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Going wild in Havana with poetry, prose and freedom

Isaac Wilder is a force both on and off the Open Mic stage. At Bob’s, Wilder usually performs spoken word, but he has also published a book of his poetry and poetry-like letters through Grinnell College Press. Wilder speaks here about his inspirations, his recent travels and the reasons he performs in his typical, highly unique, manner.

Isaac Wilder
- Daniel Penny

So you’re performing at Open Mic this week. What do you like about performing?
You know, I actually really hate performing.

Oh, why don’t you like it?
It’s hard to differentiate between what’s performance and what’s art and what the hell you’re doing in front of a bunch of people remains a mystery. But, in a certain sense it seems like the only reasonable thing to do.

Why is it the only reasonable thing to do?
It’s the only reasonable thing to do because if you make art you should share art, and the only reasonable thing to do beforehand is to make art.

And that’s why you perform at open mics?
Yeah. Because everyone else is doing it.

Peer Pressure.
Yeah, basically. Weakness. Weakness is probably the best answer I can give you.

So when did you first start writing?
I think like first grade when I learned the letters and shit. I feel like we all kind of start playing with words as soon as we get them.

Any favorite childhood stories?
I wrote this one story when I was in fourth grade on my dad’s palm pilot, and I wrote it all out on the graffiti feature on my dad’s palm pilot and I thought that it was just cool as hell… I was 3 and a half, I wrote this story called “Hunter.” I didn’t really write it though, I dictated it to my sister who was the producer of the piece

What was it about?
Hmm. It’s about the human condition.

You published a book last year through Grinnell College Press—how did that come about?
Well, I didn’t realize, actually that I was writing it when I wrote it because it was just my life occurring. And then I got here and I had seen some things that Press had put out before and I thought it was a pretty cool thing to have available and I was like “Well, oh, I’ll just take this bulls**t and pretend it’s a book.” I mean it is a book, that’s the great thing about books all you have to make a book is pretend that you made a book.

The book is mostly a correspondence between you and a woman named Athena. Who is she and how did that exchange begin?
Well, Athena was my teacher in my senior year of high school. She was my English teacher and she was really good at it and there were a bunch of cool people in the class and then we just kind of kept talking. She was just somebody you wanted in your life.

When you have a great teacher, you just become attached, you don’t want to let them go, they’ve shown you so much, they’ve shown you new ways to look at the world. And that is worth devotion.

So what are you writing now?
I went to Cuba with some dudes this summer, Dylan [Naylor ’13] and Marcus [Eagan ’12] and Tyrone [Greenfield ’11] and when we were down there I was writing a lot just because it seemed a good thing to do. I was trying to write a novel, but that was not a goal that I accomplished.

Did you accomplish something else instead?
Nonsense. I won’t call it nonsense, but it was not a book. Stuff is just stuff. It is what it is. It’s just pages in a notebook.

What are your long-term aspirations literary and otherwise?
That’s a hefty question. Long-term goals and aspirations literary and otherwise—go home for Thanksgiving.

So do you prefer prose or poetry, to write and to read?

What do you like about either?
I mean asking “Do you like prose or poetry” is like asking “Do you like food or water,” not to be melodramatic.

Okay, maybe a better question is what is each process like for you?
I think I have found that they’re very different processes. It’s sort of like aerobic and anaerobic activity in the body—writing poetry to me is like anaerobic activity where it’s just like a sudden burst of energy, whereas writing prose is a more sustained sort of discipline and you get much better at it the more you do it which is probably the best thing about it.

How do you write?
When I was in Havana I liked to take a shower at 9 p.m., put on my kyrta pajamas and sit down at the kitchen counter with a full pack of cigarettes and an empty ashtray and a bottle of ice water and write until I’d finished something or smoked all the cigarettes or the sun came up and that’s the only time I’ve ever committed myself to writing for a block of time. And that was only for two weeks, it wasn’t like a period of my life or anything, it was just some sh*t I did.

How did you end up in Cuba?
That’s a good question. Well, I’ll put that mostly on Dylan and Marcus and of course Tyrone too. These are guys that are really good at actualizing their dreams and we were sitting around talking and someone said “We should go to Cuba this summer” and we all sort of confirmed that we were serious about it. Turned out we were all for real and we just went through Mexico and went to Cuba because it’s not actually that big of a deal. We flew Cubana Airlines, met some cool people

What was Cuba like for you? Did it inspire you?
I mean I did in a certain sense. Of course I loved every single second of having that experience but I didn’t actually like Cuba all that much. Sometimes you go to a country and completely fall in love with it and sometimes you don’t like it and just, Cuba seemed a little too…totalitarian. But I say I did get some inspiration from it because that inspired me to sit on my lazy ass, watch One Tree Hill and write like a hermit. So, that was good.

What do you write about?
I guess most of the stuff I’ve written has to do with a new sort of way of approaching networks.

So you’re really writing about networks?
Well kinda. No. I mean not really. It’s a hard question. Freedom. Can I say freedom? Freedom in a sense. Oh! I know one way to say it—life. I’m writing about life. For sure. At least that’s what I’d like to be writing about.

What makes your writings unique?
They.are the product of my consciousness and that’s their common feature.

Who would you cite as your major influences?
I feel like my major influences, if you put it that way, aren’t really literary. Can I make like a list? Okay. So, Bertrand Russell is a G.

Why is that?
He and this other dude Whitehead in the other part of the 20th century did a lot of stuff that I don’t really understand for formulizing math in new ways that eventually made computation possible [and] all of the stuff that goes with it. Richard Feynman was a professor at CalTech, physicist philosopher type dude. Bob Dylan has always been a guy that I like a lot. Prince. I’m not saying my work is derivative from their work.

What has influenced your writing specifically?
Probably just like the sound of my parents’ voice more than anything. I feel like a lot of how I write just comes from growing up in the family that I grew up in. And I think that’s true for most people but I feel lucky to be from family [with] siblings [who] are all really good at expressing themselves. I feel like I mostly just learn from them and my parents.

Do you have any favorite open mic performers?
Cole [Unger ’13] and Dylan, definitely, have really done justice to Neil Young every time they’ve taken the stage. Yeah. I’m afraid to say anybody because I feel like then by virtue of not saying somebody else I would offend someone. Danny Penny [’13]. Jumi [Bello ’13] of course. It’s a hard task because I really do just think that it’s cool when people go up there even when somebody just goes up there and says bad jokes like, “That’s fine, good for you. Cool.”

Is there a literary work that you particularly admire? Favorite writer?
Ralph Ellison is really really good, “Invisible Man.” Yeah, I think that’s one of the better things I’ve read other than that. Shakespeare’s aiite. God. I’m just kidding about God. Like the Bible, that would be pretty funny. Hafaz, Rumi and Ibn Arabi who are all Sufi mystic poets who are basically the reason why I’m happy most of the time. Like, reading those three when I was 17 just did a world of good for me, so glad I did because it just made me a better person.

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