Fourteen Hills 16.1 Contributor Austin LaGrone on Bukowski’s Tender Heart

A few days after the spectacular release of Fourteen Hills 16.1, Poetry Editor Hollie Hardy rendezvoused with Brooklyn-based contributor Austin LaGrone to discuss his unpublished poetry manuscript, Ascension Parish, and to ask questions about important things like women, liquor, cigarettes, religion, poetry, and New Orleans. As you read excerpts from the interview, try to imagine the poet’s answers in a delicious southern accent, drawled with the rhythm of extemporaneous poetry.

14H: Ascension Parish is the title of your current manuscript, which contains the poems Goosing the Muse and Psalm, both published in Fourteen Hills 16.1. There seem to be two elements at play in decoding that title: the religious connotations of “ascension” and “parish,” and the fact that “Ascension Parish” denotes a specific area, a county or district of Louisiana. This duality parallels your explorations of specific places (like Acadiana, Jackson Square, One-Eyed Jack’s and Trixie’s Palace) but in a subtler more off-handed way, religion is there, just below the surface (like “the love doll we resuscitated by the church bus”). Can you talk about the title and the significance of place?

AL: The whole notion of Ascension Parish is sort of absurd and beautiful, the idea that all the members of the county between Baton Rouge and New Orleans—everywhere else they are counties, in Louisiana they’re parishes—every member of that community has bodily ascended into heaven and now they are back among us—gambling, drinking, dancing, doing all the shit they were doing before, but now they’re somehow holy. That’s ultimately the meaning of naming a parish “Ascension.” And I think that’s sort of interesting and strange.

But for the manuscript, I’ve extended the borders of the parish to include Louisiana on the whole. Because this idea of redemption—it’s a Whitmanian notion, a Whitman-esque notion; wherein which Whitman is sort of a turbo-Christ almost, a turbo-redeemer. Christ is down with the prostitutes and the taxman. But Whitman is like No, everyone! Not just the prostitutes and the taxman, even more! Whitman is basing his language and his rhythms in large part on the Old Testament. He was deliberately trying to bring everyone in. All the bad stuff and all the good stuff collectively. So in some sense the title suggests that each of the characters, however flawed they are, have themselves bodily ascended. Characters that I’ve invented and characters that I’ve known. Like my friend Sunny Michelle, when he got a bottle broken across his head and he stood up with blood running down his forehead and said, “It takes two. It takes two bottles.” Now Sunny Michel is a crazy human being, but in my manuscript he is redeemed because of this title. All of my characters are.

Then there’s also, Ascension Parish, just hearing it. If you were just to hear it, you would probably assume perish p—e—r, as in die or destroy. And in that sense it’s quite the opposite, Ascension Perish, this idea of finding one’s community, finding salvation here among the living. This is a very Gilbertian notion—Jack Gilbert—this idea of finding the things that will redeem us not in a different world, but right here in the normal rituals of existence. Whether it’s through intimacy or risk or whatever.

14H: In addition to an affectionate view of the ordinary lives of poor people in the South, there’s a good deal about drinking, smoking, women, cheap motels, and people-watching in bars that goes on in your poems. Are you a fan of Charles Bukowski?

AL: If you ask anyone how they feel about Bukowski they downplay their love of him and they’ll tell you something like, well I love the way a broken old man can blah blah blah. They create a kind of distance. But I find him incredibly tender. And I think that he has a really beautiful secret heart. If you are easily put off, you don’t need to be reading him anyway. You should go back to the Crystal Worship Isle or something like that.

14H: Your poem, High Water Blues is one of the most authentic-feeling poems I’ve read about Hurricane Katrina. Where were you during that tragedy?

AL: Ah hell, I was in a college town in Bloomington, Indiana. My father had been the assistant DA [in Louisiana] but when my grandmother died, his mother, we moved further north. But it’s always been a kind of home for me. It’s where I learned to walk. It’s where I learned to talk. So it really affected me. I had a little money in savings and I took all of it. I gave my car to my dad and borrowed his truck and went down to New Orleans to help out a bit.

When I saw all of the destruction, I stayed. It was a fascinating time. You could drive clear across the city with no red lights. All the cops were downtown guarding the French Quarter so the whole town was cop-free. You could speed anywhere you wanted to go. All the bars were lit with candles. There was no electricity. Acoustic guitars. And for the people who came back early, there was this huge camaraderie…

To read the entire interview, including Austin’s philosophy of private languages, cigar store Indians and ancestor worship, please click here.

Born in Baton Rouge, Austin LaGrone got his first rifle at nine and his first Chevy at thirteen. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brilliant Corners, Black Warrior Review, The New York Quarterly, and Fourteen Hills. These days he lives happily without weapons or trucks in Brooklyn and is an MFA candidate at New York University.

-Hollie Hardy, Fourteen Hills Poetry Editor

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