Lev Grossman, Author

Lev Grossman

Photo: Amy Sly

Lev Grossman graduated from Harvard College in 1991 with a degree in Literature.  He also attended a Ph. D program at Yale University for three years. Grossman is a New York Times national and international best-selling author. His first novel, Warp, was published in 1997. His second novel, Codex, became an international bestseller. The Magicians, the first book of a trilogy, was a New York Times Best Seller, won the 2010 Alex Award, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His follow-up, The Magician King, was an Editor’s Choice pick for The New York Times. The third installment of the trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is set for release by Viking on August 5, 2014.

Grossman is Senior Writer and book critic for Time. He has interviewed Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Salmon Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, J.K. Rowling, and Johnny Cash. Grossman has also written for The New York Times, Salon.com, Entertainment Weekly, TimeOut New York, The Village Voice, and The Wall Street Journal.

Lev Grossman has served as a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle and as the chair of the Fiction Awards Panel.  He attended Antioch University of Los Angeles as a guest artist and lecturer during the MFA Creative Writing Winter/Spring Residency, 2013.  

Lev lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Sophie Gee, and three children, Lily, Benedict, and Halcyon.

David A. Napier interviewed Lev Grossman online via Skype on April 24, 2014.

David A. Napier: You live in a creaky old house in Brooklyn, New York. Does historic architecture inspire or influence your writing? Do you have a favorite place where you choose to write?

Lev Grossman: My house is certainly very old. I wouldn’t actually call it historic, but technically, it is historical. Actually, old places are really important to me. Especially as a fantasy writer, I think fantasy is a lot about history, and it’s a lot about deep time, and it’s a lot about feeling as though the place you’re in has a rich history that’s gone back a long ways. In Tolkien, they’re always walking around, and you get a real sense they’re passing places with history. There are these old barrows and these places that have names you don’t even know where they come from. And the characters don’t even know the names mean either. You get a sense that this place has been inhabited thousands of thousands of years. So, I like old places and I feel drawn to them. And that’s probably the reason why I bought the house that I live in. I guess my favorite place to write would be, probably is my house, it’s certainly one of my favorite places to write. I find that I have less and less choice about where I write these days. So I try not to get too attached to any one place.

DN: What inspires you to write magical fantasy fiction?

LG: I feel like novels tend to have many multiple sources of inspiration, which kind of combine to get you over the bar to actually sit down and write them. Certainly, like a lot of people, I was infatuated with fantasy fiction when I was little. In particular, the Narnia books, but also Tolkien, TH White, Anne McCaffrey, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony. I read, you know, whatever I could find. This was back before the real heyday of mainstream fantasy, before Harry Potter and all that stuff. So you kind of had to dig a little to find that stuff. But I definitely dug. And I kept on, I remained a fantasy reader even as I grew up, which isn’t true of everybody. But when I started writing The Magicians, well, I had a long history of being a fantasy reader. Interesting things were happening with fantasy at that time. You were having people like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, who were doing things with fantasy that nobody had ever done before. George R. R. Martin. I mean people were really expanding what you could do with fantasy. I suddenly thought, wow, this is exciting. I’ve got to get in on this. The background reading. And then in a funny way writing fantasy was a reaction against my education. My upbringing in a family as the son of two English professors who were very committed to literary fiction and the most strict, rigorous sense of the word, I thought it would piss them off a little if I wrote fantasy. I don’t think I was entirely wrong about that. So, you know, it came from a lot of places.

DN: In one of your blog posts, you mentioned taking a break from writing fiction for a while. Was this a sudden impulsive thought, or an idea that may soon become reality?

LG: Oh, I never take a break for very long. Sometimes I say I’m going to take a break in order partly not to jinx myself. I think it’s a bad idea to say, alright, now I’m going to write a whole ton of fiction. But I’ve already started a couple of other novels since I finished the last one. You know, it gets pretty compulsive after a while, so you can’t really stop.

I am less interested in impressing people and more interested in communicating with people.

DN: Faulkner learned his craft while working in a post office in Oxford, Mississippi. You switch hats between book critic for Time magazine and fiction novelist. Does multi-tasking help or hinder your creativity?

LG: An example that I always think of is Kafka, who was a lawyer by training, but I think he worked at something like an insurance adjustor, and it involved him reading a lot of grisly accident reports sort of disastrous industrial accidents that required a lot of insurance payouts. And I’m pretty sure that made its way into his fiction. With Time, it’s less the connection, it’s less direct, and it’s certainly very good. It trains you to write as opposed to sitting around thinking about writing. You know, when you have a weekly magazine job, you really can’t sit around and wait for the muse to come and inspire you. They give you a page, you fill it with words, it’s going to be shipped out on Wednesday and they’re going to print three million copies. You can’t mess around. And I think some of that, I don’t want to say perfectionism, but learning to skip the kind of the contemplative, meditative, waiting for inspiration to strike stage, has been a real help for my fiction. And my fiction has probably gotten more accessible over the years, and writing for a popular audience like Time’s audience has definitely influenced me. I’ve become very interested as a novelist, I’m interested in people reading, writing stuff that people read. I am less interested in impressing people and more interested in communicating with people.

DN: You mentioned Kafka and several other authors. Do you have a favorite fictional quote?

LG: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hopebut not for us.” – Franz Kafka.

DN: In storytelling, how do you best describe things that don’t exist?

LG: I always maintain that describing things that don’t exist is not a particular problem of the fantasy writer but a general problem of the fiction writer, because none of this stuff exists. Mrs. Dalloway doesn’t exist. You know, none of this stuff exists. But when it comes to writing things that really don’t exist, I don’t know, I think I have one of these unhealthy escapist imaginations. My therapist once told me he thought I would stop writing fantasy once my treatment was completed. And we’re still arguing that one out. It’s very easy for me. I have a very active imagination. It’s very easy for me to slip out of this world and into different worlds that don’t exist. I think I’ve been doing it since a very young age. It’s very easy. And those worlds seem very real to me. You sort of go in your mind, you sort of think about it, add little touches, you know. Someone’s casting a spell and there’s smoke coming out of his fingertips…what sort of sounds does it make? You think about these things happening and you demand the same level of detail that reality has, and sure enough, those details kind of appear. When you say to yourself, what does it sound like when a hippogriff lands on your lawn? What sort of sounds does it make? You think about it, and you think, oh, right, that’s what it sounds like, and you do your best to describe it. The details kind of come when you ask for them.

DN: So does it strictly come from your internal imagination, or do you use the external environment? Do you walk the streets of New York? Go to an amusement park? Go someplace where you have a connection, an ah-ha moment, where you say to yourself, I can use that in my work.

LG: I wish I could come up with a specific example because I know what you’re talking about. It’s not something I go out and look for, but every once in a while, you’re walking down the street and you see something real and you think, oh, that’s it, I can use that. I am seeing a little aspect of this unreal thing that I’m trying to describe and, you know, maybe it’s, I don’t know, I’m struggling to think of a good example, but you see a texter, or you hear a sound, or you smell something, and you think, right, I’m going to take that and match that up with this thing that isn’t real, and it’ll feel more real.

DN: What advice can you offer to emerging writers who strive to publish in today’s marketplace? 

LG: It’s a challenging one. Well, it’s both more and less challenging than the one I entered. And God knows it took me long enough to get published myself, so I’m familiar with the struggle. The first step for me in getting published was getting an agent. And that solves about 70 percent of your problems. The skill of writing and the skill of getting published are not always united in the same person. It’s very good to be able to find somebody on your behalf. If you’re trying to get yourself published, it’s like trying to defend yourself in court. Never a good idea if you could avoid it. You are somebody who could do it, and knows what you’re doing. Yeah, that’s probably the first thing I’d do, because it’s very hard to find an agent. But if you could do that, that’s sort of your first option. Of course, there are a lot of other options to getting published. I see people break out, having begun telling their stories as podcasts, a lot of self-published authors are breaking out these days and selling a lot of copies, so, of course, that’s very increasingly a viable channel. And then, it poses different problems. It’s easy to self-publish. It’s hard to get your work discovered in the marketplace of self-published work. So it creates a different problem for you. The last thing I’d say is, you look at people who write the kind of work that you feel you’re writing, and you look and see who’s publishing them, who’s representing them, what editors buy that kind of work, what publishers put it out. You look at someone else, see how they did it, and see who’s mining the same veins you are.

DN: When I fly on airplanes, I often peruse the aisles and calculate how many passengers read paper books versus e-books. Do you have any personal preferences in terms of how you like to read? Any thoughts on reading hard copy versus e-reader?

LG: I’m about as reactionary as they come. I don’t read e-books. I don’t read things on screen. It’s not the same experience as reading things on paper.

DN: Why not? Why isn’t it the same experience for you?

LG: That’s a good question. It’s a hard thing to put into words. Partly, I am fond of typography. And good typography basically doesn’t exist in the world of e-readers. When you’re reading a paper book, each page has been laid out specifically in that way by a typographer who knew what they were doing. I find that the rhythm of turning pages is part of it for me. The sense of solidity. I don’t like the fact that words on a screen disappear when you turn off the device or throw away the file. I like the fact that when I close a book those words still exist, and I can put it on my shelf and have a kind of visual reference: here’s this thing that I read. I like the fact that I can look around my study and see all these books that I’ve read. I think it’s a different experience from opening up a Kindle and looking at the menu of books that are there. I’ll be able to pass these books to my children. It’s just incredibly important to me. I’ve already started doing that. My library is migrating upstairs into my oldest daughter’s library. These are things that paper books do for me that e-readers don’t. That said, you know, people buy my books as e-books, and I take the money, so obviously they have a great deal of value. But they don’t have the same kind of value to me as paper books.

DN: What techniques do you employ to drop readers into the fictive dream?

LG: It’s a good way of putting it because that is the goal. It’s my goal. I think of it as trying to remove barriers, remove barriers to entry. I get rid of anything that will stop the reader from sliding down into this imaginative world that you’re trying to create for them. So I tend to think of it in negative terms, what’s not there. Pacing is very important to me, especially at the beginning of the book. I don’t mess around. I try to get things going as soon as possible, and am very economical. Humor is very important. Vocabulary. I don’t set about beating people over the heads with long words until twenty or thirty pages in where hopefully they’re already stuck. Making characters likable. If you can show a character who suffers misfortune in a stoic way early on, I feel as though the reader is very rapidly on their side. I didn’t do that in The Magicians, but it’s a trick I’ve learned since then. It’s terribly important, though. There are some sentences that you cannot quantify, there’s something unexplained about them that the reader wants to solve. You know those sentences when you see them, but it’s tough to reverse engineer them. The openings, I rewrite the openings a hundred times. It’s the most important.

If you look at the opening of The Magician King, you’ll see that the opening paragraph is, sentence-for-sentence, lifted almost entirely from the greatest opening passage that I could think of which is the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. If you were to compare those two paragraphs, I literally typed out the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, I wanted to do something similar. And I never came up with anything better. The Chandler paragraph ends, “I was everything a private detective should be. I was calling on a million dollars.” And it became, “He was everything the king of Fillory should be. He was hunting a magic rabbit.” I’ve employed the cheapest tricks imaginable.

DN: Most successful writers develop a toolbox of craft techniques to help them write. Do you have any specific tools that help you?

LG: Yeah, I suppose I must. I outline a lot. I am a big believer in outlining. I’m not a big believer in sticking to your outline, but having an outline in place when you begin writing, I find, is invaluable in helping you to face the void. It doesn’t seem quite so empty when you have an idea, which may be a delusional one, but at least you have an idea of where you’re going. Some days, what I’m writing seems so terrible to me that I’ll just decide, I’m not even going to revise what I am writing, I’m going to write the most terrible thing I can imagine, I’m just going to write the stupidest thing I can think of next and just go with that, and I’ll fix it later, but just getting my fingers moving, getting the words on the page, even if they’re terrible, might lead to something good. I spend a lot of time trying to find ways to come at my writing as if I were seeing it for the first time. I use software called Scrivener. I don’t know if you know of it?

DN: I’ve heard of it.

LG: I resisted it for many years because of the complicated learning curve, but it’s software created for novelists with the idea of writing long narratives. It’s optimized for that. And when I used it, I realized that Microsoft is a tool for writing business letters, and I was using the wrong tool this whole time. Scrivener, it’s pretty useful, and I recommend it to everybody.

DN: Have you ever considered using software like Dragon, to record your voice and have it type for you?

LG: I’ve never tried it. As you may have noticed, when I speak I hesitate a lot. I’m a much more fluent communicator when I am writing. I think writing would become even harder for me if I had to say it aloud. At this point, I function better with the keyboard than I do with my actual mouth. Likewise, writing things longhand, I know lots of people who write first drafts that way. I can’t do it.

DN: At what point in your writing process do you know how a story will end?

LG: I know before I start. If I am considering writing something, I’ll never start a story or a novel unless I know how it’s going to end. That’s the most important and maybe the only requirement. I have to write towards a goal, otherwise, I can’t improvise one. I have to know from the start.

DN: Do you believe it’s important to teach what you know? If so, how so?

LG: I only teach once or twice a year. It’s funny. Both of my parents are teachers, but I don’t teach very much. How would you teach what you don’t know?

DN: I meant the importance of passing your knowledge on to other people.

LG: I don’t have much experience at being a writing student. I didn’t go to an MFA program, but not for the lack of trying. I didn’t get in to any of them when I applied. The idea of teaching writing is still one that I am learning to understand and trying to figure out what aspects of it can be taught. I don’t actually believe that you can teach somebody to write. Everybody has to teach themselves to write. But it’s possible that you can teach people to teach themselves how to write. I think that might be teachable.

DN: When you’re writing, do words come easily to you, or do you struggle with wordsmithing? Are you in the trenches constructing sentences and they’re just a blur, not making sense, or do words come naturally to you?

LG: On the level of sentences, on the level of putting words together and putting them on a page, that stuff flows quite easily for me. I don’t meet a lot of resistance. And that partly comes from being a professional journalist and literally doing this day in, day out. And sometimes it’s nonfiction and sometimes it’s fiction, but at this point, matching words to ideas and words to things isn’t where the challenge is. The challenge lies elsewhere. It lies in knowing the characters, accessing the deep feelings, and knowing what this sort of compelling vision is. That’s the hard stuff for me. And that is as hard today as when I started out. But actual composition is not the hardest part for me.

DN: Are you a fan of “how-to” craft books on the topic of creative writing?

LG: I don’t know. I’ve never looked at one. I’ve often thought that I probably should, and I never have. I don’t even know what the good ones are, but I should look at them because I am very much of believer in learning that way. And I’m sure I have stuff to learn from them.

DN: The craft books I’ve read discuss the importance of the narrative, finding a balance between characters, dialog, description, how to develop themes and motifs. Some of that must come naturally to you. Or is it a skill you’ve acquired through trial and error?

LG: I wasn’t born with any writing talent whatsoever. When I was in high school and college, I wasn’t a particularly distinguished writer, so everything I’ve learned comes from repetition. You’re reminding me, though. About six months ago, somebody sent me a link to a short article by Chuck Palahniuk, the guy who wrote Fight Club. He wrote this short essay, which was basically, I have one writing tip for you and it’s going to make you a 20% better writer. I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right. So, I should probably read more stuff like that.

I’ve always had a problem of convincing fantasy readers to read this thing that’s probably a little more literary than they’re used to, and convincing the literary readers to read something that’s kind of in a genre that they wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m always fighting that battle on two fronts.

DN: What big obstacles did you encounter with respect to creative writing? Did you overcome them? Or do they still gnaw at you?

LG: Some I learned to avoid after a while. I have no particular gift for short stories. You tend to start out writing short stories, and one thing I had to overcome was I don’t have a good feel for them as a writer or a reader. And I spent years trying to write short stories. I only started finding my voice when I switched to trying to write a novel. That was a big challenge for me. What else, other than lack of self-esteem and all that other stuff. My parents are both writers. It took me a long time to find the confidence to forge my own voice because I felt so overshadowed by theirs. I never really found my voice as a writer until I started writing fantasy. But I write fantasy in a more literary way than most fantasy writers do. And so I’ve always had a problem of convincing fantasy readers to read this thing that’s probably a little more literary than they’re used to, and convincing the literary readers to read something that’s kind of in a genre that they wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m always fighting that battle on two fronts.

DN: The Magician’s Land is the third book of a trilogy set for release in August 2014. Do you feel exuberant or relieved?

LG: [Laughs] I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. I would definitely say two of the things I feel are exuberance and relief. It’s good to feel you’re on the downslope, feeling a certain kind of heavy lifting is done. Relief? Yeah, I feel a lot of relief these days. Writing novels is one of these things where gratification is very much delayed. You get up, you write a bit of your novel, and no one is applauding you or congratulating you. It takes two or three years usually before anybody says, “Hey that was pretty good that thing you did.” Sometimes it’s hard to keep going. So it’s wonderful to finish something and have people read it and react to it, because I haven’t done that since 2011, and I missed it, a lot.

DN: What does keep you going?

LG: It’s easier now than it used to be. With The Magicians, after it came out people wanted the next one, and I thought, oh, great, people actually want this. I don’t know what kept me going. Codex took six years. The Magicians took five years. It was nothing healthy. It was compulsion. It was an appetite for total neglect. It was hard to keep going. That was the hardest part about it. People often ask me, “Oh, when you were writing The Magicians had you already planned out a whole trilogy?” I didn’t even think The Magicians would be published, so I never bothered to plan out any books after that. I would sit down to write and think, you idiot, why are you spending years of your life doing this when it probably won’t be published? Keeping going was very hard. I’m proud of anybody who keeps going and finishes a novel. Whether or not it gets publishedthat was a hard thing they did.

DN: True. Are you sure The Magician’s Land is the third book, or will there be a fourth one? What would they call that, a quadroset? I don’t even know the term for a fourth.

LG: Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s like when Douglas Adams ended up writing six books in his Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy. He just kept calling it a trilogy. He would say here’s the fifth book in the trilogy. I don’t expect another Magician’s book to happen ever. I feel I got out everything I had to say that I could say in that way. Although, I think of Ursula Le Guin who wrote the Earthsea trilogy, which was a big influence on me, and then twenty years later, she went back and wrote a fourth book. And I feel like if Ursula Le Guin does it, then it’s okay: I can do it, too. So perhaps we’ll have this conversation again in 2034. And we’ll have the fourth book in the trilogy.

David A. Napier

Photo: Tom Dochstader

David A. Napier is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles. He is a former senior executive with an international consulting firm in San Francisco. He currently resides in San Diego, California and serves the needs of the community as a holistic health practitioner while completing his first novel. Napier is a contributing writer for Annotation Nation. He owns the front-half of a black Labrador Retriever named Tucker.

Cosme Cordova, Artist and Community Arts Organizer

Cosme Cordova

Photo: Kiandra Jimenez

Cosme Cordova was born in San Pedro de la Cueva in Sonora, Mexico, and brought to Riverside, California at five years old, where he still resides. Cordova is the owner of Division 9 Gallery (Riverside, California). In 2002 he co-founded Riverside’s Arts Walk along with Mark Schooley (Riverside Community Arts Association), which has run monthly art shows in Downtown Riverside since its inception.

His artwork has been exhibited throughout California, Arizona, and Mexico. Some of those galleries include Galleria Rustica and Bunny Gunner Gallery in Pomoma, CA; Dennis Rogue Gallery in Palm Desert, CA; Rockrose Gallery in Los Angeles, and the Riverside Community Arts Association, Riverside Art Museum, Sweeney Art Gallery, Riverside Metropolitan Museum, and others in Riverside, CA. Cordova has also curated many art shows and hosted citywide art events such as the annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Celebration, which attracts thousands of people, and Artnival, an art themed carnival produced by Cordova and local artists.

Cordova has been honored as the City of Riverside’s Artist of Month.

Lunch Ticket’s Art Editor Kiandra Jimenez interviewed Cordova at Division 9 Gallery in April, 2014.

Kiandra Jimenez: You are an artist who is deeply involved in the arts community in your town of Riverside, CA. You founded the Riverside Art Walk, and you run a gallery, Division 9 Gallery (D9G). What motivated you to spend all that effort on behalf of your community, versus having a solo studio practice and focusing strictly on your own creative work?

Cosme Cordova: In the beginning I didn’t really think about it too much, I just went ahead and did it. I was showing in different places: Pomona, Los Angeles, Palm Desert. I found myself traveling far and wondering why the same type of galleries or venues didn’t exist in Riverside for our artists. When I first started there was Back to the Grind [a local coffee house], and I would show there, but Riverside didn’t really have many galleries or other institutions that embraced local artists. So, I said let’s figure out a way that we can create a Riverside arts community.

Coming from a low-income community I only lived three miles from downtown, but I never came to downtown. I was in my little neighborhood, the group of people that I hung out with and was raised with. But when I started attending Riverside Community College (RCC) I was introduced to downtown. When I eventually did make it to the institutions that did showcase artists, I didn’t feel really welcomed. I didn’t feel a warm feeling. That is another reason why I decided to do something for myself—to represent the people I was raised with, and present different cultural images from artists that had different points of view about life.

Now that I’m older I look back; I was 30 then, now I am 42. I felt there was nothing for me and I wanted to do something for myself. I was angry, so I used that anger as a vehicle to open doors for myself. When I was younger I would be upset that there weren’t venues, but as I got older I realized that was my vehicle, my tool to open my own doors and create my own venues, and share my own imagery. I wanted to make sure that it didn’t matter how poor, how rich, how educated or uneducated you were as an artist. The artwork had to be unique, your own image, not a representation of other artists who are well known.

Division 9 Gallery in Riverside, CA

Division 9 Gallery in Riverside, CA

Artists come in and show me their portfolios and they look like Dalí’s, Picasso’s, or Pollock’s artwork. That’s fine, but I want to make sure that I represent artwork that represents them and you can see their own identity on the paper or canvas.

KJ: Do you have some advice/jewels of wisdom for those of us who want to devote some aspect of our creative careers to service? How do you balance your creative work with your involvement with community?

CC: We all have something that makes us tick; we all have something that makes us go forward. When we wake up we look forward to doing that one thing. Whatever that one thing is, you need to invest your time in doing it. What I mean is you have to be dedicated to something you love.

Unfortunately, nowadays we all need to have a job, but there are plenty of jobs in the art world, you just have to find something that coincides with your world.

KJ: So how do you balance your creative work with your involvement with the community, your gallery work? Would you see yourself as the artist with his brushes in the trunk, who’s driving and putting all his focus in his community and gallery work, or do you take time to pull over and paint every few miles?

I’ve been trying to get myself more organized so I have more time to create. I feel like I’m a slingshot. My energy to create pushes the rock back, I’m always stretching it as far as I can. It’s stretching, stretching, but while I’m doing that I’m actually creating ideas or concepts in my head; I’m constantly thinking of ideas I want to create. Eventually, I have free time and I create twenty, thirty images.

I think I’m blessed because I’m doing things that I love to do. I put events together, I organize events, I do my artwork, I do graphic arts for people, from business cards to logos to brochures. I get to install artwork. I get to meet people.

Cosme Cordova, Prolific Dormant I, 2012. Mixed media (drypoint etching, monotype), 16. 5 x 10.5 in.

Prolific Dormant I, 2012

KJ: Let’s switch focus and discuss your own art practice. Describe your work and the ideas behind it—specifically what are you trying to communicate?

CC: The basis of my work all comes down to where I was born. I was born in Mexico and brought at the age of five to the United States. So, my perspective on United States and Mexico is interesting because it is not a normal point of view. My parents came from a very poor town. When we left, I believe there was only one TV and one telephone in a town of two thousand. Dirt floors, we were born on dirt floors to give you an idea.

So coming from a very poor background and coming to United States is like the experience of normal people here going to Disneyland. I always tell people, United States is like Disneyland. The streets are clean, the grass is clean, there is violence, but it isn’t as violent as other places, things do change if enough people get behind something, whereas in Mexico and other countries they don’t. You almost have to have a revolution for things to change.

So my artwork is always based on that perspective of making sure I don’t forget where I come from and the world that I live in, which is the United States, is Disneyland.

Cosme Cordova, Prolific Dormant II, 2012. Mixed Media (Drypoint etching, monotype), 18 x 12.5 in.

Prolific Dormant II, 2012.

The recent work I did was pronto plates, etchings, and monotype, a combination of the three. It all started because I had an old iMac that I had for five years and it broke down. I felt like I couldn’t throw it away. So what I decided to do was take it apart. And once I took it apart I found all the pieces interesting and I wanted to create jewelry or something with it. Long story short, I came across this story of China or Japan, where there were three hundred employees that were on top of a roof, they were going to commit suicide because they were not treated right in their work area. I forgot for what computer company, but when I opened up the Mac I was like ‘wow, this is intriguing, this is a lot of work put into one computer.’ So I wanted to exhibit artwork that represented and showcased those workers.

I ran some of the motherboard through the press, and inked it. And I did some etchings. I used flies, rats, roaches in the imagery, my interpretation of them, because that is how these people were treated as humans.

I did this painting of a big old chunk of steak in the shape of the United States. I wanted to showcase that we are the meat and potatoes of the world. People come from afar with nothing in their pockets, don’t know the language when they get here, all to get a piece of the steak. It’s a huge painting, and I hung it on barbed wire. Barbed wire represents to me you have to cross the border, you have to cross the lines. It’s forbidden to come over here. But if you get pass the barbed wire…

KJ: You get steak?

Cosme Cordova, We Are United, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 46 x 3.75 in.

We Are United, 2006

CC: [Laughs.] Yeah, you get steak.

KJ: What about the one that features the boot?

CC: The boot is in the shape of Mexico and also hung from barbed wire. The barbed wire represents people who had to cross the border. The boot comes from a story my father told me about when he came over illegally. There were several times where he was hired to come over to pick fruits and vegetables. There were times when the United States would actually go and get Mexicans to work here with papers. But, there were other times when my father had to cross the border illegally. He’d have to pay a coyote, which is the person you pay to cross you over. My dad told me he’d put his money in his boot, because you never trusted the guy who was going to get you across. Or, if you were chased or robbed, the last thing they would take is your boots. I mean, if they take your boots they’ve taken everything. [Laughs.]

Cosme Cordova, Crossing Borders, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 36.5 x 33 x 3.75 in.

Crossing Borders, 2006

So I wanted to create imagery of my dad’s story. Also, you’ll see the United States tree way in the distance.

KJ: You work a lot with the shape of the United States, borders, and birds in your work. What significance does these themes have for you, and how has that significance expanded through your career. Have you always used these symbols?

CC: The United States symbols came later in my career. But I embraced the bird more as a symbol of freedom, flight. To be able to go to Mexico and come back to United States freely—I wish the world was like that, where we didn’t have any borders and we could go from one place to another.

Birds symbolize a spirit of freedom. They’ve come into my life, not just my artwork, often. I have interesting stories of crows. I’ve walked everywhere till I was 25. I never had vehicles, my parents didn’t have vehicles, and so I’ve always walked or taken the bus. So the majority of times when I was walking by myself and thinking about things somehow a crow would appear, so I always felt a connection with them. I don’t know if it’s because I am intrigued with them, but I always seen them do interesting things. Their knowledge fascinates me.

KJ: How long have you been an artist? What/who inspired you and what continues to inspire you?

CC: The inspiration for being an artist was my grandmother. She did a lot of pottery and weavings with palm fronds. She would create flowers, crosses, tortilla holders, mats, intricate designs. She was even asked to weave one for a famous Catholic Church in Mexico City because word had spread of her work. There was a TV channel that interviewed people from different towns, well, they came to our town and interviewed her. That was an inspiration for me.

KJ: Now what town do your people come from?

CC: San Pedro de la Cueva [San Pedro of the Cave] in the state of Sonora.

KJ: You’ve been very forthcoming about your battle with dyslexia. You don’t have to disclose it, but you chose to, why?

CC: I just think it’s important because a lot of people don’t. It’s been embraced more now, but when I was younger it wasn’t. I didn’t realize I was dyslexic until I got to college. I believe many teachers thought because I spoke Spanish I was trying to translate and so things got confused. So I was in Special Ed classes through high school, which allowed me to be more creative. [Laughs.]

About a week into college my professor told me to go see a counselor to see if I had a learning disability. I had to take a test and sure enough I was dyslexic. My whole world changed, which sucked because I had to restart the whole engine. I had to relearn English, relearn reading, math.

I really tried hard. I had friends who had other people write their stuff, but I really wanted to do it on my own. It was very frustrating and stressful. I still remember the day I was riding down the highway and I just saw it all as a boxing match—me fighting with dyslexia against what you consider an average normal person going to college and getting their degree. And so I was fighting myself, questioning if I should continue. My counselor would tell me, “you’ll get there, it’s just going to take you eight years.”

But that’s what dyslexia is and I was never afraid of telling people about my fight: showing people that you can get things done with dyslexia. I traded a lot of artwork for people to help me write. Or I helped other people in my creative work by doing graphics, logos and in exchange they would read something for me, write something for me, respond to an email for me.

Dyslexia is not a disability; it’s actually a gift. Dyslexics think differently. The normal brain, the normal institution makes you believe that two plus two equals four. But my brain makes me believe that I can add one plus one, plus one, plus one to get four.

KJ: Do you feel like the life of an artist includes sacrifices or compromises non-artist does not have to make? If so, what’s the trade-off?

CC: I sort of wish I was not an artist sometimes. [Laughs.] Its not like I chose it, people say, “well you can stop being an artist.” No, you can’t.

It’s like you look at something on a table and you see something different. Someone throws something away and you think, “I can make something out of that.” You look at your garden, everybody plants their roses in a single file line, and you say, “I want to get a yellow one, blue one, and make a face out of them.”

Being normal as in you wake up, take a shower, go to work, have lunch with your buddies in the office, come back home, have dinner, watch TV, weekends free, benefits, dental, health, vacations, save money for retirement. I don’t have those things, but I feel like I’m retired dealing with no retirement money. [Laughs.]

Yeah, there are trade-offs. They should put that in the dictionary. Artist means to struggle. It shouldn’t be, a creative person who likes to work with different mediums. No, you’re struggling. [Laughs.]

KJ: Thank you, Cosme; it was a pleasure.

CC: You’re welcome, and thank you.

Kiandra JimenezKiandra Jimenez is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. A writer and artist, Kiandra lives in Moreno Valley, CA, where she homeschools her children and writes poems from her organic vegetable garden. Her work is forthcoming in the anthology Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus.

Elizabeth Earley, Author

Elizabeth EarleyElizabeth Earley holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The First Line Magazine, Fugue, Hair Trigger, and Glimmer Train, among other publications. Elizabeth is the recipient of the David Friedman Memorial Prize for Fiction, has twice been a finalist for the AWP New Journals Award, has received two pushcart nominations, and was a finalist for the 2011 Bakeless Literary Prize for Fiction. She is the editor of Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. Her debut novel, A Map of Everything, was published in March, 2014.

Lunch Ticket’s contributing editor Ashley Perez talked to Elizabeth via email in March, 2014 about her debut novel, the publishing industry, and the writing process.

 

Ashley Perez: How has the journey been for your first novel? From writing to publication?

Elizabeth Earley: Long. There was a long period of time between beginning this novel and finishing it when I tried to write other books. From start to finish, it might have been about four years. After my agent, Malaga Baldi, sold the novel to Jaded Ibis Press, it was about a year before it was published. Since publication, it’s been a whirlwind with a debut at AWP and a 6-city book tour. All of the events have been a lot of fun. People showed up, old family and friends I hadn’t seen in many years, so it was both a book tour and a reunion tour. The tour began at the beginning of March, which coincided with National Brain Injury Awareness Month. This was a perfect synchronicity, as all of the author royalties I make from the sales of this novel will be donated to people with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

AP: In A Map of Everything, each chapter/section is indicated with an element of the periodic table. In Rob Roberge’s blurb he calls it, “the most structurally inventive and emotional remarkable books.” Was it organic during the writing process or something that came about in revision?

EE: I didn’t think about structure while I was writing. I just powered through. Later, when I had all of the raw material, I went back through to break it up and arrange it in a meaningful way. It was when I read back through and edited and plotted out the arrangement that it occurred to me to make the periodic table the frame. It was just such an obvious and perfect fit because Andy (a character in the novel) says that whatever god is, it can’t be articulated, but it can be approximated by calling it everything, the organizing principle of everything, and the intelligence that presides over that organization. The periodic table is a human-made chart that represents everything that exists. It’s an attempt to break everything down into its base elements and organize those, which is kind of a joke. Human intelligence can be so arrogant! There’s so much it doesn’t account for. There are so many gaps between what we’re given as scientific explanations for the world and what we actually experience, what we actually live through. This story traverses those gaps, exposes those questions, and pulls the reader into them. It doesn’t offer answers, but it offers hope. And reverence. Reverence for the questions and the patterns and the raw experiences.

AP: You also have shifting points of view that provides a wonderful experience for the reader that allow them to experience the different characters. How did that come about?

EE: That was a function of a class I took in graduate school called Prose Forms. In it, we were encouraged to experiment with different prose forms including letter, parable, first person, and “how to” or second person as a way of getting at the nerve of truth. I found it incredibly effective for this material in particular. Different prose forms offer unique ways to access and experience universal truths through story. For example in this novel, the second person, used when the protagonist has lost control, distances the narrator from the pain of the experience and offers insight and direction while allowing a more intimate involvement of the reader. The overall effect is a darkly humorous, fast-paced voice that teases out important absurdities and nuance in the action.

AP: A Map of Everything is a duel narrative of A. The narrator growing up, dealing with relationship and addiction issues and B. How her sister’s accident and subsequent brain injury affects the entire family over a two decade timeline. The narratives were intertwined so beautifully that I wonder did you ever consider telling them separately? Or could one not exist without the other?

EE: I never considered telling them separately, no. They certainly could not exist, at least not in the way they now exist, independent of one another. They are, by nature, intertwined. One of the major concepts of the novel, inherent in the story as well as the structure and the way it’s told, is that everything is interconnected, intertwined—events, relationships, people, and even time.

AP: In your essay “Is This a Fiction Novel?” (published on the Jaded Ibis literary blog, BLEED), you call A Map of Everything an autobiographical novel. You also mention being very protective of your family. What was it that made fiction a safer venue for you to explore this narrative?

I don’t think it was safer. It’s never safe to write about one’s family and one’s truth.

EE: I don’t think it was safer. It’s never safe to write about one’s family and one’s truth. And the decision to write a novel wasn’t inspired by a desire to protect my family. Rather, it was inspired by my love of fiction and the form of the novel. I’ve long admired writers who’ve pushed the form, evolving it into something better and more intricate. My goal was to push the form even further. I wanted the novel to be suggested by facts, by my own real experiences, but not bound to them. Still, when we write what we know and what we’ve lived through, the voice is so authentic that people inevitably take it as literal truth. For example, my publisher actually thought that at one point. She was ready to position the book as a memoir, and this was after I signed the contract. I told her that, although inspired by real events, the book is fiction. She was particularly disappointed to learn that my mom in real life didn’t give birth to twins on her bathroom floor.

AP: How was the experience for you at AWP this year as a debut novelist? You did a reading and a signing, right?

EE: It was a whirlwind! There were more people there than I can fathom, and at the signing event I did received huge support. My books sold out from the table by the end of the hour. And, I got to see and hug and talk to so many people I’ve either only ever met online or hadn’t seen in years.

AP: This is your first book tour. What has been one of the most memorable moments for you?

EE: In Phoenix, a woman came to the event with a copy of my book looking worn and well-read. There were many paper clipped pages and the edges of yellow sticky notes poked out from everywhere. She told me that she worked with families of traumatic brain injury survivors, had heard about my book, and got an advanced copy. She said it was the best profile of the spiritual, psychological, physical, and relational effects of TBI that she had ever come across and that she was recommending it to every family she worked with. I was very moved and honored. I felt an acute sense, for the first time, that this book is much bigger than I am and will reach much farther than I ever could.

AP: You recently did an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the book’s publicity with proceeds of the book going towards the Brain Injury Association of America. How have people responded to that?

EE: Just to clarify, I am going to be donating 100% of the author royalties that I earn from sales of the book to charity as well as directly to people I know and love with TBI. People have responded warmly to the idea.

AP: Why did you pick that particular charity?

EE: BIAA is a charity that benefits people with brain injuries, but I’m open to considering other charities that specifically benefit people with traumatic brain injuries, especially children.

AP: Can you tell us about your writing process? What does a day of writing look like for you?

EE: When I’m working on a book, I typically give myself a daily word count to meet that feels realistic. This could be anywhere from 500 to 2,500 words per day. The discipline of the daily word count helps me to produce material, whether usable or not. At times, I’ve held myself accountable to another writer or group of writers for meeting daily or weekly word counts. And I never have a specific time set aside for writing. Instead, I steal whatever time throughout the day that I feel particularly inspired or that just turn up as available. Riding on the train, waiting for a friend at a coffee shop, my lunch break, anything.

AP: What are you working on now?

EE: I’m not exactly sure. I started working on a memoir then stopped. Now, I’m thinking about working on that same memoir again. Or, another novel suggested by facts. Or, a nonfiction book about public bathrooms. I’m up to my knees in that stuck-in-between place, but I think (I hope) the wet cement is starting to recede.

AP: You mentioned being at the stuck-in-between phase right now in terms of writing projects. After being focused for so long on one project, what do you feel is the most important thing about moving on to another project?

EE: Just to clarify, I wrote two complete novels since finishing Map. My agent is now pitching the most recent of those. So it hasn’t been a matter of focusing on this one project, A Map of Everything—I’ve always been good at immediately moving on to a new project once finishing a draft of a previous one. This time though, after finishing my last novel, I became pregnant. I wasn’t prepared for the way that being pregnant, especially in the first trimester, would cripple my concentration and creativity. The stuckness has mostly been about that. But now I am getting into the initial research part of a new novel, which is one of my favorite parts.

AP: Any advice for new writers?

EE: Write a lot, read a lot, make friends with other writers, make professional connections, and ask people for help. Then, when you’ve eventually achieved some success, be generous in helping other writers.

AP: Thank you!

Ashley PerezAshley Perez lives and writes in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Ashley’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Weekenders Magazine, BLEED, Drunk Monkeys, The Weeklings, and the anthology First Time: an Anthology about Lost Virginity.

Douglas Kearney, Poet

Douglas Kearney

Photo: Eric Plattner

Douglas Kearney is a poet, performer, and librettist from Altadena, California. Kearney has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger Award, and fellowships at Cave Canem, Idyllwild, and others. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Poetry, nocturnes, Pleiades, Callaloo, Fence, LA Review of Books, The Iowa Review, and The Ninth Letter. His produced operas include Sucktion, Mordake, and Crescent City. He lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. Kearney teaches at CalArts, where he received his MFA in Writing.

Kearney’s first full-length collection of poems, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press. The Black Automaton was published in 2008 by Fence Books, which was a PEN Center USA Award finalist in 2010 and Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. His chapbook-as-broadsides-as-LP Quantum Spit was released by Corollary Press in 2010. His chapbook SkinMag was published in 2012 by A5/Deadly Chaps. His most recent poetry book, Patter, was released March 2014 by Red Hen Press.

Candace Butler spoke with Douglas Kearney via telephone.

Candace Butler: Your new book Patter is an emotional outpouring: at times crude and witty but overall real, emotional, and serious. How long did it take you to write and assemble the 46 poems in Patter?

Douglas Kearney: Well, the vast majority of that book was written between 2010 and January of this year. There were a couple of poems that existed as far back as 2008. For example, the “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” poem—I think the first draft of that would be from 2007 or 2008. “The Pool, 1988” is the oldest in the book, but the bulk of those poems were written between 2010 and now. So they are really highly concentrated in that they’re grappling with the process of becoming a parent and responding to my wife’s pregnancy, which was basically from summer of 2009 to March 2010. Our twins were born in March 2010, so the bulk of the book has been the last four years.

CB: Patter has a unique blend of wordplay, structure, and creativity. Two of my favorite poems are “Sonnet Done Red” where words overlap without becoming obscure and “The Miscarriage: A Poetic Form” where one word carries the weight of the entire poem. Then, “Word Hunt” is not like any poem I’ve read before. Could you explain your inspiration for “Word Hunt”? What do you hope readers will find in this poem?

DK: What I hope people will find in the book as a whole—are you saying the book as a whole or specific, individual poems?

CB: I said the poems, but you can speak to both.

DK: I’ll go with the particular poems that you mentioned, “Sonnet Done Red” and “A Poetic Form.” “Sonnet Done Red” is trying to make it’s way through two questions at once—that you point out beautifully. One is the nature of poetic composition. How does poetic form order thinking? So “Sonnet Done Red” means to visualize the Elizabethan sonnet’s approach toward reckoning questions of and arguments essentially about, in this case, love. For me, the conundrum that warrants that is, “I love your body. I hate it.” As it travels through the rest of the book, it becomes a question around how does a male, or let’s say the person who isn’t carrying the child, cope with fertility issues and miscarriage in light of a physical trauma experienced by the child-bearer. How do I talk about the love that I have for, in this case, my wife as a person who isn’t there just to make children with? How do I deal with that question when we are trying to have children, when there is a miscarriage, or when there are other reproductive blocks?

For me, a big challenge of the book was how to write about my wife’s body without either turning it into this mythological mysterious space where the woman’s body is unfathomable or this site of failure. Both of which are problematic ways men have written about the female body as this Other state that is mysterious, beautiful, and horrible. I wanted to document attempts at that. Even if those attempts fail, I wanted the reader to be aware that the initial question—I wanted to document those failures. The “Done Red” poems all document a kind of attempt to write around that process and write to that process. With “Miscarriage: A Poetic Form”—to go back to what I was saying earlier—this kind of collision between this refined, rhetorical poetic structure of certain formal approaches to writing are difficult, raw, and emotional. Initially, I had written down the poetic form, and I was going to write a poem that would fit that poetic form—several internal rhymes, perfect rhymes, slant rhymes, then a broken internal rhyme; though if you look at some literary guides, it’s impossible to write a broken internal rhyme because a broken rhyme happens at the end of the poetic line. The final rhyme is actually impossible. It’s not viable—to use a term that would apply both to matters of pregnancy and composition. So within that poem, it’s really just about how to write about something that is so difficult to articulate. What happens when all we have left is the form of what was supposed to exist?

CB: You make bold typographic and form choices, your language can be dense or brash. Your strong emotional content can, and does, evoke a strong response from readers. “Blues Done Red” is even a flowchart. Because your poetry is so edgy and different from other American poets, do you ever fear that your work will be perceived as having an element of shock value?

DK: That’s always a possible risk. My only real response to that is I feel like I’ve done the work to move beyond that. If someone does not wish to engage the work, then ultimately there’s nothing I can do about that. And I’m aware of that—that some people may not ever engage the work. They find it shocking. They’re not interested. They don’t like the cover of the book. Any number of reasons. I feel there are so many things to keep a person from reading a poem that for me—and I use this term a lot—the “contract” that I have between the reader and myself is that if I make a decision to typographically set a poem a certain way, you know, that is a compositional decision that I make.

Sometimes we choose a word for its sound or another word that might essentially be the same thing but might not be as raw—we choose this other word. For me, for example, if we’re talking about “Kronos: Father of the Year,” which uses the word cunt—that isn’t necessarily a word for an erotic poem. It’s a word you might not want to use in conversation, but Kronos is an entity who ate his children for fear that they would supplant him. This is not a person who thinks much of bodies that are not his own, so why would he be gentle? There’s a level of contempt he has for other bodies. He converts his children, essentially, into shit. He feels that they are shit. Or that they will haunt him later. This isn’t a character who would speak in a lovely way. It would be off-key. It wouldn’t make sense to have him blush at the c-bomb. And, ostensibly, we could all agree that saying a mean thing about somebody is preferable to eating them. (laughs) I don’t think that he’d be like, “Oh, but I can’t say that.”

So, maybe there are people who will be shocked. There are people who will feel like that’s all I’m doing, just trying to shock, and to them I would say read more closely because there is more to it than that. And that’s my job—to make sure there’s more to it than that. If they read it closely, and they still decide, you know, “I still don’t think there’s much to it,” then both of us have done all that we can do if we’re being honest at that point. But the “Fathers of the Year” poems—they’re not about nice people. If they are possibly nice people, they’re appearing in this work in a moment where we are being very skeptical of what it is they’ve done.

I think that cultural literacy is very important….I’m very suspicious of terms like tolerant and sensitive because I think both of those things displace responsibility.

CB: Can you discuss your vision of the audience for your poetry? To whom do you hope to speak?

DK: I was asked this question a couple weeks ago. I think that—and this is to me an honest answer—anybody who wants to listen or wants to read closely. And when I say read closely, I don’t mean it to sound so self-important or patronizing. When I say read closely, I don’t mean pore over it like every line I drop contains a universe of wisdom, and you are there simply to receive it and be edified by it. I guess I just mean somebody who is willing to go along for the ride and be alert to what’s happening in the poem. If I did not feel that the poems were worth considering—if I didn’t feel like there would be something that would amount to something pleasurable, that would amount to something worth your time, I wouldn’t have published the book. I am the first and harshest critic, I think, of whether a poem I’ve written gets into a book. They’re not compendiums of everything that I’ve written over a short amount of time. There are poems that don’t get in there. There are poems that I like very much that don’t get in there, but they don’t get in there either because they don’t build on anything that another poem doesn’t do better or they’re really only talking to me and a very, very, very, very small circle of people. Those kinds of poems I’m not going to publish. Facebook is for that. CC on an email is great for that. For a book, though, I want people who are willing to read closely, who are willing to have an experience that might surprise them. If you already know what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it, then there’s no point for you to read it. But I’m hopeful that somebody who reads the work is willing to be surprised by something. It’s not always a happy surprise, but I don’t think people who read poetry are always only looking for a singular, simple experience of pleasure or affirmation or, on the other end, tragedy or horror. I want people who are alert to a complicated set of emotional responses not always delivered in a way that’s complicated and difficult to follow.

CB: Your live readings engage the audience. And that’s one definition of Patter, a speech geared toward audience participation. Does the audience always react the way you hope they will?

DK: You want to know what my main hope is for an audience reaction? I want people to ask questions. Even if the question is, “wait, did he just say what I thought he said?” That’s a fine question. Hopefully the question isn’t, “why the hell did I just waste my evening being here?” I’m really interested in people having to actually think to themselves, “how am I supposed to respond to this?” Not in a defensive way. In that way where a listener thinks, “this seems to be about a really horrible thing, but the tone doesn’t seem like it was horrible; how am I supposed to understand that?”

Or from “The Miscarriage: A Minstrel Show,” for example, “why are there minstrels in this poem space?” Or “is that just there to shock?” Well, what better way to talk about the notion of shame and having to behave as if everything’s okay than the image of the minstrel? Especially if you’re talking about black subjectivity, right? It’s literally putting on a happy face that does not contain the actual, real experience. That’s the kind of question that I’m interested in. I had a poem in my last book, “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk” about the Middle Passage,and people were asking, “Should I be laughing?” That’s the kind of response I’m generally looking for: should I? I love should when people are talking about their own personal reactions because it means that they’re actually asking themselves a question. It means they’re engaging the work.

If people laugh at certain parts during a poem, I usually don’t get too revved up. Sometimes there’s a surprising work where somebody laughs or there’s a work where somebody doesn’t laugh, but the reaction I want—the only reaction I feel that you have a right to ask of an audience—is just that they listen. If people are on their cell phones texting or something, I get pissed. Other than that, the response belongs to you. I can’t say what that is. I can say of a certain poem, I felt like this is what I was communicating. But if there are ambiguities in the poem or ambiguities in the delivery or somebody missed a part of it, then you have to allow for responses you, as the writer, didn’t expect. That’s really important and that’s part of why we write.

By the same token, people are skeptical of artistic intention sometimes—and maybe in other art forms that’s there—but we’re talking about poetry, which is based on language. We use language every day to get an intended result without thinking about it. If you call me and say, Are you ready to do this interview? and I say, Yeah, I guess. If you’re ready, that would be different from, Yeah! I’m ready. We’re skilled at understanding what someone else is saying on a daily basis. If we were not, we wouldn’t be able to get shit done. So I think that while I can expect certain things from just basic communication we have going, I also recognize that poetry creates a space where we pressurize things or make them more complicated. Generally, I get the range of responses I think are likely to happen.

CB: Do you have any writing rituals?

DK: When the kids were born, I really got back into writing freehand. Before, I started writing on the computer. When I wrote The Black Automaton, a lot of that was written directly into the computer because I had more time. I had time to sit down at the computer and know I was going to be able to sit there for a couple of hours without any kind of interruption. And once we had the kids, that really changed. Just trying to sit in front of the computer made it harder because sitting down there, locking eyes with that screen, becomes a kind of disengagement with the external world for me. It’s harder. It takes longer. Whereas if I’m writing in my journal, I can scribble something down in a minute and then get up and get back to whatever I was doing. Or standing up in the kitchen, I can kind of just scribble it down and move on. I’ll be honest. If I set my laptop up at the table, and my children ask me a question—we have twins—it’s like, you just interrupted me. Clinically, it would register on a Richter Scale. It’s very different if I’m just scribbling something down. I actually feel bad in most cases writing in my laptop when I am with the kids because my patience drops. In some kind of way, the freehand allows me to describe the color of the idea if I haven’t found the right word, the right sentence. It preserves it better than when it’s all left in line in the computer. I don’t feel like I’m chasing it in quite the same way.

CB: You mentioned once that you had several unpublished manuscripts in your files. Do you ever draw from those manuscripts? Do you have any unfinished poems you look at occasionally?

DK: I allow there to be a fair amount of distance between me and those. I look at them, and one of the harsh things I have to tell myself is, are you looking at that because you’re desperate for content, or are you looking at it because you feel like you can actually pull something from it? The manuscript that has the ghost life that stays with me, in a way, from other manuscripts is the first full, chapbook-like manuscript I wrote, all based on this Romare Bearden collage called “The Dove.” I do feel like I could publish those as a book. They’re very different from the way I write now, I think. And I feel like, except for maybe two or three of those poems, they were solid. At the same time, I do wonder what it would be like to go back and look at that book now and revise those poems. If I ever wanted to do a collection that was all ekphrastic poems, I would certainly pull from them.

I do go back to other manuscripts. I do feel like there’s certain things that can inform my newer writing. A couple of those manuscripts were really project-based: I’m going to write all about x, y, z. And in those cases it’s really hard to imagine going back and really taking any of those poems. I think that whatever gymnastics I had to do in my head to write them has now become a part of a skillset that I have. And now, I can go back and maybe use some of the techniques. That, to me, is all that’s there. That, to me, is kind of like freestyling in being a rap artist. You don’t record all of your freestyles and turn them into full songs, but you turn the phrase in your head at some point. You realize that you can extend a rhyme into a song at some point. And so The Dove Sessions—that’s what the name of those poems are, I think—I do sometimes imagine I could go back and work with them. And then I pretty much pillaged all I could of Drowning the Cities for The Black Automaton. There’s still maybe 35 or 40 pages in that one that I didn’t use in The Black Automaton, which could make a short book or maybe a chapbook. But I feel like The Black Automaton improved on so many of the things that I was messing with in Drowning the Cities that to go back to that would literally be a going backward. I wouldn’t be making progress. I would be putting forth work that wasn’t as good as what I’d already published.

CB: You designed both The Black Automaton and Patter. How did you come to incorporate these images of red ants that invade Patter, which are bright red on the cover but by the end of the book are gray, flattened, and dismembered? Can you talk about your design process, from idea to execution?

DK: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so glad you used the word invade. They really are invading the book. The last poem, or series of poems, in The Black Automaton is called “The Six Cities.” The “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” [poems] were published some time ago in MiPOesias.com, but The Black Automaton ending with “The Six Cities” was in some ways a kind of artifact of the Drowning the Cities manuscript. They engage the question of infertility. So with Patter coming in sequence after that book—five years after [The Black Automaton] came out—I wanted there to be a kind of connection between the two books, so the ants are carrying the last line from The Black Automaton into Patter. When you open the book, the words are the last line of The Black Automaton. They’re bringing back that connection into the book. I always thought that if I were going to have the opportunity to design a whole book, ultimately where I would like to get is where the poems in the book would begin on the spine of the book or the cover of the book. If you’re designing an entire book, then that means you can do something that most poets who don’t design their own books or designers who don’t write poetry don’t get the opportunity to do, which is to really make the entire object of the book the poem. And in some ways, Patter is closer to that. It’s by no means the accomplishment of that notion. It’s closer, I think; it edges out into the end paper of the book, you know? It hasn’t gotten to the spine. It hasn’t fully gotten to the cover, but that’s something I think about as being a really interesting possibility.

Coming up with the section breaks for The Black Automaton, there is a logic behind all those different cities. I kind of think about those sort of dividersas themes. I think about it like an Easter egg. I wouldn’t want to publish what that is, or I wouldn’t want to say what that is. But if someone else figured it out and published it, that would be fine. So if I told you, it would be kind of off the record. But there is a logic behind that, and many poets work with images, visual things abstracted, that sort of structural constraint. For book covers as well as for those dividers in The Black Automaton, it’s like giving the image part of your brain a chance to work. Because I happen to be able to make those images, it becomes fascinating for me. You have all the representations of The Black Automaton itself, including the book cover, posters, and flyers I made—or the design of the website. I always wanted those representations to not be 100% clear about whether that great big automaton figure was dancing in a city that happens to be on fire or was violently destroying that city. With varying degrees of success, I tried to make that more ambiguous. I will say that if I had wanted it to look like the automaton was destroying the city, I would have drawn it differently. Again, a person might look at it and say, “well, it looks like it’s destroying the city to me,” but I know on my end of things that I would have made different choices if I wanted that to be the one way to read it, to see it. And the way the ants move from the cover, from that kind of invasion, from serving a purpose that seems to be working mostly for the book to being crushed at the end definitely follows a kind of a trajectory—a different narrative that’s acting in concert with the poems and the book as a whole. Did that answer your question at all?

CB: Yes, definitely. Thank you. As you know, Antioch University has a strong emphasis on social justice. Can you talk about what is important to you in shaping ideas about justice and social activism?

DK: I think that cultural literacy is very important. And that is to say I’m very suspicious of terms like tolerant and sensitive because I think both of those things displace responsibility. If you’re tolerant of something, you’re tolerant of things that are not going correctly. You don’t have to tolerate a healthy heart, a so-called regular heart. So it still puts the person who is being tolerant in a position of being able to define what is normative; they have the power to decide whether or not they are going to tolerate it, so it’s a bit problematic. I think saying somebody is culturally sensitive is similar. We’re sensitive to things that are sore or tender or delicate. Also because so much of our language is patriarchal, “being sensitive”—often considered a feminine trait—requires us to “weaken” ourselves. That is how a patriarchy mobilizes and understands that term. Someone else is weaker, and we have to be nice. Again, we haven’t shifted the power dynamic at all when we say, “culturally sensitive.” I think cultural literacy is more important because it puts the responsibility on the person who must be culturally literate to acknowledge what’s happening in culture.

The dominant group expects everyone to be literate in its culture to the point that they can sometimes forget that they’re actually talking about culture. They think they’re talking about nature. And so cultural literacy, to me, is something like in the poem “Thank You But      Please Don’t Buy My Children Clothes with Monkeys on Them.” The company—Keystone Keepsakes—called a doll that had a little black girl, “Lil Monkey.” I’m not sensitive to the association of black people to monkeys any more so than a person who does not wish to insult an entire community of people would—I mean, why did that person do that? Why did that company do that? It’s just stupid. Unless you’re actually trying to insult somebody. And if you are trying to insult somebody, then own that shit and say it.

To me, another part of cultural literacy is to understand the range of how cultural [representatives] are pulling from a performance of a kind of cultural literacy that I think a lot of us actually have access to, whether you’re talking about the quotation of hip hop lyrics and pop music in The Black Automaton to references to modernist poetry. I think these are all things that are parts of our cultural milieu that we all kind of have access to should we choose to take it. And if one doesn’t have that access, in the age of Google it doesn’t take much energy to get that access. So that’s one thing that I’m interested in. I am interested in access: who gets to get things. When you close a door, who doesn’t have access anymore? And who do you let into the room before you close the door? In some ways, access is one of the fundamental questions around social justice. Do we all get to make the same mistakes? Do we all get to make the same advances?

So access is something that I’m questioning. For Patter, I actually created a notes page on Tumblr (http://dkpatter.tumblr.com/) so that you can go to the Tumblr site as opposed to the notes in the back of the book, which there do exist in Patter. There’s this place on the web where you can go and link to an article or music video, and it’ll say, “Page 43.” That’s another kind of access. Students, they read this. Teachers, they read this. Buyers of poetry, they read this. How can I increase the access in some way without assuming that a reader needs every clue, every reference?

You know, bringing children into the world is a difficult thing. And when you’re living in a society where certain children are seen as disposable, seen as threats, seen as less valuable than other children, these are more complicated questions; someone figures: we don’t have to kill them if they’re not born. I think that Patter, in some ways, builds a question around social justice particularly as we see through a lens of race, which is a lens. Typically, race is more often a lens than an actual subject in poems. I mean, African American poets are called upon to speak about race. I think oftentimes we’re not speaking about race so much as we’re talking about cruelty, shame, and violence. And racism and race then becomes a lens by which we view these things. I think people are equipped to dismiss race dynamics because they don’t think they have to deal with race when they are not black, not Other. And so they kind of ignore the fact that racism happens to fucking humans. Racism doesn’t happen to computers. It doesn’t happen to trees. It doesn’t happen to animals. It happens to people. And if you’re a person, ostensibly you should be interested in people. Those are the kinds of questions around social justice that I am interested in. The poems in the section “It Is Designed for Children” are directly commenting on some of these kinds of questions, such as what it means to terrorize people and how come everybody doesn’t get the same kind of care.

Cultivate the pleasure of writing poems. Try not to feel guilty about spending two hours deciding whether or not its blue or azure.

CB: How do you start a poem? How do you know when a poem is finished?

DK: Ah, the beginning and the end. I think that I’ll start at the back and move forward. There are some poems where I feel like I’ve gotten the perfect balance of ideas and a raw, energetic space; craft and more reflective layers. There are times when I feel like I’ve gotten the maximum tension out of a poem that I can get. Then three weeks will pass and I’ll be like, “I can’t believe I thought that was the right word.” Then you go in there and you change one word, and suddenly there are all these new sonic possibilities. There are times where I have revised a poem incorrectly. By that I mean, I might look at a poem and decide that what the poem needs is a tighter sonic construction, and that comes at the expense of something else. To me, that’s an incorrect revision. It doesn’t mean that revising makes your poems weak. In fact, I think when I revise correctly, what is strong about the poem is strengthened through the process of revision—not the other way around. The beauty, of course, is that I can go, okay, this poem has lost its way. Let me go back to version, you know, 12. I think that was where I was right before I started doing this thing that I felt ruined the poem. I can go back to version 12, and I can pick up there and not let that happen. I have this knowledge that this is going to fuck it up. So if I just don’t do that, and I go back to 12, I can make a stronger 16. I can make a stronger version 23. I love revision. And I love revision enough to sometimes say that perhaps getting to the stage where I’m tweaking and tweaking and tweaking a poem is really my happiest place. I have to be alert to whether the poem is done or whether I’m just twiddling with it because it’s easier to revise a poem that is almost done than it is to start a new one.

Starting a poem. There’s the start that is the gift poem, and that is when you sit down—you’ve been thinking about something in the back of your head. Maybe you have a title. Maybe you have a turn of phrase or something. And the poem just kind of spells itself out, and you’re basically transcribing. That happened a couple of times. That was the case with “Swimchant,” “The Chitlin Circuit,” and a couple of other poems that really felt like they were there when I sat down. And my revisions were really minor. Those are great. Oftentimes, I’ll have an idea or premise for a poem that gets me very excited. And I’ll sit, and I’ll try to get it down. And, you know, the first draft toward it hasn’t figured it out yet. And I just have to be patient when that happens. I have a premise, you know, a kind of a project will come to mind, and I just have to sort of figure it out. And something else that kind of gets me started, I’ll read some criticism and the writer’s identifying some interesting approach that he or she is finding in a number of different poems, and that makes me go, “Oh, that sounds pretty cool. Let me go try that.” It’s like a restaurant at that point. Oh, I’d like to try that. Let me see. (laughs) Let me try that food. Let me try “the nearly baroque.” I’d be interested in trying that.

There’s pretty much any way into a poem. I guess the only thing I’m reluctant to do—Like lots of folks, I listen to NPR a lot, and NPR is always full of stories that make me think, “Oh, wouldn’t that make an interesting poem?” But I have a feeling that there are, you know, 3,000 other poets listening to the same broadcast and thinking, “oh God! That’s perfect. They’ve genetically created a monkey that glows in the dark. That’s what I’m writing a poem about!” Like, naw. Just, naw. I can’t. I don’t want to do that because there’s probably going to be a thousand poems on that. And I think the idea of two poets—a hundred poets—writing about the same thing doesn’t bother me—it’s just, you know, the snarky essay that’s going to come out later, “clearly, these poets all listened to the same broadcast.” I don’t want to be on that list. That’s horrifying (laughs).

CB: How do you keep challenging yourself?

DK: Just not wanting to be bored or boring. I feel like when I finish a book, then at some level I’m telling readers I’m done with x, y, z. And not in a collapsing-over-a-sofa-I’m-done but a sort of okay, I did that, you bought that, you read that, probably don’t want to do it again because you have it. If you want Patter again, you’ll read Patter. So when I finish a book, it’s very difficult for me in some ways to revisit. I think having those ants drag in that last line is a way to create a linkage, but also a way to transform at some level that poem from The Black Automaton to this new space. I might realize in two years that I still haven’t written the poem about miscarriage that helps me make sense of the miscarriage my wife had. I might write that poem, but I will tell you it would take a whole lot of hand-wringing for me to put that in another book because in some ways I feel like, well, I’ve written about this. And I’m completely aware that there are things I’m writing about over and over and over even now. I think there’s something different about taking on a trope or taking on philosophical questions or taking on a public event and revisiting it. There’s something a little different—and this is not a judgment on anybody who does so—but for me it feels a little different to talk about a personal event and publish it and then write about it some more and publish it again, especially after a book like Patter where that was the focus. If I wrote two or three more poems about fertility, infertility, and miscarriage and included them in another book that wasn’t focused on that, I’d honestly be a bit leery. I might keep them, but I don’t want to rewrite Patter.

So for me, whenever I’m faced with a new book or a long pause in writing, the phrase that comes to my mind is, I have to find a new language. I have to find a new language to justify another book of poems. It’s restless and it’s frustrating, but I find it rewarding. If I’m writing the same way I wrote in The Black Automaton, I would feel like I was pulling one over on people. I finished The Black Automaton in 2008: it’s been six years. If I’m still writing the same way—if I’m still thinking the same way—if I haven’t come up with another way to solve compositional problems, then that’s something that I pay attention to. I stay alert to that impression or that possibility.

Of course I know that the interrogative mood—the interrogative mood in a sentence—has not been exhausted. There’s always another way to go back to the interrogative or the imperative. But for me, I’m trying to do as robust and as rigorous work as I can. I feel like that’s one of the things that poetry offers us the chance to do. I feel like that is part of the deal. If I’m going to write another poem, let alone another book, then at some level I’ve got to be thinking, is this enough?Have I learned anything from the last poem I’ve written? And if not, you know, what’s that about? It’s not always self-censoring: I write anyway. It does affect what I choose to try to publish, what I choose to send out to journals, what I choose to put into a collection.

I’m working on another collection right now. And just this last weekend, I chucked about 10 poems out of it, which is a significant setback in finishing the manuscript. But they were slack. They might have been interesting, but they didn’t do what I felt they needed to do. They were ideas that felt too facile to pursue. So I kind of just chucked them. I probably won’t be able to generate an entire manuscript that I won’t be using this time around. And this was literally Monday of this week. So in the time between Monday and today, I’ve decided on a new title for that project that I think captures much more of what I think I can do. I’ve kicked out those poems, I’ve written one new poem, and I’ve started a couple of other poems that I think are helping me position where I think about this manuscript. How I do it is I listen to or read different poems, essays, music, arguments, and critical engagements to try to find new ways of entering the sentence—to try to find new ways to think about the problems I’m still thinking about. You’re running, and you’ve reached your limit. And you have to convince yourself to run one more lap. You have to say, you’re so close to writing a good poem. What you learned from that one—how can you go further? It’s kind of a mind game.

CB: Some of your poems rely heavily on rhythm and sonic quality. You mention an embarrassment of pop rap radio in “Rallying” in Fear, Some, and there are references and allusions to entire musical styles as well as individual songs throughout your work. What musicians have you been listening to lately? What’s on repeat in your playlist?

DK: I’ve been listening to that group Haim.

CB: Really?

DK: It’s one of those things where I feel like I’ve got to one day just buy a Haim T-shirt and walk around with it like,yes, I’ve been listening to Haim. On a basic level I enjoy it, the punched way they sing. Even though there’s one main lead singer, they all sort of take on this adaptation of clenched-teeth sort of t-t (sound), this very rhythmic, percussive singing that I find really interesting. I also like the vocal samples that I push through—that hey!—these kinds of interruptions in punctuation.

At the same time, I have been listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain a lot because of how narrative the tracks are, how evocative these pieces are. They’re not using the kind of riffs or circular structure that a lot of the music I typically listen to uses, whether it’s hip hop samples or jazz riffs—jazz phrases. I feel like it stretches out in a way that I’m trying to get to myself because I do feel like my default is to write very tightly. Not necessarily tight in a precise way but a constrained way: as in I have 15 words, and I’m just going to use those 15 words over and over and over. That reminds me a lot of hip hop production and the loop. But sometimes I feel like I need to somehow allow myself a sixteenth word.

I find myself listening to a lot more rock in general. Queens of the Stone Age is a group I listen to. But I think the album that’s given me the most pleasure—where I’m kind of just sitting there like, wow, I could really listen to this a lot—is probably Haim. I don’t know what that’s going to do to the work, butI’m not listening to it strategically like that.

I’m about to get some software that will allow me to go back to making beats. I used to make beats, and the software I had died. So I haven’t been able to do that. Once I have that software again, it’ll probably change a lot. I was listening to a podcast today talking about the rapper Jean Grae. I’m really excited about her project, which is called Gotham Down. I was listening to her on that, and I was like, “Oh holy shit, I need to get that.”

Also, L.A. beat music! I’ve been listening to a lot of Flying Lotus and Mad-lib Instrumentals. There’s something about how expansive those things can get with just the presence of a single sample—not in the way that I tend to think of samples in relation to a rapper or when a rapper’s going to rap over a track, which is what The Black Automaton was about. I think that when a person is making beat music—and they’re not concerned about somebody speaking over it—it allows for all kinds of weird little disembodied yet associated things to happen. That’s really something I’m interested in: like, how to make a poem that looks like a wall of graffiti. Andyou’re kind of like, okay, I see why all these things are in the same space, but they seem like they were written by very different people at different times and are only associatively connected. I’m not really sure how that connection is working, but it feels like graffiti or a message board or one of these places where multiplicity happens.

So I guess I would say Haim, Miles Davis, beat music, and Queens of the Stone Age.

CB: What’s next?

DK: Okay, so the next book is called, well, right now is called Minstrel Cyborg Spider Radio, a collection of my opera libretti, and that’s supposed to come out in the next year or so. And then another one that I’m working on right now, which is more poems, until Monday was called Stagger Put Work In, but now I think it’s just going to be called Buck.

CB: Buck?

DK: Buck. B-u-c-k. And I told that to my wife today, and she laughed. Usually that’s a good sign. Both of these should be out within the next couple of years. So that’s what’s next. And the other projects that I’m working on include a few operas that won’t be in Minstrel Cyborg Spider Radio and then poems.

CB: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

DK: Well, this is my mantra that I use for aspiring poets, which is—because we as poets often have to deal with people who aren’t really paying attention to what we’re doing—and so I say, “If nobody’s watching, at least be naked.” You might as well be naked. And then that way, if somebody does watch and say, hey, show me some more of that, then you know they were actually after what you have and what you’re interested in and not necessarily your take on official verse culture or whatever that phrase is, right? Do the thing that you find most interesting. Because, to be honest, if you wanted to be a conformist, you should get into a job where being a conformist would reward you much more handsomely than it does in poetry. Getting a teaching gig is a great blessing for a poet, but hell, if you’re going to do something you don’t really want to do, become a banker so you can get a yacht or some shit (laughs). Maybe getting a sabbatical every five years, why conform to get that? If you’re going to write poetry, write the shit that lights your fire. That doesn’t mean that you don’t pay attention to craft. It doesn’t mean you don’t ever read anybody else’s work. It does mean developing your approach, developing your eye, honoring your eye, honoring your voice. That’s something worth pursuing.

The other bit of advice that might be more practical is learn to love the writing of poetry. It’s not the same thing at all as publishing poetry. It’s often not the same thing at all from having finished a poem. Cultivate the love of writing the poem, and then your access to the joy will be much higher. If you’re interested in publishing poems, you can be happier by becoming a poem publisher because there’s always somebody making poems. If you just want poems out in the world, then become a publisher or copy your friends’ poems and post them on a website—that’s another way to think of publishing. But cultivate the pleasure of writing poems. Try not to feel guilty about spending two hours deciding whether or not it’s “blue” or “azure.” Love the act of writing the poem. Publishing poems after that is a completely different discipline. They’re not the same thing. You have to be really alert to the fact that they’re different, and that might be easier than cultivating the love of writing the poem. Know the difference between writing a poem, finishing a poem, and publishing a poem—and appreciate the difference. That’s the most practical advice I can give you.

Candace ButlerCandace Butler is a writer, artist, and musician residing in her hometown of Sugar Grove, Virginia, a small rural town in the Appalachian Mountains. She is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Antioch University of Los Angeles (AULA). Her publications are listed on her website: http://www.candacebutler.com.

D. J. Waldie, Author

 

D. J. Waldie

Photo: Earle Church

D.J. Waldie is the author of Holy Land: A Suburban MemoirWhere Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles, and other books about Southern California. He also is the authorwith Diane Keatonof two architectural studies: California Romantica and House.

Jennifer McCharen: What are you working on right now?

D.J. Waldie: For some years I’ve been writing a blog twice a week for KCET public television. I write about some political subjects, some cultural commentary, a little bit of history, a little bit of memoir. In addition to that I am waiting to hear from editors at Design who are putting together a book series on issues of place, which they hope to have published by Princeton University Press. My book would be about suburban places in Southern California.

JM: You’ve said that your writing, “might be a guidebook to civic romance: how to fall in love with the place in which you are.” Why do you think it’s important for people, and especially for writers, to fall in love with the place in which they are?

DJW: I generally speak in those terms about civic identity and civic engagement, and the capacity for places to become fit places for people to live through the prolonged and deep engagement people might have with their place, rather than just being a sojourner or a tourist. They become possessed of their place, and possessed by their place. But speaking specifically of writers it strikes me that a grounding in a particular place, its character and history, gives a writer a degree of substance that they might not otherwise have. And so I often think of the regionalist writers of the twentieth century. Writers that I find valuable are unwilling to be place-less. They are best when they are place-connected. That’s not altogether easy because of just the character of our lives today. Connection to place might seem like a burden or a useless bit of baggage that one needn’t carry around. But for me place is invested with so much emotional, spiritual, and psychological presence that it almost seems impossible to be without a sense of place. I think a sense of place is as essential to a person’s existence as a sense of self.

JM: When you talk about a sense of place, what is that made of for you? What does a sense of place involve specifically, tangibly?

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

DJW: I’m no philosopher of a sense of place. I’m more of a preacher than a theologian. But it seems to me a sense of place has several dimensions. One dimension is history: an understanding of where the place has come through time. A sense of place has a tangible dimension: sights and smells and touches and tastes and all of the sensory input that one might get by being intimately in a place. So that, just peripherally, it’s difficult to develop a sense of place from driving through it. It’s better to walk. Another dimension of a sense of place is what one might call the capacity for connecting to a community. A hermit might have a sense of place through the first two dimensions, but it seems to me that a full sense of place requires intercourse, commerce, conversation, interchange with a purposethe purpose being the formation of some kind of viable community that persists through time. Another dimension of place is one Gaston Bachelard would agree with: that a sense of place comes from what might loosely be called daydreaming. A sense of place arrives from conscious dreaming so that a place is not simply a collection of data, or a list of facts in the past, or even a well-functioning organization like a community. A sense of place requires that imaginative faculty which I call a moral imagination—the ability to conceive of the elements of a place in a way that evokes one’s sympathy. So those are at least four dimensions of what I might consider a sense of place.

JM: My next question is about your book Holy Land. The book ends with lines from a Catholic hymn that are directed to the cross itself, “Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight it bears.” This image relates directly back to the detailed descriptions of the frames of the houses of Lakewood being nailed together one after another and the effect is very poignant. At what point in your writing did you know that image would be the end?

DJW: Fairly early on I understood that the book would end the way it does. I had indiscriminately collected lots and lots of phrases, sentences, incidents, bits of history, and some reflections. But when I began seriously reforming those materials and had maybe thirty or forty or so bits, I understood it was going to end where it ended—it was going to end with those words. It was going to not end in a place of triumph. It was going to be somewhat open-ended in the sense that it sort of ends in the middle of things as opposed to ending at the end of things. And that was the direction toward which the writing went naturally. In other words, I don’t think the writing is controlled by that ending. It just gets the reader there.

JM: Following up from that, because it’s such a clearly faith-bound image, how does faith play into your life as a writer?

DJW: I’m very hesitant to make any sorts of claims at all. Let me only say that the question of faith, a question of attempting to engage in a life that has a particular religious faith more or less at its center does shape my work as a writer. I would hesitate to say that it’s anything at all like Flannery O’Connor, but that might be an easy analogy—although it’s sort of like comparing a paper airplane with a 747. But my work as a writer and as a public official has centered on the notion that faithfulness is a meaningful component of lives. That faithfulness has a power to shape the viability and success of communities. And that faithfulness between individuals, and faithfulness between an individual and his or her place is a value that I understand, and have embraced although I might not be able to defend it rigorously. It’s more of a choice of the heart than a choice of the head. But I would argue that faithful communities work, and that they’re not an illusion imposed upon incoherent circumstances. My work as a public official for Lakewood has always been trying to show residents of Lakewood why loyalty (that’s Josiah Royce’s word) to a place like Lakewood is something they might want to acquire.

Faithfulness can also be a collection of habits, things that become so ingrained in one’s behavior that one does not have to puzzle out what should I do next? I have a tendency to believe that although habits have a bad rap, because there’s a prejudice in western thought to examining everything always all the time, it seems to me that everyday life is habitual in many of its forms, and that faithfulness can be a habit too.

JM: That makes me think of writing, and how one has to keep the faith with your writing.

DJW: That’s precisely the case.

JM: Definitely. That leads into my next question: this idea of “suburbia.” Very smart and insightful people still use that word as an epithet—as if it describes a homogenous substance. Why do you think this happens? What do you think it is about suburbia that disturbs certain people?

DJW: First let me just say that I’ve tried to scrub that word from my language and generally don’t use it, although sometimes editors and reporters and headline writers throw it into the text because that’s what comes immediately to mind.

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

There are lots and lots of reasons why places that are various and diverse and beloved by the people living there get turned into this thing called suburbia. And at the risk of just raking over old arguments, suburbia comes out of a resistance to the ordinary, a resistance to the everyday. Suburbia comes out of complaints about the making of working class housing in the immediate postwar period that disappointed so many architectural activists who were also social activists. Turning these nondescript places into the thing called suburbia is also a reflection of what some cultural critics have called aesthetic privilege. That is, in order for one class to frame its stature above another class, one way is to focus on the aesthetic values of the upper class and denigrate the aesthetic values of the underclass. And so I think for political reasons and cultural reasons suburbia gets to be the thing that is spoken about as a substitute for actual suburbs.

I’ve written on many occasions that it seems to me that the mass-produced suburbs like Lakewood of the period 1946-1960 disappointed so many architects and social critics and advocates of social planning because it didn’t look good. It didn’t look like the gleaming Modernist superblocks of Le Corbusier or the gleaming concrete and steel constructions of the Bauhaus. It just looked like…Lakewood. And it was very disappointing to them.

JM: Because it was this massive physical building project. And yet it wasn’t Corbusier.

DJW: Or even Neutra or Schindler. It was a little house on a little lot.

JM: I guess they expected utopia to produce something shinier.

DJW: Or grander. I think their expectations were that the postwar period would be marked by a sort of grandiose aesthetic achievement, and it wasn’t.

JM: That is so interesting because something else was built and that thing was: a place where real people could live. 

DJW: Exactly. You’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly what did get built, and wasn’t that a grand achievement.

JM: Wasn’t it? I wonder why our culture has such a hard time holding that up as our grand achievement. I think the class question might be part of it.

DJW: There has been a tension in American culture between everyday-ness and the need for exception and idealization. And part of the whole cultural trend from the late 19th Century onward in which intellectuals in America abandoned the straight-laced and burdensome everydayness of small towns in the Midwest and moved into the great cities with their great energy and also their physical appearance, the intellectual class in America got trained to be unsympathetic to the little places that are very ordinary.

JM: That’s a good segue to another thing I wanted to ask you. It’s something that comes up in the book Real City. In that book you talk about longing and how this feeling has shaped the city of Los Angeles. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.

DJW: Los Angeles is a particular example of how desire created a place.

Bear in mind that L.A. was nothing more than a typical southwestern cowtown when it became American in 1860—when it became more firmly within the orbit of the nation. It was a wide spot in the road with just a few rather rough buildings and a very heterogeneous population that didn’t get along with each other very well. The anglos hated the Mexicans and the Chinese, the Mexicans hated the Chinese, and everyone hated the African Americans. And everyone was exploiting everyone else. But the people who arrived in the period between 1860 and 1880 had powerful ambitions. All across the west great fortunes were being made, great cities were being built. And they wanted L.A. to be one of those places. There was an economic rivalry with San Francisco, which was the economic capital of the entire west. And L.A. was under the thumb of San Francisco finance. If you wanted money to build something big in Southern California you had to borrow the money from San Francisco bankers, and they set the tune. So this first generation of entrepreneurial types in L.A. desired to change their little wide spot in the road into something much more significant and they went about it with the determination of a military campaign—and they were largely successful. Their greatest success however was to look around them and see that though there wasn’t very much to market there was something: sunshine, the air, and the dirt under their feet. And romance. You could spin sunshine and air and dirt into something else if you put enough romance into it. So they quite deliberately framed L.A. as a place where aspirations—however incoherent they might be—could be fulfilled. And from the mid-1880s onward L.A. became the most successfully advertised lifestyle product in the history of the country. It was marketed in every possible medium of the time from lantern slideshows in church halls to novels. L.A. and Southern California were boomed by the weaving of romance into desire.

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

There’s a wonderful book by Alexander McClung called Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles (from which I steal all these ideas), and he makes a very interesting case for how that process of selling romance to the rest of the country worked. So Los Angeles is burdened by that history. Everywhere we turn there are suggestions that we should be delighted by where we are because it is the summit of our desires satisfied. And yet of course it isn’t, and so it becomes unsatisfying. And so we have this bizarre tension between the city we want to live in, which we think we’ve been sold, and the city we do live in. And this leads to all sorts of problems with governance and how we relate to one another because we’re always trying to live in a different city. A city of the imagination. A city of prolonged daydream, not the city we actually have.

JM: Not the city of Bachelard’s conscious daydreaming in place. Los Angeles is a strange place.

DJW: That’s right, but the strangeness has a history. It’s not something weird about L.A. that you can’t put your finger on. You can put your finger on it rather firmly: these are the things that led us to where we are today.

JM: Writers at Antioch think a lot about social justice and what it means for us. What are your thoughts about that? What does social justice mean for a writer?

DJW: Well we have been talking about that in reference to me. I don’t necessarily use the phrase social justice, but if we are to imagine social justice to include the concept that we sustain one another in our community and that we value the ordinariness of our lives to the extent that we resist disrupting that ordinariness for no good reason, then all my work is about that kind of social justice.

It’s sort of counter-revolutionary in some ways in that it suggests that a careful appraisal of ordinary lives might suggest a reluctance to disrupt those lives. Whereas I suppose that for most of us social justice might imply righting wrongs. Well, there are a great many wrongs everywhere, and a great many wrongs in Lakewood, too, and they should be righted, and lives made better. I seem to spend more of my energy on the lives made better side of that equation. But this is to suggest to your readers that there are many different ways to advance the condition of the lives around you. And I have chosen (maybe wrongly, or delusionally) the route that leads me through engagement with people as they are right now. That leads me through consideration of their past as a reality, not something to be ignored. And it leads me to the conviction that the partial victories in the past should not be regarded as total failures. And there’s a certain tendency amongst social and cultural critics to do that: to think that the partial victories of the past because they were necessarily partial are somehow failures.

JM: What specifically are you thinking of when you say that, what victories?

DJW: Well it’s often brought up when talking about Lakewood (and) the racial demographics. Because of federal policy, bank policy, lending policy, and the behavior of builders and the sales agents for places like Lakewood, there were only seven African American families in Lakewood in 1960. That is a failure, a very obvious failure, and one that I have been more than once reminded acutely of. On the other hand, you had 17,500 houses settled by all sorts of people from all kinds of places with markedly differing cultural expectations and habits, even language and foodways and all sorts of ways. And yet they successfully got together and built a working community out of that and indeed built a working city out of that. So that’s a partial victory, but it shouldn’t be understood to be a failure. At all.

But I’ve had conversations with African American men and women my age and a bit older who are quite bitter—justifiably so—that they weren’t able to buy into the kind of successful community and ultimately successful city that Lakewood became after the homes were sold.

I’ll give you a further example of partial victory: although the developers of Lakewood, due to federal lending policy, bank policy, et cetera, didn’t sell houses to African Americans they did sell them to Jews, which was progressive at the time. So in the very early days of Lakewood it was one of the few communities in Southern California where working class Jewish families could afford to buy a house. Lakewood immediately became a destination for Jewish families who wanted to buy their own home. And so Lakewood had a very large Jewish population when it opened for business in 1954.

JM: As writers we have to make all kinds of choices but I suppose that in looking at those partial victories there’s something to be said for just telling it like it is.

DJW: Precisely. So as a writer my job has been to dispel mythologies, to question received wisdom and common knowledge, and to suggest that we should have a more nuanced understanding. That’s my task as a fifth rate popularizer of local history. But my larger purpose, my larger social purpose, as you said at the very beginning of this conversation, is to find ways to encourage people to fall in love with where they are. Because I think there is a strong social purpose in that.

Jennifer McCharenJennifer McCharen writes nonfiction and poetry, including translation. Her video work has appeared on MSNBC, and her writing has appeared in the Tampa Monocle, Elan Magazine, and is forthcoming in the anthology MOTIF-4. She currently serves as Translation Editor for Lunch Ticket, and resides in Montgomery, Alabama where she works to fight voter suppression.