Snuffleupagus as Depression:
A Conversation with Poet Daniel Crocker
By Chase Dimock
If you ask Daniel Crocker how to get to Sesame Street, he’d point you toward a twisting road of manic depression, frustrated desires, and existential malaise. In his latest book, Shit House Rat, Crocker’s poetry reimagines the furry childhood icons of Sesame Street embodying torments and foibles as adult and human as the people whose hands are lodged up their muppet behinds. Cookie Monster is an addict, Big Bird has mania, Snuffy is the haunting specter of depression, and Grover’s anxiety led to a hell of a divorce. But, Sesame Street is only the starting point. Shit House Rat takes the reader to Leadwood, Missouri, Crocker’s rural, predictably lead polluted hometown, where he engages themes from his childhood to his adulthood, including mental illness, queer sexuality, poverty, and small town conservativism. I got a chance to ask Crocker about the appeal of dark humor in poetry, the struggle of growing up bipolar and bisexual in rural America, and most importantly, what exactly a “shit house rat” is.
Chase Dimock: The first thing your readers will notice about your new book will obviously be the title, Shit House Rat. I know that as you were working on this collection, you had some trepidations about how the title might be perceived by your audience. Where did you get the idea for this title and why did you ultimately decide to use it?
Daniel Crocker: I have trepidation when it comes to just about anything, so I try not to let it worry me too much as a writer. I really put myself out there, especially in this new book, and there’s always a lot of anxiety that comes with that. I did have some specific concerns about the title though. I got the idea from the old saying, “Crazy as a shithouse rat.’ I don’t know if it’s a Midwestern or southern thing, but I’ve heard it a lot growing up and even now. It’s a nice turn of phrase, really. So, I just took the last half of the saying (kind of like I did with Like a Fish) and used it. My worry is that it’s a real putdown to people, like me, with a mental illness. I don’t want anyone with a mental illness to think I’m making fun of them at all. My hope is to take the phrase and subvert it. Own it.
Chase Dimock: I think it will be clear to anyone who reads your poetry that your goal isn’t to make fun of the mentally ill, but to use humor to explore the experience of mental illness. A lot of your poems are funny, and I mean literally laugh out loud funny, which is pretty rare for modern poetry. (Robert Lowell wasn’t much of a yuckster) Why are you drawn to using humor in your work? What does using humor reveal about the experience of mental illness?
Daniel Crocker: A lot of my early work is pretty dark and without a lot of humor. I don’t like a lot of that early work either (some of it still holds up). But, I always like humor. I thought I was funny. Eventually, I wrote a short story or two for Do Not Look Directly Into Me that were funny, and I quickly found that I loved doing it. I haven’t written fiction in a while, and it’s pretty clear to me now that I’m mainly a poet. However, once humor started seeping its way into my poems it was like a creative flood. I guess it was me finally finding a voice that was all my own. As Steve Barthelme one said to me, it has to be more than just funny though. I think that’s true. For me, the perfect poem of mine is something that makes people laugh when they first read or hear it, but then they find they are still thinking about it later because there was something deeper and darker in it as well. Which I guess if you think about it, it’s the two extremes of bipolar disorder mixed together.
I can’t say what dealing with mental health issues with humor means for anyone else, but for me humor is just a way I deal with a lot of things. When you have mental health issues, every day can be a struggle. With my own particular diagnoses–bipolar, anxiety, OCD, probably PTSD, I worry about a lot of things. I’m doing well on medication right now, but when I wasn’t little things like planning an extra ten minutes before work just to get out of the house just in case there was something you needed to check over and over. You never really know what kind of mood you’re going to wake up in, what your anxiety level for the day is going to be, etc. If you’re going to be successful in any way, you have to plan ahead for just about anything. It’s tough to commit to anything in the future because you don’t know where you’re head space is going to be on that day. Or, before medication for me, I might commit to a ton of stuff while manic and then regret it while depressed. I guess this is a long way of saying if you don’t have a sense of humor about things they can become overwhelming. At least that’s my go to stress relief. Jokes.
The good thing about writing funny poems is everyone usually likes them. The worry is if they are going to take them seriously or not. In Shit House Rat I’m using Big Bird as a symbol for mania and Snuffleupagus as depression. Will people buy it? I dunno.
Chase Dimock: Since you mentioned the Muppets, let’s talk a little more about them. In addition to using humor for exploring mental illness, a lot of your poems call upon popular culture as well. The chapbook from which some of this book’s poems came, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood tours Sesame Street, Fantasy Island, and Saturday morning cartoons. I noticed that in this edition, you added the “imaginary” Snuffleupagus voice in the margins as a commentary on some of your poems. First, why did you set to “ruin” our childhoods by adding adult issues like anxiety, addiction, depression, and sexual identity confusion among others to lives of our childhood friends including Cookie Monster, Grover, Lion-o, and Skeletor? And then secondly, why did you decide to adopt your own imaginary friend and add the Snuffleupagus commentary to some of your other poems?
Daniel Crocker: The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood (Sundress Publications) is still available to download. In a way, it was a run up to the new book. Like maybe I wasn’t quite finished saying what I had to say on the subject (and probably still am not). So, I took a few of those poems from that book as sort of an anchor and added some other, more straight forward stuff in there–which is most of the new book. Those new poems still have a lot of popular culture in them though. I mean, I live in popular culture, so I use it. I like to take it and try to make a metaphor out of it. Let’s face it, most of the characters from the old kid’s cartoons and shows I used to like make great metaphors. Snuffy is depression. Big Bird is mania. Cookie Monster is addiction, etc. So to make a long story short, that’s why I ruined your childhood.
I added the side conversations as another layer to the book. They are sometimes comments on the poems, and sometimes they come out of nowhere–just part of a conversation, or constant struggle, between Big Bird and Snuffy who in the end realize that they are really the same person and they want the same thing–to avoid the monster at the end of the book. Though I don’t want to spoil what that is, it is present throughout the book and especially in the asides. They also get a little political. Since I was a pre-teen, I’ve suffered from some of the symptoms of bipolar. I think I was sixteen when I had my first panic attack for example. I had mood swings, which we kind of wrote off as me not taking my brother’s death well. It was more than that though. I’m not going to go through the entire history of my mental health, but in the year I wrote most of the poems for this book my symptoms suddenly got worse. The mood swings, OCD, anxiety just seemed to be getting worse by the day. This all coincided with the weirdest, craziest election cycle probably ever. So, of course politics seeped in there. I have a pre-existing condition. I worry about this stuff. Finally, I had to see a doctor and getting medicated was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.
Chase Dimock: Since you brought it up, I want to hear more about how you revisit the circumstances of your childhood in your poetry. In addition to confronting mental illness, you also explore sexual identity and your upbringing in rural Missouri. A lot of your work expresses the anxiety of growing up queer in a conservative and largely intolerant community. How do these other two parts of your life inform and influence your perspective on mental illness in the book? Is there something about being bisexual that further complicates being biopolar? Do you think the experience of mental illness is different in a small, rural town than in an urban or suburban environment?
Daniel Crocker: I’m glad you ask all the easy, softball questions, Chase. Seriously, these are important topics to talk about, and I want to be delicate about them. I’ll do my best to answer them in the order you brought them up. I think most, if not all, poets revisit their childhood over and over. It’s just fertile ground for writing. Like any childhood, mine was a mixture of good and bad. Being sexually abused was traumatic, but it happens so often I felt the need to write about it. Especially from the point of view of a young boy. You see a little less of those stories, though I don’t know why. It happens. A lot. I’m not sure that was complicated by being bisexual. It was just abuse. Being bisexual in a rural, small town is complicated. I didn’t even know it could really be a thing, though I had the feelings and experiences, until I went to college. I just figured I was a straight guy who also found guys attractive. I either didn’t know how or didn’t want to put a name on it. Of course, all of these things are filtered through many years. So while this is a very personal book, it’s always good to keep that in mind. Human memory is very faulty. So, no one should take these poems as gospel. You know, it was the ’80s and ‘early ’90s I lived as a bisexual in a small town. The anxiety then was getting the shit knocked out of you–which happened to me once. At another party a guy threw a beer in my face because he had heard I was gay. I got kicked in the head at a party for the same reason.
I don’t know if there’s anything about being bipolar that complicates being bisexual anymore than being bisexual (or bipolar) is already complicated. I have seen, in an informal poll in an online bipolar support group, this question raised and an unexpected amount of bipolar people that responded, responded that they are bisexual. That’s no scientific, but I found it interesting.
I think being mentally ill in a small town has unique problems. The biggest being resources. Where do you go? Who is there to help? Plus, there was even more stigma back then. I mean, I was showing symptoms of being bipolar at preteen. We just considered it a personality trait. Then again, I’ve been pretty high functioning (with some exceptions) most of my life. My anxiety is so bad that I can’t help but be high functioning or I’ll collapse.
Chase Dimock: Mental illness is a pretty common theme in poetry over the past half century. Some of the iconic poets of this period like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman were known for their confessional approach toward expressing their mental illnesses. All three also foreshadowed their eventual suicides in their work. Were there particular poets and poems that you found influential in depicting mental illness and some of the other themes in your work? A few of the poems in your book directly address suicide. How do you cope with the fact that some of the poets who explored similar territory decided ultimately to take their own lives?
Daniel Crocker: I love all those confessional poets–Plath, Lowell and especially Sexton and Berryman. When I was in my early 20s and just starting out as a poet, I read Dream Songs more time than I can count. The first 77 are like a record of a man having a breakdown. In fact, a poem that was originally in this manuscript but got cut in the final was called “The Berryman Thud.” I also love the way Berryman used to read his poems. I’ve been working on an impersonation. It’ll be the best one in the world because it’ll be the only one. God knows I can’t actually do impersonations.
Bipolar people are at a higher risk for suicide. I’ve read statistics anywhere from 15% higher chance to 30-50% higher. About 1 in 5 is the stat I see the most. I have no way of knowing if all the self-introspection it takes to be a poet makes that statistic any higher or not. I know there’s a lot of anxiety in this kind of writing. You write something, you think it’s good, you send it out and someone picks it up. Then the worrying starts. What are people going to think about me? Not the poem, but me personally.
That said, I’ve been pretty lucky that I haven’t really been suicidal. I’ve had suicidal idealization. Like in the book, I got a phrase from The Royal Tenenbaums stuck in my head. It was an OCD thing–over and over for months, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.” I actually considered it for the title of the book. I’ve lived with the suicide of someone close to me, but I don’t have much fear that it’s going to end up me. I have too good of a support group, been lucky not to be particularly inclined to it, and I’m much better medicated than any of those old poets were.
Chase Dimock: I have one more question to wrap things up. Most of the audience who will read this interview will probably already be familiar with poets like Sexton, Plath, and Berryman. But what about some contemporary poets? Who are the poets working today that you think deserve greater attention? Are there particular books and literary magazines we should be checking out?
Daniel Crocker: Finally, an easy question. People should be checking out John Dorsey, Nathan Graziano, Laura Kasischke, Tim Seibles, Erin Elizabeth Smith, Steve Henn, Rebecca Schumejda, and many others that I’m going to forget. Or just can’t list because there are too many. Magazines? Check out Trailer Park Quarterly!
For information regarding pre-ordering Shit House Rat please visit Sanesplain.com
About the Author:
Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be. He is an Assistant Professor of English at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, CA. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in journals such as College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His literary criticism has appeared in Mayday Magazine, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews.