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B.J. Best

B.J. Best's poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Hanging Loose, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, Nimrod, North American Review, Quarterly West, and Sentence. His is also the author of State Sonnets, as well as Birds of Wisconsin.

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"B.J. Best retools the Bildungsroman for the new century."

– Amy Newman

"B.J. Best honors the traditions of prose poetry and of gaming with nuance and depth while instilling a sense of unmitigated discovery you will recognize from those years when you were open to pleasure in any form."

– Phong Nguyen

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But Our Princess Is in Another Castle

Interview with B.J. Best: More than ephemeral flashes of light on a screen

02/26/14

B.J. Best, seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee and author of previous poetry collections State Sonnets and Birds of Wisconsin, takes a step into the risky literary unknown with his new collection of prose poetry, But Our Princess is in Another Castle. Drawing heavily from the kaleidoscope imagery of videogame worlds, But Our Princess is in Another Castle explores not games themselves, but the real lives of their human players. Journeying from “Beginning World” to “Heart World,” “Do World,” “Mind World,” and many others, Best’s collection traverses romantic relationships, childhood friendships, fear, death, and love – all the best things about our truly strange real world.In this interview, we discuss not just the craft of writing itself, but also the difficulties of producing serious literature around the pop-culture theme of videogames.

ELS: Your website says that But Our Princess is in Another Castle is “a book of prose poems inspired by videogames.” Did you go into it knowing that it would be centered on videogames, or did a pattern in your writing give you the idea to write about them?

BJB: I did go in thinking that’s what I wanted to do. I took a long writing retreat weekend and I wrote ten of them (something like that) up there as a means to explore and see if it would actually hold together. I liked the process and the ideas enough that I thought maybe it could work. You know, of those first ten, maybe two made that final cut into the actual book. In fact maybe it was only one. So obviously my writing changed a lot. I thought a lot about what it should actually be. I actually prefer working that way, because it helps eliminate some of the choices you need to make early on. If you told me to sit down right now and write a poem, I would be terrified by that because I would have no idea where to go. But if you said “Okay, well, write another videogame poem,” I would have at least some sort of grounding to base what I’m thinking about, and it would give me a much clearer direction to get that poem, especially in that poem-a-day kind of thing, as opposed to “Well, now I just have to sit around and think about something completely unrelated to anything else and see what it turns into.”

ELS: How and when did you get that idea to write a poetry book about videogames?

BJB: Those first poems were written in November of 2004. I don’t know where the original idea came from. They’re all prose poems, and they started life as prose poems, too. I think part of it was just that I wanted to explore that form because I hadn’t written many of them up until that point. My main thought (if I can even recollect what it was) was that it was something worth writing about (and at the time not a lot of people were writing about it) and there might be some possibilities for turning something that’s mass produced and very pop-culture-y into a different art form. I saw the opportunities there so I thought that would be a cool area to explore because I didn’t see it happening. When I started in 2004 I think I could point to two books that I had that were using videogames in a literary sense. There have been more since then, but that was the main genesis of the project.

ELS: It seems like a risky move to publish a serious work that openly admits to being about videogames. Were you afraid that the literary community (especially) would ignore your book?

BJB: Definitely. There were several times during the process where I just threw up my hands and asked myself, “What on earth am I doing?” The idea that it may very well be 100% frivolous was never lost on me. But the poems are serious; they’re not intended to be frivolous, so one of my goals with the book was to show that videogames can be treated seriously and to show how they can move into other aspects of people’s lives. So I knew I had that much to stand on, because it wasn’t about how much I love Pac Man or Tetris. But I knew it wasn’t a typical, serious university press kind of book, so my gut said I needed to approach more indie publishers with it. That’s where I wound up going because I didn’t figure I would win a contest judged by some other eminent poet, but I figured there would be enough people out there who would find it to be an interesting approach. The small press thing seemed like a more logical place to make that happen.

ELS: You mentioned a couple of times in your blog that it was important to you to make the book accessible to people who don’t play videogames or didn’t have experience with them. Don’t you think they lose some of the richness of the references, or was that not the point?

BJB: I’m not entirely sure, and it’s hard for me to answer because I know exactly what I’m talking about in all of those poems, but really my goal was that to not get any of the references wouldn’t matter, and it would still be a good poem that would hold up on its own. I definitely think you could argue that it’s just like any other ekphrastic work: If it’s about a work of art, it’s useful to be looking at the painting, photograph, or whatever. All of a sudden the connections start to make a little more sense. So there is an advantage to knowing the games themselves, but the actual details are pretty small – they’re in the poems, but they don’t necessarily influence the poems very much. So someone who knows the particular games could go through and say “Oh, I know where that’s from, and I know where that’s from,” but I’m not sure (with the exception of a very very few cases) that actually knowing the game inherently enhances the understanding of the poem, because one of my goals with the poems was to take them to places other than where the games happened to lead.

ELS: Why was that one of your goals?

BJB: I didn’t want to write a book gratifying for people who know all this arcana about classic video games. I did want it to appeal to as large of an audience as possible. There’s already a lot of writing out there on the web about the games: what they are, what they do… There’s enough commentary on the games as they currently exist, and to me that operates more in the review world, which is perfectly fine, but it doesn’t really transform the material into anything new.

ELS: What was your writing process with But Our Princess is in Another Castle? Was it different or similar as for your previous works?

BJB: Well, I mean, this was different because it was ekphrastic. Basically, I made several lists of fifty so videogames I would conceivably want to write about. Halfway through the project I made another list, and I have a feeling I maybe even made a third one. And then it was just brainstorming to settle on one that maybe seemed interesting, and literally I would go and play the game. It’s weird to think about playing video games for research, but actually that’s exactly what I did.

Most of the games in the book are small, especially compared to modern games, so it didn’t take long to do it. It’s not like I played any of them through to beat them. I played them long enough to get a sense of details that interested me. I would literally keep my eyes open and try to pay attention to things that simply seemed weird about the game, or unusual, or things that even though I’d played this game a million times, I’d never noticed before. Those were the details that were impressed on me, and those are often the ones that wind up showing up in the particular poems. Because ultimately, videogames are weird. If you sit back and objectively look at them, the things they ask you to do, and the worlds they create are just strange. I really like that, I think that’s really interesting. Compared to other books I wrote, I had to sit down and get the videogame in my head enough so I knew I could pull from that wealth of images that the game happened to have, while also limiting myself by not playing it over and over again, because I usually find if I know something too well it actually makes it more difficult to write about. You lose the sense of wonder and the idea of what makes it interesting and important versus “Well, here’s my encyclopedia of knowledge about something.”

ELS: Had you played all of the games before, or did you try some new ones also?

BJB: Most of them I had played before, from what I remember. I think there were some that I had never played before or some that I had always wanted to play that seemed interesting that I had never gotten around to, but no, they’re not inherently my favorite games, or anything like that. I cast a pretty wide net in thinking about what was valuable and what was intriguing. And there were also plenty of games that I wanted to write about, but just didn’t work for whatever reason. I wish Sonic the Hedgehog was in the book, but I tried three different times to write a Sonic the Hedgehog poem and they all blew up in my face, so I’m like “well I guess that’s the way it goes.”

ELS: You published a Sonic the Hedgehog poem on your WordPress blog that I really liked, and I was actually wondering why you didn’t include that one in But Our Princess is in Another Castle

BJB: I published three: that one, “Minesweeper,” and “Mappy.” What I realized about those three particular poems is that they just seemed a little stranger, and that they didn’t quite seem to hit the same notes as far as the overall tenor of the book. You always have to draw lines. Those three were just on the edge and fell.

ELS: That’s unfortunate for Sonic.

BJB: Yeah, that’s right!

ELS: Did you have a problem poem when you were writing But Our Princess is in Another Castle? One particular poem that gave you more trouble, or something that you worked on longer, or edited a million times…?

BJB: Many of the ones that I did have problems with wound up not being included in the book to begin with. There were a couple that flat-out got rewritten because the first time they made it through, they did not work very well. The first one’s in the first section of the book. It’s called “Gauntlet” and it was actually one of the first ten. What I remember about that poem is that it was mostly an exercise of seeing how often I could alliterate words that began with the letter Q. I distinctly remember that because Gauntlet is this game in which you die very frequently, so if you’re playing this at an arcade you just keep pumping quarters into the machine. I don’t think that version of the poem even made it to the very first draft of the book.

ELS: Not sure you could have gotten too far with Qs.

BJB: Yeah, exactly. Once you’ve got a version of a poem, it’s difficult to go back and say “I’m going to write about this game again” and do it completely differently, so the version of “Gauntlet” in the book was written in 2010-2011. I tried again once enough time had passed that I honestly could forget about what that first poem was about.

ELS: Do you keep copies of your first drafts?

BJB: Oh, I’ve got them somewhere. I’m not quite sure what draft of the book finally got published, but I’ve got a feeling it was draft number twenty or something like that. Just out of curiosity one day, while I was going through the final edits, I pulled up draft #1 and it was fascinating to see how completely different the book was compared to what was finally there. My first draft was written in 2005 and I thought there was a book there, but it’s very clear there was not.

ELS: Did you include any favorite childhood games?

BJB: A lot of them were favorites. My first videogame system (that I remember) was the Nintendo. I played Super Mario Brothers until all hours of the night. I was so proud when I finally beat Super Marios that I took a picture of the screen with my mom’s camera (this was just before digital cameras), and I went up to tell her that I’d just beaten Super Mario Brothers. At this point I’m eleven or twelve. She just looks at me, and all she says is “Go to bed,” which in retrospect was a completely reasonable suggestion at the time…

So the system I’m fondest of, because it was my first, is probably the Nintendo. There’s Mario in there, and Legend of Zelda in there, and Kid Icarus in there… I tend to have more nostalgic memories with those particular games, but I tried not to let that influence what I chose for the book.

ELS: What was the editorial process like?

BJB: The book was accepted in 2011 and actually I was still writing some new poems at that point. I had sent off a copy of the manuscript even though I had some new poems I was working on, and they accepted the manuscript, so the first thing for me do was figure out which, if any, of those new poems were going to belong. I went through about nineteen drafts on my own – when I say “on my own,” I mean me and a couple of trusted readers that I give virtually anything tobecause they give me all sorts of good feedback. But then we went through three rounds of edits with the editors. Very detailed, very thorough, and very much appreciated. We worked back and forth up until the last draft. In the final draft I actually cut four poems out of the manuscript, “Mappy” being one of them, just because I didn’t think at the time that they quite fit. Even up until then we were still making major changes to it to make it as strong as possible.

ELS: Poor “Mappy”! Almost made it.

BJB: Exactly.

ELS: What kind of edits did the publishing house make – mostly stylistic, or…?

BJB: It was everything and anything. Sometimes it was making sure things were spelled correctly, sometimes it was suggesting cutting poems, sometimes they recommended a new ending, definitely a lot of trimming of language, which I almost always agreed with, like extra adjectives, adverbs, some details that didn’t seem like they went anywhere or were needless at that point.

ELS: You had two “Heart Worlds”; was there a reason for that?

BJB: Yeah. The first one is not a very positive “Heart World,” and in fact talks mostly about a relationship breaking up, all negative falling apart, whereas the second one is more a positive, developing, lasting relationship and in many ways autobiographically based on me and my wife. I like the idea of two “Heart Worlds” because it’s mnemonic of videogames in a certain way. Videogames (either because they were lazily designed or cleverly designed, one of the two) often have you go back to a place where you’ve already been and make you do something else with it. But the goal was for each poem to stand on its own, even though together they’re thematic. I tried to be pretty clear about the themes, by virtue of the different worlds that each poem winds up in, like “Heart World” or “Map World.” The goal was to keep them apart and not try to necessarily rely on narrative, or for one to rely on another one, because that becomes one rickety house of cards pretty quickly.

ELS: Is there a specific line or image that you’re particularly proud of in this book?

BJB: Oh jeez, that’s a tough question.

ELS: I figured it might be.

BJB: What I like – and it almost becomes my own little cliché during the book – is poems that close strongly. I have so many poems that end with basically a single-sentence paragraph at the very end. For example, the end of “Mega Man”: “Being an electrician is different than being a doctor of light.” It even includes a reference to the game, because you’re fighting on behalf of the character Dr. Light in there. Another one that I really like is the end of “Legend of Zelda”: “We become the stories we tell ourselves.” That carries throughout the book too, and it’s also true about videogames. You’re the one enacting the story, so you become the story as you go through it. That strategy particularly does it for me. I don’t know if it winds up irritating other people because it happens so often, but I feel that they’re like daggers at the end.

ELS: Did you pick the title at the end or did you have it in mind from the beginning?

BJB: No, I had that from the beginning. The old manuscript in 2005 had that as the title. It just seemed to me like it was a pretty famous videogame phrase and that no one at the time was using it for anything, and honestly since I’ve been doing this and talking about the book, I’ve had several people either tell me or it gets back to me that they think it’s a great title. But I was terrified that between then and now someone else would come out with something called precisely that and I would have to change as a result. There is a “Mountain Goats” song called “Thank you Mario, But Our Princess is in Another Castle,” but I figured I was just far enough away from that that it would still hold up. I chose it because it’s a videogame phrase and I like the idea that it suggests, what so many videogames suggest: that you need to keep trying, you need to keep searching, you need to keep working, because you’re not quite done yet, and I think thematically that addresses a variety of the poems in the book, too.

ELS: The phrase has become a pretty popular meme; not sure if was back in 2005.

BJB: Memes didn’t really exist in 2005. It was one of those things that was sufficiently familiar that I hoped it would pull people in. It definitely has become meme-ified.

ELS: Do you still play videogames, or was this a thing of the past that you revisited for this project?

BJB: It’s weird. I began this project in 2004, almost ten years ago. I had no kids then, so I had time to play games and do what I wished. Now I’ve got a son – he was born in 2010 so he’s three and a half. Honestly, playing videogames is one of the things in my life that has fallen by the wayside. I still enjoy doing it, but I have a hard time justifying it, especially since so many modern games take up so much of your time if you actually play them. So I don’t spend much time playing games anymore, and I’m actually fairly comfortable with that idea. I balance that out by saying that I actually teach a videogame course at Carroll University in Wisconsin, so I get my fix that way. I assign all sorts of games: some classics, some contemporaries, and a bunch that the students have never heard of. So I’m still playing and thinking about them, just in a more academic context these days. When it comes down to it, my free time is fairly small, so when it gets to 9:30 at night, I would rather read or do something else than spend half an hour playing a videogame.

ELS: Does your videogame course focus on literature, mechanics, design, or…?

BJB: It’s called a “Cultural Seminar” – that’s the big touchstone for many of the general education courses. We want our students to learn about culture through different lenses, so mine is videogames, and believe it or not there is actually a textbook about how to study videogames. We talk about the academic theory of videogames, how they reveal culture by what they reveal within the games themselves, and how they impact the larger culture. We look at why Pac Man was so popular, why Tetris was so popular, and we also deal with the question of “Do violentgames cause violence?” We look at how the games are situated within American culture as well to see what their impacts are.

ELS: Do you think some of that came through in your book?

BJB: I don’t really think so. It wasn’t something I was necessarily thinking much about during the writing. So many of the poems are not inherently autobiographical but they’re autobiographically based, so I was writing more from personal perspective than from a broader perspective. It’s definitely more of a lyric voice in this particular book as opposed to trying to teach– because the poems are ultimately about experiences other than the game themselves and the comment is the game itself.

ELS: So you don’t think you had any messages about video games in mind for your readers when you wrote?

BJB: Other than that they’re worth serious inquiry. And I think that’s important. That they can be treated seriously, that they’re more than ephemeral flashes of light on a screen, that they do have meaning and can have artistic meaning either through transforming them or even in and of themselves. The question I’ve been asked a couple of times is “Are videogames art?” People wrestle with it, so it’s something I’ve tried to comment on. My answer is very clearly yes. More specifically, it’s my goal to show that videogames can be a generative source for other artistic endeavors.

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