Expanding Language with Sommer Browning

INJ 39 | Expanding Language

 

Sommer Browning writes poems, draws comics, and tells jokes. She is the author of Everything But Sex (which is a collection of comics), Want To Hear About This Dream I Had (book of prose dream poems), and You’re On My Period (a joke book). She works as a librarian in Denver. She is also one of my favorite people on Twitter. Follow her @vagtalk.

Listen to Episode #39 here:

Expanding Language with Sommer Browning

My guest is Sommer Browning. Sommer writes poems, draws comics and tells jokes. She’s the author of Everything But Sex which is a collection of comics, Want To Hear About This Dream I Had, which is a transcription of her dreams and You’re On My Period, which is a joke book. She works as a Librarian in Denver. Sommer is also one of my favorite people on Twitter. Follow her at @VagTalk. Welcome, Sommer.

Thank you.

If you weren’t working as a librarian, a writer or an artist, what would you be doing?

Probably waiting tables. That seems to be the fourth thing I’m good at. Traveling, I love doing that. Living elsewhere.

Like Williamsburg, Williamstown?

In New York, I did live there. It’s unrecognizable now when I go back. It’s a T-Mobile store next to a Whole Foods, next to a Rite Aid. Are there Rite Aids anymore?

It’s Duane Reede. You said, you have waited tables. Tell me about that experience?

I waited tables in many different cities many different diners. I tried to get a graveyard shift. I was nocturnal for a period of years. That ended when I worked at Grill in Tucson, which is closed now. It’s a 24-hour diner and I remember going in there. They were going to offer me a job and I said, “I just work the graveyard shift.” They’re like, “We don’t let girls work the graveyard shift.” I was furious. That’s insane. I worked the graveyard shift in this city, this diner. I was training one night and I got off around 2:00 AM and some guy with a knife comes in staggering around. He comes behind the counter and the waiter at that time smoothly moved him out. I said, “I don’t need to work the graveyard shift. I’ll be a feminist another day.”

How long ago was that?

2002, that was my last restaurant gig.

INJ 39 | Expanding Language
Everything But Sex

 

What do you like about it?

Mostly I like the camaraderie with my co-workers. We’re all thrown into this high-stress situation together. Everybody’s best and worst pieces of their personality came out. We bonded quickly. A nice cross-section of people.

I’m assuming your sense of humor helped you in that business.

It probably did more so than in librarianship.

Are you allowed to have a sense of humor as a librarian?

I don’t know. I’ve done this for ten years and I’m still not quite sure.

Being a librarian is serious business. It feels serious to me.

I feel like you’re always operating with less staff and less money than you need. There’s a desperation there. Always trying to prove your worth, too. If libraries were proposed now and people were, “You can rent the books for free?” No one would go for it. It seems like an outmoded institution when you compare it to late capitalism.

I often lament what we call the status quo bias. Because something existed before, it ought to continue existing today. There are plenty of things that shouldn’t exist today because they existed before. In your words, you wouldn’t create it. If cars didn’t exist today and we were to invent them, we would certainly not invent them in the way that the way they exist. That said, I love libraries. I’m right when I joke with the library staff here at my school that I’m the number one patron. I am constantly getting books. Before I picked you up outside, I dropped off a book that I had looked at. I love physical books. I like the concept of a place to go to look at them, touch them, pick them up, drop them off, have people there who are experts like you in helping me answer questions. Find resources and so on. Thank you for your service.

I love them too from all of those reasons you said.

You can't deliver good service to anybody else if you're suffering. Click To Tweet

Businesses have what’s called a loss leader. It’s a product that loses money but is seen as an essential part of the business for a variety of reasons. If you want to have a smart educated society you need to have libraries. They should change, adapt and improve because of technology.

We’ve done a great job at doing that too. I was in a lift and they’re like, “How do you keep up with the technology these past 10 years?” I was like, “We’ve been doing this since the beginning.” Media has changed so much. Most of what we buy is electronic and we are buying the cutting edge of media out there, data sets and streaming videos. I don’t think we get enough credit for evolving along with the times.

That’s true. I’ve seen a lot of improvements in the library system at CU. Some of it is around convenience and some it’s around scope. I regularly get books from 100 different libraries. They are delivered to my mailbox which is incredible and useful because I’m not always able to pick them up. We can talk more about library stuff. You said that waiting tables brought out the best and worst of people’s personalities.

Amongst my co-workers, we were frazzled and stressed out but also so generous and caring with each other. Looking out for each other. I was lucky and most of the places except for Denny’s. People had my back for the most part. If the patron was acting badly, the manager was right out there like, “You’ve got to leave.” That’s a responsibility and care for their workers that I liked.

I’m about to start teaching. This will come out after my classes are done. I’ve started reviewing my notes and so on. One of the first readings that I give on day one is the customer’s not always right. We’ll have a conversation about how you got to take care of your employees. They’re important stakeholders. It sounds like your manager recognizes that it’s important to back up a server over a customer.

I’m a big boss in the library, which I never would have expected. It’s dawning on me. I prefer of my staff calls me Big Boss. I’m just realizing I wonder if some of my boss behavior is modeled on some of my best managers. Certainly, some of my best supervisors in the library world, I have taken a lot from. Taking care of your staff is number one. You can’t deliver good service to anybody else if you’re suffering. The same with your person too. You’ve got to take care of yourself before you can be a good mom, a good citizen.

You have to put the oxygen mask on first.

It’s up to a certain limit. You can definitely overdo that and wallow in taking care of yourself. Making your body like a pristine engine or something, that’s a little too much.

What did you struggle with besides the knife-wielding person at 2:00 AM, as a server?

INJ 39 | Expanding Language
Bass Cathedral

Pervasive entitlement. Demanding what you want and what you need above all else. I worked as a server when we got paid $2.13 an hour. You did work for tips exclusively. I don’t know if it’s much different nowadays but people who have never worked in that industry before are demanding. They’re not understanding all the mechanics behind everything. Your cook might be on morphine. What am I supposed to do about that? The eggs are going to take a little longer. That was the most challenging.

I can see it. I’ve done service jobs, but I’ve never worked as a server. I do notice a tension sometimes. I’m trying to understand that there’s a whole supply chain happening behind the scenes of this person. Expecting service that you’re paying sometimes a lot of money for. I tip well. I tend to tip well even if it’s not good. How do you navigate that situation?

If you worked in an hourly job, you wouldn’t be tipped and you won’t even be paid by how kind and sweet you are or whatever. It’s an odd profession where that matters to your bottom line. Where it’s like, “That person was a little awkward. I’m not going to give him as much a tip.” It’s like, “What are you?” Why would you be putting that in the equation of getting paid?

I had a guy, a former stand-up and he talked about doing food service. He had the little bits that he would use in certain times and his tactics that he had for getting better tips. I agree it’s a shallow part of the evaluation, which should be, “How good was the food and did it arrive on time? Was my water filled?” I want to get back to another statement you said you’d probably be living elsewhere. Tell me more.

There are many levels to that. I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to live abroad. I had fantasies about spending six months abroad, six months in the States. I have family here. I don’t want to be too far away. If I make tenure in 2020, I would get Sabbatical. I have to turn everything next year. It’s nerve-racking. Denver’s not my favorite but I am making the best of it as much as I can. I am proud of my life and how involved in the community I’m. I work six blocks away from Auraria campus. I read poetry at Metro’s Center for Visual Arts, which is in my neighborhood. I opened a garage gallery that for the most part, maybe the whole part, it’s all been local artists in there that I’ve hosted.

This is Georgia?

Georgia.

Your pop art space located in the alley behind 952 Mariposa Street?

That’s correct.

In a garage and why is called Georgia?

Georgia is my daughter’s name.

Your aim is to bring artists, musicians, writers, fabricators and thinkers together for a short period of time.

This world means a thousand things that need help in a million ways. Click To Tweet

Not too long. I have kicked people out too.

I like to say pool hours. We have to adhere to pool hours. At 10:00, you’ve got to go.

That’s also where the noise ordinance kicks in Denver too. In a couple of shows, we got yelled at by the neighbors. I appreciate getting yelled at. The cops, that’s a little too much.

You don’t want the cops coming and disturbing your fabricators. What is a fabricator?

I don’t know. People do all crazy stuff these days. It’s more making installations maybe. Making wearable art pieces, things like that.

The sculptor might be a fabricator. How long’s that been going? Why have I not received an invite?

It’s probably going straight to your spam folder.

When I greeted Sommer at The Curve she said, “It’s nice to meet you.” I was like, “We’ve met before.”

There’s a lot going on in my brain. I can’t remember every tall person.

INJ 39 | Expanding Language
You’re On My Period (City Park Jazz)

You’re one of the first people I wrote down when I started this. I wanted to talk to you. Part of the reason is exactly for how involved you are. One is that you’re a funny person. I love your tweets, though they have changed over the years.

That’s interesting.

Your pinned tweet says, “I did come here to make friends.” I like the play on words yet sometimes it doesn’t appear that you’re here to make friends.

If you want a little wimpy friend, maybe you need to go elsewhere.

I also liked your involvement in the community. It’s very clear that you’re not only participating but facilitating. How did Georgia come about? The garage, not the child.

I’ve been writing poetry for a long time, outside myself, watching myself and I’m gravitating more and more towards visual art. I was falling in love with it and reading more about it. I do live right near the Santa Fe Arts District. I had this little dream of maybe rent a space. Have a gallery. Have pop up shows and my friend Noah was like, “You have a garage, you just do it in there.” I was like, “That’s cool.” I started working on that in about six or seven months later I had my first show. I only do it when it’s warm out. Maybe five shows a year or something. It’s only been running for a year, so I might just quit. I like how it’s my thing and I can stop if I want. I can do whatever I want in there. I am not beholden to any kind of board or any stakeholders besides the folks that I invite in there, host and support.

I feel the same way about this. It’s one of the few things that is truly mine in terms of creative endeavors. There’re no gatekeepers. My guests are clearly important. It’s the same feeling. A little more transportable and I can do it when it snows. That’s great. The fact that you’re doing comics is new to me. I didn’t know that. I would think of you as a poet and a joke teller. I think of you as a joke teller, is that weird? More than a comic.

That’s preferable. I’m not a comic. That’s high stakes stuff and I don’t even want to attempt that. I have before, it’s very hard work. It takes a lot of dedication. I don’t do that and I don’t have that. Their passion and hard work are far out like mine.

Being a comic can be a bit of a grind.

I did it a couple of times in New York City. When you’re a nobody, you’re out. You have to go on every night sometimes twice a night at 10:00 PM on a Tuesday. No pool hours. You have to beg people to come to your shows and then your buddies have a two-drink minimum. It’s too much.

It’s no surprise that you just started your own space.

I haven’t had comedy in there, but I hope I can.

In principle being, “I don’t have to beg for space. I don’t have to pay for it. I get to do it on my own.” We have met before. I went to a poetry reading. When you came to the office, you commented on a print I have. I bought it from some Etsy site. I could take a picture of it and put it up as the exhibits. I liked it because it is visually interesting. It depicts travel both by air and sea, which I’ve done. Not piloting myself but being a passenger. I always liked it but then you immediately commented on that.

The boat is above the airplane, which is great.

I’ve never thought of that.

A good artist always pursues engagement. Click To Tweet

Maybe you’re hanging upside down.

How did this happen?

I remember vividly when I was seven, drawing a dinosaur. I was like, “That dinosaur looks pretty good.”

No offense but doesn’t that what every seven-year-old thinks of their dinosaur?

I hope so.

That’s the classic thing. You ask a group of seven-year-olds, “Who here is an artist? Who here can dance?” All of the hands go up.

I’m sad that we lose that.

Some of us lose that. You have not.

I’m not great at anything. I doodled a little bit and then I worked for The Free Weekly in Richmond Virginia. That was called Punch Line. It’s gone away as so many great free weeklies have. I sent them some comics I tried to draw a couple of covers for them. When I say I worked for them I delivered papers around town in my Toyota Echo. That took me nine, ten hours to do that every week. I tried to write a couple of reviews too but that’s when I started doing the comics in a strip form. They were gag comics, they’re not serials with no superheroes or anything hard to draw.

Do you draw boobs and telephones?

INJ 39 | Expanding Language
Expanding Language: Bad poems are not novel. They don’t talk about important things and lack emotion.

 

That’s right, exclusively. I have the male version of that which is penises and traffic cones.

Which came first?

The boobs, I’m more familiar with those.

Thank you for being egalitarian about private parts. You’re seven and you’re like, “I’ve got something here.”

I wouldn’t say that. The only thought I remember is, “That’s a pretty good dinosaur.” I don’t think I’ve reflected beyond that.

Was this reflected by the adults in your world? Did you have teachers or parents who encouraged that part of you?

No, that’s why if you look at my drawings, they’re bad. Maybe the funny part was I was encouraged. I grew up in a family that we quoted Mel Brooks movies all the time. We quoted Ghostbusters, Airplane, all that stuff. Anytime I made my family laugh, they laughed so hard. That felt good. I’d say that’s probably why I like funny things and try to make people laugh.

That’s a common narrative. It’s either encouraged or some people use it to help manage their relationships. Were your parents funny or they just laugh easily?

They are both funny.

Siblings?

The failures are much more frequent than successes. Click To Tweet

Casey is very funny. I have two half-siblings who are funny. Maybe Casey’s funniest or my sister.

You said six months in the US, six months elsewhere. Denver’s not exactly your cup of tea. Is it because it’s not as culturally developed as some other places?

It has a lot of identity issues. Identities that maybe override the ones I value are Broncos, sports and getting out of Denver. Going to the mountains. I don’t know if you’ve been on Tinder at all, the people in Denver, all the pictures are people doing yoga on Red Rocks, holding a big fish while they’re in mountain biking. It is overwhelmingly that.

I sometimes wonder how much of that ends up being a projection. The trails aren’t that busy and the rivers aren’t that busy, that every single person every single weekend is doing all that stuff. There is a lot of that, “Find my partner in crime to go right over mountains.”

You have been on Tinder. That’s exactly what everyone says.

I assume that’s an automatic swipe left.

That is probably the case that they are just projecting that. The problem is projecting that.

At the very least it’s aspirational. It’s certainly coming from an interest. That’s fair. I’ve been here a long time, fourteen years plus. I grew up in New Jersey and did a bunch of my education there. I felt too outdoorsy for New Jersey and then I moved here and I always felt too urban for Boulder. I understand that tension and thus to seek out. Denver has come a long way. The museums are on the upswing and with better exhibits.

I would agree with that.

Transplants from places that value culture more. It’s happening, it’s slow but it’s not a great international city. It’s not Paris, London, New York, Tokyo. I hope you get tenure and I hope you get to do a sabbatical.

Thank you very much.

I have a lot to ask you about. As is tends to be the case is going to run short. You tweeted the words “THE WORST POEMS I’VE EVER WRITTEN TO A FAMOUS CONTEST.” What happened?

I have since been rejected from that. I didn’t win.

Why send the worst?

It was an accident. I had written my worst and I saw that poetry ad and I was in that weird post-poetry writing stage, where you think you are good. I was like, “What the hell.” I send these new poems and I just shot out to this famous contest.

What makes the worst poem?

What makes the worse poem? That’s such a hard question. When I was thinking about it, I was probably comparing that to other poems I’ve written. Ones that don’t have any compelling emotion, feeling aren’t saying something new, important or looking at something in a different better way. Some derivative probably would be some of the quality of a bad poem. It might be a quality of anything bad where it’s not honoring the inspiration but it’s watering it down or something.

Bad poems are not novel. Don’t talk about important things and lack emotion.

A lot of probably other things. The first thing I thought I was like, “I could write a poem that did that. All that bad stuff and it was good.” I’m not sure. It’s hard to say too because it’s so subjective.

The idea that you would have a contest to judge the best poem seems weird to me.

When you interview funny people, what you end up doing is interviewing a lot of smart people. Click To Tweet

It’s a question that shouldn’t even be asked. What makes good art? What makes bad art? That’s not even the correct question to bring to it. It’s should be, “What is this doing?”

I feel that way a little bit like a recipe contest. At least that works a little bit but still, you’re like, “There are lots of good ways to make things.”

A lot of people like different things. Cilantro tastes like soap to people.

I find it delicious. What are you working on?

This literary magazine called Jacket2 asked me to write a blog post. I’m writing about humor and humor in poetry. I hope to write about twelve of those. The last show at Georgia’s I’m like, “What am I going to do?” Not every second of my time is taken up so I was like, “I’ll start a band.” Maybe I’ll have a winter band with some girls.

Do you have a name for the band?

My friend Juliette Lee and I were talking about Wet Wonder, Nude Nuisance or something like that. Two practices, one show at the end and a very quick temporary band.

A pop-up band. Are you fronting this band?

She said that she wouldn’t do it unless I did front it because she doesn’t want to front it. I might have to.

I have a question about this. Do you have a writing or thinking practice? You’re a mom, you’re the Big Boss at the library.

INJ 39 | Expanding Language
Expanding Language: Instead of trying to create a poem that other people will like, create a poem that you like.

 

One of the Big Bosses.

You’re prolific. You’re drawing, you’re writing poems, making those great cracks on the Twitter. Do you have a system? How do you do this? Are you good and fast?

I don’t waste a lot of time.

You said earlier, “I don’t have time to listen to podcasts.”

I don’t know when I would do that.

I don’t, either.

You should never admit that.

If you’re in the mode of creating content, you should be focused on the creation and the consuming should get pushed aside a little bit.

I could see that you might not want to hear what other people are doing to you. Fill in gaps where you think there are some, compare yourself or something.

The worry is what’s called cryptomnesia. It’s where you steal other people’s ideas without knowing you’re stealing them.

Funny predicts smart better than smart predicts funny. Click To Tweet

It happens all the time.

You hear them, forget them, forget that you heard it. It pops up to you and so on. As a scholar, I’m super aware of that. I’m writing a paper about a set of related bad behaviors that academics have. I’m pretty good about documenting stuff. I’m good at least writing it down and knowing that it’s there or in whatever form it’s at. I certainly know that as a podcast interviewer, I have a lot to improve. I’m sure that’s obvious to you.

I’ve been taking notes, giving to you at the end.

I can’t wait to see those tweet storm after this. Sometimes, I’ve never thought about interviewing as a skill. It’s been fun to try to develop this one. Sometimes I learn how to listen and ask. Can I tell you something? I’ve stopped listening to music in my car when I drive. I’ve never done that before I’ve always filled up that space. I love music. I filled up that space. I didn’t even notice I was doing it. I had turned the radio off and then I was getting in the car and not turning it on. It’s been an interesting thing to do. It’s very rare to have at least in that space.

That is very much where I think of a lot of my jokes.

When you’re driving?

Even on the way up here, I thought of a joke. This is the joke that I am sure someone has thought of before. That’s exactly the way. I didn’t hear it before but it’s a very simple easy joke. Probably a thousand people have thought of it before.

I’m making a face, are you going to tell it?

How many drunks does it take to screw in a light bulb?

INJ 39 | Expanding Language
The Circle Book

How many?

“I’m not drunk, you’re drunk,” something like that. I have to work on my drunk voice. I’m sure that myriad variations have been told before.

My current favorite joke to tell people is this light bulb joke. I’m afraid I’ve told it on the podcast before, but I’ll do it anyways.

What is it?

You’ll appreciate this one quite a lot. How many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

How many?

It’s an obscure number. You probably wouldn’t know.

I have heard that one.

I’m sure, I did not create that joke. I’m retelling that one.

It’s great. I love those classic setups. They are not exhausted yet.

The same way that band names aren’t exhausted. I was thinking, when are we going to run out of band names?

I have thought of that many times. I had a tweet about it. In 2080, there’s going to be a band named Salad because that’s the last possible name, something like that.

That seems like an Onion-style of joke.

Does it?

A little bit like a headline.

Scientists have found out that we’re down to eight band names left. That would be a funny article.

You’re working on a band.

Not really, that’s just in the back of my mind. I don’t know, it might happen.

Your creative endeavors are compelled to do them. Is there an endgame? Is it process based?

I go to therapy and talk about this. What happens if I stop creating and stop doing things? Who would I be? There’s some fear and some anxiety about that, that I couldn’t see myself reflected in things around me. My mom was like, “Why can’t you just be a mom and a librarian?”

That seems like a terrible advice.

That’s very minimal of what she said to me. I don’t know why I can’t. I can’t though that’s not enough. That is definitely not enough. This world means a thousand things that need help in a million ways. I can’t do those things. I don’t know why.

I can’t answer that question. Although I can cite some research that suggests part of the reason why. Why people like you are creative types? I like to say we creative types. I had rather late in life, in my 40s probably, I started to embrace this description that I’m a creative person. The world doesn’t bestow that label on you easily and certainly, it doesn’t. We talked about how children lose it but identity matters. Thinking of yourself as a good mom, as someone who provides. I’m not a librarian. I provide the world knowledge. Having a purpose is important for making our way in life. Understanding why we do what we do. When life gets hard, why we made those choices?

I’m sure there are times when you’re stressed, you’re past your edge. One of the things that are interesting for non-creative people, for people who don’t draw, write or even think of jokes in the car, what they don’t realize is that as you get more skilled at that the process has an element of enjoyment. Enjoyment is not the right word, pleasure is not the right word but there is this pleasantness. This feeling of satisfaction, these moments that happen almost like when you drink a beer on a hot day. That feeling that becomes rewarding that it’s not just publishing You’re On My Period. Oftentimes when the publication comes out, that feels nice.

For maybe a minute.

It’s not joyous in the way but all the process going up to it has those elements. It’s often referred to this flow state.

Cortisol is released or something when you feel that and you get trained like a rat.

I couldn’t tell you the physiology of it. That’s outside my expertise but certainly know that biologically we are drawn towards pleasurable experiences, whether it’s purely pleasurable sugar, sleep, sex, things associated with survival and beyond. Also, the intellectual pursuit of insight is interesting.

Much of it though is not pleasant. Much of it is doubting yourself and no rewards like losing contests, not getting things published, not finding an agent, having jokes fail so much is unpleasant. It’s something about that risk factor to that. You have to put everything on the line and to get even just a molecule of validation or something. It’s a weird equation.

To me, there are these other components of it. You’re venturing into the world of achievement. Artists can pursue one or both of these things. A good artist always pursues engagement. That has to be essential to the process. As you are saying, it’s so difficult. The failures are much more frequent than successful. Most jokes aren’t any good. Most poems at least at the beginning aren’t very good.

Most poetry, nobody reads that. That’s another strange endeavor.

To be writing poetry, knowing that there is very little audience.

If you sell 500 copies that’s top of the world.

That’s a big win. That engagement has to be there or I don’t think you can get good enough to be able to create great art. The next level is this idea of achievement. What degree is that external validation, whether it be getting an agent, selling books or winning a poetry contest?

You’re missing the entire metaphysical realm too.

Tell me more.

Working with language and expanding language probably has this ripple effect across consciousness, culture, boundaries of nation and whatever. In your practice, while you’re creating new ways that make people emote, feel or understand the world. Tapping into that. There are plenty of poets who don’t publish anything. That’s a private practice. That seems ancillary to what we’re talking about. There is something inside, especially practicing something in such a marginalized art. There has to be that going on too or else you’re not going to sustain that.

I want to return to this idea of metaphysical and expanding language because I want you to help me understand it more. There’s a common thread that happens in art even people who are making commercially viable products about doing it for themselves. This notion of an audience of one. You’re talking about the poet who never publishes anything, does it for him or herself. That process is not guaranteed to create something that another group of people will like. It’s certainly going to lead to something that might be fresh novel, different. If you’re writing something for your own unique perspective, it is likely to be fresh and different for others instead of trying to create a poem that other people will like, if you create a poem that you like.

If you create a problem other people were like, you’re going to fail.

That’s your goal.

It’s not going to be the best poem that you could make. There’s that process question, the change and growth that happens in the engagement of something creative or anything. That mindfulness of what you’re doing at the moment and that’s incorporated into that creative life too. It probably doesn’t get as much airtime because we’re not that society.

I know it’s terrible. Back to your point about sports, I spent a lot of my life doing sports. Admittedly, I love working out. I know that sounds crazy to a lot of people. I like it. I feel like a late bloomer when it comes to the creative life. I feel that’s important as the physical side of life especially as I get older in terms of beyond work, thinking about retirement and wanting to have a creative practice. I know that if I won the lottery I would still write. It took me twenty years to get there. I would still write even though it’s not being rewarded with a paycheck. I’m getting a little emotional. I feel fortunate that I was able to discover that. I discovered it because of work but it’s blossomed into this great tool for not only creating things but also for creating a mindset of feeling. I understand why you feel compelled to do it. The feeling it creates, the connection to purpose. Although I can tell you’re hustling at the very least, you’re publishing stuff. You’re creating your channels.

I am and I don’t quite know why can’t I be that quiet hermetic monk? I don’t want to either but it is a question that’s good to ask yourself. Keep yourself in check and your ego in check.

This raises the question of what do you say no to?

Part of my guiding principles is to say no as few times as possible. Mostly I say no to the things that I said yes to and I forgot to do. Those are a lot of things. I know months ago, I was complaining that I didn’t have any projects and what was I doing with my life. Now, I am just drowning. I said no to something. This person approached me to do a project with them. That person took up all the air in the room. I thought that they would be asking me a lot of questions and listening to me to see if they wanted to collaborate with me. They invited me to interview themselves. I said no to that. I got a little nervous and shaky to say that to this person. I was so glad I did. I dodged a bullet there. I was just proud that I had that wherewithal to say, “This is going to be a dead-end project where I do a lot of work for nothing.” I was glad I looked out for myself.

The book is called The Circle Book. It’s white with black font and there’s a hand-drawn circle on the cover. There are hand-drawn circles on every page. They are different though. Each one is unique. Beneath them is a descriptor. There are also no page numbers or chapter headings. There was one that says Urethra, Platelet, Exclamation, Pogo Stick Footprint, Ping-pong balls. I like this one and I saw this one online. It says Everything/Nothing. What’s the story behind this book? It’s fun.

That started when I was a comic like a big 8.5 X 11. I was sitting with my friend and he was going through it. He noticed the order. He was reading it from front to back which was I have never seen anyone do that. He ascribes some narrative to it and he’s like, “This is the part where you shine through.” I loved that he thought that.

There’s one that is not a smooth circle. It’s an exit wound.

That’s a good metaphor for something that I try to make poetry due to, it would be to see something from all the angles. I don’t know if that’s a Cubist idea too or something. It’s a shape, it’s also a letter, it’s also a sound. It’s also anything. It was an exercise for me where you could go all the way from nothing and everything to a silly pogo stick footprint.

This is in a book. How did you get this?

Kyle Schlesinger runs Cuneiform books, which is out of Austin. They do artist books and they do poetry books and they reissue some books. I sent it to him and he was like, “I love it.” I was like, “What? Did you read this?”

I want you to keep doing what you’re doing. The world needs more people like you. We were making jokes about working in a business school on the way up. Mostly I was making jokes and you were silently judging. I do believe that business can provide value. It’s just sometimes hard to see among some of the less valuable things that are done. The nice thing about art is it purely does that. It has many fewer of the downsides. What you do is super interesting. It’s motivating. It’s fun to see what you see, listen, hear, what you do with language. When you interview funny people, what you end up doing is interviewing a lot of smart people. They just go hand in hand. There are plenty of smart people who aren’t funny, but there are very few funny people who aren’t smart. It’s a nice way to trick a bunch of smart people that talk to me, which is nice.

I like too that it’s smart in the broadest way. It’s not booksmart people always. It’s not academic people. It’s not street-smart people. It creates a good lens to understand what smartness means too, like, “I’m emotionally smart, all sorts of smart.”

That’s definitely the case. Just because you can do well on a standardized test it doesn’t mean anything. Funny predicts smart better than smart predicts funny. Conditioning on knowing someone’s funny, they’re very likely to be smart. Knowing someone smart, chances are better that they’re funny.

Smart is hard to say. When you call someone smart, it’s such a narrow definition, when in fact it shouldn’t be that narrow. If you call someone funny, it opens that possibility that they are smart in this worldly big way. It’s a more generous definition or something.

I regularly have people who can use language well. You clearly can do that. It’s part of the reason I’d like you on Twitter. It was a very language-based at. At least as it was originally conceived, it was very word-based.

It was conceived for poets 100%. The economy of language, the brevity, how punctuation means everything. When people are like, “Poetry is dead, whatever.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” If you have that skill, a huge technology was built for you.

To find a following, to find inspiration, instead of just writing in a notebook and writing into the world. What happens, happens.

Also, just the skills of the poet are exactly valuable for that medium.

What are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good, that’s like head and shoulders above?

I am reading Nathaniel Mackey’s book, Bass Cathedral. He’s a poet and this is an epistolary novel, so it’s told in letters.

What is that? I don’t understand.

It’s just letters. It’s a novel in letters. He uses letters to create words, which create sentences. It’s amazing. That’s a great book. Great sentences and filled with jazz, which I love. Every letter I read I’m like, “Who’s that person? I’ve got to go research them.” It’s wonderful and inspiring and expansive in that way. I get to learn about music at the same time. I can’t stop watching Rick and Morty. I couldn’t stop watching Vee years ago. It’s because it’s so packed with thoughts and jokes. It is a funny show. I saw the Tara Donovan exhibit at the MCA. I loved it. I need to bring Georgia and I need to go a couple more times. I couldn’t even take a picture of it. It’s big and it’s intricate. The more you stand in front of those pieces, the more thoughts you have. It’s arresting.

I went on opening night and it was a little zoo-ish. It was a fun event, which as we were saying earlier, Denver doesn’t do very well in that regard. It’s fun to get dressed up and go and see people out celebrating artwork. For listeners, the MCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art is a small museum in Downtown Denver. The entire building is dedicated to this New York-based artist, Tara Donovan. It’s big and it’s audacious. It’s a fun exhibit on top of it all, it’s a little cheeky. I liked it a lot. I look forward to going back when it’s quiet on a Thursday afternoon when there are a few people there. I’m glad you mentioned that. Sommer, thank you so much for driving up and spending time in the business school.

You’re welcome.

I feel inspired. I do thank you for sticking with Denver and helping to try to make it a better place.

Thank you. Thanks for asking me to be on this.

Resources mentioned:

 About Sommer Browning

INJ 39 | Expanding LanguageSommer Browning writes poems, draws comics, and tells jokes. She is the author of EVERYTHING BUT SEX (which is a collection of comics), WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THIS DREAM I HAD (book of prose dream poems), and YOU’RE ON MY PERIOD (a joke book). She works as a librarian in Denver. She is also one of my favorite people on Twitter. Follow her @vagtalk.

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