Interviewed by Britt DiGiacomo
Shane Cashman is the author of Joyless Kingdom: Poems, Prose, and Dispatches From the Plague. His writing has been featured in The Atlantic, VICE, Penthouse, Atlas Obscura, Pitchfork, and The LA Review of Books. He teaches at Manhattanville College and SUNY Orange.
I had met Shane Cashman when I was finishing my final year, earning my MFA at Manhattanville college in 2014. Our paths crossed while taking an advanced seminar class where we explored the foundational work in critical education and progressive academia theories, and were given the opportunity to practice essential teacher/creative writing procedures that would prepare us to teach college-level writing courses. Shane went on and became an adjunct professor of Narrative Studies at Manhattanville College. He also teaches Poetry and English at SUNY Orange.
I have always been a fan of Shane’s work and have kept track of his writing career. When Joyless Kingdom came out it provided me with an opportunity to learn more about Shane, his writing process and his approach to the publishing world.
This interview took place late fall on a Monday evening on November 30th from our laptops, where Shane and I sat in our respective homes and enjoyed each other’s company on a FaceTime call. Shane had just finished teaching a creative writing zoom class with his students from Manhattanville college and had graciously carved out time to discuss poetry, writing, publishing, and his latest book, Joyless Kingdom.
What is your earliest memory with writing/poetry and when did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
My dad used to recite Robert Frost from memory. As a young boy he was sent away to Catholic school where Frost was drilled into his head. I’m not sure why Frost of all the poets was the one that those nuns chose to teach – but whatever they did it worked. I have very clear memories as a child of my father reciting Frost from memory on the horse farm where I grew up. We had no neighbors, and we lived out in the woods, so those Frost poems my dad would recite actually looked like my surroundings. You know, like, there was a birch tree on our driveway which always seemed to trigger some Frost in my dad’s brain.
It was really cool to see how much power my father saw in words. When I was in fifth grade, he sat me down and made me read Harper Lee and O. Henry, and told me that literature is important. It seemed imperative to him that I understood words. It was cool to have a father who raised me with the basic knowledge of poetry and prose.
I remember in 7th and 8th grade – this is a very clear memory – we were sitting down in my middle school in West Point and they had an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator come in, and it was like this lunatic showed up. He looked like Poe. He had a skull and a raven and he paced back and forth on the stage. (Poe was a cadet at West Point, until, so the story goes, he was kicked out for drinking too much and showing up to formation drunk and naked.) We were all just kids in the front row in the auditorium where we usually sang Christmas songs and I’m watching this guy, thinking: I want to be him. He looked deranged, but people were listening to his words.
That’s pretty inspiring. I think it’s really special to teach your children about literature and the ability to express yourself through language. I’m happy you had that experience. And I can definitely relate to feeling a connection with an influential author. It’s the way I felt when studying Hemingway in undergrad.
You recently published Joyless Kingdom, a book of poetry and prose that you wrote in your car without wi-fi during the covid-19 pandemic lockdown. Tell us about that experience. How did it start? Why write in a car? And is writing without Wi-Fi a new mode of writing for you?
I bought my first MacBook about six or seven years ago, and around the second night I had it, I left it on the side of my bed after doing some writing. I was so excited; I kept picking it up and writing and placing it back down on the nightstand. When I woke up the next morning, somehow in the middle of my sleep, I must have spilled water on it. Thankfully, the computer worked fine, but the Wi-Fi was broken. The computer just wouldn’t connect to the Wi-Fi. I could have brought it back to the store and had them fix it, but I felt that I didn’t need Wi-Fi on this computer. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my phone and use the internet when I need it. But, I’m a bad procrastinator, and thought that when I turn to my MacBook, which is my big final stage writing place, I won’t be distracted with any tabs open, and I’m not. I’m just fully in the zone with the pages.
When I started to write the very beginning of Joyless Kingdom, it happened in a power outage at my parent’s house – the farm I grew up on. We had lost power one night, and when the power goes out you’re like a caveman and it’s pretty awesome. I happened to pick up a Robert Frost book that I had on the shelf and I began to read through the book, remembering how much I love poetry. From there, I sat down with my notebook and wrote No Power, the starting poem to Joyless Kingdom. It also happened to be the beginning of the pandemic and whole lock down mess in early April.
Weeks later, my wife and I had moved into our new home and I was constantly doing construction on the house. I was making trips back and forth to Home Depot a few times a week. It seemed like the whole world was at Home Depot. Like nothing else was open but Home Depot. The lines were disgusting. I am not one to be out in the world often. I can very happily be a recluse. So, having to be out in the plague, in a line with all these people was rough. I would stay in my parked car and people-watch as I waited for the lines to dwindle down.
To be honest, right before lockdown happened I felt that I could just not write anymore, and I’d be okay with it. And then something happened in the air and in my brain, and when the pandemic started, I felt like I had to report on it. It was me feeling like I had to report on myself and the world that opened up the idea for Joyless Kingdom. So you’d find me, sitting in my car in the parking lot, people-watching in the middle of a pandemic, writing down everything I saw.
Wow, what a marvelous journey to the creation of Joyless Kingdom. Just when you thought you’d be done writing for good, look at the gem you’ve created.
So, tell me, why, as an educated and credited, ongoing traditionally published writer whose work has appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and so on, did you choose the route to self-publish Joyless Kingdom, especially since after reading the book, it’s clear a poetry press would have picked it up?
I think two things. The first: I was getting really jaded with publishing. I had had some success, I’d been published in places that were on the top of my list of places to be published in. And I’d been getting accepted into places that I’d been trying to be published in for years, a decade if not more. But I was getting really upset with the process and the time it took to go through pitching and querying; I mean I could fill a room. I’ve pitched thousands and thousands of things, and that’s a good thing. I’ve learned so much from the process. But with this book, it felt very important to me to have the immediacy. I wanted people to read Joyless Kingdom while the pandemic is happening. If I were to pitch and get Joyless Kingdom picked up by a publishing house, by the time the book would come out, possibly a year or two later, I didn’t want it looking like a relic. I wanted to kill the middleman and put the book out there on my own. I wanted it to feel like a tumor in peoples’ hands, right now.
It was also a fun experiment to go through. I wanted to test what I was capable of on my own. I wanted to learn about what it meant to put a book together, editing it myself, you know all the fun stuff when it comes to promoting. Self-publishing Joyless Kingdom has worked all sides of my brain. Of course, I’d rather focus on the writing and editing part, but if you’re going to take this route, you have to do all the work yourself.
Years ago, I would have never thought I would self-publish anything; always being focused on the traditional route. It was like a ladder I was constantly climbing, trying to get close to the goals I had in mind, which I thought was the thing I needed in order to make me happy and feel accomplished. But writing Joyless Kingdom made me reevaluate what’s important to me. And what was important to me was sharing my story and being able to have an immediate and direct line to my audience.
Sharing your story; I like that. It’s a fresh reminder as to what my original goal was when first writing The Pace of Nature. You can certainly get wrapped up with the accomplished feeling of what it means to be a traditionally published writer, that’s for sure.
Let’s get into Joyless Kingdom. As a writer, no matter what genre, I think it’s safe to say we aim to be original and write about things in the world the way we see and understand them. I believe that is our first intent, but it’s also a benefit when we’re able to toss out a hook and reel our reader in with relatable statements that move our audience, which is what you have done with Joyless Kingdom. Even though the experiences and encounters you write about are completely different than mine,I don’t think I’ve ever been able to fully relate to an entire chapbook as a whole.
Can we take a moment and further discuss how you came to explore and write particular pieces within this book? The circumstances you write about evoked emotions in me that intensified the realty of the world we live in. I’d love to unpack your mind and learn more about the process in which you developed some of these pieces.
Let’s get into Why I’ll Never Buy Another Peacock. How did you come up with the solution center? I love that you created a place for people to go to ask the questions they need answers to, like: How to survive? How to beat a bad cough? How to sneeze and not wipe out civilization? Then you pull the reader in with this heartfelt emotional tale about Effie, “You,” and Arthur while spending years on line, waiting for their chance to ask their questions. Their whole life passes them by. I need to know, what inspired this?
Well, I get pretty sweet anxiety standing in line at grocery stores, waiting to pay. I don’t know where to look or where to put my hands, and the plague just made everything worse because now we wear a mask and the lines are longer. All my social anxieties went through the roof going out in the world not knowing to what extent other people have their own anxieties during this pandemic.
I began writing this story before the pandemic, but it felt like it belonged in this book because of all the unknowing happening in the world right now. It seemed like a good fit for Joyless Kingdom. There is an actual real solution center in a supermarket that I had once been in. That’s where I got the idea from. I thought it was a hilarious name. Little did I know that I would wind up writing Why I’ll Never Buy Another Peacock in a hospital while my wife’s grandfather passed away.
We had been waiting there with him in the ER for a few nights. It was horrible. I remember sitting in the waiting room thinking about waiting in line for some kind of answer. I just kept thinking about how we’re always waiting in line. One line after another line. It’s sad. We’re also continuously looking for answers that we may never find.
It had been a really tough time to watch my wife’s grandfather’s life slip away from him. He had lived with us and had been a huge part of our lives. It was also tough to see the flippancy of some of the hospital staff. To them he was just another old man dying. It was very clear in the staff’s demeanor and certain things that were said, that they were being a little too openly flippant about a life. The nurse that shoved the incubator down his throat, pat him on the shoulder and said, “another happy customer.” The tone with which she said it drove me pretty crazy. He was scared. He couldn’t talk. His frightened eyes. And the way she joked… it just didn’t sit right with me. To us, he was the head of our family. This incredible man who lived a whole life with all these stories. Why I’ll Never Buy Another Peacock felt like my way of trying to honor him. He was a good friend and became my own grandfather.
It was interesting to write in the ER. I find myself writing in the weirdest places and times; it’s like the only way I’m going to process and understand these traumatic things. For anyone who’s watched someone pass away in a hospital, it’s absurd to see the worst things happening to a human body. The experience just burned itself on my brain. And that’s how Why I’ll Never Buy Another Peacock was formed, from the grocery store, to the ER, to the weird spring during the pandemic lockdown.
Why I’ll Never Buy Another Peacock conjured so much emotion in me, it makes sense now knowing the history behind how it was created. Thank you for sharing that with us.
I’ve never been to a gun shop before, and another piece from the book I was thrown right into was Dispatch from the Gun Shop. The prose is action packed withpeople coming in and out of the store, the owner answering phone calls, guns in high demand, but the actual shelves in the store were empty. You did an excellent job of creating a scene which depicts the chaos and confusion people felt during the early stages of the pandemic. How did you come about writing this piece?
During the early stages of the pandemic, no one knew what was going on, and I’d been reading about how gun sales were going through the roof. It’s cliché now to make fun of the toilet paper shortages, but on top of that, there were also gun sales, everywhere. I was really interested in going to a gun shop and seeing what it was like. So, one morning, I drove to a local gun shop. I’d never been there before. I just showed up, walked in, and what I wrote about was exactly what it was like. Literally word for word, a straight up report from my time in a gun shop.
It was chaos. No one knew what was going on. Just to see the disarray of a gun shop being completely picked clean by people who knew nothing about guns. That was the scariest part. It was crazy and fascinating to see. I spent my time there walking around, observing; I would talk to the owner any free chance he had, which wasn’t often because he was busy, juggling with the phone and telling this guy this and that, trying to answer his other customers. But when we did have time to talk, I thought it was interesting to see his point-of-view, and to see if this hysteria was a new thing to him. He seemed pretty nonchalant, like you know, this is just one of those things.
I’d like to go back and check up on him now nine months later and see how or if things have changed. I have a painfully strong distrust for the media. You read all these different things and they don’t all seem to line up. I like to go and see things for myself, if I can. I had the time and access to the shop and figured I’d go and get my own experience, and it was pretty wild.
Wild indeed. It was definitely an interesting, fun, and a tad bit frightening of a read.
Shane is laughing. Who expects to see RuPaul in a gun shop? It was awesome.
Yes, I know! I was wondering about how random it is for RuPaul to be in a gun shop. But I guess he just wanted to buy a gun.
Another powerful and emotion provoking poem that stuck with me is I Will Not Join Your Cult. In a time where social media has turned communication into a public forum filled with friends and strangers who pass judgement and offer commentary, people are becoming more cautious about speaking their minds and voicing their opinions. In a way it feels like freedom of speech is being scrutinized and/or taken out of context and turned into something it may not have intended to be.
I have a great amount of respect for I Will Not Join Your Cult because despite all the injustices and complexities that exist in the world right now, you speak up, allowing your reader to recognize that it’s okay to express yourself, regardless of what others think or say.
I’ve had this rage inside of me seeing people attack art, or free speech, and I truly despise censorship. Even if it’s someone saying something that I don’t like, and might actually even loathe, they still have the right to speak their mind and say what they feel. And I’m glad they have the right to say what they want, because I can hear them say it and I know that I have the right to like them or not. Or I can debate them, and hopefully beat them with better ideas. But if we start censoring everybody, all that stuff recedes into the shadows and then there is no more dialogue. It turns into people dictating what they think is offensive, and what’s offensive is relative.
One of my favorite artists is Dave Chapelle, and he’s always upsetting someone. I don’t think offending people is necessarily a measure of good art. There are certainly less offensive comedians and artists I admire. But, I started to see these attacks on art and that made me sick. It’s something that’s always bothered me. Whether it was coming from, let’s call it “the right” in the 90s, when I listened to gangster rap and metal which was constantly under attack. And now it seems to be coming from the leftist “extremists” attacking art and it’s the same thing I remember experiencing as a kid, it’s just people my age doing it now. It grosses me out and I see it affecting my students when I see them censoring themselves. I’m not saying you have to be making stuff to offend, but it seems like anything you do, if it doesn’t fit certain types of “categories” is going to offend now. It feels like everything’s offensive. That’s insane. No one should create like that. If you want to write something outside of your own experience, I think you should be able to. You shouldn’t be doing it out of a place of ignorance. You should be doing your research and your due diligence to do your best to make a respectable three-dimensional character. I see it in some of my classes now and students aren’t even getting the chance to do that. Their work has to go through a vetting process before we can even workshop it. That kills my soul. It’s not good for art. It’s not good for anything.
I grew up in a house with a Jewish mother who was pretty liberal, and a Catholic father who was conservative. I would always hear debates, but these arguments came from love. That’s what everything should be like. It’s important to hear all the different beliefs and to hear all sides of an argument. And it’s not like that anymore because everyone is so afraid to say anything. Just because you differ from someone doesn’t mean they’re automatically bad. That goes for both sides. You should be able to listen, hear where they’re coming from and judge for yourself, God forbid.
All of this anger had been building up inside of me and it felt like it came to a peak during the pandemic. It was one of those things where all the hot-button-stuff was getting ramped up and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like I was physically getting sick for not saying something.
I often tell my students that they have to test the immune system of their ideas. If you never test your ideas, then you’ll never have an immune system, your ideas will just die the second they come into contact with anything they’ve never met or heard before. And that’s what’s happening now. Everyone’s got very safe immune systems and when they come into contact with something uncomfortable or unfamiliar, they recoil immediately and go back to its corner where it’s protected.
Prior to I Will Not Join Your Cult, I’d always made a very clear point to veer away from writing about anything culturally or hot-button-ish. I’d always made the decision to write about things that everyone could get down on and appreciate; that was always very important to me. But it got to a point where I couldn’t hold back any more. Writing this poemfelt like I performed surgery on myself. It was freeing.
The poem came from a good place. It was my way of being like, look, I think this is insane. What’s going on? We shouldn’t be acting like this. We should be trying to find some type of unity here, and common ground so we can agree to move forward. That’s what progress is to me – when multiple people from actual diverse backgrounds and actual diversity-of-thought can come together and at least understand one another, and then move forward towards some type of shared goal. That way of thinking just seemed to go out the window and we’ve descended into tribalism, and that is so disturbing to me for many reasons. It’s clearly gotten so rotten that it almost seems impossible to bounce back from the tribalism.
I can’t say for sure what the one thing was that might have sparked me to write this poem. It kind of just spilled out of me one day.
I want people to stop being afraid to speak their minds and just be themselves – hopefully coming from a good place of course. But the less we talk to each other about these types of things, the worse it’s going to get because we’re going to keep drifting further and further apart and have no more understanding of one another, and that’s a bad place to be. There’s no coming back from that.
Well said. I couldn’t agree more.
The division within our country is extremely disheartening and at times it feels hopeless that we’ll ever be able to come together and form an understanding and appreciation for one another’s beliefs.
Yeah, but I still have faith that all the different types of immune systems will one day get together, have it out, and find some way to move forward with the best ideas. That’s my hope, at least. I don’t know when because it’s pretty messy right now, but my students do still give me hope. They’re young and smart and believe in a better future.
It’s so important to remain hopeful for the younger generation; they’re the ones who can help implement change for sure.
So true. You have t to try to find some hope. I can’t say I always find it, but I do try. It’s a very dark world if you don’t.
That’s a great way to see it. I think you’ve possibly given me a little bit of hope with this matter as well. You’ve brought up some really good points in this interview and in this book. What would you say your favorite piece to write in Joyless Kingdom was?
I love them all. I had a really great time writing this whole book. But if I have to choose, it would be a tie between the first poem, No Power, because it was the first poem I wrote for the book. And the other one would be I Will Not Join Your Cult, because writing that was a much-needed remedy. I had all these things I was observing in the culture and amongst friends and I didn’t really have a language for it yet. I didn’t yet know how to express myself. I kept wanting to say something and just feel heard. So, when I finally found the words to I Will Not Join Your Cult, like I mentioned earlier, it was liberating.
Writing the book as a whole was a way for me to reach into myself and the parts that were scaring me, and allowed me to fall in love with language and life in general. The book was born in a really sad and dark place. Prior to it, my mental health was suffering. Writing the book was therapy, it was a way for me to face my fears head on. I always tell my students that sometimes you don’t know what you really feel or know until you write it down. This book was that for me, a personal exorcism on my soul.
It’s amazing how powerful writing can be for our souls. I’m really happy for you. Now that Joyless Kingdom is out for the world to view, what’s next on your list?
I’m having a good time writing and experiencing self-publishing. It’s very possible that putting stuff out on my own is what I’ll continue to do. I have Vulture House Press which I created and released Joyless through. Maybe I’ll have other submissions and offers on publishing other books at some point. But I’m really enjoying having direct access to the reader. Next, I’m going to compile the long-form versions of all my essays that have been published in places like Penthouse and The Atlantic, works that had been cut down a bit for publication sake, and I’ll share the extended versions in a collection. I’ll have that out hopefully by next year.
I have other ideas for the press too. It’s exciting; it can be anything and go anywhere right now. I’m liking seeing what’s happening with Joyless. I never thought it would be in peoples’ hands at all, and now here I am sending it out to people all over the country, and different parts of the world – that’s the best feeling. The whole process has been really inspiring and motivating and the support that I’ve received from friends and new readers makes me keep wanting to do it.
Well, Shane, you’ve certainly inspired me. Thank you so much for granting me this opportunity to pick through your brain. You’re a great writer with a beautiful philosophy. I have no doubt you’re going to continue on to do great things.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate your interest in my book and my process.
It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you again, Shane. I wish you all the best. I look forward to reading your next gem. Keep up the great work!
Purchase Joyless Kingdom HERE
Find Shane on instagram @shanecashman