Cold Clothes interview, Part One

The following is intended as a fun writing exercise for myself.  If you’ve been reading my blogs from the very beginning, you’ll remember I did something quite like this about 7 years ago on my very first OpenDiary blog.  This is going to be a “fake interview” with a somewhat fictionalized version of myself, which is being conducted by an entirely fictional small arts magazine called Cold Clothes. If you read the old OpenDiary one, rest assured, this is a completely new edition of this.  You’ll see I have tagged the entry as both “memoir” and “fiction”–and that’s why it is so fun for me!  I am playing in a semi-real world (specifically a semi-real Carlisle) and with a version of me that both is and isn’t me, and there will be no cues for what is fiction and what is memoir. And put up with the early conversation about “art”–it’s just to make the reason for the interview believable.

Cold Clothes brings you Part One of it’s planned 12-part interview with Pennsylvania bohemian Seth Dellinger.  As our magazine has only a circulation of about 231, we are “simul-publishing” the interviews on our website–www.coldclothes.com–as well as Dellinger’s blog, Notes from the Fire.  And since we are a very irresponsible and erratic publication, we make no projections as to the frequency of the installments.  Now, Cold Clothes managing editor Rufus Paisleyface’s Part One of the interview:

I first meet Seth Dellinger at an outside table at his favorite Carlisle coffee house, the Courthouse Commons.  It’s an early autumn day, but Dellinger doesn’t seem to know it yet: it’s jacket weather, but he’s still sporting just

Dellinger outside the Courthouse Commons coffee shop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Dellinger outside the Courthouse Commons coffee shop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania

a t-shirt and shorts.  A few times throughout our conversation, he appears to regret this wardrobe decision.  He orders a tall caramel latte.

Cold Clothes: So, here we are, on a sunny afternoon at an outdoor coffee shop, and you appear to have quit smoking?

Seth Dellinger: Yep.  And yeah, if this isn’t the perfect time and place for a smoke, what is, eh?  But I had to quit, you know?

CC: Why?  Lots of your peers haven’t seemed to give it up yet.

SD: I think smoking always seemed to effect me physically a little more than most people.  I had a diminished lung capacity almost immediately after picking up the habit.  I’d be laying in bed and I could feel my heart beating in my head.  I mean, here I am, a 31-year-old guy who’s been away from drugs and alcohol for years now, who likes to be physically active and moving around and doing things, and I’m feeling my heartbeat in my head.  I didn’t like that.

CC: Does any part of you feel that as a drug and alcohol free non-smoker, your validity as an artist has been breached?  A lot of creative types hang their hats on the guttural experience of “use”.

SD: (laughs) So true. Certainly one doesn’t need to have ever used any drugs or mind-altering substances of any kind to make quality art, but I do think you need a sizeable well of life experience to be any good as a creator, and the folks who have always shied away from substances tend to be the same people who shirk a lot of life experiences, although this is certainly not always the case.  Let me say that again: this is certainly not always the case.  And yeah, sure, at first I worried I’d be called a “sellout” or, worse, a “straightedge”, but then I just thought, you know, I’m totally clean because I used things so much I had to stop or die, which is more badass than most of these smokers and drinkers can say.  I’m still badass.

CC: Has if affected your creativity?

SD: Not really.  Now, as before, I’ve not completed any major work that was at all worthwhile (laughs).  But I actually find myself writing a lot more, but the quality downgrades at the same rate as the volume of output, so in the end, I have the same amount of usable material.  I did have to postpone getting together with Duane (Miller) to work on an album we’ve been kicking around for a year now.  I found I wasn’t ready for collaborative work without a smoke yet.  I’m very comfortable writing at home in my own apartment in front of my computer, but the thought of kicking ideas around in Duane’s studio without a cigarette kind of terrified me.

CC: I was under the impression you’d been doing collaborative work with Rothman Hogar very recently?

SD: Well, yeah, but that’s all correspondence work.  Rothman (ed. note: Hogar is Dellinger’s frequent “best friend” and occasionally his “nemesis” artistically.  The two have a long, storied friendship which both are hesitant to talk about.) is currently a writer-in-residence at a university in Norway, and we’re collaborating on a screenplay via e-mail, so it’s still basically solo work because I’m alone while I’m doing it.

CC: Has Rothman’s absence changed the nature of the artistic life here in Carlisle?

SD: Only in the sense that a friend’s absence changes the dynamic of that group of friends.  Since Carlisle’s rise to prominence in the East Coast art scene, there’ve been plenty of personnel changes around here, but the core group remains the same and the general aesthetic remains the same.

CC: OK, now that we’re talking about it, take us back and tell us about the “rise of Carlisle”.  How did it happen?

SD: I’m sure you know that’s not the softball question it appears to be.  There are a few differing versions of how it happened.  Personally, my memory of the first national art media coverage was when Mary (Simpson) and I wrote and produced a play at the Cubiculo Theater here in town that built a slow media following: first the local papers, then the regionals, then the niche national publications, until finally it got a blurb mention in The Atlantic.

CC: That play was Conceited Eagle.

SD: Yep.  Eagle still largely pays my rent, too.  After it’s blurb in The Atlantic, a few regional theaters asked if they could put on a production of it.  Every year it circles a little further out.  This year they’re doing it in Fargo, Kennebunkport, and Denver.  It’ll never make me rich.  It doesn’t even pay the utilities.  Coneited Eagle exactly pays the rent, more or less.

CC: Do you harbor any hopes it will ever go “big time”?

SD: What, Broadway?  Yeah, it’ll probably make Broadway some day, and it’ll play for 18 shows and star someone unusual, like DMX.  I probably won’t like it.

CC: So what made Carlisle become a hotbed of artistic work, rather than this just being the unlikely story of an independently produced play?

SD: It’s almost impossible to say how these things happen.  There were just a lot of us in the right place at the right time.  Some folks interviewed Mary and I about the play a few times, and we mentioned a couple of friends we had–visual artists, musicians, writers, etc–and occasionally they went and interviewed those friends of ours, and people started getting into their stuff and interviewing them, and it was one big cycle.

CC: How famous do you think you can all get?  Could this become a cultural phenomenon?

SD: No way.  The Carlisle scene is bound to stay culty, for a couple reasons.  First, none of us are really pop artists.  I’m mainly poetry.  Rothman writes everything but it’s all very avante garde.  Mary’s a painter.  Jarly (Marlston) is a sculptor.  Duane plays space funk.  Tony (Magni) draws wads of meat.  I mean, c’mon.  The kids are never gonna flock here!

CC: Ryan (Straub) plays some fairly accessible singer-songwritery music.

SD: haha, true, but we’ve been trying to talk him out of it.

CC: How important is it for art to be accessible?

SD: That all depends how accessible you want it to be.  If you’re going for something you want everyone to understand and enjoy, and you end up making something daft, dense, or confusing, then I’d say you’ve certainly failed.  But it doesn’t have to be simple to be accessible.  Charlie Kaufman makes movies lots of people love, including myself.  They’re never going to make a hundred million dollars, but there are lots of fans.  I think it’s just about making what you set out to make, making it play on the level you wanted it to.

CC: Can you give me an example of a time you think that translation has failed?

SD: Sure.  I think Jonathan Franzen’s much beloved novel The Corrections is a failure in that vein.  He seems to want to be writing a really complex, codified novel like Pynchon, but he ends up writing it like a Grisham book.  It was an Oprah book back before Oprah started picking surprisingly good books.  It reads really strange because you can literally see Franzen trying to be dense but it comes off as populist.  It’s like beating off with a limp dick.

CC: So, back to the Carlisle movement: how important is the “group” aspect here?  Would any of you be successful without the group?

SD: We’re not the Beats, if that’s what you mean.  For the most part we participate in different mediums, we have different outlooks, are at very different spots in life.  Mostly, what we create does share a certain tone, a base idea of grit, or the grime of life, but we’re also not afraid to uplift.  You’d be hard pressed to find a photograph with more than three of us in it at any given moment.  I’d love to play up the idea of a group, or movement, because people love that story, but really it’s more like a loose group of friends who are all creative types.

CC: How many of you have been able to quit your jobs?

SD: Most.  But we quit our jobs with the trade-off of living uncomfortably.  We’re not rich.  We’re barely living off of what we do.  Remember, you’re interviewing me for Cold Clothes, not Rolling Stone! (chuckles)  A few of them still labor for their money.  Jarly still works (for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation).  There’s not a big market for original sculpture right now, but I always say, a decade from now, that guy’s gonna be so rich he won’t even remember where Carlisle is!

CC: OK, maybe we’ve got ahead of ourselves.  Let’s go back before Carlisle.  Tell me about growing up in Newville, a small town about 20 miles from here.

SD: Newville is a very idyllic, perfect little shithole of a town.  It was an ideal town for a boy to grow up in.

CC: haha…um, explain?

SD: It had that quintessential “small town” feeling, that sort of close-knit Thornton Wilder thing that makes you feel comfy and safe and free to ride your bike alone all over town at a very young age, but at the same time, it’s a shithole.  It had seen it’s best days.  It had abandoned factories, forgotten corners of the town where the streets quite literally had no name, drainage ditches full of standing water, back alleys with weeds growing through the pavement.  But despite all this, I never found anything sad about it.  My childhood eyes saw all this blight as a great story.  I loved thinking about Newville’s past, what it had been like as a boom town, what those men in tall hats from the black-and-white photographs would think if they could see it now.  It filled me with a deep sense of time very early in life.

CC: How did your family end up in Newville?

SD: Well my grandma and grandpa Cohick–that’s my mom’s side–lived in the area.  My mom grew up on their farm in Oakville, an even smaller town a little further out.  I suppose at some point in time they sold the farm and moved to Newville.  I know Gram worked for the dress factory in town that was shuttered right around the time I was born.  After my parents were married they must have moved to Newville to be closer to them, although I don’t know those details for sure.  Isn’t it strange the questions you never even think of asking your parents?  Dad’s family was from closer to the river (the Susquehanna), the Mechanicsburg, Wormleysburg-type area.  It’s odd to think about, because my parents are divorced now, and Mom left the area, but Dad still lives in Newville, a place he’s not actually from.  It’s weird how life moves you around.

CC: And here you are, living in Carlisle.

SD: Well yes, but there’s not really a difference between living in Carlisle and living in Newville, geographically.  It’s like the difference between living in Chelsea and living in Greenwich Village.  And I suppose there’s barely a difference between where my dad’s parents raised him and where he ended up.  It’s all south-central Pennsylvania.  But I think it’s just neat how life picks you up, moves you around, and sets you down.  Sometimes it’s a lot more dramatic than Mechanicsburg to Newville.

CC: Did you enjoy your childhood?

SD: Listen friend, if you didn’t enjoy your childhood, you weren’t trying.  I fucking loved it!  I mean, sure, there’s plenty of sadness in childhood.  In fact, about half the poems I wrote in 2004 were trying to figure out why childhood seems so sad.  My childhood certainly wasn’t more sad than anyone else’s–in fact, it was probably happier–but I think as children we just haven’t learned how to deal with the truths of the world yet, and we’re very tuned in to the way things feel.  The passage of time feels quite acute to a child.  Boredom feels very acute.  Unfairness, not getting what you want, not feeling loved at every moment–these things take a lot of years to get used to.  And thank goodness we do get used to them, thank goodness childhood doesn’t last forver, because until you get your emotions and reactions under control in the early teens, you’re essentially useless.  But anyway, despite and maybe because of this deep sense of feeling, childhood is an amazing, magical time.  It’s this same “blank slate” idea that makes us so emotionally sensitive which also makes the world an extraordinary place to a child.  “Puddle-wonderful”, as Cummings called it.  Try as I might in my adult life, I’ve never been able to acheive the kind of free-form imaginitive play I had as a kid.  And that’s the thing:  I do try. I mean, I live by myself, I don’t have a job, I’m single and no kids.  Some nights, when I’m home, there’s nothing to watch, I’m sick of the book I’m reading, and I don’t feel like writing.  I look around my apartment and think, I should play.  And why shouldn’t I?  There shouldn’t be anything wrong with a grown-up playing.  So I turn everything off, make my hands into guns, or my golf bag into a dragon, or any number of things, and I give it a go.  But it never works.  My hands become hands again way too quickly, and the golf bag always looks much too much like a golf bag, and I just end up putting on a Radiohead album and pretending I’m a rock star, which is play to an extent, but it’s totally useless grown-up play.  It’s more about commerce and culture and self-glorification than childhood play.  I always remember this essay I wrote in 12th Grade english class about childhood play, and how my teenage life was really missing my childhood play.  That essay is still one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, because in it, I described childhood play in such a luscious, compelling, chunky way.  I could never write about childhood play like that nowadays.  It’s like my 18-year-old self was still tenuously connected to my childhood self.  I still had a visceral notion of what it had been like.  Not so anymore.  Nope, nowadays remembering childhood is like watching a movie through a bedsheet.  I can’t imagine what it’s like when you get older still; it must be like that childhood happened to somebody else entirely.

CC: Were you a social child?

SD: Reluctantly.  Which is another way of saying “no”, I guess.  I was pretty much terrified of people I didn’t know.  In fact, I was more scared of kids I didn’t know than I was of strange adults.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I had friends, but it was a long process for me to feel comfortable with them.   I had much more fun playing by myself, controlling all the plot points and characters.  But most of it comes down to fear.  I was one of the most scared kids around.

CC: You were scared of other children?

SD: Absolutely.  In both the theoretical and the very concrete sense.  Theoretically, I was afraid no one was going to like me, that I wouldn’t be understood, that I’d be ridiculed.  Concretely, I was literally afraid other kids would end up beating the shit out of me.  I’m not sure if this just came from being a short kid or not, if maybe it came from somewhere deeper, but it wasn’t until perhaps the age of 14 that I stopped worrying everyone wanted to hurt me.  It had nothing to do with my home life: my parents were not violent or physical.  I got spanked a handful of times, very civilly, very by-the-book.  Sometimes I think I just got born with a “scared” gene, and it’s been the major story of my life, overcoming it.

CC: Did you get in many fights as a kid?

Dellinger, age approx. 4 years, admiring one of his grandfather's sweet potatoes.

Dellinger, age approx. 2 years, admiring one of his grandfather's sweet potatoes.

SD: No.  One or two, really, though the one was very, very terrifying.  It was this kid Shawn Wilson.  He was one of the baddest ass kids in Newville.  Like, you did not fuck with Shawn Wilson, even at the age of seven.  And I was in this church yard one day, this church yard that was a few blocks from our house on Big Spring Avenue.  I used to go there to play all the time.  They had some swings, a really big lush lawn, and even a small topiary maze.  Of course now, as an adult, it looks like a shrub-lined walkway, but at six, seven, eight years old, it was a topiary maze.  I was there playing by myself, and Shawn Wilson shows up.  At first, he played with me, but then for some reason he pushed me to the ground, got on top of me, wouldn’t let me up.  Of course, I cried immediately, did a kid version of pleading with him, but my fear just fed his aggression.  So he got a bit sadistic on me.  He let me up, but he wouldn’t let me leave.  I’d try to walk toward my house, and he’d run in front of me, knock me down again.  It turned quite epic.  I remember, what seemed like hours into this ordeal, I managed to escape, finally getting onto the sidewalk, y’know, that sign of civilization, and having this immense feeling of relief wash over me.  I felt like I had barely survived with my life.  That’s a moment from my childhood I remember with precision clarity, that feeling.  It’s poignancy is not diminished because I was so young at the time.  I felt like my life had been spared.  That’s a heavy feeling for a kid.  I ran the two blocks home and breathlessly told my mother the story.  She was a substitute teacher at the time, so was often home during the day.  I breathlessly recounted my ordeal.  She was concerned, of course, and very motherly to me, but must have been unconvinced of the epic severity.  I remember wondering why she wasn’t calling the police and giving me some secret grown-up medicine and calling the local news.  And the few times I’ve recounted this story to people over the years, I’ve gotten the same reaction. You see, you can’t ever actually make someone feel how you felt.  It is important to remember this when making art, too.  You can only get them really, really close, and then only if they’ve felt something similar before as well.  I will always be disappointed by anyone’s reception of this story, because I still get worked up thinking about it, over twenty years later.  I probably shouldn’t tell it anymore.  Oh, and Shawn Wilson?  He’s dead now.  A few years back, car accident.

CC: So now you’re the only one who remembers.

SD: Yep.  I’m the only person with the memory of that childhood fight.  And I like it that way.  Shawn Wilson may have grown up to be a different sort of man than the evil bastard who held me hostage in that church parking lot, but I’m still happy to not share anything with him, not even a memory.

CC: What else were you scared of as a kid?

SD: Just about everything.  I was scared of moving things, very much.  Motorcycles, horses, trains, amusements park rides.  I still won’t ride amusement park rides or horses.  I still haven’t conquered everything!  But yeah, fast things.  Bugs, snakes, the sky, night time.  Death was a big one.  I thought about death a lot.  My grandparents.  Rain.  You name it.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unable to leave the house, or quivering like an idiot any time I was in public.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who had as fearful childhoods as I did.  I learned how to act through most of it.  Sure, I was still scared shitless when our parents would take my sister and I to, say, the Newville Fair, but I gradually learned how to hide it.  Well, hide it the best I could.  It was still no secret to those around me that I was mostly terrified.  But the acting is a skill I’ve really refined in my adult life.  While the fear is mostly gone from me, I now use it to disguise foul moods, sadness, worry.  I could be afraid I’m dying and hide it from everybody for a long period.

CC: Were you creative as a child?

SD: Sure.  But I never had one of those big moments you hear a lot of people talk about.  You know, I knew the moment I opened “Where the Sidewalk Ends” that I was going to be a writer or My parents rented “E.T.” and I knew in the first ten minutes I was going to be a film director. No, I never saw art that compartmentalized, and I still don’t, or at least, I try not to.  As a kid, I just knew I liked things that used that creative part of the brain, that idea that you can laugh or cry or sweat because of things that aren’t really there, or aren’t actually happening.  I was always drawn to that, and to the depth of emotion you can allow yourself to feel at these things.  I was always amazed by those depths.  Also, I remember losing my breath a little bit the first time I saw those little lights along the aisle floors in a movie theater.  That looked like real-world magic to me.

The Seth Dellinger interview from Cold Clothes will be continued!


16 Responses to “Cold Clothes interview, Part One”

  1. That. Was the best thing ever.

    Ohmygod that ruled.

    I have like, a zillion comments, but I’ll just start with this:

    I didn’t know Shawn Wilson was dead.

  2. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    Rufus Paisleyface belongs in the fake name Hall of Fame. This seems like self-indulgent fun and you’ve found a creative way of getting it out without coming off as “HEY, LISTEN TO MY CHILDHOOD THOUGHTS!”. I just hope the length doesn’t deter people from reading the whole thing.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      yeah, I was afraid too, about the length turning people off, but I couldn’t figure out what to cut. It’s extremely self-indulgent, that’s why i felt the need to write that huge introduction explaining what it is so people wouldn’t be “fooled” into reading it. Thanks for enjoying Rufus Paisleyface!

  3. I love it!!

  4. I’ve always felt the same way about those lights in theater aisles!

  5. Good stuff my son. Your Mom and I got married our junior year in college and moved in with her parents in Newville to save money while in college. T hey lived in the big house at 64, in between our eventual home at 66 and their eventual smaller home at 62. It was a neat big older house until they sold it and it was made into apartments. That is how we first came to live in Newville.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      wow, I had known about them living in 64 but had totally forgotten that fact! That is so crazy that you both ended up getting a house on either side of it! Didn’t you and mom also have an apartment somewhere in newville briefly?

  6. The writing is self indulgent, but very enjoyable. The sweet potato is impressive. That sucker is as big as you.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      haha well if it’s enjoyable then I don’t care if its self indulgent! thanks!

      I wish I could remember that sweet potato!

  7. I stay in the Newvile area because I want my kids and grandkids to have some roots and a place to come home to. I think that is important.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Oh I agree completely, and it would just be ridiculous for you to move to Mechanicsburg at this point–you were at Newville long enough that it must seem like that’s pretty much where you belong now. There’s no reason we should go back to where we were born, I don’t think. It just seems interesting, where we end up.

  8. I always thought that sweet potato looked like a turkey.

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