Shy Watson’s poetry is about longing—or, is all poetry about longing? In “sour,” she writes, “i wanted / in the way / that want follows / bedraggled / a half moon / of bites.” She wants to be a famous painter, she wants to punch a Picasso so “there would be some kind / of climax,” she wants to move to L.A., and she just wants to be loved.
“[E]very time we want / something / we have to sacrifice / varying amounts / of ourselves,” Shy writes in a poem titled, “a bit buoyant.” All of these quotes come from the collection HORROR VACUI: Poems and Other Writings, released by House of Vlad Press in January. As the title suggests, the book collects Shy’s various writing, which is split into three sections: 1. HORROR VACUI, poems; 2. WAKING DREAMS, lyrical writing; and, 3. QUARANTINE DIARIES, a reprint of the NYC Self-Isolation Diaries series on Newest York.
Shy’s poetry isn’t so much confessional as it is self-lacerating. After reading it over and over I want to overshare. I want to tell you I fell asleep watching Mad Max last night and rain is pattering on my window and I am listening to a New Order tape and trying to do Shy justice. I smell faintly like B.O. and have been suckling the same bodega coffee since 2 PM. This is my newsletter so I can say all this dumb shit. Or, as Shy wrote, “sloppier every day / in control & not again.” Man, that’s me to a T.
Maybe that’s what Shy’s writing does—makes you raw like the picked flesh around the edges of a fingernail you can’t help but rub over and over when you’re anxious. In a five-star Goodreads review, the author Blake Middleton writes, “would recommend to fans of frank o’ hara, jean rhys.. was going to write more but my chihuahua’s stomach is making weird noises and i think i need to take it outside.” Incredible. What an unnecessary detail.
When I finished the book, I felt like I had witnessed Shy’s crucifixion and resurrection. The poetry and dream sections are unforgiving while the final section, call it a coda, is redemptive. It’s the levity you feel after you sick into the toilet bowl and exorcise yourself of what ails you.
Read on to hear Shy speak for herself. We cover writing workshops, the meaning of horror vacui, an important mix-tape, and more.
Me: The way this thing works, I like to think, is that I’m like a Freudian analysand. I just want you to say what you want to say. I don’t have a notepad filled with hyper-specific questions. It’s just whatever you want to talk about.
Shy: Oh, wow. Well, I saw that you were a hypnotist.
Shy: Is it true?
Me: No, that’s just a joke.
Shy: Oh, I did that. I got certified in hypnosis in 2019 and I was wondering if you really did it.
Me: No, it’s just a stupid joke. [My Twitter bio says] disgraced former hypnotist. I liked the idea of “What does that mean?” I was doing something untoward, I suppose.
Shy: Yeah. My boyfriend won’t let me hypnotize him. I feel like people are afraid that you will actually have more power over them than you will.
Me: Have you successfully hypnotized anybody?
Shy: Yeah, yeah, a few people. I had to record sessions for my certification. My ex- I would hypnotize all the time. Pretty much anything they were anxious about they’d be like, “Shy, will you hypnotize me?” and I’d do it and it’d help—for a while, as most quick-fix mental health things do
Me: Do you believe in hypnotism fully?
Shy: Yeah, it’s like a guided meditation, basically. You get put into a trance-state just from focusing on one singular point and breathing. It puts you in this hypnagogic state and then messages are delivered to you from the hypnotist without much resistance because you’re in a vulnerable and open head-space. I don’t know to what extent I believe in its powers or abilities to make change, but I’ve seen some good stuff happen. I’ve heard a lot of stories, of course. It works on me.
Me: The only context that I have is that at the summer camp I went to, once you are finally old enough, you get to attend this hypnotism show. They bring in this hypnotist and he’s a dirty hypnotist, which is maybe where this idea originated from. He’d give a hypnotized person a banana and tell them it’s weed and he’d then tell them the cops were there. The person would throw the banana all the way off stage and act real casual.
Shy: Oh my gosh. That’s horrifying.
Me: We’d always ask the person who was hypnotized if they remembered it and they’d say, “Part of it was I wanted to go along with it because it makes it more funny if I’m actually doing what the guy says.” Is that hypnosis or is that just one of those Stanford experiments where you can make people do stuff if you put authority figures there?
Shy: I know stage hypnotists will do a little thing first where they have people in the crowd demonstrate raising their arm under suggestion or like...they’ll have them do things and whoever seems the most susceptible to the little, Fisher-Price hypnosis at the beginning, they’ll pick from the crowd and then they’ll have that person do it because that person is easily persuaded. But in the hypnosis I practiced, you have your client lie on a massage table then put them in a trance. It’s a whole involved, personalized event. I’ve always wanted to see a stage hypnotist. I never did. Our school just had motivational speakers and our summer camp didn’t even have those.
Me: Everything else at the camp I went to, if there were any productions, it was internal. This was the only external thing where at the beginning of camp, as an icebreaker, they’d bring this guy.
Shy: Wow, what an icebreaker.
Me: Yeah, I’d totally forgotten about it until you asked me if I was a hypnotist.
Shy: I’m really glad that you remember now.
Me: I guess I will ask some questions so I can guide us in the right direction. I doubt people want to read us talking about hypnotism. So, do you consider yourself more of a writer or a poet?
Shy: Well, I was always a poet and then I just started writing prose a couple of years ago. I’m about to start an MFA program in fiction so I think I’m halfway through the spectrum of poet and prose writer and I’m moving toward the fiction side. I’ve been writing fewer and fewer poems. I mean, I still write them whenever I’m feeling something strong: maybe once or twice a month. But I’ve been a lot more focused on prose.
Me: When you say you were always a poet, what are your earliest memories of writing poetry?
Shy: Oh, they’re real cringe. I had this little spiral-bound notebook that had a translucent, plastic cover with colored polka dots all over it. I’d write poems about my boyfriend in fifth grade and then I’d give him the poems. In middle school, my speech and drama teacher got cancer and I wrote this poem about her and sent it to a radio station and we won a pizza party.
Me: Was the radio station thing a contest or did you just randomly send it to a radio station?
Shy: It was a contest. It was to win a pizza party for a class if you wrote something about your teacher. So I wrote about Mrs. Gaddy.
Me: What was her response to that?
Shy: Well, I did it anonymously. It was crazy. She won the thing and we had the pizza party and she got free tanning certificates, which was fucked up and ironic. And then she was like, “Hey, were you the one who did that?” I don’t remember what I told her. I think I admitted it, but I didn’t want to admit it. But I guess it had to have been me. I went to a small school.
Me: Where did you grow up? Are you from New Jersey?
Shy: Oh, no. I was never Miss New Jersey. That’s my version of your “disgraced former hypnotist” thing. No, I grew up in rural Missouri in this town called Rogersville. It’s like 3,000 people. It’s outside of Springfield in the Ozarks.
Me: I didn’t think you sounded like you were from New Jersey but I didn’t want to say, “Are you from the South” and then you’re like, “What? My thing is former Miss New Jersey.”
Shy: Yeah, [laughs]
Me: So do you wanna talk about this book that you put out? I don’t want to mispronounce it. Horror Vack-yu?
Shy: Vack-wee [Ed: it’s pronounced Vack-yu-eye]
Me: That’s a reference to something, right? I didn’t fully look into it.
Shy: Yeah, a reference to the excessive use of artistic ornament during the Victorian age. Some Italian art critic coined the term. It’s a style seen in paintings, carpets, etc. where the artist was seemingly afraid of leaving any vacancy or voids and they would just fill it, fill it, fill it, fill it, fill it so that there was no negative space at all. I titled the book Horror Vacui because that’s how I feel about my life. If I don’t have a bunch of stuff going on, all the time, a million friends I’m talking to constantly, whatever, I’m very afraid of being still or alone.
Me: I relate to that. That’s why it’s nice being in New York. You could always find something to do.
Shy: I’m about to move to Montana so I have some anxiety about that, but I’m gonna try to fill out my life in a structured way, which I’ve never done. I’ve been fantasizing about picking what days I’ll go to yoga and what days I’ll swim and what days I’ll have classes, but there’s not gonna be that many people.
Me: So that’s for the MFA program, right?
Shy: Yeah, yeah, Missoula.
Me: And what made you decide to make the switch from poetry to prose?
Shy: I prefer reading prose so I think that may have had something to do with it. The first book I read that inspired me to try writing prose was When Watched by Leopold Core. It’s a collection of short stories. It won a Whiting Award. She dated Eileen Myles and went to school at Hunter [College]. The stories were so much like what I would be writing if I wrote prose that I wanted to try writing a story. After having read it, I started writing this story about this McDonald’s employee and her weird relationship with her manager and then it turned into a novel. I’ve been editing that for years. It’s on submission now. Since then, I’ve also been writing short stories because while I was writing the novel I was like, “I need to be in some workshops because I’m really bad at this.” It was really baaaaaaad. Like bad bad at first. So I signed up for a lot of prose workshops and was being assigned more stories and would have to bring in things for workshop and, because I didn’t always want to bring in the novel, I wrote short stories and that grabbed hold of my interest.
Me: What was the workshop stuff like? Was that fruitful?
Shy: Yeah. The first prose workshop I did was Bud Smith’s. He’s a good friend and it was really helpful to have his feedback and the people in the workshop’s feedback. I learned a lot of little things I just didn’t really know, like, for example, “she said” is better than “she exclaimed.” I would add all these stupid dialogue tags. I learned not to do that. To remove the word “that” if it’s not necessary. Just little tricks that make the writing more clean and streamlined that I’d just never really thought of. And then I was in Mors Tua Vita Mea, which was the New York Tyrant workshop. I think they’re gonna continue it, but Gian died recently. I went to that in Italy with Chelsea Hodson. It was only a week, but it was really generative and great. Then I did Tony Tulathimutte’s workshop, [CRIT]. So I’ve just been doing DIY basically Brooklyn-based writer workshops. I did a one-day thing at Catapult with Chloe Caldwell, but that wasn’t even fiction.
Me: The Chelsea Hodson one, that was fiction?
Me: How are you with feedback? Whenever I get feedback I’m like, “Imbeciles, all of them.”
Shy: I guess I doubt myself a lot more than you do cause I just assume everyone else is right about my writing. I pretty much accept all feedback. Like, if someone does suggested edits in a Google.doc on one of my pieces, I’ll accept 90 percent of them.
Me: I’ve never been in a writing workshop. I always send work to friends who aren’t writers and then I’ll be like, “What do they know anyway?”
Shy: “Why did I even send it to them? They didn’t even deserve to read it.”
Me: I think if I sent it to someone who is a writer...I like to think I have grace, that I wouldn’t just reject things outright.
Me: So how did this collection of poetry come to be published?
Shy: So, basically, I just had a bunch of poems on my computer that I’ve written since my last poetry book, Cheap Yellow, came out. I was wondering what to do with them so I asked my agent if she would want to try and sell it somewhere. She was like, “Nooo, because we need to focus on the novel right now and we can’t have two of your books come out at the same time.” Places where it would sell, it would take like a year and a half or something to actually publish it after being picked up. So she was like, “If you want to publish your poems, you need to do it as soon as possible so it doesn’t interfere with the timeline of the novel.” Brian Ellis had hit me up a couple of times before. I blurbed some books for House of Vlad and he asked, “Hey, do you have anything you’re working on? If so, we’d love to put it out.” So I just hit him up and asked if the offer was still on the table. He said, “Yea,” and I was like, “Alright, well we need to do it like now apparently.” I kind of just threw it together. I’d been doing these quarantine diaries for Newest York so I put them in there with the poems that had not been published yet. And then I did this imagined dream series to help me process a break-up I went through in February 2020. I had all those in my phone. I just put it all together into the three parts and Brian was really quick and helpful. Didn’t edit it at all. Just put it together for me.
Me: Are you happy with the results having it not have been edited?
Shy: Yeah, totally. I mean, I edited it a lot and I was in a poetry workshop with Elaine Kahn and she’d edited a lot of the poems. My friend Steven [Arcieri] helped me edit some of the imagined dreams. I’m really happy with it. I published it on a whim because I didn’t want those poems to get stale—the longer it’s been since I’ve written something, the less I like it. I didn’t want the poems to die and not have their own life. But actually having Horror Vacui come out has been really good for my life in a lot of ways I didn’t know it would be. Just connecting with more people. Doing more readings because I have something new. I feel like I’ve been invited to more literary events. I am really happy having done it and the way that the physical object itself came out.
Me: So you had a book before that. I don’t think I knew that
Shy: Oh yeah. It’s called Cheap Yellow. It’s on CCM, Civil Coping Mechanisms. You can get it online. They merged with a different thing called the Accomplices, but the book’s still available on Amazon / BarnesandNoble.com / whatever the other main one is.
Me: How did you even begin to get involved in the literary world or the alt-literary world or whatever you would call it?
Shy: Twitter in 2015. I’ve had a Twitter since 2009 I think [Ed: March 2009]. Since I was in high school. I went to school in Boulder and I took some time off and then I went back and lived in Denver, but I took the bus to go to Boulder because I couldn’t bear living in Boulder again. I remember seeing there was this magazine called Witch Craft Mag and I saw they were based in Denver and I @’d them. I was like, “Hi, I live in Denver. Let me know if you have any events or you’d ever want to meet or anything.” And one of the former editors, who’s now my best friend, invited me to a Halloween party. I went and it was like four of her closest friends and me and my then boyfriend. It was actually really awkward and afterward we went to another party that was like my classmates from school in Boulder. But she and I stayed in contact and basically she told me that I needed to start following other writers on Twitter. She told me about all the alt-lit mags online and the indie publishers. She had a book come out on Electric Cereal and was involved with some of the old-school places so I just followed a bunch of people, followed a bunch of magazines, and she sent me this list to submit poetry to. In school, I always submitted to places like McSweeney’s and Tin House and N+1—I only knew the big names—and so I was always rejected. She sent me this list on Entropy Mag’s website. They still do it. It’s always up and it’s constantly being updated. A bunch of my poems got accepted. I was immediately in Tagvvrk and Hobart and Electric Cereal. A bunch of online lit mags. And suddenly I’m talking to a bunch of people on Twitter and reading their work. I quickly got swept up in it.
Me: And how did that change your life, or maybe it didn’t.
Shy: Entirely. Completely. I feel like everything I’ve done since, creatively, has been because of that. Catch [Breath]—Catch is the name of the person who was my literary doula—she had this festival in Denver a couple of summers we called Catchfest and we’d all gather from our respective cities and hang out for like a week. We’d do all these readings and crash on her floor and all those people are now very good friends of mine. I think if I wouldn’t have found out about indie lit maybe I would have given up or not realized that you can write however and somewhere there’s gonna be an outlet for you. I probably would have lost confidence and quit trying. I think it pushed me to keep going to see that there were places that were interested in publishing stuff that I was writing and they were publishing things that I enjoyed reading. So I kept going down a path I just hadn’t known about before.
[I mention that I wish I had had someone like Kylie Jenner’s agent, Ashleah Gonzales, who hipped the model to Hodson, Eve Babitz, Darcie Wilder, and others. Which leads…
Shy: to say: That’s like what my high school boyfriend did for music for me and that also changed my life. He burnt CDs wrapped in masking tape that he threw at me at a football game.
Me: What was on it. Do you remember?
Shy: Oh yeah. Belle and Sebastian, [The] Life Pursuit; The Decemberists’ Her Majesty [the Decemberists], I think; of Montreal, which is still my favorite band; who else? All that shit. Bloc Party. Interpol. Pavement. Those are the only ones I remember now. Just like Pitchfork recommended listening 2006.
Me: How old are you, Shy?
Me: Oh OK. That’s how old I am. For some reason I assumed you were older than me because you’re much more successful than I am.
Shy: Whatever. You have bylines all over the place.
Me: Yeah, I guess that’s true.
Shy: I want Playboy to pick up my story. I sent it to them and I hope that they take it.
Me: Oh, that’d be sick
Shy: I want them to get it more than anyone because it’s a story that would fit really well with Playboy. There’s a lot of sexual scenes and some taboo subject matter. The New Yorker definitely rejected it
Me: By definitely rejected it do you mean you got a rejection from The New Yorker or do you mean there’s no way they’re gonna accept it.
Shy: No, I got a rejection. That was the first place my agent sent it because that was where I wanted it. I thought it would behoove them to publish it because “Cat Person” did so well and it was also transgressive for the time. My story is, too. She, my agent, sent it to a new batch of places, including Playboy, and I really hope they take it.
Me: I feel like Esquire has been doing cool stuff lately.
Shy: We sent it to Esquire, too.
Me: Fingers crossed for ya. Is this an excerpt from the McDonald’s novel or is this unrelated?
Shy: Unrelated. It’s a short story, completely contained within itself, and it’s about sex work. It’s interesting in that the girl in the story is offered something that would take her away from her job and she doesn’t want it. She wants to stay at her job. I feel like so many stories about sex work are like, “Oh, it’s so horrible.” And a lot of the time it is. Especially, depending on someone’s privilege and position, it could be very different. There’s high-end escorting and then there’s working on the street. There’s different levels of safety and security, a whole spectrum. But I feel like I’ve never read a story where a sex worker enjoys being a sex worker, so I hope Playboy takes it.
Me: I feel like The New Yorker is still SWERF-y
Shy: I know. I’m really hoping.