An Interview with Mik Grantham - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Mik Grantham

by Bud Smith
July 21st, 2021

Mik Grantham had talked some hotelier into having a reading series in the lounge. Downtown New Orleans, where the skyscrapers sit in a cluster. She’d also talked the hotelier into paying the readers $400 and a two night stay in the hotel with drinks on them. This was one of those posh places with a gala lobby and a grand piano. I mean, she had made this all happen, not through some college or organization, but through her own force. 

I admire Mik for that. She’ll just decide something great is happening, and then it’s happening, and you’re there, laughing, looking around, pointing at the top shelf liquor and the bartender just shrugs and pours it. But I’d flown into New Orleans the night before. And that was the really magical night. Mik’s partner, Max Bien-Kahn, is a busker who sings on Frenchman Street in the Quarter and she was working as a waitress but had that night off. So the plan was to walk around to all the bars where all her friends were singing along and dancing to the music; they were like Pokémon and we’d catch them all. 

What’s up, Mik?” a friend would say and she’d respond, “Tomorrow night, Bud Smith is going to read you a story, don’t forget to come.” “Who is Bud Smith?” She pointed at me. “This is Bud Smith.” I waved hello. And then the next night, there would be that person, standing in the lounge of that ludicrous hotel, wondering how they’d gotten there. I followed Mik out onto the cobblestones and it was hot out and the moon was fat and full and it was one of those moments when you feel very much thrilled to have been born. She motioned to another bar, so jammed with people we couldn’t get in the door. One of Max’s bands was playing. I saw him in the window, strumming his guitar and smiling at the crowd. A stand up bass was plucked. The floor filled with dancers as the drums rolled in with the brass. 

I’ve said too much about New Orleans. But Mik would want me to. She probably wants you to come visit her there. Yes, you. There’s much more to say about Mik Grantham. She is the co-editor of Disorder Press, which she runs with her brother. They are just about to publish an anthology of incarcerated writers called, Hear Us: Writing from the Inside During the Time of COVID. Mik rides her bike around and has a dog named Ruby, and is one of the funniest and kindest people I know. She’s flat out incredible at writing stories and telling stories. She writes freely about her life. No topic is off limits. Reading her feels like gaining a friend.  Recently, her new book of poems Hardcore came out on SF/LD. We got a chance to catch up on the phone and talk about that.

—Bud Smith


MIK GRANTHAM: The first time I ever held a baby was at this one job. This clothing store that sold skateboard shoes. I really was bad. I was very shy and would get really stoned before work and hide in the clothing racks.

THE BELIEVER: I used to hide in the racks when I was kid.

MG: I was sixteen. Anyways, on one of the days I came out of my hiding place I ran into a young dad with a newborn baby strapped to his body. The baby was wailing, crying, crying, and the dad looked exhausted. I was contemplating going back into the clothing rack, but then I made eye contact with the dad. I always do that. I’m always making too much eye contact and ending up in conversations or situations I don’t want to be in. Anyways, the dad is bouncing the baby and he has a shoe box in his hands. He asks me if I work there and if I could help him. I said sure, I could get him a size. Then he waves the shoebox at me and asks if I could just hold his baby while he tries on his shoes. That was the first time I think I ever held a small baby. He didn’t buy the shoes and I got fired from that job a few months later.

BLVR: I never worked retail. I wouldn’t last a day. What other jobs did you get fired from?

MG: In my early twenties I worked at this cool coffee shop in Berkeley, California, where I met my best friend, Alex. He was the manager. I had a big crush on him. I thought I’d never meet anyone who loved Julia Roberts as much as me! Then I found out he had a boyfriend. In the back room of the cafe where we kept all our storage stuff, there was a magnet board with magnet letters on it. We were supposed to use the board to leave each other notes on what needed to be restocked. Like: milk, soy, cups. Everyday Alex and I arranged the letters so it would say “dick.” We were always needing to restock dick. Sometimes it would say “big dick.” Dick dick dick. More dick. 

The owner of the cafe sent an email out to the staff: “NO MORE OBSCENE MESSAGES ON THE MAGNET BOARD. ACT LIKE THE ADULTS YOU ARE.”

But the email didn’t work and “dick” remained on the magnet board next to “straws” and “lids.”

Another email came: “SINCE YOU CLEARLY CANNOT ACT LIKE ADULTS, I WILL TREAT YOU LIKE CHILDREN. I AM REMOVING ALL VOWELS FROM THE MAGNET BOARD.” 

We got creative and put: “DYX.” The owner threw the magnet board in the trash. Nothing was ever restocked again.

Alex got fired so we moved to New Orleans. That coffee shop closed down a few years ago. I’ll always be grateful for them because they introduced us. Recently, Alex texted me this picture from the old magnet board: 

BLVR: And your book’s called Hardcore.

MG: It is. The poem in the book with the title “Hardcore” is about when I was 13. I started to tell everyone I was hardcore. I wrote it on everything, but I didn’t really know what it meant. We just got the internet around that time and my mom was like, “If you look ‘hardcore’ up on the internet, you will be in so much trouble!” I thought it would be funny to just call the book that. Also, I think a lot of the poems in the book are sweet and about love in some way or another. Isn’t loving people and letting people love you the most hardcore thing you can do in life?

BLVR: Anybody can be an asshole. It’s simple, takes no skill. But to love somebody you need great humility, stand there before them opened up, ready to get squashed. 

MG: I am like a dog. If you wanna be my best friend, we are best friends for life. That’s how I am just naturally. Everyone in my family always compares the way I love to the way Ema loved. Intensely and passionately and unafraid to be affectionate.

BLVR: Ema is your grandmother who the book is dedicated to? 

MG: Yes. She’s probably at a big ass afterparty with all her friends and meeting new friends.

BLVR: You believe in an afterlife?

MG: Yes. I hope there is no such thing as a hangover wherever she is. I hope to God there is no such thing as reincarnation. Seems shitty. Like: you sucked at that round, try again! God, if you’re real, and if you’re listening, I’d like to just relax and hang out and drink tequila and maybe smoke cigarettes and not feel guilty about that because I will be dead.

BLVR: What was Ema like ?

MG: She had so much chutzpah, so much fire. She was not afraid of anything. I try to be like her in some ways and try to learn from how she was in other ways. She told me once: I’m not afraid of shit. She was loyal too. Would love you for as long as you would let her and then longer, sometimes for the worst. I think when you’re this way, people can sneak in through the cracks who aren’t good for you and hurt you. When I was younger I didn’t know how to deal with that. I’d get walked all over a lot I think. But now, I try to practice letting go. I don’t need to keep people close that aren’t good for me. I can love them from a distance and let go of that pain. That’s what I think makes the best art because there is perspective and understanding that comes with release. One of the worst things in life is bitterness. When you’re bitter, you’re not free.

BLVR: What was it like for you growing up? 

MG: My mom’s side of the family is Jewish and my dad’s side is Catholic. They never really put an emphasis on religion in our household. But I went to a Catholic grade school and Catholic girls school for a while. The Catholic girls school was a big deal. It was a very nice school with good teachers and all that. We had to go to church once a week and we had to wear these special itchy church sweaters on those days that just had the cross and our logo on them. I really hated those sweaters and that school. My dad taught at the all boys school across the street. Everyone knew me as “Grantham’s daughter.” Then, when I was sixteen, my friend and I stole a neighbor’s car in the middle of the night to go for a little joyride to the next town over.

BLVR: Like one of those Aerosmith videos.

MG: Uh huh. But we didn’t know how to drive and didn’t have our licenses. I remember we were careful to not turn the headlights on because we didn’t want the light to shine into anyone’s house and get caught. I was in the passenger seat. I put on the radio. We pulled onto the freeway. The White Stripes were playing. That song “Blue Orchid.” We felt very cool and were screaming and laughing and that’s when the red and blue lights went off. We didn’t go to Catholic school after that. I think that was supposed to be part of our punishments. 

BLVR: Instead you got set free.

MG: Something like that.

BLVR: How do you write poems?

MG: I have two dogs and I live right next to the Mississippi River. I walk them both on the levee everyday. I get really in my head there. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the levee, I’d probably get hit by a car. The river influences how those poems in Hardcore move. They take unexpected turns and weave around each other. My brain works this way, too. One second I’ll be thinking about all the bad things I’ve ever done, the next I’m thinking about my grandma’s dildo that I found after she died, then about someone who broke my heart, then about something that happened when I was a little girl, or something funny someone said to me in the corner store. Later I’ll try to figure out how all these things fit together; but daydreaming and allowing thoughts and feelings to flow without resistance is where magic comes from. 

BLVR: So you come back from the levee and bottle up some of those thoughts you had out walking your dog. 

MG: I sit at my desk or on the porch and make myself sit and work for at least one full hour. I’ll do this thing for forty-five days straight before I take a break. I’ll make myself write for at least one hour everyday for forty-five days straight. I keep the stakes low; just sit at my computer and try to get something on the page. Don’t worry about word count, just sit with your project. No phone or internet. Some days I don’t write anything, I just stare out my window onto Flood Street and watch one of my neighbors rearrange all the junk in her yard. But, sometimes I get on a roll and after an hour I am having a good time and want to keep going. Another part is I make myself read fifty pages of whatever book I’m reading that day.

BLVR: What are you reading now?

MG: I just finished this incredible short story collection by the Macedonian writer Rumena Bužarovska called My Husband. The stories are narrated by women who are in relationships with goofy, misogynistic men who make them miserable. But it’s really funny, because the narrators are tough and are critical of these men, they see through them. The experience of reading these stories feels like you are having a glass of wine and talking shit with your best friend after a long day. Before this book, I read Lust by Susan Minot. Also great, and also stories narrated by women who find themselves tied up in relationships with misogynistic men. The difference though, is I felt the women in Lust had no power. It wasn’t as though they didn’t care about being treated poorly, it just seemed like they felt they had no choice or way out on their own. Maybe this is because the women in Lust are younger than the women in My Husband. There is power in the snarkiness and humor that the women in Bužarovska’s stories exude and that is so much fun to read. 

I have a tattered copy of poems by Richard Brautigan on my desk. It’s The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings. A lot of young people fall in love with Brautigan because he is cool, weird, and funny. These poems were written before he became a famous writer. So maybe they are even wilder. They are about love, daily life, and imagination. There are moments where in just a few sentences he’ll reveal to the reader something deeply personal and it happens so fast you might not even notice that he just told you a secret. I read these poems and thought: Wow, that’s a poem? I didn’t know I could write poems like this. I felt excited.  I read these poems and my world opened up a little bit more. I felt less alone. A good book doesn’t care about being disgusting or ugly or perfect or cool. It trusts you will follow where it wants to lead.

BLVR: I just read Moby-Dick, fifty pages a day like that. Helped me get through a book that I might never read if I didn’t have a light at the end of the tunnel each day. Which is how I like to do almost all of my work, having a break to look forward to. Ah, only another twenty-two pages to read today.  Ah shit, I’ve only got another half hour to write. How do you edit your work?

MG: I’m really not good at editing myself. With poems I wait until I finish a bunch of them, then I go back and comb through them. I guess it’s the same thing with stories. My best friend, Alex, and my brother Joey are the people I send early drafts to. I’ve learned things get better with my writing when I think about two things: First, what’s the point of this poem or story? How efficiently am I getting to the meaning or heart of it? 

Second, focus on the heart, don’t be afraid to break it open and be vulnerable. It’s really important for me to take the poem, story, essay, whatever, further than I’m at first comfortable with just to see what happens. I’m also learning not to take things too seriously, lean into the funny. And besides, literally no one cares if I write or if you write or read. So that takes the pressure off and I can get shit done.

BLVR: So you edit the poems’ generativity so they build together to tell a story? Hardcore does this.  

MG: Yes, it’s like dumping a handful of puzzle pieces out on the kitchen table and figuring out how they all fit together to make one whole picture. It’s really exciting to see how each one clicks. In my book, my voice is speaking from all different ages. My seven-year-old self communicates with my mid-twenties self, my thirty-year-old self speaks to my thirteen-year-old self and so on. I’m not sure if I’m making sense, but editing poems in this way helps me to get all these different voices harmonizing on the same song. I am giggling to myself a lot when I write. I want people to laugh with me. I am kind of always thinking about how to make the experience of reading genuinely enjoyable for my readers. I believe humor is the ultimate superpower. Anyone can tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to them, or a job they hate, or the time someone crushed their heart or soul can laugh at ourselves and discover some light at our sad rock bottom.

BLVR: Well what are the sad rock bottom things?

MG: Here’s some: 

  1. The time my tooth fell out of my mouth on my way to work.
  2. The time the dentist asked me for $10,000.
  3. The time I shit my pants. I probably felt the most sad when that happened. 

BLVR: Under what circumstances did you shit your pants? There’s this legend on the jobsite about this guy who had come down from the unit walking fast and said he was going home. They asked where he was going and he said don’t tell anyone but I just shit my pants. And the next day when he came in there was a BANNER hung across the front of the unit that said, “Don’t tell anyone but (blank) shit his pants!” Which I always thought was a fake story until something similar happened to me over a pair of defective boots I’d bought from a guy they’d “fallen off a truck.”

MG: [Laughs] Well, the only person that told everybody I shit my pants was me. If something embarrassing happens to me, I feel like I have to tell everyone about it and laugh about it and own it so it becomes less embarrassing. So, I shit my pants at the post office. Sort of. I had to mail out a bunch of Disorder Press orders. There are two post offices that are close to me. One is really small and they won’t mail out more than five packages at a time unless I have already paid the postage. The other one is bigger and in the Upper 9th Ward. The Lower 9th Ward, where I live, is separated from the Upper 9th Ward by a canal. You have to cross the Saint Claude Bridge to get to the bigger post office. It’s not a big deal to cross the bridge, but sometimes boats will be passing through the canal and the bridge will be up.  A five minute drive turns into a twenty minute drive. It seems like that bridge is always fucking me over and making me late to everything.

The Upper 9th Ward post office is always busy and the lone person working the counter disappeared in the back to look for someone’s package, and this lady behind me got out her cell phone and called the post office on speaker phone and started yelling and complaining. It was so rude. And everyone was like, lady it’s okay, don’t do that on our behalf! I had eaten this really spicy Thai food from this restaurant in Chalmette. And that morning my stomach was sort of rumbling and gurgling, but I needed to get these Disorder Press books out. I’m waiting and waiting and the line is barely moving ‘cause everyone is mailing a bunch of packages and no one has prepaid postage. 

Finally, it’s my turn at the register. My stomach is still gurgling and I’m starting to get a little panicky. I politely try to rush the guy whose typing in all the addresses really slowly. Then, I thought: I think I might shit myself. I’m gonna shit myself! Time sort of stopped and everything felt like it was happening in slow motion. I paid for my packages. I ran to my car. I started the engine. I started to drive back to Holy Cross. And then, the bridge was up. The fucking Saint Claude Bridge was up. I had no choice. Nowhere to pull over. 

Anyways. Now I always buy prepaid postage.

BLVR: I do the prepaid postage too. You just have to in Jersey City. What’s it’s like out your window there in New Orleans?

MG: It’s beautiful out. Warm and breezy. I just baked cookies too. New Orleans feels like it is slowly coming back out of hibernation from the pandemic. There has been some live music happening outdoors lately. That feels good. Max busks on the street every Friday now with his jazz band. He planted a bunch of flowers and hopefully they will bloom soon.  

BLVR: What’s the difference between writing a poem versus writing a short story?

MG: Well for me, writing a poem feels cathartic and like I’m working through something within myself. Maybe stories are the same. I was just talking to Halle Hill about this actually. The thing I like about exploring fiction writing right now and the thing that is the most exciting to me, is that I get to be a channel for a voice outside of myself. I take these long walks on the levee everyday. Lately, I’ve been putting my headphones in and listening to music I think one of my characters might listen to and I’ll pretend I’m that character for an hour on my walk. Then when I get home I’m in the mood to let her speak through me. 

BLVR: All your friends I met when I was in town were artists of some kind.

MG: Many of them are: musicians, painters, jewelry makers, bakers. Or they are just doing what they love in some form or another. New Orleans has a magic to it that fosters this. Almost everyone I know and love here, I met through making their coffee. I was their barista at Solo Espresso. I’d memorize their coffee order and then I’d get to know them a little bit better each day they came in. I met Max that way. He used to order an espresso with a side of ice and then pour the espresso into the cup of ice and then dump a bunch of half and half from the condiment station into his espresso. Later when we got together, I teased about this technique customers do to build their own lattes without paying for lattes. He just orders americanos now.. I am just in awe of what Max does. He makes a living playing jazz in the streets. He has his own band too, Max and the Martians, and is constantly writing songs. In the past year he wrote and recorded two albums. We even wrote our own music together. I sing with him, and can’t stop smiling. 

In the back of my mind I’ve always had this little hope or dream that I might have my own coffee shop one day. Maybe I’d even sell books there. I’d love to create and run a space where friends could come hang out, have coffee, find a cool book, and just be together. I would call it Julia Roberts Bagel Barn. And I’d provide a selection of wigs to my employees to wear for whatever Julia era they want to represent. I’d call dibs on Mystic Pizza Julia.

BLVR: You live in an inspiring place and you are inspired by it, aren’t you?. That’s a special thing. 

MG: Friends are really important. This place inspires me. But my friends do too. I think it’s like this—when buffalo see a storm approaching, they walk towards it together. They understand the only way through the bad weather is facing it head on. That storm will always catch up to you no matter how long you run. Anytime I am faced with something difficult, I call my friends in this town up and they walk with me. I’ll do the same for them. 

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