still flows, though we cut it with our swords,

And sorrows return, though we drown them with wine,

Since the world can in no way answer our craving,

I will loosen my hair tomorrow and take to a fishing boat.

The guy doesn’t know what to do. He is still alive, he is sad, life isn’t good or bad, it is just long and sad, and if we live long enough, we experience enough suffering that it haunts us. So what to do? Go fishing!

It seems like the Tang Dynasty poets were conventionally successful people in the elite of their society, but were often in and out of trouble with the government, at some point impoverished, and usually drunk. Does that seem like a better era in which to be a poet than our own?

I don’t have comments on other poets. I think poetry culture is better than the actual poetry being produced. I like poetry culture. It usually contains open minded, free-spirited, well traveled people with anxiety problems. Those are my people.

But like, the actual poetry world, where they give awards and people fight for MFA teaching positions. The actual poetry world, or the middle rows of AWP, where the power and money are centered, that world is a bureaucratic shithole of corruption and rich kid power grabs. It is elitist, racist, Draconian in terms of their cultural and linguistic demands, European fetishizers addicted to their posturing, consumed with their false “smart culture” “Ted Talks” and viewing dismissiveness as virtue and moral superiority. They have become a gross spectacle of upper class decadence and they don’t even know it.

It would definitely be better to be a drunk poet in Tang China than to spend your entire life trying to get into the Paris Review so that at the age of 36 you can move from adjunct to associate, but really it had nothing to do with the Paris Review, just the fact you knew somebody that knew somebody, and you walk around telling everyone George Saunders is amazing even though you have never finished one of his books.

What do you think is the future of the bourgeois literary establishment? I mean, fewer and fewer people are reading literature and tenure track MFA teaching positions are becoming increasingly rare. Will the actual poetry world eventually collapse under the weight of its own decadence?

No, they have a lot of money.

Early in Blood Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal, you describe how you came to Buddhism by reading The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma. You were living in a cabin in the Oregon mountains, in the middle of a nervous breakdown, following the end of a long romantic relationship from which you were unable to move forward. 

You read the line, “The truth is, there is nothing to find,” and it destabilized your mind, ultimately putting you on a path toward spiritual self-liberation.

People become deranged by the belief that if they can just find or do a certain set of things, they will be happy. Do you think this perpetual searching is part of the “nature” of our species, or is it the result of something that’s been thrust upon us by civilization?

I don’t think it is our “nature” to search for enlightenment. I don’t think I would have ever thought about “enlightenment” in my life if my life would have gone better. As in, the DNA that is me, born in 1980, if that DNA structure would have had a better version of a childhood and a smoother slide into adult life, that DNA structure would have, maybe, never considered enlightenment as a thing worth having. If the adults around me in my late teens and early 20s would have loved me more and put me on a better direction in life, I probably would have never cared about such things. Most people don’t care about being enlightened or even being happy or even okay with life. But obviously, there is a part of us, in our DNA that can be activated, and it drives us to want such things. I mean, to be factual: In reference to the book, when I arrived in Las Vegas, four months before that event in Oregon, I had a job interview at Sand Corps for a job making $17 an hour. If I would have gotten hired and made good money, I would have been distracted by the money and not considered such things as Bodhidharma.

I like the quote, “Resentment is the worst thing you can have. It is like holding fire. It will burn you alive” and also, “nothing destroys our ability to be ethical like resentment.” 

Later in the book you write, “To me god is courage. The will to try something new.”

How does meditation help us think and live more spontaneously and less resentfully?

I don’t think meditation teaches everyone everything. When you meditate you sit through things, through itches, through awkward painful feelings, through outside noises. You sit through many thoughts. You have all these thoughts while meditating, and you can’t act upon them. Eventually the sitting through uncomfortable feelings and thoughts can lead to you being in uncomfortable situations in life, and living through them peacefully. You can learn that most of the time nothing is happening. But you don’t learn this by making a goal of it. Learning nothing is happening is not a goal. You can’t race to nothing is happening.

For the Japanese Zen philosopher Dogen, who you reference in Blood Soaked Buddha, there is no difference between Zen meditation and enlightenment. This seems to contradict other Buddhist interpretations, where satori is a major event in the course of a person’s life. What does enlightenment mean to you? 

I am not of any Buddhist establishment, so I don’t have an exact method. I think though, if you take the time, and put in the effort, something will “happen.” I would prescribe reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetoric, and Politics. Reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and Metaphysics, the works of Sartre, De Beauvoir and Camus. And finding books of zen to read, and really listening to what they have to say. And not reading in a critical way. In college we get trained to read in this specific way. We get trained to read something and then criticize it against other texts or to find loopholes in it. But if you want to surpass your childhood you have to pick up Aristotle or Hui Neng and imagine being on a long walk with the speaker, with the attitude of “I will listen.” There is nothing wrong with how we teach in colleges, but as you get older you have to throw it away, and as you get even older you have to throw away the books I just told you to read.

I’ve heard one plausible scientific explanation for reincarnation. That if we live in an infinite universe, and that universe is constantly expanding and contracting, then it’s possible that trillions of years from now, you and I will be in the same places, conducting this same interview.

I don’t have much interest in plausible explanations for reincarnation. My main concern is if I can maintain a good attitude in any situation. If I end up in prison, in a war, working at a grocery store, or being a boss over many people, will I be able to perform with a sense of dignity and justice? Will I be able to be the person that people can rely on, that will do the work that needs to be done, that will come to my fellow humans with a smile, with a friendly hug? I will always make mistakes, I will always say the wrong thing sometimes, I will always get annoyed with mindless people, I will always have dumb sexual thoughts. I’m not asking to be made into an angel, I’m asking myself, if I can remain a worthwhile person in any situation, in any life.

The most plausible thing is you, how you experience things and how other people experience you. The question of reincarnation, to me, is the same question as, “What is it like for other people, animals and plants to experience me?”

I recently moved from Maryland to New Mexico and I want to ask you about the desert. I have never lived in a place where there are so many animals that could harm me. The air is incredibly dry and all the plants have thorns. Every day I wake up and it is like the entire landscape is saying, “your life is small and fragile.” But for me this has a calming effect, somehow. I know you moved from Ohio to Las Vegas a few years ago. What is your relationship to the desert?

Every Sunday I go hiking in the desert. Last weekend I drove to Boulder, Colorado and drove through the Utah desert covered in snow. The desert is my home now, the blue sky above me, the giant vistas, the lizards, the wild horses, the endless expanse. The desert is nice because it means nothing. It just is, whatever it is. You can hide in the forest. There are things to do in the forest. You can hunt and fish, you can drive a four wheeler. It is noisy in the forest, but in the desert it is silent. The sound of a bug close to your ear is as loud as a Metallica concert. When I go into the desert, we turn off the phones, we don’t bring music. Even when I drive through the desert, I don’t listen to music. Hours and hours of silence.

John Farley is a writer from Baltimore. His work has appeared previously in Full Stop and other publications.

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