Fifty Shades of Yellow: Talking with Poet Shy Watson
by Jerome Spencer
I had to read "Cheap Yellow" twice. It’s such an engaging and entertaining read that I blew through its 170 pages in one sitting. And then the words just wouldn’t sit still – resonating and rumbling through my psyche – until I read it again. I had to be sure that I’d absorbed every infinitesimal facet and buried symbol of Shy Watson’s masterful exposition. Because while "Cheap Yellow" is, on the surface, stark confessional poetry that just goes right for the gut, it’s also full of luxurious wordplay that leads the reader in another direction altogether. It’s a cohesive and dense work, but it also reads like a journal entry because it basically is.
“Some of the poems are older,” author Shy Watson tells me, “Most of them were written like a year and a half ago. I just kept putting poems together into this word doc. And it was this one mass, completely unorganized terrible thing. The working title was “Dunkin Girls” because there’s a poem in there about walking girls to an apartment by a Dunkin Donuts, which is a true thing. I think it was when I got to 90 pages or something I was like ‘oh shit, maybe I should start organizing it’. But I had absolutely no idea how to do that.”
The poems come together under headings named for different (and random) types of yellow. It feels personal and honest, giving the book a specific tempo that lifts its distinctive narrative.
“I had noticed there were a lot of yellow mentions in the document,” Shy says, “Maybe it was because My Aura is Cheap Yellow. I just got the idea one day, randomly, to organize it by shades of yellow. And I started thinking of shades of yellow that could arise from the poems. Like "Miller High Life Yellow" because I’m drinking that in there, there’s probably some piss mentioned so that might be where "Dehydrated Piss" comes from and "Stars on a Wizard Hat" just because its mystical things… Then I just made headings for them and thought ‘which poems go under this heading?’ like a sorting hat from Harry Potter or something. And it all kind of naturally fell into place.”
"I think a lot of times, some action happening has extra meaning behind it. And I try to notice those things."
These headings make the poems flow and intermingle; the pages turn themselves, each gut-wrenching poem more riveting than the next. Reading "Cheap Yellow" is like having a conversation with an old friend, only you want to repeat it almost immediately. It was on the second reading that I was forced to absorb the raw power of Shy’s words. No matter how many times I re-read "Pacsun Yellow." it doesn’t stop stinging. It’s vulnerable prose that so captures the ennui of mis led suburban youth and sexualization of young girls that it physically hurts to read it.
“Yeah, it’s intense,” Shy says of "Pacsun Yellow," “It actually wasn’t supposed to be in the final edition, but I think it was meant to be. Michael, my publisher, sent an old version [of the book] on accident to [author] Scott McClanahan to blurb it. And when Michael sent me the blurb it was all about the mall poem. And I was like ‘how does Scott know about the poem about the mall?’ The final .pdf I sent to Michael didn’t have it in there anymore because I felt like maybe it was too heavy. I felt embarrassed by it actually and that might be because it comes from such a vulnerable place. Everything that was in there was like ‘Oh my god, I have to delete that before the final version.’ It’s maybe too close to home literally and figuratively, but… I don’t want to ask Scott to write me a new blurb so maybe it should be in there.”
It definitely should be in there; "Pacsun Yellow" is easily the most powerful and concentrated work in "Cheap Yellow," but it’s also to understand why Shy struggled with fitting it into the narrative.
“I realized recently that I have a really fucked up family and a really fucked up upbringing, but I never write about that,” Shy tells me, “I don’t think about the past very much honestly so I’m always writing about what’s currently happening in my life. Recently I just had this realization that I had so much shit that I could be mining from my past and back home that I’m not."
"I got in this weird place where I was thinking about malls and how depressing they are and I was remembering stuff I’d completely forgotten about from when I was a kid - like getting fingered by that boy in the Hot Topic dressing room. It just feels really dirty thinking about adolescence in the Midwest, hoe-ing it out at the mall within a 30 mile range. It just feels like really dark shit. I definitely want to work more on that sort of stuff. 'Pacsun Yellow' is definitely one of the more recent poems in the book so that’s fresh on my mind.”
Shy’s prose has a sense of urgency to it and reading it is like concurrently being a fly on the wall and being in the writer’s head. “I don’t ever think about what I’m writing,” she confesses, “I write what literally happens but those things just so happen to have that extra layer. I think a lot of times, some action happening has extra meaning behind it. And I try to notice those things.”
Her poetry can make the most mundane situation seem like a life-changing event and a life-altering event seem like a shared trauma. It’s because of how deeply personal Shy’s poems are that they’re so relatable. Cheap Yellow isn’t full of hazy metaphors about flowers or meanderings on the concept of heartbreak. And if you’re a fan of vague, lilting Instagram poetry this may be a little too cutting for you; but if you’re a real, living human being who has actually experienced emotional pain, "Cheap Yellow" may as well be about you. If the last two lines of "136 Grattan" don’t break your heart, it’s because you don’t have one.
Through her own personal experiences and through a fresh voice, Shy channels an almost omnipotent tone, channeling the ups and downs of a whole generation raised on the internet, reality TV, Frappuccinos and an obligatory Bright Eyes phase.