The Road to "Tom Sawyer"

by jerome spencer

i love pickles

and you

you love pickles

and not me

“The cool thing about poetry ,” Joey Grantham tells me, “-or at least a lot of this poetry that we’re talking about- is how little is actually given to you on the page, but how much you feel like you can take away from it.”

There’s a lot to take away from Tom Sawyer. It’s a weird little collection of poems and Joey really disarms the reader with dry wit and clever observations before going right for the gut with relatable and heartbreaking sentiment. And the sadness that sneaks up on you while reading Tom Sawyer only seems to hit harder once it’s been filtered through such gloriously humorous musings. Tom Sawyer is comprised of nothing but raw honesty, whether it’s random observations from the bus, an assessment of the inconsistency of Stereolab or fragments of a lovelorn inner monologue, Joey offers nothing less than genuine and relevant poetry. The work is sweet without being hokey and powerful, but not overbearing. Tom Sawyer explores depression without feeling hopeless, while simultaneously celebrating the tiny beautiful things that are routinely overlooked; it’s the poetry of the mundane filtered through an uncanny intellect and presented as (mostly) minimalist poetry with no affectation or bluster to speak of.

Written mostly while living in New York and working at the independent bookstore McNally Jackson, Joey started Tom Sawyer organically enough:

 Tom Sawyer is out now via  Civil Coping Mechanisms

Tom Sawyer is out now via Civil Coping Mechanisms

“Sometimes I just felt trapped in that bookstore. And that’s why I would write these poems,” he says, “I wrote the majority of Tom Sawyer while I was at work. I wrote them on bookmarks and loose scraps of paper we had. Anytime I was stuck sitting at the register or information desk I would try to.”

Before McNally Jackson, though, Joey attended Bennington College in Vermont, which he describes as “a weird hippie school where you create your own major.” So Joey decided to major in writing.

“I’m sure I made up a fancy way of saying I want to write stories,” he confesses, “But really I just wanted an excuse to read and write. Bennington was where I built up the confidence to send out stories. That’s where I first wrote to Scott McClanahan and I kinda just reached out to people. And people were nice enough to reply back and help me.”

It’s at this point where the Joseph Grantham story turns into some kind of surreal independent literature fairy tale.

“I met Bud (Smith) through the press that I run with my sister because we published one of his books called Dust Bunny City.”

Oh yeah, Joey also runs the exceptional Disorder Press with his sister Mikaela, a fiercely independent press that champions some of the best contemporary authors.

“After I graduated from college and I moved to New York I was close to Bud,” Joey continues, “We were working on his book and I would call him and talk about edits. It made sense to finally just meet up in person and hang out. So I started hanging out with Bud every once in a while and after his book came out I threw a reading for him and I just started hanging out with him a lot more. Scott ended up writing to me when I was working at McNally Jackson. I remember getting an email from him saying like ‘hey, I like everything you’re doing with your press’ and he just started asking me questions like what are you reading and blah blah blah. When he came to New York to do The Sarah Book reading - him and his wife, who I’m sure you know is a really good writer, Juliet Escoria – they were like ‘you should just come live with us and work at Walmart’. And I was planning on being out of New York when my lease was up anyway.”

There’s a poem in Tom Sawyer, ‘poem for scott mcclanahan,’ that is so casually startling that I had to read it at least 3 times before I really absorbed the profundity of it. A lot of Joey’s work is like that, it just eases into the dark parts without warning. He just kind of pulls you down into the depths with his words and it’s hard to tell how you got there.

“As it got closer to the end of my lease Bud was like ‘Joey, why don’t you work at the bookstore for another month and just live in my guestroom and save up paychecks?’ So I lived with Bud for a month and then he drove me to West Virginia and dropped me off at Scott’s and I lived there for like a month and a half.”

 Joey and his kitties. He’s holding Tammy Wynette. The lil one in the corner is Possum.

Joey and his kitties. He’s holding Tammy Wynette. The lil one in the corner is Possum.

There’s a poem for Bud Smith in there, too. It’s a bit more light-hearted, but still meticulously frank and unadulterated. It’s sort of a light at the end of the tunnel, which Joey tends to pepper throughout the entirety of Tom Sawyer.

After a stay with Scott McClanahan, Joey ended up back in his parents’ house in a suburb right outside of San Francisco – a situation no one wants to find themselves in. He eventually landed a job at another well-known bookstore, City Lights, and got an apartment in the city.

“It was just recreating my New York experience, but with less friends and less stuff going on,” Joey laments, “So that felt like some sick fucked up joke that I played on myself.”

Throughout all of this moving and getting to hang out with other brilliant writers, Joey was turning his poems into a book.

“Michael Seidlinger, who owns Civil Coping Mechanisms, asked me if I had a manuscript when I was working at McNally Jackson,” Joey continues, “I think I had maybe 40 or 50 poems and so I said ‘yeah I have a manuscript I’ll send it to you in like a week’. And I think I sent it to him two weeks later. I started finding every poem I’d written in the last year.”

So, at this point, Joey knows he’s got a publisher and he’s got the content; he just needs to turn it into a cohesive book. This part is the most interesting to me so we’re going to get into the details:

“Some of those are exactly the way they were written on the bookmarks or whatever and then others I ended up working on a lot. I started finding every poem I’d written in the last year. And things I didn’t know were poems like the beginnings of stories. And I thought ‘that’s a poem’. I’d go through the notes in my phone and think ‘this could be in my book’. And I sent it to him and it was probably 90 pages at that point. 90 poems. A week after he got it he said ‘yeah, lets publish this. Let’s do it in like a year’. So I had a year to just look at this thing. I definitely had some time to do some editing. Anytime I was bored or not working on something I would go back to Tom Sawyer and I would fuck with it and move something around. And I’d write poems for Tom Sawyer once I realized it was book. And I really paid attention to the order of the poems. That really mattered to me.”

At a sparse 119 pages, it’s easy to see how much attention Joey paid to detail while writing Tom Sawyer. Each poem is scrupulously crafted and possesses a certain type of charming, if a bit discomfited type of beauty. It becomes obvious that Joey is spilling his guts in this work and he’s not pulling back or hiding behind any of the usual pretenses. In sad poem he writes:

we live in a world

where i write poems

about one person

who made me sad

a long time ago

It’s hard to miss the simplicity in that, but the candor and disaster are just as obvious. Tom Sawyer isn’t a traditional poetry collection because it’s so much more. It’s something that feels so instantaneous and urgent, like sleep-deprived confessions in the pitch-black darkness. Many of these poems read like something you weren’t supposed to see, like you know too much. Tom Sawyer is Joey’s life, but the inner-monologue of Joey’s life, the part of other people we don’t usually get to see.

“It started to become chronological,” Joey says, “It’s amazing when you gather all this stuff from like a year of your life that you don’t think you’ve been writing as one cohesive thing how much of it fits together. And how much of it is about the same kinda stuff. Still when I flip through my book I’m like ‘oh shit that thing relates to that other thing’ or I repeated myself in that poem and this poem over here. And I’m still kinda realizing that, but that’s kinda cool.”

I’m not sure what’s next for Joey and he’s not sure either. He recently moved to rural North Carolina with Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, who happens to be – you guessed it – another brilliant writer. They met through Bud Smith, started talking online and decided to be roommates. This next part has nothing to with the creation of or the content of Tom Sawyer, I just think it’s really fucking cute:

“It wasn’t like romantic at all,” Joey assures me, “I was attracted to Ashleigh, but I made it a point to not fall in love with this person. It was just stupid of me to think that I wouldn’t fall for this person. And when I got here it took me like two days before I was like’ oh fuck, I really like this person and if she doesn’t like me back I’m gonna end up writing another book of sad poems.’ It seems to be working out right now.”