Evan Williams on How Surrealism Allows Him to Explore the Theme of Masculinity
In Conversation with Kirsten Reneau for the Micro Podcast
Micro is a podcast for short but powerful writing. Each week features a few short pieces of fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or poetry read by the author. In the accompanying interview series, 5 Qs with Kirsten, Kirsten Reneau chats with a featured reader.
When I first read “Ted” by Evan Williams, I wasn’t sure what had just happened. Then I read it again. And then a third time. By the fourth read (it’s not very long, I promise) I still didn’t quite understand but I knew that I liked it, and I suspect many others felt the same. Surrealism is often a bridge between life and the imagination, dreams brought to life. Stories can be bizarre, break all the narrative rules, and Williams goes into the Ted guns blazing, ready to embrace the uncomfortable subversion of traditional expectations.
At first, I was tempted to ask: Is there a plot in Ted? Then I realized the better question is: Why am I searching for a clear plot? Ted is a story that must be met at its level, which is one of nursery rhymes, where anything could happen in the strangest of worlds. Ted is a story of themes, of ideas, and most importantly: birds.
Listen to Evan read “Ted” on the “Denson x Williams x Grabianowski” episode on Micro.
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Kirsten Reneau: I have many, many questions about this piece but I’ll start with the most obvious one—where did the idea for Ted come from?
Evan Williams: First, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me!
I wrote “Ted” at a time when I was working a lot with nursery rhymes and tongue twisters. I remember I’d just written a “Sally sells seashells by the seashore” poem that I was really unenchanted by and decided to write one based on the vocal warmup, “Imagine an imaginary manager managing an imaginary menagerie.” It was fine. But! I’d also been working on a poem about a collective of smug worms living on a barren farm who’d taunt the farmer all day as he worked. They kept shouting at him, “You’re a failure.” The two sort of just fell together, one giving Ted its lilt and the other contributing its narrative and characters. As for the name, I had a moment where I was really, really obsessed with monosyllabic men’s names. There’s a whole suite of poems with titles like Ron and Frank. Ted’s my favorite though.
Kirsten Reneau: An underlying theme of your work is masculinity. How do you feel that the more surrealist qualities of your writing allows for an investigation of this theme?
Evan Williams: I really love this question. For me, writing in this mode lets me be goofy, it lets me not take myself so seriously, and frankly, I think that is in and of itself a slight subversion of masculine expectations. There’s a sense, especially in hyper-masculine spaces, not only that emotion is weak, but that everything ought to be hard, ought to chisel the character in grueling and harmful ways. I think that’s silly.
I turned to surrealism a lot in a book of lyric essays I wrote exploring my brush with an eating disorder and its relation to hyper-masculinity. There, I think it served to convey trauma in a manner that might be more accessible to those without the experience of it. I was able to mold intensely personal realities into absurdities reflective of the real emotional tenor while giving a reader footholds. Surrealism is a wonderful tool for accessing and recasting that which is too difficult to plainly state.
It’s convenient for my aims that the content of the prose poem—which is increasingly a fruitful form and haven for the surreal—conforms (so often it almost seems like a running joke) to some variation on “A man ______.” To play within that structure lets me critique masculinity while also acknowledging its long-overstayed aspects. I get to make a man do silly things, I get to make a man feel the emotions men too often refuse themselves, I get to make the archetypal man what I want to see, to freely reimagine masculinity in a manner that is kinder, gentler, that is not only sustainable, but lovable.
Kirsten Reneau: You recently had a surprise chapbook come out with HAD, which included running some of the pieces from the collection + some of your past favorites, which I thought was a delightful touch. What do you think makes a story one of your favorites?
EW: This was one of the best parts of the release for me, I think I spent like two days reading through the HAD archives and making a little three-tiered list for my five favorites, plus a long and shortlist.
Ultimately, it’s hard to know and harder to say. I’m really drawn to quiet humor, by which I mean a humor that comes through in tone more than slapstick content. I’m drawn to oddities of most kinds, but especially work that isn’t uncomfortable with incongruity. If there’s an obviously absurd element to the universe of the story, I think it’s interesting to watch it be completely ignored, and often that choice results in a certain potency.
If I had to give just one qualifier for the type of story I’ll run toward every time, it’s the mildly panicked tingle preceding and accompanying the realization that I’ve been tricked, duped, trapped, bested, taught.
Kirsten Reneau: When was the first time you remember watching or seeing something and being like I don’t really know what’s happening, but I like it?
Evan Williams: I was five when the music video for Feel Good Inc, the Gorillaz song, came out. My dad and his then-girlfriend were attached at the ear to that song, and it seems like the music video played without end on our little desktop computer. They—both graphic designers themselves—talked all about the graphic design of it and how gorgeous it was. I’m sure they were right, but all I remember is demanding to know how the band could be real if they were all cartoons playing cartoon instruments. No one would tell me. I think they wanted to keep that little wonder a secret, and in retrospect it was the right call. I got so heated over it, but then the song restarted and I probably did a little dance because it rocks.
Kirsten Reneau: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process in general, where you find inspiration, and walk us through the submission process for this piece?
Evan Williams: I’m a big routine guy with most things I do, but especially writing. One time I went a whole year with an alarm set for 3:30am, and I’d get out of bed, grab my phone, and type out a paragraph about whatever I’d been dreaming. For pretty obvious reasons, that year sucked, so I’m kinder to myself now (which is to say I sleep in until 6am, then spend two hours or so reading and writing before other obligations kick in). I try to write one new thing a day and I mostly work in projects. I have a really hard time sitting with a piece that isn’t connected in some manner to something else I’ve written or am thinking about. I’m really, really bad at revising because I’m terribly indecisive. Instead I’ll just copy a piece out again from memory until it winds up in a form I like. Revision by reproduction, I guess.
A lot of what I write and get excited by is applying progressive logic to something absolutely ridiculous. I do this a lot with things my little siblings say. More recently though I’ve been getting really riled up over specific topics, which is new. I touched on masculinity already, but it’s a big one for me, especially the hyper-masculinity of gym culture, the violence of intentionally tearing yourself apart and what can spring forth from such a mentality, namely tenuous, tendentious, and often fragile relationships with the self and others. I take a lot from environmental happenings and anthropocene scholarship. Right now I’m really zoomed in on a photo I took at the Great Salt Lake this past summer during California’s wildfires. In it you can’t tell where the water ends and the smoke begins, it’s just this mass of gray-pink spanning the sky indefinitely. It’s fabulously beautiful, but its beauty is derived from destruction. A more direct answer to what throws me into a writing fit would be: contradictions.
I had Ted in the chamber for a couple months and had sent it to some friends, who’d mostly been like, “Hey, man, is everything ok with you?” Then HAD burst onto the scene and opened a submissions call. I remember being in the kitchen of my apartment with my roommates having dinner and seeing the tweet go out that they’d opened up submissions and I shrieked and ran out of the room to get my computer. I remember thinking “What’s the most baffling thing I have ready?” I got real lucky with that one, the timing of it all. Ted was always HAD’s, and always will be. Aaron and Crow have been some of my biggest supporters and I couldn’t imagine Ted without HAD at its back.
Micro is edited and curated by Dylan Evers and produced and hosted by Drew Hawkins. Theme song is by Matt Ordes. Follow the show on Twitter at @podcastmicro.
Evan Williams is a poet and essayist based in the cornfields of the Midwest writing about masculinity, surrealism, and the anthropocene. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Pleiades, and Joyland, among others. He is the author of Claustrophobia, Surprise! (HAD Chaps, 2022), and is currently at work on a collection of lyric essays about anorexia in hypermasculine spaces.