“Walk when you walk, talk when you talk, die when you die” – An interview with Nik De Dominic and Michael Jeffrey Lee


Rm220 will host Nik De Dominic and Michael Jeffrey Lee on Tuesday, February 6, at 7 p.m. at Saturn Bar (3067 St. Claude).

A former resident of New Orleans, Nik De Dominic is the author of Your Daily Horoscope. His work has appeared in DIAGRAMHarpur PalateExquisite CorpseThe Los Angeles ReviewDrunken BoatSonora Review, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California and the University of Alabama. He is a founding editor of The Offending Adam: A Journal of Poetics and a poetry editor of New Orleans Review. De Dominic lives in Los Angeles, CA, and teaches in The Writing Program at the University of Southern California.

Michael Jeffrey Lee received an MFA in fiction from the University of Alabama. His book of short stories, Something in My Eye, received the Mary McCarthy Prize and was published by Sarabande. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in N+1, BOMB, and The Southern Review, among others. His album with Budokan Boys, That’s How You Become a Clown, will see release this summer via Tymbal Tapes. He teaches at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.

ROOM 220 had the pleasure of speaking with these gentlemen about their work, Michael Martone, and spending time away from New Orleans. This interview was conducted via email the week of January 22, 2018.

RM220: How has your time away from New Orleans affected your work?

Nik De Dominic: This is a good question. New Orleans is such a magical and terror-full city. Every day, something wild, absurd, absolutely mortifying happens. Folk are forced up against each other in strange ways, and when I was there, I interacted with everyone. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is lonely and isolated. The people I see are the people I try to see. I don’t run into people on the block or at the local. Strangers are quiet, keep to themselves. I think moving to Los Angeles, the work echoed that, that isolation. Whereas in New Orleans my poems were always peopled. That and the light. The light, so wet and full, I know when I was there that it found its way into my work, the way it hangs in humidity.

Michael Jeffrey Lee: I was gone about a year. I went to Massachusetts. Why did I leave? I don’t fully know, I just felt as though I had reached an END in New Orleans. When people would ask why, I used to pin it on the death of a close friend, or a crushing sense of inertia, or else the desire to write a novel that could only be written far away from this place. But I’ve learned to mistrust my narratives, especially the tidy ones…I don’t know.  

So I lived with a very good friend up there in Massachusetts and I wrote, and I worked as an art-guard in a museum and as a bagboy in a supermarket. My work has always drawn its fire from loneliness and displacement, a sense of estrangement from my fellows, and I certainly found that up there, at least during the cold months. But things really heated up in the summer, you better believe it! Anyway, up there I got to live somewhat anonymously again, I got to leave my life as a teacher, as a performer, as a resident of the Bywater Village Bohemian Bar Association. I think I was able gain a bit of perspective on the good and horrible events that had transpired in my life in the previous decade, in the lives of friends and family.

Perspective is perhaps the wrong word. I got to remember everything, finally, and begin writing it down. But now of course I’m back in New Orleans–I’ve entered the portal and am seeing everything through the funhouse mirror again–so all bets are off. I really do hope to finish this novel–I want something to show for my bold little sally.

RM220: What projects are you working on now?

MJL: I am working on a novel. I can’t say it’s terribly original, at least compared to other things I’ve written. It’s about someone moving to a new town, hoping to make a fresh start after a terrible tragedy…it’s the story I always write, although this time it’s longer. It really is jam-packed with incident and detail, a first for me. But the project has momentum and I’m eager to finish it, if only to leave this character’s head once and for all. Actually, I’ve made a promise to myself–this is the last thing I do in this voice, my Sad Ernie voice. I will completely re-make myself as a writer after this one, watch out! Characters are going to be plentiful, and they’re going to live rich lives full of meaning. They will love, they will quarrel, they will be redeemed. Above all, it will be moral. That is where I am headed, just as soon as I finish this thing.

NDD: I started a series on illness, the poems all entitled “Dear Wolf.” I have lupus and some strange complications as a result. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better about taking care of myself (sorta?), seeing doctors regularly, taking my medication, all that shit. I am a surveillance patient – meaning I see six different doctors four times a year for them to check my ‘status.’ No news is good news kinda thing, but I get tired and I’d prefer just not seeing them at all. The poems are working through that, similarly to the Horoscope book, in absurdist and fantastical ways.

RM220: Nik, Louise Mathias said that Your Daily Horoscope was full of “gently sardonic love songs” that were “equal parts hilarious, perplexing, and touching.” Can you talk a little about that project and how you took interest in playing with/against the mode of horoscopes?

NDD: Oh, well, I ripped it off? That’s not wholly true but there’s certainly something there. First, I’d been reading Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology in the local Weekly since I was a teenager. They are such a wonderful trope on the form. Here’s this week’s for Leos:

In March 1996, a man burst into the studio of radio station Star FM in Wanganui, New Zealand. He took the manager hostage and issued a single demand: that the dj play a recording of the Muppet song “The Rainbow Connection,” as sung by the puppet Kermit the Frog. Fortunately, police intervened quickly, no one was hurt, and the kidnapper was jailed. In bringing this to your attention, Leo, I am certainly not suggesting that you imitate the kidnapper. Please don’t break the law or threaten anyone with harm. On the other hand, I do urge you to take dramatic, innovative action to fulfill one of your very specific desires.

So, I think I had Brezny in mind. I’d also just moved back to Los Angeles from New Orleans, and with the move, of course, I was thinking of the kinda new age cliches of LA, horoscopes being one. Speaking of that, I’m thoroughly enjoying my yoga classes.

RM220: Michael – Tell me about the album that you recently recorded in New Mexico with your band, the Budokan Boys.

MJL: Jeff T Byrd and I formed Budokan Boys band a couple years back in New Orleans. He now lives abroad, but once a year we get together to make an album. This year’s summit happened to be in Las Cruces, because his brother lives there and said we could crash in his living room and use the casita in the backyard for recording. We had a nice time, drank a lot of Mexican Coke. The idea behind the band has always been sort-of basement music, kids in the basement trying out weird sounds when DAD is not around. My voice gets really messed with, there are beats and bloops, uncouth lyrics. Jeff plays sax sometimes. Anyway, I brought about 7 lyric sets with me, some of which I had co-written with my brother, and Jeff brought a lot of sketches he had made in Vienna, and once we cleared the casita of junk and dust, we got to work. I think we made an album. Jeff’s working on producing it now. The music is all over the place, banda, folk, 80’s rap. The lyrics are basically my usual fodder, cultural flotsam and jetsam and paranoid mutterings. We played a show in Las Cruces, and an audience member deemed it fresh sounding. The future is bright for the Budokan Boys.        


RM220: I think Nik’s excited about another of your musical efforts, HAWN. What’s HAWN up to these days?

MJL: Old HAWN? You mean, my long-running collaboration with John Craun? HAWN’s doing good. We were on hiatus while I was up north, but now that I’m back we’re making moves again. I’m playing guitar now and singing prettily instead of flailing around on stage and yelping. It’s a bit less antic now, the histrionics kept to a minimum. Actually, it sounds a lot like folk. We’ve always sort of been interested in folk forms lyrically, but now we’re making music that more directly engages it. Also, we’ve more or less freed ourselves from sequences and samples–there’s more air blowing through the songs. We’re playing a few shows in the spring. I hope Nik gets to hear one of them–he’s a diehard.

RM220: Tell me your best memory of Michael Martone.

NDD: I don’t think I have a specific memory of Martone per se that sticks out over any of the others. He came to visit recently, and we took snapshots of each other. I remember his blue suit, grey fedora, and hangdog face. It’s because I have the photo, it makes the memory.

Martone saved me in Alabama. Coming there from Los Angeles, I had a very hard transition, and if it weren’t for him and the wonderful cohort I came in with, Michael Lee included, I would’ve washed out. I remember going home that first Christmas from grad school, landing at LAX, and just crying. So I thank him for that.

And he’s also just a wonderful model. I teach now, and it’s easy for me to burn out, for the job to become a job. To move through my day in routine, actions and feedback to students’ writing to become rote. Martone though somehow has a genuine interest in whatever you’re working on. Every class is new. He’s ready to engage in inquiry, to push his students, to offer strange trivia. He writes postcards to his old students, and I get maybe 4-6 a year. I know I’m not alone there, that many do, and I just wonder how he has time for all of us, how his heart’s so full.

MJL: Well, I can remember taking this class from Michael where we were tasked with writing a story every week for twelve weeks. These were legendary grinders. Anyway, the upshot to writing a story every week was that it entitled you to meet Michael for a half-hour, one on one conference at the Starbucks in the Student Union. I can’t remember why Michael selected Starbucks…maybe the only coffee shop on campus that had seating, or it was close to his car or something. But Martone would sit there all day and, one by one, talk to his twelve exhausted, hung-over students about their stories. He didn’t even drink coffee, to my memory, or caffeine at all–maybe he would drink a soda now and then, or milk. Anyway, the guy was an inexhaustibly brilliant conversationalist, but if you were going in to learn if your story was any good or not, you were out of luck. He had a way of talking about fiction that was always descriptive, comparative, thoughtful. I’m sure deep down he had opinions on the quality of the work before him, but he was completely averse to offering a prescription for the story. I can remember one of our first conferences, before I got hip to the game, pleading with him to tell me whether I was successful or not, and what the story needed. I must have asked him ten times over the course of the half hour, but he wouldn’t do it.

I have another memory of him politely telling me that the men in the workshop were piggishly dominating the classroom discussion, and it was getting a little toxic. Another big day was him leading a discussion on the then-potent Franzen vs. Marcus debate–quite nimbly did he lead it. I also really liked, in another class, listening him talk about Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. He was kind, generous, he mistrusted power, hated authority, he smiled a lot. He spoke of Creative Writing departments as academic cold storage–the university pulls the writers out once in a while, to get their obscure opinion on something. He had a great sense of humor, of absurdity. Now I’m talking as though he’s dead. He’s not. Long may he live and teach! I used to wish he was on The Supreme Court. Also, a koan he would often repeat: “Walk when you walk, talk when you talk, die when you die.” I loved that.

RM220: What’s your favorite underappreciated novel?

NDD: Two come to mind: Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always was perhaps the first book I read all the way through. It’s a YA novel, and I was 12 and I remember just reading it and saying this, this is what I want to do. It’s a strange, dark tale about a monster named Hood stealing the lives and souls from children. I think the ideas of fable and myth are very much a part of my work, and I’m sure that seeding came from Barker. He also illustrated the book, just at new chapters, and I drew when I was a kid, and I remember tracing the images over and over again.

The other may not be so underappreciated in New Orleans because he’s there, but Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a fucking showstopper. It’s just an absolutely stunning book. Same, this idea of fable and voyage, but contemporary. The prose so poetic. Guh. I am endlessly envious of that book. Read it, now, if you haven’t.  

MJL: I don’t have a favorite, but I can tell you one I read last year that I liked a lot, that I’d never heard of before: An Autumn Story, by Tommaso Landolfini. Wonderful melancholic ghost story. My friend gave me his copy last year–he had an extra. It was published by the Eridanos Library, now defunct. Published in Hygiene, Colorado. They made beautiful books. Collect ’em all. This one’s got a nice Munch on the cover.