INTERVIEW WITH QUINN CARVER JOHNSON
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: Much of “I Imagine Daniel Bryan Sometimes Feels Just Like I Do” focuses on the strife in Daniel Bryan’s life. Is there a reason you oriented the poem around his hardships? How did you decide on specific experiences to include?
Quinn Carver Johnson: I wrote the first draft of this poem during the early part of 2019. During that time, Daniel Bryan had just introduced a new persona on Smackdown! Live, one of the WWE’s weekly television shows. This character was an eco-friendly hippie—he wore thrifted t-shirts and worn out flannels, he grew his hair and beard out, and he really started pushing environmental concerns in his promos. He pulled his merchandise from the store to combat consumerism, he would go up to the food courts and berate fans who were eating meat, etc. In one of his biggest moments during this time, he threw the WWE Championship in the trash and debuted a redesigned, sustainable version of the belt. His new design had a hemp strap and the center plates were wood sourced from a “naturally fallen oak tree.”
I have to admit that before this, I had never really been a fan of Daniel Bryan. He’s been a fan favorite in the WWE and on the indie scene for two decades at least and he’s an undeniably talented athlete, but he just never really clicked with me until this point. But this persona really stuck with me. I loved it. What I know of Bryan’s real life is that he’s a feminist and an LGBTQ+ ally, he’s a vegan and a passionate environmentalist. In that sense, I feel like Daniel Bryan is a lot like me and I’m drawn to him because of that. So, to see that playing out on screen every week really pulled me in.
But, while I really fell in love with this character and started to feel like he was representing me, or someone like me, on this larger stage, I was kind of in the minority there. This character was packaged as a heel (pro wrestling lingo for a villain). He wasn’t this noble, grassroots activist who was using his platform to try and make positive change in the world. No, he was this annoying, whiny killjoy, essentially. The commentary team tore into him for disrespecting the legacy and history of the championship when he reinvented the belt, other wrestlers would talk about how much they loved eating steak and would never stop, etc.
Now, the WWE is a deeply conservative company—Linda McMahon was a member of Donald Trump’s cabinet for a while and Trump himself is part of the WWE Hall of Fame—so I wasn’t really surprised in that regard, you know? I mean, I just can’t imagine Vince McMahon looking at this hippie guy talking about recycling and red meat consumption and seeing anything more than an annoyance. What really shocked me, though, was the way the fans reacted.
Daniel Bryan, like I said, has been a long-time fan favorite and, contrary to popular belief, pro wrestling fans actually lean pretty far to the left politically, so you would naturally expect fans to cheer Bryan regardless of the narrative that the WWE was feeding them. But, they didn’t. They actually booed him. There was one moment, in particular, where my jaw just hit the floor. The WWE was doing a show in Fresno, California and Bryan comes out and starts digging into the fans and trashing their city. He mentions that Fresno has the highest pollution rates in the state and this crowd just erupts into cheers. The WWE had done such a successful job of making Bryan a villain that they actually got a crowd to cheer for pollution.
That really got to me and kind of sent me down this rabbit hole. I started thinking about how similar to Bryan’s real life this character was. I mean, at some level it’s just a character on TV and if he’s playing the bad guy, then he’s doing a good job. But, on another level, he’s going out there and speaking from the heart about serious issues that he deeply cares about and he’s getting booed out of the ring. I just can’t imagine how heartbreaking that must be. And that was a role that was assigned to him, you know, so it’s the company he works for and the fans he’s trying to entertain who are both hearing these pressing environmental concerns and saying, “You suck!” I started thinking, that must get to him on an emotional level, it must be hard to kind of separate the fictional version of you and the real-life version of you when they’re both saying the same things.
And, of course, there’s more. Daniel Bryan had some pretty severe concussions and injuries and, for a while, it looked like his career was over. So that’s heartbreaking on its own. I try to dig into what those emotions must be like, too. There’s this adage in the world of pro wrestling: “You go out on your back.” Basically, that just means that when you retire, you usually lose that final match. You use the star power and respect that you’ve amassed and you transfer that momentum to the next person who’s on their way up. Usually, when you see someone go out on top in pro wrestling, it wasn’t planned. Like Edge, for example. He retired as champion because he had an injury that forced him out. It’s a bit counter-intuitive in that respect. Going out on top is kind of an undesirable end and for a while it looked like that was how Daniel Bryan was going to leave. In a perfect world, you want to grow old and stay past your prime, you know? So I tried to channel some of the anxiety around that, too.
RR: Do you have any specific connection to Daniel Bryan? How did you arrive at writing this poem?
QCJ: I’ve never met Daniel Bryan. I’ve never even seen him wrestle live. I’ve only ever watched him on TV and, like I mentioned, for a lot of that time I didn’t even really care about him or feel that connection. But I do really like his politics. When the WWE entered into a deal with Saudi Arabia, he refused to go and perform on those shows because they wouldn’t let women perform and have a history of sexism and homophobia. I really admired that he took that political stand even when it cost him a fairly significant payday. And, of course, the environmentally conscious character really connected with me, too. And that’s kind of where I was at when I decided to write this poem—it was just that there was this guy on TV who had cool politics and was vocal about them even though he worked for this really conservative, billion-dollar corporation.
For me, one of the most interesting concepts surrounding pro wrestling is the line between what’s real and what isn’t. There’s the drama and the story happening in the ring and on TV, but there’s also the real story happening behind the scenes and day-to-day on the streets. Of course, it’s the same for anybody in the public eye, even in the smallest capacities. The version of myself that I am on social media is different from who I really am. It’s still me, but it’s a curated version of me, you know? I think the more visible you are—the more people who are looking at you—the more curated that image becomes.
Professional wrestlers, just like any other celebrity or public figure, are in the business of connecting with people, of getting people to like them. For a lot of people, that connection comes when you feel like someone is “genuine,” or that their curated image accurately reflects who they are away from the public eye. I try to write about that in relation to Daniel Bryan in this poem. Daniel Bryan’s real name is Bryan Danielson, and I kind of try to bridge the gap between those two figures—the Daniel Bryan I watch on TV every week and the Bryan Danielson who I’ve never met.
So, a lot of this poem is speculative. There’s a lot of “I imagine” statements about what the interior life of Daniel Bryan must be like. He’s a husband and a father and, from what I can tell, is really nurturing and loving in those roles and I can kind of imagine him worrying about his family and how his injuries could kind of threaten their well-being, too. This poem, then, is essentially what limited knowledge I do have about Daniel Bryan kind of supplemented by my own experiences and my own worries. I’m kind of wrestling with this idea of seeing this celebrity athlete on television and imagining that he has the same interior life as a poet in college.
RR: We love how the dense stream-of-consciousness format of the poem allows it to gather momentum until we’re swept away in the dream of it. In general, how do you approach form in your poetry? How do you decide what form a poem will take?
QCJ: I don’t have the very early versions of this poem anymore because they were scrapped pretty quick, but this used to be a lineated poem. It just wasn’t working. It was too long and too dense and I just couldn’t cut it down to a version that worked with the form and still said everything I wanted to say. Then I tried letting it flow across the page, abandoning the left margin and everything, but that was just too flowy, too light. So, it eventually pulled itself toward this prose poem form, this dense block of text. I think it mirrors the interiority of the poem in a lot of ways. The stream-of-consciousness style builds off of that. It jumps from place to place, it finds a connection and builds a bridge, it circles back on itself, it peppers in bits of trivia.
I don’t want to say it came about organically, because this poem did go through a lot of drafts and tweaks and really major changes, but it kind of emerged from all of that on it’s own. I mean, I didn’t sit down and map out the specific movements on the poem. They just grew out of what I found interesting and worthwhile about Daniel Bryan—both the character and the person—and I let myself write one piece down and jump to whatever called out to me next.
I think I take that basic approach to a lot of my poems. I get everything out on the page first and then I start playing around with my word processor, adding in line breaks and sectioning off stanzas. That’s when I start to reorder things and see what fits where and that’s where I kind of take inventory and say, “Okay, I have this? What is it missing? What is extra and can be cut?” It just happened that after all of that wrestling and tweaking that this poem worked better in a state that was closer to that original, draft-like style. In a sense, this poem came full circle. It started out as that get-everything-out draft and then I molded it and broke it down and re-molded it and eventually it came back to something pretty close to that first step.
RR: The poem weaves sociopolitical tensions and environmentalism into an otherwise playful poem. How did you balance tone and theme in writing it?
QCJ: I think that’s one of the things I really admire about professional wrestling as a medium—and I do view it as a kind of art medium. I’m a Creative Writing major, but I also built my own double major for Performance Studies and really built it around my love of pro wrestling. I think it is a performance—it’s theatre. And, like, any art, I think pro wrestling is uniquely positioned to tackle social and political issues and explore those ideas. At the same time, though, pro wrestling isn’t that far away from a real-life comic book with its colorful, larger than life characters.
Of course, when the biggest pro wrestling company in the world is the WWE, you aren’t going to see a lot of worthwhile political content. Instead, you’re going to get Donald Trump shaving Vince McMahon’s head at WrestleMania. So, maybe, in some ways, this poem is kind of wishful thinking. It’s me trying to build this bridge between what pro wrestling is and what I think it has the potential to be. I think Daniel Bryan is the perfect symbol of that, especially in his Planet’s Champion persona. I think if you package that character correctly, he’s the hero, he’s a role model, but the WWE doesn’t see it that way.
I talked about how that’s kind of heartbreaking for Daniel Bryan—or, at least, my imagined version of Daniel Bryan—but I also think it’s kind of scary when you think about the power and influence that the WWE has. Like I mentioned before, the McMahon’s are buddy-buddy with Trump and, even recently, we’re seeing the WWE using their political connections and financial power to lobby Republican lawmakers and have professional wrestling declared an essential business. That’s absurd. I’m a die-hard pro wrestling fan, but it isn’t essential. What really scares me, though, is how popular the WWE is with children. Little kids love the WWE and they’re at that malleable age where they can still be really easily shaped by what they’re seeing and hearing on TV. So if they see this guy who really cares about the planet and thinks about consumerism and then they’re told that they should hate that guy, how are those children going to react when people get on the news or on social media and are talking about those same issues?
I think the tone of this poem grew out of the mixture of those ideas—you have this colorful world of pro wrestling, but then you have the political ramifications of that world, either good or bad. It’s playful, but it isn’t harmless, and I want to capture that, to point a spotlight on that part of it that gets overlooked or shuffled under the rug.
RR: We understand you co-authored a poetry collection, Linear, with Todd Fuller. That’s very cool. How do you approach working solo versus in collaboration?
QCJ: Yes, Linear is this collaborative collection that Todd Fuller and I have been working on. It’s not published yet, but we’ve moved out of the drafting phase and are working toward finding the collection a home. You can find some of the poems from that collection in various places like Red Earth Review, Broadkill Review, BoomerLit, and Dragon Poet Review.
Todd Fuller is a poet based in Norman, Oklahoma and I grew up in Arkansas City, KS which is just a few miles north of the Oklahoma border. It’s a lot closer to Oklahoma City and Tulsa and those literary hubs in Oklahoma than it is to Lawrence and Kansas City, so I gravitated toward that Oklahoma poetry community and that’s how I met Todd. Actually, the impetus of the Linear project comes from Fuller’s debut poetry collection, To the Disappearance (Mongrel Empire Press, 2015). The final poem in that collection is “An Index of First Lines” and it’s the first lines to forty-four non-existent poems. One of the major themes of that collection is appearances and disappearances and I was struck by the appearance of these first lines and the way they kind of created the disappearance of these hypothetical poems, if you will. In reality, these poems never existed, but by providing the first lines, Fuller kind of created the illusion of these poems disappearing somewhere. I was enraptured. The night I read that final poem, I found Fuller’s email and I asked him, “Can I write these poems? Can I use the first lines you wrote and bring these poems into existence?” He responded and offered to collaborate with me on the project. That was 2016 and I was a junior in high school at the time.
It ended up taking a lot longer than either of us initially imagined. That’s one of the differences when you’re writing with someone. We lived two hours apart and once I went away to college that distance grew even greater and the times when we could meet up in person were limited. And you’re still working on your own projects at the same time, writing solo poems and dreaming up collections and projects for yourself, so your time is divided
There’s also the trouble of negotiating voice and style. I don’t write poems like Todd Fuller does. He’s a PhD in Creative Writing and, when this project started, I didn’t even have a high school diploma, so we have different cultural touchstones, different pools we’re drawing from. We come from different generations and different levels of education. In some ways, that’s really useful because I bring things to the table that Todd couldn’t and vice versa. But you have to figure out what to do with those differences. So, what we came up with was we wrote this main character into our collection. A lot of poets use a speaker that isn’t them for their poetry, but we specifically gave him a name and a backstory and a distinct voice and we wrote from there. There are some poems that definitely skew more toward my voice and some that feel more like Todd, but, for the most part, the collection doesn’t feel like either of our poetic voices.
There are some advantages to this collaborative style, too. If I’m writing a poem by myself and I get stuck, I’m just stuck. I have to find a way to work through it or let that poem sit for a while. When I’m writing with Todd, however, I can say, “Hey, here’s the basic idea I have for this, but it just isn’t working, can you take a look at it and see if you can figure it out?” We can bounce poems back and forth in that way and that’s really useful when you run into blocks or you write yourself into a corner. I think that’s one of the ways that our generational gap and our different pools of knowledge become super useful. If I’ve written myself into a corner and I can’t figure my way out of it, Todd might be able to come in with a perspective I just don’t have and he sees things in a totally different way.
It’s also been really fun to try and create poems out of only one line. It’s like having a writing prompt in some ways, a starting point but you can go anywhere you want with it. And sometimes I’ll write something for one of the poems and Todd will say, “I didn’t even think of this, this is great!” and sometimes he’ll say, “Here’s where my mind was at when I wrote this line” and that’ll offer some insight into a direction that poem might go in.
I talked before about my basic approach to writing poems and that process is still how I approached the poems in Linear, but really it feels so different than writing poems on my own. Writing a poem with another person is kind of like doing a workshop. You present your poem and you go around the circle and get feedback, except the person giving you feedback is writing the same poem that you are. I think workshops can be a bit difficult at times because when you’re getting feedback, sometimes you’ll feel like the rest of the room doesn’t really see the end goal that you’re trying to get to, but when you’re writing with someone that feedback is more curated toward that shared end goal.
Quinn Carver Johnson’s work in Issue 7.2: