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.