Luke Rolfes: Dylan Loring is out with his debut collection This Smile is Starting to Hurt which was originally published by Southeast Missouri State University Press but has been taken over by Black Lawrence Press. This debut is equal parts comic and soulful. It somehow simultaneously, charms and disarms a reader at the same time. Thanks for talking with us about this book, Dylan! Debut collections are always fascinating to me. Sometimes they come together quite quickly. Sometimes they are years and years in the making. There’s almost always a tale to tell. Can you tell us the story of how this book came to be?

Dylan Loring: Hey Luke! Most of the poems in the book were written between 2016 and 2021, although the
groundwork for the book started when I took my first poetry writing class as a college sophomore. I was
really lucky to have Sara Martin as my instructor because, in addition to her being awesome, we
happened to have similar taste in poetry. I remember reading James Tate, Jennifer L. Knox, David
Berman, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and Michael Earl Craig in that class. I learned how fun and
weird and funny and meaningful poetry can be.
Quite a few of the poems in the book were part of my MFA thesis (also titled This Smile is Starting to
), and I owe a lot to Richard Terrill, Richard Robbins, and Candace Black for seeing my potential and
fostering it. Another big chunk of the book was written when I was teaching a 5/5 of composition, and
the final big chunk was written when I did my PhD (big thanks to Angela Ball and Adam Clay for their
I’ve been sending the book out since 2017, and it made longlists as early as 2018. It started out as my
MFA thesis and then was constantly added to and subtracted from until the acceptance I received back
in April 2023. My book is not intentionally themed, but I don’t think it was accepted until the point at
which it became unintentionally themed, if that makes sense.
LR: The blurbers threw out some names in their description of your work—Kenneth Koch, James Tate,
Russell Edson. Can you talk a bit about your influences? Who do you consider your “writing family tree”?
DL: Influences are interesting. I feel like I have a bit of a hot take on them—I’m pretty sure my writing voice
would be pretty much the same without having encountered any of the poets that I love. For instance,
Charles Simic is mentioned by one of my blurbers as an influence, and I’ve never read any of his poems
(this is something that I need to change, of course!). At the same time, I’m sure I use my influences’
moves constantly. I consider pop culture, especially tv shows, movies, memes, and music, to be a major
influence on my work too.
Out of those mentioned on the back of the book, I am a huge James Tate fan. Some of my other all-time
favorites are Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, Heather Christle, Mary Ruefle, Denise Duhamel, Mark
Leidner, Chelsey Minnis, Dobby Gibson, Zachary Schomburg, Jennifer L. Knox, Michael Earl Craig, Matt
Hart, Matthew Dickman, Josh Bell, Ben Mirov, Rachel B. Glaser, Ron Padgett, Nick Twemlow, Max Jacob,
and Sampson Starkweather.
LR: Did a particular book, author, or poem open your eyes or turn a lightbulb on in your brain in the way
no other books have?
DL: Back when I was in grade school, I discovered A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the playful, unreliable
narrator has been a favorite thing of mine ever since. As I reader, I like being messed with and things
that are meta.
As for poetry, I encountered some poems from Michael Earl Craig’s collection Thin Kimono, and they
ruled; they were funny and sad and weird and narrative.

Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me and Chelsey Minnis’s Poemland were both
incredibly influential on my development. The former showed me that McSweeney’s-type lists could
have literary merit, and the latter showed me that it is possible to write about creating poetry and being
a poet without losing the reader. But both books are way more amazing than these small takeaways of
LR: When reading poetry with a comic slant, a reader often asks themselves “is it okay to laugh”? Or
maybe we would be better off asking ourselves “is it okay to cry”? A lot of the poems in here seem to
walk that line between laughter and weeping. I’ve always thought that love and hate are similar
emotions, yet we (as a society) treat them as opposites. In turn, I think that levity and despair are also
sort of related. Do you agree? Can you speak to how you “play” with levity and despair in your work?
How do you balance the two?

DL: When I first started writing poems, I just tried to make everything as funny as possible. The poems were
over-indulgent and random. Think of the tv show Family Guy (which I personally can’t stand), in which
there isn’t really anything to ground the humor, compared to a show like American Dad! (which I think is
pretty amazing). The creator is the same, but the second show lives up to the contract it creates with its

They say that comedy is tragedy plus time (or at a remove), and there’s of course some truth to that. I
think the balance boils down to there always being some sort of truth grounding both the funniest and
saddest things that someone can come up with (typing that reminds me of Marcus Wicker’s excellent
Maybe the Saddest Thing). To pull it off, I think the poet has to be open to considering the many
potential paths each poem can take. The only other title I considered for my collection was Sit-Down
, for what it’s worth.
LR: I like that idea of comedy being "tragedy plus time." Many of your poems are premise-based. I’m curious: Do you write from prompts? How do you normally come up with a premise?

DL: I wish I knew! I could use some new premises! But seriously, don’t tell me what to write about—that is
the one way to guarantee I won’t write about something. I’ve always hated writing from prompts and
have somewhat of a rebellious streak when it comes to writing. I usually come up with an idea and start
writing and then give up if I get bored or really hate what I’ve come up with. Sometimes when I’m
halfway through writing a poem, I’m like, “This sucks. It’d be more fun to write a poem about X instead.”
Then I write that second poem, and it sometimes turns out well. Sometimes I put too much pressure on
myself and have to remind myself that I write poems because I find it fun. Many times, I’m inspired
when I’m avoiding some sort of responsibility or when I’m doing something mindless (like mowing the
lawn). Many times, I have to force myself to sit down and write. If it’s been like a month without writing
a poem, I start to feel guilty, so that can usually motivate me. The problem with premised-based poems
is that sometimes I just find the premise fun but actually have nothing of note to do with the premise.
Sometimes I write poems as a sort of challenge to myself—can I make the reader care? Can I smuggle
some meaning underneath the fireworks?
LR: Let’s look at a few individual pieces. Opening poems often set a tone and theme. The poem
“Quicksand” is the first in the collection. It tells the reader that “a poem doesn’t necessarily have a
moral, and that looking for a moral could be like, metaphorically, sinking in quicksand.” Do you see this
poem as one that shows the reader how to read the book? What made you decide to open the book this

DL: I hope that poem doesn’t suck! It’s the most recent poem in the collection, and I opened the collection
with it on a whim (mostly kidding here). I like to think of it as a kind of taste-test poem—if you don’t like
it, you probably wanna steer clear of the rest of the book, but if any element of it interests you, you may
wanna proceed. I think it is a poem that reflects how my brain works and makes leaps/connections. I
totally stole the idea for this poem from the meme about 90s kids growing up thinking they were going
to frequently encounter quicksand over the course of their lifetime. I consider it to be a bit of a jarring
opening poem. Like I’m intentionally tripping the reader up in the very first poem.
I probably shouldn’t give this away, but a lot of my poems are about writing poems, which is the thing
that everyone supposedly hates and discourages. I’m drawn to writing about things that you’re not
supposed to write about. I tell my students all the time that if you ask me to write a poem about
something that sounds like the content of a poem (love, death, outdoors, etc.), I’m already dead in the
water. I have nothing new or interesting to say about trees (though I’m happy for and appreciative of
the poets who do!), but give me something stupid that no one in their right mind would turn into a
poem, and I can cook (as the gen z-ers like to say).

To actually answer your question, the poem is meant to convey that I think art should resist summary.
So many people go into creating art (or trying to appreciate someone else’s art) with a specific
archetype or agenda in mind. To me, art is about discovery and surprise. I appreciate art that gives me
an experience or perspective that I otherwise wouldn’t ever run into. I like seeing what someone else is
interested in and concerned with.

LR: “The Town Hero Plugs the Hole in the Dam” is a wonderful narrative that almost reads like a fable.
But there is no moral. Or, if there is a moral, it’s about something else entirely. Or it’s a ludicrous one. In
the end, everybody drowns in a flood, even the oblivious sidekick. What inspired this piece? Why did
you choose to end on such a ridiculous (and grim) note?

DL: Many of the poems in the collection aim to be inclusive through the use of the “you” pronoun—in my
opinion, everyone who reads a poem brings their own personal experiences into the poem, which I think
is super rad and which I seek to encourage through the second-person point of view. The 3rd person speaker and female protagonist in this poem were very intentional. Anyone could feasibly plug the hole in the dam with their finger, but this poem is meant to reflect the tendency of women to step up to the plate and men to shirk away from the plate when shit hits the fan. Everyone has jumped ahead to the celebration, leaving the protagonist out to dry. It’s like when a company pushes out a product in a rush to beat the competition as opposed to waiting until they know the product works or is safe; they are celebrating a half-assed and untenable solution to the problem they were trying to fix, often exploiting the vulnerable along the way. The protagonist is then given signs from the universe to cut off her finger, which is a ridiculous ask, a sacrifice no one should ever have to make. She shouldn’t have to save the town on her own and ultimately can’t. Of course, the doofus sidekick is the last to be punished by the dam breaking because it’s an unfair world that comes for everyone at some point and tends to come for some people way more frequently (and to a greater extent) than others.
LR: Another poem I was drawn to was “We Find Ourselves Gathered Around a Stranger with a Massive
Stack of Ones at a Bowling Alley Claw Machine.” To my ear, the poem hinges on the last sentence:
“We’re committed to the stranger winning or passing out trying, to this oddly specific iteration of the
American Dream.” I’m intrigued by the idea of a claw machine representing the American Dream. This
piece seems to hit on something I’ve been thinking about lately. To be brief, I wonder if our sort-of collective definition of what the mythical "American Dream " is has shifted. Is it no longer “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make your fortune through hard work”? Nowadays, we seem to associate fortune with luck rather than hard work. Is the American Dream something along the lines of “win the lottery”? Why did you see the American Dream in that claw machine?

DL: I’m glad you were drawn to that poem; its ending is one of my favorites in the collection. I’m very much
of the “just say the thing” school of poetry, but I started that poem out playing around with the opposite
style of delivery. Then the middle stanza gives some actual answers to the premise introduced in the
long title and shows that this seemingly sacred experience is pretty ridiculous. Finally, like you said, that
ending is ultimately what turns it into a poem. It seems that we often need some kind of gimmick for
someone to donate to a worthy cause, and that most people have to be very selective about donations
because of a lack of funds, and that people like to root for the underdog (but also an underdog that they
can relate to), and the people in the poem are exploiting the claw machine person for entertainment—they are there for the stranger now, but not when the stranger wakes up hungover or hospitalized or broke anyway. The ending complicates the poem and likely results in many more readings than anything I had intended. I like to think that the poet is the least knowledgeable person about their own work.

The American Dream has always been exclusive and has always relied on the very few exceptions to the
rule. For every local news rags to riches story, there are so many people that lack the access and luck
and resources. It’s a myth that allows many upper-class, straight, cis white men the ability to sleep at
night while maintaining the status quo. The poem is about the stranger needing a win in life, regardless
of how small that win is. The bigger issue is that the stranger has to turn to a rigged arcade game
because it is somehow still less rigged than the outside world. Everyone else in the poem needs a win,
too, so they live vicariously through the stranger.
LR: I like this idea of "the stranger has to turn to a rigged arcade game because it is somehow still less rigged than the outside world." A great summation!
Let's look at a totally different one. The poem “The Defenestration Window” is a surreal narrative about a roommate who makes a habit of throwing dead bodies out the window. This one is almost a type of absurdist flash fiction, written with hanging indented stanzas. Can you speak to the form of this one? Why did you choose poetry as the vehicle for this tale? And why this particular style of stanza?
DL: I like to think of myself as someone who is a lazy fiction writer turned poet. Sometimes I want to write
flash fiction but am like, “why would I give up line breaks? Why would I want to conform to any
additional rules?” I think that approaching poetry from a fiction perspective tends to be a bit of a niche
for me. At one point, this poem had five-line stanzas, and I think a workshop convinced me to find a
different form. I’m not so sure that its current form is better. I settled on the hanging indent for a couple
of reasons—I intended it as a way to propel the reader forward after the initial “line” of each stanza. At
the same time, I considered it to be just a more aggressive way of saying that each stanza should be
considered as one line that’s just really, really absurdly long. Also, what’s more idiosyncratic and
arbitrary than the formatting of a bibliography? It’s disorienting in a way that fits the content of the
poem, but I think I miss the quintets/cinquains.
LR: The satirical “The One Definitive Ending of the World” is a favorite of mine, complete with a Tony
Danza cyborg and Guy Fieri messiah. In my experience, absurdity and satire are incredibly difficult to
write. It’s almost as if readers are looking straight at you to make sure you don’t flinch. Can you tell us a
bit about your process of navigating the absurd? Do you feel that pressure when you are writing
satire/absurdity? Do you have to “totally commit to the bit”?

DL: I swear: Every time I hear about someone’s favorite poem in the collection, it’s a poem that I highly
considered cutting. Apologies to Taylor Swift and Guy Fieri in that poem.

I agree with the idea that you have to “totally commit to the bit.” For the most part, when I come up
with an absurd premise, I try to treat it as seriously as possible; and when I come up with a quotidian or
serious premise, I try to treat it as ridiculously as possible. I think this tension and contradiction leads to
pretty cool possibilities. It’s my go-to way for giving the poem texture and complicating its meaning. One
difficult task I always have is trying to nail the tone of a poem. Can I pull off a terrible pun as I write
something meaningful without distracting the reader? Can the reader still look at the page when they’re
rolling their eyes? I like to think they can if I really nail the voice effectively. My poems can be pretty
vulnerable in a workshop setting. I think a poem needs to set a pattern early on to pull off the absurd.
I’m sure he was paraphrasing someone else at the time, but Chris Martin (of poetry, not of Coldplay)
once told me something along the lines of: “Doing something twice in a poem looks like a mistake
whereas doing something three times in a poem establishes a pattern.” I think the concept behind that
advice is pretty accurate.

Some of the funniest characters of all time are asinine without realizing it; I’m thinking of Carlton
Lassiter from Psych, for example. He is bumbling and incompetent and always thinks he’s the best and
kind of acts like some sort of caricature of a conservative uncle on Thanksgiving, and yet he constantly
falls short compared to Shawn and Gus and Juliet. He can’t accept that he’s flawed, even when all kinds
of evidence points to it. Timothy Omundson plays the character perfectly, pointing to all kinds of
relatable human weaknesses and building pathos for “Lassie” without the character being in on the joke.
Even if someone is the complete opposite of Lassiter, they can identify with his foibles and impulses.
And then there’s Shawn Spencer in the same show, who is so afraid of falling short of the expectations
that his dad placed on him, that he appears to not care or try at his job so that he can distract everyone
else from how much he does care and try and how vulnerable he really is. Other than having a
wonderful dad, I like to think that I approach poetry in a Spencerian fashion. The absurd is kind of reliant
on a false confidence.
LR: What’s next for you and your work? Any new projects on the horizon?
I better go read some Charles Simic! I tried writing a pantoum based on I Think You Should Leave
recently that hopefully will never see the light of day:

Don’t Tell Her He Has Triples of the Confetti Shirt
Over in the shops @ the creek
he spent all of his per diem @ Dan Flashes.
The more complicated the shirt pattern,
the more expensive the shirt.
He spent all of his per diem @ Dan Flashes,
where the more 90s-screensaver green pipes,
the more expensive the shirt.
Everyone who shops there looks like him!
It’s where the more 90s-screensaver green pipes,
the more complicated the shirt,
(and all the people who shop there look like him)
over in the shops @ the creek.
In all seriousness, I have one poem written that I absolutely know will be in the next book, but other than
that, I’m trying to figure out how to write my “Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year.” I tend to
really love poets’ debut collections, so I don’t necessarily want to go full Pinkerton after Blue Album, but
I am getting older and caring about different things than I used to, so some change is inevitable. Also, I’m
sure some readers would replace Blue Album with Raditude and Pinkerton with Hurley.
LR: Thanks so much for taking some time with us, Dylan! Check out more info here: 
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