Ben Estes is a talented writer whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know the past year. Last weekend, I got to spend some time with him and my best friend in Northampton, Mass, where we took some photos in his backyard. I had a good time asking Ben a few questions about his work, and his past life as a Tracy Chapman fan. I also learned that his hair was once in an abusive relationship with mousse.
You’re the editor of The Song Cave. Tell us a bit about The Song Cave and how it started.
The Song Cave is a small poetry press that champions the idea of the “long poem,” that I run with my fiend Alan Felsenthal. Ideally, we publish one chapbook per month. I moved to Massachusetts in the fall of 2009 to get an MFA at UMass, and I was really interested in “the long poem” as a form. At the time I was trying to write very long poems, so I began really searching them out to read.
I gave my first poetry reading that fall, and being very shy I’d decided I wanted to make something for the audience to look at or read along with, rather than just sitting there LOOKING at me - so I decided to print up the long poem that I was planning to read that night, as a little chapbook. That’s the first book by The Song Cave, how it all began.
Coming from art school, I also really missed making physical things, so making these books really helped me keep my hands busy, you know? Being completely new to poetry at the time, running a small poetry press also gave me an excuse to introduce myself to a lot of the poets I was reading and that I really admired… All of a sudden I had a reason to write to Ben Lerner and Lisa Jarnot for example, to say hello, and ask them for work. It was a way for me to help navigate and feel comfortable with the decision I’d made to try to fully enter into this crazy world of writers.
What do you guys have in the works right now?
Right now we’re just about to start publishing full-length books. It’s a big deal for us, and has turned out to be a much bigger job than I had initially thought it’d be. As of right now, we’ve got 4 books on the schedule, to come out within this next year or so. The first book will be a collection of poems by a “forgotten” poet named Alfred Starr Hamilton, that I’ve been appointed as the literary executor for. He’s an amazing writer, that I feel was way ahead of his time. It should be out around the beginning of 2013. The book after that one will be the first book by a poet named Jane Gregory, called My Enemies, and it should be out around the beginning of March.
The Song Cave also publishes limited edition art prints, to help us fund the literary side of things (there is absolutely no money in publishing poetry books, in case you were wondering). So far we’ve done a print with the painter R.H. Quaytman, and with Kim Gordon - but we’ve got a few more artists working on things for us right now too, who I’m really excited to work with. I love the idea of visual artists helping writers get the chance to bring their words to a larger audience, and it allows me to keep a toe in the two things I really love - art and writing.
What was your first concert?
Are you still a Tracy Chapman fan? Do you ever sing along to “Fast Car” when you’re alone?
Dude… as a young, chubby, painfully shy, suburban 11 year old gay boy I’d listen to Tracy’s tale of the desperation of her dead-end job, her alcoholic boyfriend… it was as if I finally had the troubled black girl best friend that I’d always dreamt of having, telling me all her secrets. I was in love. The dream of a different world where she finally found a true and tender love, a world where she truly belonged… I did too!!! I wanted all of those things too!!! We were like - the same! That final ultimatum at the end of “Fast Car” used to kill me - to “leave tonight, or live and die this way”… I’d lay there at night, in bed with my walkman, yearning for something even a fraction as real as what poor Tracy was having to go through…
You live in Northampton, Mass which I’ve recently visited a few times. It’s a very charming place. What’s your favorite secret Northampton spot?
There are a lot of really beautiful spots around here, lots of nice secluded swimming spots you can go to during the summer, but there is a spot that my boyfriend Juan and I walk to a lot, a place in the woods back behind Smith College that has somehow become an unspoken destination for the two of us when we we’re out walking around. A little hard place where we can sit and look at the river. Once last summer I got brave enough to take all my clothes off and get in the water there - but Juan got nervous and made me get dressed. It’s really beautiful back there.
Has there been a period in your life when you’ve worn a lot of hair gel?
See, I’ve got very curly hair, frizzy in fact - and before I realized in college that the most civilized way for me to wear it was to just buzz it all off I had a really confusing relationship with my hair.
In middle school, I’d wear quite a bit of mousse… For some reason though, it never occurred to me that I’d need to apply it to my ENTIRE head. I’d just smear it into the unruly mop up top. It’d be quite slick and stiff above the ears, but entirely dry, and um… puffed everyplace else. It was so sad. I didn’t, um, really have any friends back then…
What are you working on now that we can look forward to reading in the near future?
Well, I’m working on a manuscript, a book of poems, that I think is going to be called The Chimneys. It’s still a little ways away from finding itself in a final book form, though.
In the meantime, Flying Object and The Song Cave are planning on a little joint-publication of John Rafman’s Google Image project, 9-Eyes, I’m really excited about that. I’m also working with an incredible painter named Mariah Dekkenga on a project for Triple Canopy. It involves a very strange and willingly unfinished new poem of mine called Design for Living (which may or may not be based on the 1933 movie of the same name), with a lot of transparently gentle color-shifting and strobing geometry. It may or may not end up being be a series of screen-savers, downloadable from Triple Canopy’s website.
And I’m hoping to take a lot more photographs this winter. I think doctors should prescribe cameras for people suffering from depression. Everybody should have a camera. Not just the camera inside your little cell phone that you forget you even have until your friend spills her food all over herself or something - but an actual camera-machine that you need to carry around on your body. It’ll change everything. I’m totally serious.
My best friend Juan Amaya has a show up at Flying Object in Hadley, Mass through November 18th. I asked him a few questions about his show, Taco Bell, and shitty Tumblr art. If you guys are in or around the Hadley area, you should check out his show. You’re in for a real treat.
I was very happy and proud to attend your recent opening. What inspired you to make a series of posters?
Thanks! I guess what really inspired me were all these Facebook invites I constantly get and that I constantly ignore so I decided to make these posters for this ‘mysterious’ event (my event in this case) using inane, maybe boring images of nothing really and senseless titles as well but also just wanted the posters to look pretty (laughter). Ambient music played a big part, I wanted to make people feel like these posters were floating (sort of like those Facebook events that get ignored and become lost on the internet) or like they were on drugs.
How long will the show be up?
It’ll be up till Nov. 18th so everyone who reads this should go see it now. I don’t care how far you live.
How much Taco Bell did you consume while preparing for the show?
I’m not obsessed with Taco Bell like you are. I ate Burger King.
There’s a lot terrible shit on Tumblr. What’s the worst thing you’ve seen in the past two months? Did it make you want to create more, or just throw your hands up and say, “I give up!”
Hmmm, I don’t know because there’s so much. I am kind of tired of seeing this futuristic 3D bullshit that kinda bores me. I’m also tired of 12 year old kids liking my posts.
Personal style questions make me want to vomit. What were you wearing the last time you went to Taco Bell?
I was wearing something like this but my sunglasses were Acne.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
Expect to see even bigger ideas in smaller spaces, and longer hair.
Shout out to my friend Ben Bondy for doing this!
You just moved to London. How’s that going? What are your plans there?
Yes! I got here three weeks ago, or something like that, I’m terrible with keeping track of time, but it’s been interesting so far. I’ve gotten lost more times than I can count, and spent nights at some of the worst pubs and clubs in London, and quite possibly the world. *cough *cough Fabric, but I’ve also had some really rad times already, and people pretend to be polite here, unlike New York. I actually just started working at the Vice London office today, which should be very excellent. I’m working on two projects, the first being a documentary about Black Sabbath, and the second is a project we are doing with Sony, but it’s a secret.
Tell us a little bit about your band.
My band Friendless Bummer started a little less than a year ago when I had some time, and wrote a bunch of tunes. I was listening to a lot of doo-wop at the time, but I can’t really write just plain doo-wop because I’ve spent most of my life playing in hardcore, punk, and metal bands, so it was sort of a fusion of doo-wop and punk. We put out a demo I think in May of this past year, and recorded and released a digital version of our ep just last month which can be downloaded here! http://www.mediafire.com/?icupns83m7z8az3. It’s really different from our demo, but if you like psychedelic noisy garage stuff, you might like it. When I get back to the states we are recording a few more tracks, and are trying to release a deluxe version on tape. We just want to play as many basement shows as we can, and spread the word of satan.
You also have a clothing line. How did that start?
Well, when I was about 15 a friend and I started a tee-shirt line that was pretty successful. The designs were cheesy because we were really in to collecting sneakers, which I think all kids involved in hardcore in the early 2000s can relate to. I figured that I might as well try something while I had free time, which I have very little of these days. It started last May when I knew I would be working at a bar all summer, so I knew that during the day I could work on designs and marketing etc. The first designs were simple, black and white color-way graphic prints, but through the past year I released a couple of pocket tees and two oxford shirts. I haven’t had time the past several months to work on the project, but as soon as I have time and money to put back into it, I’m going to be working on some denim and more oxfords, and potentially a couple of hats.
I’m a bit of a sweater nut. What’s your favorite sweater? (feel free to take a photo of your favorite sweater. That would be kind of cool)
My favorite sweater is actually my newest sweater, and my first purchase in London. It’s a forest green Carhartt sweater with gold geese embroidered into it. My other favorite sweater is my Ralph Lauren cashmere sweater with suede elbow pads.
Best dressed person you’ve seen lately on public transportation?
There are a few that stick out in my mind as of late, all three were Japanese, obviously because the Japanese always look the best, but I’ll just tell you about my favorite. The first was an older guy decked in Junya Watanabe X Levi’s gear, the denim jacket, as well as the patchwork jeans. He also had a Junya Watanabe denim bag from I think F/W 2009, which was probably the best Junya collection ever. Under the jacket he just had a white tee on, but my favorite part was his feet. Bape Manhunts.
Favorite place for a burger? And which cheese is on that burger?
Easy, Kuma’s Corner in Chicago. The place is really metal, and all the burgers are named after metal band, so it’s really rad. They have Makers Mark and Jack Daniels on tap, so how could it not be good? The burger I get there is called the lair of The Lair Of the Minotaur, which has whiskey poached pears, and smoked brie on it, all on top of a pretzel bun. It’s incredible.
Someone offers you $300,000 dollars but you have to spend a year looking like the dude from Tokio Hotel. $300,000 is a lot of money, but you’d be putting your dignity on the line. Would you do it?
HELL YEAH. First of all, that’s a lot of money. Secondly, I have no dignity, or integrity to put on the line. Thirdly, if all I have to do for $300,000 is look like a woman with a porcupine on her head for a year I would do it. I plan on dressing like a woman with a beard for a year of my life anyway, so yes, definitely.
I got this yesterday. I’m going to put it on the Knoll coffee table at the squat.
My best friend took this. I washed my hair using the bottle of Evian that I’m holding.