Huffpost Books
Melissa Jeltsen Headshot

Gregory Sherl, The Accidental Poet

Posted: Updated:

Gregory Sherl never wanted to be a writer.

"I want to ask every poet Do you regret discovering words," he writes in his latest book, Monogamy Songs. "I wake up and they are always under my pillow. I am talking about the words not the poets, but usually a poet is next to me anyway."

Sherl, 28, writes like he has no choice. Devotional, obsessive and erotic, his poems are marked with a sense of urgency. "If I could do anything else I would," he told HuffPost.

Sherl has obsessive compulsive disorder, and many of his poems center around his exhausting struggle with mental health, and his relationship with prescription drugs. "The greatest thing about Vicodin is everything," says one poem, reflecting a common sentiment in his work.

His poems are also consumed with love -- falling into it and out of it -- and focus unabashedly on sex. It's no surprise he's acquired a fan base of teenage girls on Tumblr with lines like this:

"She has so many knots in her hair because we are desperate
in our fucking. Maybe desperate is not the right word.
Think: necessary. Think: éclat. Think the opposite
of mediocre and then continue to think that until you grow bored."

Sherl's work has appeared in The Rumpus, Columbia Poetry Review, diode, Los Angeles Review and In the short time he's been writing poetry, he's published three collections, two chapbooks and recently sold a novel. His newest poetry collection, Glow, is due out in February 2014. Here's some Sherl for you. And more here.

He discussed his latest poetry collection, Monogamy Songs, when reached by phone in Mississippi, where he is currently enrolled in graduate school. Woozy, emotional and frenetic, Monogamy Songs charts a relationship from its ecstatic beginnings to its disastrous end in a series of prose poems.

HuffPost: How would you characterize what kind of writing you do? Are you a poet? Fiction writer? Would you label yourself any of these things?

Sherl: I’ve been writing poetry for about the last three years. As an undergraduate in creative writing at Florida State, I wrote only fiction. I was, like, poetry? Poetry still exists? Who reads poetry? Who writes poetry? Unless you get into the small community that is poets, it’s not really a thing people know about or really read, unfortunately.

After graduation, I went to grad school at Virginia Tech for fiction immediately. During my second semester, I took a poetry workshop as a joke. My teacher, Bob Hicok, is an incredible poet. When I first started writing, it was just prose poems. "Notes On A Candy Cane Tree" was one of the first poems I wrote. It came a little more naturally to me, probably because of where I was mentally too, concentration-wise. It was easier for me to do these short bursts of emotion instead of trying to span out into a story. So I just started writing poetry and stopped writing fiction entirely. It just clicked. My first collection, "Heavy Petting," included many poems I wrote during that first workshop. I dropped out of grad school at the end of that semester, moved home and started to adjunct. I was just writing a ton of poetry. Poetry, poetry, poetry.

HP: Tell me about your most recent poetry collection, Monogamy Songs.

S: The book charts my relationship with the character Z, and I wrote it chronologically as it was happening. There were the happy poems in the beginning, then things start to go, then things go to shit. I’d consider Monogamy Songs part memoir, part poetry. It has a lot of surrealist elements to it, but there’s also a lot of truth.

I started the book when I was working at an advertising agency writing ads for local car dealerships. I was terrible at it. But I wrote the ad copy so quickly that I was left with free time, and I’d just spend my work hours writing poems.

There are pieces in Monogamy Songs, especially the beginning, that feel hurried and rushed, there’s this desperate speed and need in the poems, and the emotions are the same way, and that’s probably because I was writing them that way, because I was at work.

I wrote the whole thing between November and March. The poems were written in order, some of them a couple a day. It was basically things happened this day, and I wrote them down.

HP: Your poems read like a bursts of energy, very vibrant and intense. Is that reflective of the way you write, or do you do a lot of editing and rewriting?

S: I do write quickly. I’ve written four poetry books since 2009 and two chapbooks. It's kind of this non-stop thing, this obsession. I have OCD. I think I’ve started to slow down recently, I’m writing much more slowly. This happened with age. I grew into my voice a little more. But I find the idea of something overly polished too much like a computer, like it was written by something not human.

I co-founded a poetry journal at my old school, and called it Vinyl. As you can tell from my poems, I’m very influenced by music, more so than reading other people's writing. I think there’s this purity to vinyl. There’s the hiss and the pop; it’s not perfect, it shows the human fault in the art. I believe that should be the case in writing. There should be faults in it. The hiss and the pop in the vinyl brings you closer to the artist.

Writing should be a little bit grainy, it should be a little bit raw. It should be every single thing flowing inside of us, and most of it isn’t pretty. If there is nothing at stake in what I’m reading, if there is nothing at stake for the writer, I am just not interested. You gotta be there. You have to basically bleed for it. If not, why are you trying to put this in the world.

HP: What role do sex and sexuality play in your writing?

S: Sex is awesome. Poetry is awesome. Shouldn't the two go together? When I first started reading poetry, I was confused at the lack of sex poems out there. (The more I started to read, the more I found, of course.)

Still, and I've said this in interviews before: There is never enough fucking in poetry. Less birds, more fucking.

My poetry is very much based in my personal life. Most of it could be considered straight nonfiction. Monogamy Songs is probably 75-80 percent memoir. Sexuality (or, more importantly, sensuality) is a big part of my life. And that comes out in my writing. I write what I like to read, and I like to read about sex.

HP: Have you ever dreamt a poem? Composed a poem in your sleep?

S: I was about to say that I never seem lucky enough to remember my dreams. But now I'm wondering if not being able to remember my dreams actually makes me luckier... What if the dreams are constant terrors, and I'm just saving myself? (I'm already on enough pills, you know?) It's nice to think that maybe there's a force field around me, even if it's only so powerful.

HP: How are your favorite contemporary writers? Who gets you excited?

S: The only two poetry books I've ever read in one sitting are Black Life and Awe, both by Dorothea Lasky. Lasky is a national treasure. She is also one of the sweetest human beings on the planet. I would not be a poet if it weren't for Bob Hicok. Section III of Ginsberg's "Howl" still makes me cry. Wendy Xu excites me to no end. I am jealous of almost everything she writes. I am excited to follow her career -- where will she go? Anywhere she wants. Dennis J. Bernstein's Special Ed should be required reading. Adrian Matejka makes me want to add swagger to every poem I write. I grew up reading Bukowski, and I'll probably die reading him. Monogamy Songs would not exist if not for Ben Mirov's Ghost Machine -- a collection so original and emotionally vulnerable that I wore out my copy and had to buy another.

Since I wrote fiction before moving on to poetry, most of my early influences are fiction writers: Aimee Bender, Bret Easton Ellis, Tobias Wolff, Sandra Cisneros, Nicole Krauss, J.D. Salinger, Barry Hannah, Ryan Boudinot, Amy Hempel -- the list could go on forever. Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son is the book that made me want to write a book. Lorrie Moore made me want to stop writing short stories because I knew I'd never write anything as good as "People Like That Are the Only People Here." Same for Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners (my favorite short story collection).


Below, read an early Sherl poem:

Heavy Petting In Cooper City, FL

We’re so young I still look out the window when you cry.
Still, this is how it starts: there is tongue kissing before baby
names. There is forgetting how to sleep alone before
baby names. Sometimes your thighs are too sweaty to hold
before baby names. Lately everything falls right out of me:
a wave having a seizure while someone tries to learn how to surf.
In this poem we are in bed because everyone can guess why.
We are in bed and I say Your tongue is the coldest tap. That is a lie.
You are so fucking warm. You are an electric blanket we keep next
to the icebox. In bed I say You are the equivalent of seven brownies.
You say Prove it. So this is what I do: I bake the sun up.
We forgot to draw the blinds, so I bake the sun back down.
It is pitch black, so I bake some lightning bugs and tie them
to my chest hair. While I bake, you go into the other room and send me
dirty text messages with descriptions of your back spread out like a speedway.
I have to go into the icebox to cool off. I don’t turn on the electric blanket.
My blood is milk, skim, thin enough to reach my toes. I have shivered
in my sleep since at least eight years before we met.
There is a timer, and then the timer is done being a timer. I am done baking.
I hold the seven brownies in my lap while you drive us to the doctor’s
office. The doctor checks your blood pressure, feels for lumps. Then he checks
the brownies for lumps. I was smooth with the icing, and the doctor
is pleased. He puts his stethoscope to the seven brownies, says
Big breath now. The brownies puff out their chests like muffins.
They sigh like long distance runners. The doctor takes off his latex gloves.
He says Equivalent, like it was a category on Jeopardy! He says
Homologous, synonymous, identical, tantamount, indistinguishable.
The doctor looks at me. He wants to know if the brownies
came from a box. I tell him I picked them from the garden,
that I was turned on by how soft the soil felt between my toes.
He says And her? pointing at you. I tell him I keep an Easy Bake
Oven between the sheets.