The Incredible Bipolar Hulk:
A Conversation with Poet Daniel Crocker
By Chase Dimock
The genius of The Incredible Hulk is that everyone can identify with him. All people have a reservoir of anger inside them, and we all know the painful discipline of managing anger, lest it erupt into senseless rage. The Hulk Smash is the fantasy of acting on our anger with a violent ferocity that mirrors the inner, emotional experience of pain.
In his latest chapbook, Gamma Rays, Daniel Crocker identifies with the Hulk as a metaphor for the experience of bipolar disorder. As It Ought To Be debuted Crocker’s Hulk poem “The Incredible Hulk Tries to Write a Poem” last January. For Crocker, the Hulk is more than just a momentary outburst; he is an enduring persona who embodies the manic energy of bipolar disorder. Crocker’s poems humanize the Hulk, and in turn, provide insight into the mind of the bipolar person as they navigate the impulses within them. I had a chance to ask Crocker about the Hulk and how he personifies the bipolar experience in his poetry.
Chase Dimock: The first question on anyone’s mind when they first look at your cover is going to be “Why the Hulk?” In the past, you’ve written poems in which you take on the personas of Cookie Monster, Skeletor, and George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life among others. What is it about the Hulk that made him worthy of an entire collection of poetry? What does taking on his persona uniquely achieve among your pantheon of pop culture icons?
Daniel Crocker: The simple answer is, I love the Hulk. I wrote one Hulk poem, the one where he goes shopping after taking klonopin, and then I couldn’t stop for awhile. I was filtering everything through the Hulk. I originally thought I might end up with a full length, but after about 20 poems I realized I was kind of done with the story I wanted to tell. But, he’s a great metaphor. Any negative aspect of your personality, especially those that center around losing control, that’s basically the Hulk. He’s the things you bury deep. In a lot of ways this books is about coming to terms with that.
So I used it as a metaphor for my bipolar disorder because you never know when you’re going to have another episode. You just try to keep them at bay with medication. Then I started thinking about what it means to navigate love and a relationship when you have this hanging over your head–when you’re not always sure you’re going to wake up okay. Unlike Shit House Rat, however, this is more about coming to terms with it. It is, I think, a happy book with a happy ending.
Chase Dimock: The Hulk has been incarnated as a comic, a cartoon, a TV show, and several movies. I know the TV show version of the Hulk the best because I grew up watching reruns. In that version, he’s somewhat of a loner who tries to manage his rage alone and channel it toward productive ways to help the people he runs into. The show always ends with “The Lonely Man Theme.” It seems like your Hulk is more like the Hulk from the comics, which places him in a romantic relationship with Betty. Why was it important to focus so many of your poems on the Hulk in a relationship?
Daniel Crocker: In the end, it’s a book about navigating a relationship while having a mental illness. In my favorite runs of the Hulk, Bruce was always afraid of his anger coming out. He would do anything to keep the Hulk away–even though it’s a part of him. He was so obsessed with finding a cure that his relationship with Betty would be strained. When I was diagnosed with bipolar, I read up everything I could on it. So, I understand that level of obsession. I also, of course, worry that my symptoms could come back at any time—even while on medication. So, I hope it shows the impact of bipolar disorder on one’s immediate family as well as just the person who has it. In the end, though, it’s just coming to terms with the monster inside of you–whatever that may be.
Chase Dimock: I’d like to explore in more depth some of the aspects of experiencing bipolar disorder through the Hulk. One constant presence in your Hulk poems is medication. The first poem is about the effects of Klonopin and other prescription drugs are alluded to later as well. How does medication influence the experience of bipolar disorder? How does giving these medications to the Hulk allow you to express this experience?
Daniel Crocker: I was certainly having some medication frustrations while writing these poems. Just finding a medication combo that works and has the least side-effects is one of the most frustrating parts about being bipolar. You get the diagnosis and you think, “Great. Some help.” But it’s very rarely one finds the right medications right away. It took me about a year to find something I’m 100 percent comfortable with–and even now there are side-effects I don’t love, but it’s better than the alternative. By the way, this answer was brought to you by Vraylar.
Chase Dimock: In addition to prescription medication, your poems also depict the Hulk self-medicating with alcohol. The Hulk goes on a two day drinking binge, and Bruce Banner wakes up hungover. The poems describe self-medication through alcohol as mostly destructive, but one wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t at least some perceived benefit. How does being bipolar lead to self-medication and how do the Hulk poems reflect this experience? Are there other forms besides alcohol?
Daniel Crocker: Self-medication is a stage that a lot of mentally ill people go through before, if they’re lucky, they seek actual help. I went through my own stage of this and my drug of choice was alcohol. In fact, I spent several years just trying to deal with my mental illness this way and seldom sending out poems. I published some books in the 90s and early 2000s and then just dropped out for awhile. I wanted to reflect some of that through a few of the poems in the book.I’ve always had more trouble with mania than depression, and for me, alcohol always felt like it would alleviate some of the mania.
Little did I know at the time that it was probably making it worse. Even when you get help and stop self-medicating, there are still medication frustrations that I wanted to deal with as well. It usually takes awhile to find the right medication combination for someone who is bipolar 1 like me. It’s a frustrating process that can be painful. There are side-effects, sometimes a certain med with actually make you feel worse. But, it’s worth it in the end. You finally find what’s right for you and start to feel better every day. More stable. Able to concentrate more. In the end though, for me at least, this is a book about a relationship. One of the people in it has a mental illness. The Hulk I think is a good metaphor for this because it’s something that Banner is always trying to control. He’s afraid of it, but there’s something he likes about being out of control as well.
Chase Dimock: Another prominent theme is the Hulk navigating bipolar disorder in social situations. In one poem, he uncharacteristically dances the night away at a wedding, but in another, he is embarrassed to have fallen asleep in a poetry reading. How does the Hulk illustrate the difficulties of socializing with bipolar disorder? How do you know if the Hulk or Bruce will come out at a party, or are they both present?
Daniel Crocker: It’s hard for me to make social engagements because you never know when a mood swing might hit. Though, those are pretty rare for me now. I’m on good medication. Still, I do have to worry about how much anxiety I’m going to have from day to day. Sometimes, I make plans and have to cancel because there’s just too much of it. Other times, I push through. But to answer your question, you just never know. One day you might feel great. You might feel like dancing the night away with a bunch of strangers. Another, the idea of sitting in a room with other people can fill you with dread. As far as whether or not Bruce or Hulk will come out at a party, I can usually tell ahead of time. I don’t normally cycle so quickly. If I’m feeling well enough to go to a party, chances are I’ll be fine at the party. There have been exceptions. Times when a panic attack has just come out of the blue. All in all, it’s stuff I can deal with. I’m lucky enough to have friends and family who can deal with it as well.
Chase Dimock: There are two different poems in the collection about Bruce Banner experiencing intrusive thoughts and OCD. How does your metaphor of the Hulk mirror the experience of OCD and intrusive thoughts? How do these play a role in your bipolar experience?
Daniel Crocker: Intrusive thoughts are mostly how OCD manifest itself in me. So, it was probably natural that they ended up in the book. The symbols in the book aren’t a clear cut as they were in Shit House Rat though. Sometimes the Hulk is one thing, sometimes he is another. If SHR was a book about being diagnosed as bipolar and looking at everything that leads up to it, then this is a book about what happens after. The various meds you try. Navigating your relationship now that you are literally someone new thanks to your medication. In general though, the Hulk is something Bruce is always trying to keep away. During the course of the little narrative though, I hope it becomes more and more clear that he’s heading toward acceptance. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s totally a book about bipolar though. The subtitle is “A Love Story”, which is what I think it really is in the end. A very special kind of love story. The poems in the story aren’t necessarily true either. I am pulling from true life stuff, like the intrusive thoughts, but the poem where the Hulk fell asleep at a poetry reading? That’s more fantasy than reality.
Chase Dimock: Let’s talk more about that love story. It seems that the love story is a love triangle of sorts between Bruce, the Hulk, and Betty. In the final poem of the collection, you use the term cuckold, in reference to the relationship. Considering that some people now use a shortened form “cuck” as an insult, this term has become heavy in its connotations. How does this term relate to the love story in the collection and why did you want to focus attention on this word?
Daniel Crocker: For one, I just wanted to jab at the alt right a little. For two, while the word “cuck” is certainly problematic, I’ll stick by a line from my poem. There’s more than one way to love a woman (or anyone for that matter). As long as everyone is a consenting adult then what is the problem? In the context of the collection, Betty is in love with Bruce and the Hulk. Just so happens they are kind of the same person and kind of not. If we have to relate it back to sex, well, that’s easy. If you’re manic, you often experience hypersexuality. You can’t get enough. Other times, there are med problems–physical and mental that might interfere with an intimate relationship. So, I wanted to explore that a little in the safest way I knew possible–make it about the Hulk! Oh, did I mention, to hell with the alt right?
Chase Dimock: Are you looking at other comic book characters to write poems about? Also, what are you working on next?
Daniel Crocker: I’ve written one about Spider-man. I’m certain there are other heroes I could use and may use in the future. For now, I’m getting a little away from the persona poems and working on some more political stuff, as well as some stuff about growing up evangelical. You know, where everyone is waiting with glee for the end of the world. You never know though. Once I connected the Hulk into what was going on with my own life, the poems came pretty quickly. That could happen again. Kind of the fun part about being a poet. You never know what’s going to come out from day to day. I do know this. Eighty percent of it isn’t worth a damn. You live for the twenty percent.
Gamma Rays is available via CWP Collective Press.
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.