INTERVIEWS: Chapbook Prize winner Dennis James Sweeney

We caught up with Dennis James Sweeney, winner of CutBank’s 2013 Chapbook Contest, to get some insight into the poetics and process of his poetry collection, What They Took Away. Lily Hoang calls it “an epic apocalypse of life stripped of tedium, of obtrusiveness” and a “magical miniature world showcas[ing] the terror of erasure and the wreckage of return.”

Sweeney will read from What They Took Away at our CutBank 80 launch in Seattle this week.


CutBank: Obviously, we love your book. I’m curious how this project came about and under what sort of timeline. You’ve mentioned that you were cashiering in Boulder? 

DJS: Thank you! Yeah. I had just come back from this two-year sojourn—after graduating from college I taught in Taiwan for a year and traveled in southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent for ten months after that. So moving to Colorado was my way of “trying the United States out again” for myself. I was coping with a pretty major disaffection for the American standard of living at that point, which writing What They Took Away helped me to purge a little bit.

I was working as a cashier at a natural foods store in Boulder, so over the course of a couple weeks I would either wake up and write a few entries before working the late shift or come home after the early shift and scribble down what I’d thought of that day. The first few entries came about through a kind of magic, as really good ideas sometimes seem to. Once I had those, it was a tense few weeks of trying to hold the inspiration inside me and let it out through these little spigots, the specific items I picked to be taken away.

How did you select the items that would be taken away? What about their order?

That’s funny. I could probably tell you how each one came about. “Pet healings and readings,” the first one, was from some terrible ad I saw that just seemed so trivial and opulent that it fit right into the idea for the series. The one about stereo systems came from Jonathan Richman, this musician who made one punk record with the Modern Lovers and then turned into this bizarre, proto-new-sincerity sort of dude. I was listening to his song “Parties in the U.S.A.” a lot at the time. The “bags” section, of course, comes from all the customers who were annoying the hell out of me with their oversized regret about forgetting their reusable shopping bags in their cars. 

Is there a "stance" to this book?

You know, the feelings that made me pursue the idea were very specific: as I saw the fake eco-conscious consumption of (for example) your high-end Whole Foods type grocery stores, especially after being in much poorer countries than ours for a while, I had a really violent impulse to hate all the stupid accoutrements of life in the United States, many of which are “taken away” in the chapbook.

The work itself is more ambivalent about this idea of having more than we actually need. Writing it was a way of moderating my own radical tendencies, I think; when a well-intentioned authoritarian regime starts taking things away in order to “simplify,” it stops seeming like such a good idea. So in a way, I was teaching myself to be less of an asshole, and to appreciate the free market. As terrible as that sounds.

Who are “they” and who are “we”?

That’s something I figured out as I went along. “They” are supposed to be this sort of fascist government that has the ability to take away all these things we depend upon for our daily lives—possibly the embodiment of my own wish that people would back off the consumption a little bit, as I just mentioned. “We” is us. You and me. The people that are subjected to these changes and have to cope with them, however well-intentioned “they” are. “We” are doing the best we can with what remains to us. 

Can you discuss the role of humor in the book? There are moments I laugh aloud while reading it…

No way! I’ve always wanted to find a way to be funny. I think one role of the humor, where it did sneak in, was to contrast with the sometimes sober/poetic tone of the chapbook. It’s good to laugh at yourself and let the reader do that with you. Especially when you’re spending the rest of the time riffing on the irremediable nature of loss. 

How would you classify the genre of What They Took Away? How relevant is this question to the writing you do? Writing in general?

A couple of other people who have read the book have asked me that too. The approach here was influenced partially by the short-form narrative poetic prose I’ve seen in amazing books like Sarah Goldstein’s Fables and Jessica Bozek’s The Tales, though I read that after I wrote What They Took Away. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the last couple years, and a form that seems to be making inroads with a lot of indie presses. Some people call it “hybrid.” I’m less interested in what the form is called than the ability of linked short-shorts to do the work of poetry and fiction at once: both to affect the reader through the way something is said, and to pull him or her forward with the power of narrative. That’s why this sort of writing is coming out more and more, I think. It gets at two of our best impulses. It’s a wonderful thing that there’s people out there who appreciate this kind of stuff.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

Just to check out Clint Garner’s rad reconstitution of Odilon Redon’s sketch for the cover: color on the front, black and white on the back. The image is almost like a 20th “thing taken away.” Kind of rounds out the book, in a way.


Dennis James Sweeney has also co-won the Unstuck Flash Fiction Open, judged by Amelia Gray; been nominated for a Pushcart Prize; and been longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 Short Fictions. He was born in Cincinnati and has lived in St. Louis, Taipei, Boulder, and Corvallis, Oregon, where he is now. Visit his very own website to read more of his work.