Sebastian Sommer Interview

Sebastian Sommer makes street art and movies. I think we had a nice conversation about art, its value, and taste. I’m Dan Copulsky, and this interview is from September 2011.

You’ve been doing a lot of street art lately entitled Crispy Toes/Punk Ass. What is the value of this street art, for yourself or those who encounter it?

The whole point of street art, in my opinion, is to get people to stop and pay attention to their surroundings. After a while, particularly in the city, you get into this groove and everything just starts to blur. Some could argue that street art is supposed to be a social commentary… which is true if you look at guys like Banksy and Shepard Fairey. But then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, where you have street art like Jim Joe and Dick Chicken, and while they’re both amazing, the social commentary aspect becomes muddled. So I create this artwork in hopes that it will get people to stop their busy schedules and notice what’s around them. “What is this gorgeous artwork in front of my eyes?” they might ask. While viewing my street art, its normal to feel confused, shocked, and strangely aroused. I create the art myself, but I work with a group of people known as the “Punk Ass Crew” who help spread the art. They wish to remain anonymous.

I generally find myself bored by street art that I don’t perceive as doing something “new.” Do you think this is a fair criteria to judge street art by, and how do you think your work holds up under it?

I think it all depends on taste. If you see a piece of art and it tickles your fancy then that’s cool. I don’t think you should force yourself to like something you don’t care for. Having said that, you should also be open to try out new things. See if you like something, if you don’t, then move on.

You recently finished a short film based on the short stories of Tao Lin. This seems to be the way you generally describe the piece. Do you think the film can stand on its own?

Totally. I mean, it obviously helps to market the video if it has a “selling” point. People like familiarity. And it helps to reel the audience in. But there is an audience for every type of art. Somewhere, in this big world, there is a person that actually enjoys watching good films and doesn’t care about who’s playing in it. Weird, right?

If you imagined a person who did not know of or care for Tao Lin, is there a way you could describe your film to them without reference to him or his work?

I would describe it as the first “surreal” mumblecore film. Mumblecore films are known to be these low budget, reality based stories, about people in their 20s. I wanted to keep the basic principles but make it less about reality and more about the subconscious. Plot wise, it is about a man who wakes up to find that a weird family is robbing his house. But it’s so much more than that. The film is very metaphorical and each family member represents something unique in the main character’s life.

You like mumblecore. I don’t care for the mumblecore I’ve seen, but I think some art is much better appreciated when it’s intellectual context is understood. I started liking modern art a lot more once I read up on what the artists and critics were actually talking about and trying to express in their work. Is there anything you can say that might help me appreciate mummblecore?

I wouldn’t say that I’m the biggest fan of mumblecore, but as a filmmaker I do find it interesting. When I watch movies like Tiny Furniture or Hannah Takes The Stairs I feel so inspired afterward. I feel like I can make those kinds of movies! As opposed to when I watch some huge ass blockbuster with a 200 million dollar budget and enough special effects to make my dick soft. And when mumblecore films are done right, they can be very good. I’m a huge fan of Dance Party USA by Aaron Katz. Its so lo-fi but so genuine. Plus the ending is brilliant. But it’s true some of these films are boring. I would say that I like the movement that came before, Dogme 95, a lot better. At least the films within Dogme 95 were fucking crazy. Julien Donkey-Boy? Werner Herzog should have won the Academy Award.

You also really like the color green. I don’t like green much, and I don’t think anything someone said could change that. Maybe taste is sometimes just taste?

Taste is always just taste. But I feel like some people are scared to like new things until society says its okay for them to like it. There have been times where I’ve sent a song to my friends and they won’t listen to it until it becomes popular on the radio. What is that bullshit? I don’t know. I’m not going to try to convince you that green should be your favorite color, but you shouldn’t hate it. It’s a nice color. It didn’t do shit to you.

I feel bad about it, because I have nothing against you, and you seem nice and sincere about your work, but I don’t find myself particularly moved by your art. Do you think creators can be each others’ allies even when they aren’t each others’ fans?

Just because you don’t like the artwork doesn’t mean you can’t respect the artist for creating it. There are a lot of artists, especially the ones working within the “ready-made” movement that I don’t particularly like. But I understand what they’re trying to say and I respect that. If artists don’t like each others work, then they shouldn’t collaborate. But I don’t see why they can’t be allies.

Sebastian’s Blog – sebsom.com
Sebastian’s Videos – vimeo.com/sebastiansommer

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Max Mandax Interview

Max Mandax has a couple of zines in an art show opening tomorrow. I also think he has some interesting things to say about gender. I’m Dan Copulsky, and my friend Max answered my questions in July 2011.

You have a couple of zines in a show at Woman Made Gallery. You aren’t a woman. How do you feel about that?

I feel weird about it. Sort of proud, even kind of validated by it, but also apprehensive about my inclusion in the show being challenged. The call for submissions said the show was “open to women, transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people.” I feel included in that, but people generally see me as a man. So I’m scared someone will look at me, look at the name on the gallery door, and have an issue with that.

What is your gender identity?

I don’t really consider myself a woman in any sense. At least in some senses I do consider myself a man. But I also consider myself genderqueer and gender non-conforming. I think a lot traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity are silly and harmful, and I don’t fit a bunch of stereotypes about men. I also aspire to look more androgynous. In some ways that makes me feel like a man who challenges what being a man means, but in some ways it makes me feel like something other than a man. It’s sort of a recurring theme of my identity that I don’t feel like I’m enough. I feel like I’m seen too much as a straight man to claim a queer or genderqueer identity, and I feel like I don’t have enough experience to call myself poly. But I think that’s kind of dumb.

Do you think the gallery would see your gender identity as one they intended to include in the show?

I sent the gallery three zines. The first was a glossary zine of words related to sexual and gender identity. The second as a glossary zine of words related to non-monogamy. The third was a zine about my own identity, using some words from the first and second zines and brief explanations of how I feel those words fit me. I thought these zines addressed gender in a way that would really let them decide whether I was someone they wanted to include in the show. They only accepted the first two zines though, which makes me a little nervous. Like maybe they decided my gender identity was adequate for them but they weren’t sure it would be adequate for the audience in their gallery.

What do you think of gender inclusion policies?

I think they can be pretty problematic. Sometimes I think they exclude people to detrimental effect, and sometimes I think they reveal sexism and transphobia. But sometimes I think they do help create positive, comfortable spaces, even as I hope social change makes it easier for those spaces to be comfortable and positive while also being more inclusive. I also think it’s important policies are clear and accurately represent the organizers’ intents. I prefer the ones that include me.

Why did you make the glossary zines?

They seemed like a small and direct way to make people more aware of some things I’d like people to be more aware of, like what it means to be genderqueer or polyamorous. I think even a really concise definition can hold a big idea, though, like the definition of fidelity holds in it the idea that being committed to someone isn’t the same as only being involved with them. I didn’t realize how educational it would be for myself to try to put them together. I thought I knew what all the words meant, but I really had to think about them and how they are used to find definitions that seemed clear, satisfactory, and consistent with the other definitions. I think some of them could still be improved.

Why did you release the zines under a Creative Commons license, particularly one that grants other people permission to use and adapt your work, even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you?

I hope the zines can have a positive effect, and I want to help make it easy for other people to help make that happen. I’d prefer people cut me in if they are going to profit off my work, and I’d prefer people not adapt my work in a way that goes against my goals, but I think it encourages more people to use the work in ways I’m excited about to just release them under a permissive license. I also think Creative Commons is really cool, and something more creators and consumers of culture should be aware of and make use of. I put the zines up for sale on my website, but I also posted the files so people could print their own copies, and then I included an option to just donate money too. I guess the ideal is that this results in more people reading them and in people giving me more money, but more people reading is definitely the priority.

What are you working on now?

I haven’t been doing as much writing lately as I’d kind of like to. I’ve been prioritizing my job and social life, and I’m okay with that. But I’d like to make a glossary zine about kink and BDSM, and I’d like to flesh out the non-monogamy zine some. I’ve also been thinking about creating a more extensive, comprehensive glossary of sexual identity called “Asexual, Bisexual, Cissexual.” And I have some fiction I want to work on, and I want to do some more writing on communal living, and I’m sure there are other projects I’ve been thinking about that are slipping my mind right now. But I hope my website will start having some new stuff posted to it a bit more regularly.

Max’s Blog – maxmandax.com
Woman Made Gallery – womanmade.org

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Family Interview About Meat

I’ve been trying to cut non-seafood meat out of my diet for the past year. I’ve managed for months at a time sometimes, but I haven’t been consistent. I’ve been trying to cut down on seafood lately too. I thought it was interesting that two members of my immediate family, my brother Ben and our Mom, have been moving in a similar direction, despite us living in different places. I’m Dan Copulsky, and I’ve been piecing this piece together for too many months.

Dan: You’ve mentioned off-hand a couple of times trying to eat less meat, but I honestly can’t remember what exactly you said. How long have you been eating less meat and what exactly have you been eating?

Mom: I’ve been eating less meat in a non-deliberate way for a long time for a few reasons: I don’t cook, Dad doesn’t cook that much, when he does cook he doesn’t often make meat, and when I go out to eat I usually prefer seafood over meat. However, it has always bothered me that I eat meat, and over the past four or five months I’ve been much more deliberately avoiding it—although I haven’t made the step of completely renouncing it.

Dan: A couple of months ago you stopped eating meat, but then after a month you started again because it seemed to be affecting your health. What’s your diet been like since?

Ben: I’m not sure how much it was really affecting my health. I generally felt more tired when I wasn’t eating meat, and as soon as I started again I felt better, but it could have been coincidence or psychosomatic. Now I’m eating meat, but less than I used to, and I’m trying to mostly eat free-range.

It seemed like my Dad’s diet and perspective on eating meat was an important piece of all this too. I’d been kind of surprised how totally unsurprised he was when I told him about the change in my diet, and I really didn’t know what his feelings were.

Dan: What are your diet and cooking habits like these days?

Dad: I haven’t been cooking much at all but hope to get back to preparing two to three dinners a week. Now, typically one meal a day will be a lettuce/greens salad which once in a while will have a slice or two of salami. The second meal either a sandwich (which may or may not be meat) or else restaurant or take out which usually ends up including meat.

Two of the three people I live with are pescetarian. My partner Kat doesn’t eat meat because of moral objections to factory farming and our roommate doesn’t eat meat as a health decision. They’ve certainly influenced my choice, at the very least in that it makes sense to cook pescetarian when we eat together, but I find it interesting that my own motivation comes much more from a moral issue with killing animals at all. I was curious if my family might be more on the same wavelength about why we want to eat less meat.

Dan: Why do you think it’s better not to eat meat?

Ben: I think it’s better to be a vegetarian for moral reasons. I think meat-based diets and vegetarian diets can both be healthy. I don’t have major moral objections to eating animals, just to the way the animals are raised and treated. Even meat that’s marked as free-range can come from some pretty inhumane conditions. Animal farming also tends to be bad for the environment.

Mom: Although I do care about the health aspect, that plays a much smaller role than the moral issues, with factory farming being the single biggest reason to not want to eat meat. I am not completely morally opposed to killing animals, although I don’t think it’s something I could feel comfortable doing myself. I am morally opposed to animals suffering for my sake. I struggle with the knowledge that of course some animals kill other animals in the wild, so it’s “natural,” but it still feels like we humans could hold ourselves to a higher standard of not causing suffering so easily. I feel repulsed by the idea of any creature being tortured for sport, but where animal populations are too great to sustain themselves and they would otherwise starve, I see hunting them as the more humane option. When I think back to the local farmers where I grew up in rural New Jersey, and remember the chickens running free all the time, I don’t have a moral problem with it. It’s sad to me that it’s hard to assure that quality of life for animals today. Another factor is the “cost to the planet” as far as the use of resources to raise meat, so even if it’s humanely raised it seems more earth-friendly to still not eat meat.

Dan: And what do you think about eating meat?

Dad: When I first started to regularly cook, I was living in a house with several vegetarians and we all took turns making dinner, so I got in the habit of cooking and eating non-meat dishes. I’ve never felt that a meal needs meat to be complete. I’m not too troubled morally/ethically by eating meat, although I prefer to eat animals that are theoretically less self-aware than those that are more so. I tend to not eat a lot of beef for a combination of reasons—taste, health, and environment.

My Mom’s sister, my Aunt Peggy, was one of the first people I knew who didn’t eat meat. She used to be a vegan, but now she’s a vegetarian. Their sister, my Aunt Colleen, has also been vegetarian for a while. My brother’s high school girlfriend Magda was the first vegetarian I considered a close friend. Being around these people never consciously affected how I felt about eating meat, but I’m sure knowing them helped make it a choice I considered changing.

Dan: How have other people influenced your decision? Did Aunt Peggy and Aunt Colleen play a role?

Mom: Other people have certainly influenced my decision just by being in my mental landscape. Aunt Peggy has played the greatest role for that since she has been either vegan or vegetarian for going on twenty years. Then having Aunt Colleen make that choice has made it even more on my radar, as well as many other folks who cross my path, such as Kat and my friend Fran. I’ve also been influenced just by the green movement in general, and have just become ever more conscious of the fact that every choice I make does matter.

Dan: How did Magda influence your feelings about eating meat?

Ben: I don’t really know how to answer this question because I just can’t even remember high school that well. I know I tried going vegetarian for a little while in high school, which presumably was somehow influenced by Magda, but beats me how.

Particularly since our motivations for eating less meat aren’t the same, and even our goals for our diets are different, I found it interesting that we’re all moving in this direction now. I’m curious if we played a role in each others’ decisions or if it’s just chance.

Dan: Do you think it’s a coincidence that three of us are moving towards eating less meat now, or do you think we’ve influenced each other?

Ben: I think it’s mostly chance, but I might have been subconsciously inspired by you. I’m really not sure why I’ve decided to cut down on meat now when I’ve been eating plenty of it most of my life.

Mom: Well, at the very least, it is a coincidence, but I don’t know whether or not it’s just a coincidence. Possibly not since we were all exposed to some of the same things both in our smaller circles as well as in society at large over the same time frame. Another factor in the timing for me was visiting my step-cousin’s organic farm in New Jersey. My step-cousin Jack and his wife Cheryl have other full time jobs and raise organic chicken and steer part time.

I’m eager to start keeping a pescetarian diet more consistently and to move towards eating less seafood and keeping a stricter vegetarian diet. I’d also like to eat more that’s locally produced and maybe even have my own garden. But with how much my feelings on food have changed in the last five years, it’s odd thinking long-term about what my diet might look like.

Dan: Do you have any predictions on what our family’s diets will look like in a decade?

Mom: I don’t know if I have predictions so much as hopes. My hope is that it will get easier and easier to get vegetables and fruits and nuts and grains and everything else that is good for us, in a form that makes it easy to buy and eat. I know that this is not difficult for other people, but it is for me since I can’t cook. I think by ten years from now it should be easier to order organic foods in restaurants. And I think that our family’s diets will be affected a lot by what is available for us “without a lot of trouble.” My other big hope for myself, and for the rest of us, is that we get rid of most of the sugar in our diets, because that is the biggest challenge for me right now. I know I would feel and be so much healthier if I could stop eating all the things with sugar.

Ben: I have no idea what our diets will look like in a year, let alone a decade.

Dad: Ten years from now Mom and I will be eating a similar diet, ideally more frequently meals cooked at home. You’ll be preparing vegetarian meals using home grown produce to feed you, Kat, your seven kids, and the rest of the commune members. Ben, I don’t know.

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Poncho Peligroso Interview

Poncho Peligroso is now the number one Google hit for “2011 poet laureate.” He’s also a friendly acquaintance of mine from Bard College at Simon’s Rock. I’m Dan Copulsky, and Poncho answered my questions in April 2011.

How did the idea to promote yourself as the 2011 Poet Laureate develop?

It was Steve Roggenbuck’s idea. He was the first serious supporter of my work, and has been pretty much since we started interacting through facebook last June. His first stunt to promote me was last November, right after I sent him my manuscript for the romantic, when he declared November 14-20 to be Annual International Cyber Poncho Peligroso Week. I’m trying to figure out right now when the idea first came about, but I’ve locked myself out of facebook and twitter until my thesis is done, and most of my correspondence with Steve is through comment threads on other people’s facebook walls, and thus nearly impossible to keep track of. He’d mentioned the idea for the google bomb in early February, around when I was planning visiting Chicago for my February break to meet him and some of my other internet writer friends for the first time. I arrived in Chicago and stayed at the apartment of Stephen Tully Dierks, editor of Pop Serial. On February 15, I woke up late in Stephen’s apartment after he’d gone to work, turned on my computer, checked my messages, and found way more emails, facebook notifications, tweets to me, and pageviews on my website than I was used to, though I wasn’t really sure why. I checked my tumblr feed and saw this post on the Metazen blog, which I was flattered and confused by, because I hadn’t actually been published by them yet, and had only sent them prose. I eventually found Steve’s post about the Google bomb, which had gone up while I was asleep, and started laughing uncontrollably when I realized what was going on. I posted a link to it on my facebook wall, and pretty soon afterward Mike Kitchell commented on it and said he liked the idea and was going to write about it. I didn’t realize it was Mike Kitchell because he doesn’t use that name on facebook, so when the post on HTMLGiant went up later that day, I danced around the empty apartment for several hours while giggling.

Thanks largely to HTMLGiant’s coverage, it took off a lot faster than we’d expected it to, and I was the number one result for “2011 poet laureate” within two days. When this happened, I honestly had very little idea of what a poet laureate was, though I was amused by the whole stunt, of course. I’d been clarifying my position as “2011 poet laureate of the internet by verdict of google” whenever anybody asked, but when I researched the actual position of the poet laureate, I realized that there was a pretty big disparity between the designated responsibilities of the poet laureate and the behavior of the poet laureate in practice. The poet laureate’s job is, supposedly, to promote the awareness of poetry in American culture, and, as I said on my blog: “While WS Merwin is an undisputed master and his environmental work is admirable, he’s also an 83-year-old man living in seclusion on an isolated pineapple plantation on the North coast of Maui, which is to say that he’s not really in touch with the kids.”

That’s why I decided to make the post about why I should be the poet laureate for real – while I have no expectation that it’ll work, it’s been a wonderful publicity stunt and got around enough that people have made me a facebook fan page, a facebook event about the campaign to become U.S. poet laureate, and a hotly-disputed wikipedia page about me that I expect to die any day now. At this point, I’m kind of letting it stagnate while I do other work, because publicity won’t help me graduate. Once that’s done, though, I’m going to focus on writing a lot more poetry and releasing it for free online in various ways, including in-browser ebooks and downloadable PDFs that I’ll promote as if they’re hip-hop mixtapes leading up to the release of the romantic, which I’ll be self-publishing later this year unless I get some ridiculously great offer from a publisher first.

What would you do if you were officially declared the Poet Laureate?

Go on talk shows, hopefully the Colbert Report. Go on tour to venues that wouldn’t normally host poetry readings, like rock clubs, and bring in young local poets to perform at every stop of the tour. Promote self-promotion. Encourage poets to act more like indie rock bands in their promotional tactics. There are all these bands and musicians that have made their way into the mainstream through their use of the internet and social media to promote themselves, but there have been very few writers that have achieved anything similar. Encourage poets to consider social media as not just a promotional tool, but as a platform for the creation of poetry as well. Encourage poets to distribute poetry with guerilla tactics instead of relying on literary journals as their sole outlet. Support self-publishing as valid and respectable, because the approval of the reader who buys the book is, to me at least, more important than the approval of the editor who might decide to publish it. Poetry receives very little promotion from publishers anyway, and with the internet and social media at their disposal, poets now have the tools to promote themselves and their work.

I’ve seen a lot of stuff about the shrinking attention span brought about by the internet being the death of literature, but I feel like this just means that literature, poetry, and publishing all need to adapt to new media, similar to how the music and film industries have had to. The shrinking attention span of the reader on the internet is perfectly suited to short-form poetry, and if we can hook readers with work that fits within the shortest of attention spans, then there’s the possibility that the hooked reader will, in searching for more poetry like what hooked them, find themselves moving on to more work that would have been previously daunting for its length. The most prominent points of entry for new poetry readers are from decades in the past, at the very least, but I want poetry to be recognized as something that’s awake and alive and contemporary, and I want young, emerging poets to have followings like musicians might.

I would try and raise the national awareness of poetry by giving poets the tools to make people aware of them.

On your blog you make some intellectual arguments about the accessibility of poetry to people who feel alienated from the academy. Isn’t discussing issues like that also participating in that exclusive academic culture?

Maybe.

Is it possible you’re really more fascinated by thinking about how poetry can have a wider public appeal than in actually making poetry that just appeals to a wider public?

It’s possible, but I don’t think I am. My most recent work has been more structured and conventionally poetic than the romantic, but this is largely because I’m in a poetry workshop class for the very first time this semester, and I’ve been assigned to work in various older forms. Even in those, when working in blank verse or a sestina or a sonnet or whatever, I’ve tried to keep the language as contemporary and vernacular as I can within the constraints of the form.

I’ve been unfortunately prevented from writing as much poetry as I’d like because writing that I get graded on takes priority until I get my diploma. I just wrote that sentence with my thesis open in another window without realizing the irony until afterward.

I don’t really know the extent of the public appeal of my poetry, though. It seems like, even though I consider it poetry, it tends to connect more with non-poets, and while that’s my goal in general, I by no means have enough of a following, among poets or otherwise, to claim any kind of mass appeal. I write to satisfy myself above all else, and when I do that I usually get a good response with the result. Unfortunately, the poetry class I’m taking is keeping me from writing my usual way, so I have lost track of that a bit recently. My output will most likely increase dramatically once my major writing assignments for the semester are complete.

Who are you when you’re not an internet poet? Are you still in school? Are you working?

I’m currently finishing up my last semester of college. I turn 21 today. I’m in my dorm room and I’ve been 21 for three hours, but I can’t do anything to celebrate today because I’m working on my thesis right now and the first complete draft is due Wednesday. My laptop was stolen from my backpack last week. Most of my thesis was on it, and I unfortunately hadn’t backed it up since a far earlier draft. I got a dropbox invite right after I sent out the school-wide announcement about the theft, so that will hopefully save my ass in the future.

I’ve been working on the story that constitutes my thesis for over two years now in some form or other, and though I still love the story idea and want to see it come to fruition some day, at this point I’m so angered by the theft and frustrated by having to recreate things I already made and sick of the process in general that I can barely bring myself to work on it and am answering interview questions instead. I’d really rather just take the whole thesis out back and Old Yeller it to put it out of its misery, but I have to help it limp to the finish line before I can put it down.

Once it’s done I’m going to try and stop thinking about it for several years until I can start thinking about it fondly again, instead of with contempt for how my past self’s ambition and hubris in designing the project has fucked me over right now. So I’m going to be working nonstop until Wednesday, and then I’m going to fill myself with booze and fall over. Once I ride out the hangover I plan to turn into a small orange housecat and sleep on my girlfriend’s abdomen for a week straight while purring with the intensity of a Harley-Davidson. Then, to cap off the festivities, I am going to revert to my human form as an intermediary step before turning into an aluminum chair, and then I will hurl myself through a plate glass window with such grace and poise that the glass will seem to splash instead of shatter.

This is what I look like right now:

Oh, they also stole my hat.

What should people do if they want to support you becoming the 2011 Poet Laureate?

Here’s Steve’s instructions to help strengthen the Google bomb: “How to help is simple: link to ponchopeligroso.com with the phrase ‘2011 poet laureate’ and convince others to do the same, starting now. If you know someone with a high-traffic website, those links are even more valuable. (From what I know, blog comments rarely help because of the ‘nofollow’ tag included in most blog platforms.) Link ‘2011 poet laureate’ on your blog sidebar, link ‘2011 poet laureate’ in anything about poncho peligroso, link ‘2011 poet laureate’ as a non-sequitur in your blog posts, link ‘2011 poet laureate’ as a non-sequitur on tumblr, link ‘2011 poet laureate’ regularly for the next several months. Ask your roommates to link ‘2011 poet laureate,’ ask your friends to link ‘2011 poet laureate,’ ask your classmates to link ‘2011 poet laureate,’ ask your family to link ‘ 2011 poet laureate.’”

Other methods:

Attempt to convince reputable publications to write about me. Try Christian Lorentzen from the New York Observer – he’s at least vaguely aware of me.

If that fails, write about me on your blog.

Email me or Steve Roggenbuck if you want to host us on our tentative poetry tour this summer. We will crowdsurf and yoyo and sing Justin Bieber songs, also.

Get beautiful photographs, photoshop some of my poetry over them, include my name and “2011 poet laureate” title, and post them on tumblr with a link to my website in hopes of going viral. One guy already put a line from one of my poems over a nebula.

Try writing to the library of congress about me to complain that I’m not in The Poets Laureate Anthology. You can snailmail the luddites at The Library of Congress 101 Independence Ave, SE Washington, DC 20540.

I also have a facebook page, and there’s a link to the “Poncho Peligroso for 2011 Poet Laureate” event on its wall. Like the page, RSVP the event, and invite all your friends.

Also, please give me money. There’s a donation button at ponchopeligroso.com and I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing for money after I graduate. Please help so that I don’t die cold and alone in the gutter.

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K.C. Interview

K.C. is in the second year of medical school at Rosalind Franklin University and answered these questions about being a med student in January 2011. I’m Dan Copulsky, and K.C. is my partner. We are both bored of the question (and all its variations) “what kind of medicine do you want to practice?”

How long does medical school take? When do you become a doctor?

Medical school is traditionally four years long. The first two years are mostly spent in the classroom taking graduate-level science courses that are relevant to medicine. There are also some labs, and different schools offer different amounts of exposure to real patients and/or “standardized patients” (paid actors who we practice physical exam skills with). The third and fourth years are spent in hospitals and clinics learning more about different medical specialties.

After passing those four years and the standardized U.S. Medical Licensing Examinations, we get M.D. degrees, but we can’t practice independently until we’ve gone through a Residency program in the specialty we’ve chosen. Residency is intensive, supervised, on-the-job training, which is three to seven years long depending on the specialty.

How often do you have class and how often do you go?

My school usually has three to four hours of classes per day five days a week, often with a few hours of lab every week.

If there’s a lecturer I think is really good, I’ll go to most of his or her lectures. I think most of our lecturers are pretty terrible, so I only go to class for a few hours every week. If I don’t understand something in the notes, most of our lectures are recorded, but the notes are usually more thorough than the spoken lectures, so that’s unusual. My labs are all required.

Do you get grades? Have tests? What about homework, projects, or other assignments?

This varies a lot from school to school. Lots of med schools are Pass/Fail and some of those will also give honors. My school gives A, B, C, and F. No plusses or minuses or D’s. Grades for most classes are determined by block exams which happen every 3 weeks (this also varies a lot from school to school).

We don’t really have homework. Most people need to study for a number of hours every day to pass the exams. We have a handful of classes that require posting to an online discussion board or doing a write-up of a patient interview, but assignments like that are pretty infrequent.

What’s your impression of medical school’s ability to prepare students to be good doctors?

I can’t really answer that yet. The first two years provide a good knowledge base, but a lot of the students spend most of their time holed up in the library, and I think a few too many of them forget how to interact with other people. Since most of us are going to spend a whole lot of time interacting with people as doctors, it doesn’t seem like very good preparation to me. I guess, if nothing else, we’re learning stamina.

I’m assuming that third and fourth year will be better for learning how to interact with patients, and we’ll definitely learn more clinical skills.

I’ve heard that despite all this, we’re going to start residency and have no idea what we’re doing for a while. But I’d imagine it would be much worse without the basic introduction that medical school provides.

What’s the discussion of health care reform like inside medical school? How much do people talk about it? Do opinions tend to go in certain directions more than in the general public?

It’s a fairly common topic of discussion. Professors make comments alluding to their opinions on the issue and student groups invite speakers who talk about reform from the point of view of the medical community. It seems to come up in casual conversation fairly regularly, depending on who you hang out with. We’ve had lectures in our clinical reasoning class and our preventative medicine/patient safety class.

I think the focus of the discussions tends to be a little different from in the general public. People talk about how reform will affect our ability to pay off our student loans, how it will affect residency program openings in different specialties, how it might affect malpractice insurance, how Obama’s plan is expected to change the model of patient care, etc. But most of the out-of-class discussion isn’t that different from the discussion going on everywhere. Students disagree about whether healthcare should be considered a right or a privilege. We talk about what we like and don’t like about the imminent changes, we talk about what we think will work and what we don’t think will work.

Most medical schools, mine included, have taken a general pro-reform stance and supported more radical reform than what’s now been approved. We have a few professors who have made it clear that they oppose reform, but most of our professors seem to support what’s happening.

What changes do you think we need to make to be a healthier country?

Plain and simple, everyone needs affordable access to preventative care. Catching and treating common problems like hypertension and diabetes early helps stop them from causing devastating complications later. Patients are more likely to follow through with lifestyle modifications and take their medications if they’re regularly checking in with a health care professional.

Going along with that, we need to learn to eat smaller portions of healthier food and to exercise. I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s really important—obesity and sedentary lifestyle have caused rates of diabetes to soar, along with death from heart disease, stroke, and many cancers. A few quick tips we’re told to give patients: prepare food from scratch at home whenever you can, eat slowly and wait twenty minutes before getting seconds if you’re still hungry, park at the edge of the parking lot so you have to walk farther to get to the store, shop mainly around the edges of the grocery store (fresh fruits and veggies, raw seafood and meat, low-fat dairy, fresh bread), and start exercising gently by walking thirty minutes three times a week instead of making unreasonable goals that you can’t live up to.

Do you have any suggestions for what people can ask to start conversations with medical school students other than what kind of medicine they want to practice?

I like being asked about interesting topics I’ve recently learned about. And about my professors—there are always good stories about professors.

Also, we shouldn’t give advice about your medical problems, but we learn a lot about normal processes and diseases, so if you want a thorough explanation about why something happens the way it does (e.g. How does ibuprofen work? Why do bruises turn green? How do vaccines work?), a medical student is a good person to ask.

What’s it like to be a medical student and visit doctors for your own health?

I feel like my doctors have more respect for me and give more thorough explanations about what they’re concerned about or why they’re giving me a particular medication. I think they’re also more upfront about it when they don’t know what’s wrong.

I always kind of feel like a hypochondriac when I go to the doctor now though—I worry about weird rare things that could explain all my symptoms and the doctor needs to remind me how much more likely it is that I have something common.

What do you tell people who ask for your medical advice or say something about their health that suggests they’d benefit from it?

I try to keep medical advice at a minimum, since I’m really not in a good position to be giving it. I can list off a bunch of things that might be wrong and ask some questions to make sure it’s not an emergency, but after that I usually tell people that they should see a doctor if it continues.

If a person with no medical training gives other people medical advice that’s blatantly wrong or controversial, I’ll say so and give an explanation. If someone gives other people advice that’s just a little off, I usually leave it alone or throw in a comment that nudges them in the right direction. I don’t like correcting people or pulling the medical student card, but so many people like to give medical advice and have no idea what they’re talking about. I draw the line when someone gives advice that could be dangerous or discourage someone from seeking treatment.

Are colds and flus sexually transmittable?

Not in the strict sense of “sexually transmittable.”

Once you’re sick with a cold or flu, other people catch it through your respiratory secretions. Every time you sneeze or cough or wipe your nose on your hand and touch something, you’re giving your virus a chance to find a new host. You won’t catch a cold or flu from sexual fluid, but being in bed with someone who has one of these very contagious viruses is a good way to catch it. If your partner coughs or sneezes, the virus is in the air, ready to be breathed in. If your partner hasn’t washed his or her hands since blowing his or her nose and touches your face, you’ve been exposed. If you’re really determined to avoid a respiratory virus, your best bet is to not spend time around someone who’s got one.

Send K.C. a message through Dan – dan@questionriot.com

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