Getting to Know Blake Z. Rong and His New Book I Am Not Young And I Will Die With This Car In My Garage

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

For the longest time, truth be told, I had no idea that I ever wanted to write poems: I had joined the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts as a fiction writer, and my thesis was a 130-page novel project. But the blessed part about that program (RIP, as of this year) was its emphasis on cross-genre learning: we wrote screenplays, learned the ins and outs of nonfiction, and made short stories out of our chapters. And for the first time in my life, I started earnestly reading poetry: among the standouts included Mary Ruefle, who led the most intensive first-semester workshop that you could ask for, Bianca Stone, Matthew Dickman, and the poet Ai, whose raw and honest persona poems reimagined my concept of poetry in the first place. I went through a lot that year and my first pieces were like stepping into an ice-cold New Hampshire lake, instead of leaping off the dock like I should have. Our guest instructors like Ruefle, Stone, and Dickman didn’t immediately dismiss me as some amateur, which, let’s face it, I entirely was.

 Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

I go for long drives in the woods in a Saab 900 Turbo and I like to watch a sweeping road unfurl itself before the windshield, and no matter how fast I’m going, it’s a good time to work through whatever my emotional state is. The act of driving by yourself becomes almost zen-like, a secondary task. Eventually I find myself getting hungry. When I stop I’ll write down what I can remember, and in essence, this winds up being a few rounds of revisions in my mind alone. I can really focus on the words and the language, muttering to myself like an insane person at a booth in some diner over a plate of mozzarella sticks. And then I get to the laptop and go through another one, just for good measure. Just to see how it feels, and all that.

 Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

I draw from a lot of forgotten historical figures: Camille Jenatzy, the first man to hit 60 miles per hour in the 1900s, the Yuba County 5, obscure Soviet cosmonauts. Because I’ve failed so much in my own life I draw from the failures of others, and there’s an endless stream of things to write about in this regard. Maybe ancient Rome or 1990s sun-soaked Miami or various Asian megacities serve as these backdrops, but the location is key for me, too.

 Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?

Anne Sexton, Ai, John Darnielle, Mary Oliver, Mary Ruefle, Haruki Murakami, Douglas Adams, Vladimir Nabokov, Chen Chen, Alexander Chee, e.e. cummings.

 What excites you most about your new collection?

The title is purposely ridiculous, and absurd, and I hate typing it, and I definitely stumble over my own tongue saying it (to people who work at bookstores and don’t think I’m a real boy). But it is a piece of found poetry in itself: it came from a Craigslist ad of some man selling a Lotus Esprit, partly out of desperation, where you just don’t know how to fix up your dream car anymore and you’ve run out of money and know-how and you just need this thing gone before you shuffle off this mortal coil. When I read this sentence in that ad I just thought of how we are beholden to the objects we love, things that we cannot hope to carry on to the afterlife like a pharoah once could, but only because he had a pyramid—after all, I can’t put my Saab and my Lego sets and Faberge Eggs and my cat in the same tomb as me. So the concept of Swedish Death Cleaning, and the point where your mortality is mired down by your possessions, really spoke to me: someone who has moved nearly every year for the past 15 years of his life. What is beyond our overstuffed closets? What is more meaningful than our collections? Everything, really—such as the threat of death, that we were so intimately acquainted with during 2020. My priorities shifted as much as anyone else’s. Hence, this collection, a refutation of my past self, when I was finally allowed to be honest with myself, and the reader, to whom I apologize in advance.

Cities In Dust

In this perfect howl of emptiness I conjure you 

from blankets and linens and sheets of paisley, your
name perched gingerly on the tip of my tongue 

seeking the words to describe your 

alabaster body 
hair of sandstone 
navel lit aglow 
and the looking-glass pool 
where your ear meets your neck 

but I never dared to speak, 
my mouth rich with dead tongues  
until you became a once-sweet thing 
whose taste had worn out. 

For days I couldn’t sleep,  
so concerned with survival  
that I forgot to dream.  

This was what I once wanted, to be 
surrounded by reveries, 

echoing across the hideous distance 
between your words and my lips 

like the gladiator who’s made it this far, 
kneeling on the ground of the amphitheater 

searching for my missing limbs 
clawing back the last few minutes of indecision.

I close my eyes to
wake in the ashen
hearing the long grass
rustle, sweet Herculaneum 

where in the House of
the Faun I dream of making love
to you, wearing nothing but
your hat.

Purchase I Am Not Young And I Will Die With This Car In My Garage

Blake Z. Rong is a writer in Brooklyn. He recently received an MFA in Writing & Publishing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His debut collection of poetry, I Am Not Young And I Will Die With This Car In My Garage, will be published with Atmosphere Press in 2021. He hails from central Massachusetts and used to write about cars.