Jillian Lauren, Author and Memoirist

Photo: Robyn Von Swank

Jillian Lauren was born in New Jersey and found herself working in theater in New York by her late teens. Her work in theater led to a career in sex work, which became the subject of her memoir Some Girls, covering the time Lauren spent in the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, youngest brother of the sultan of Brunei.

After leaving Brunei, Lauren struggled with drug and alcohol addiction before getting her life back on track, finishing her education and beginning her writing career. Her first novel, Pretty, explores the experiences of a woman whose choices land her in a halfway house in Los Angeles while she struggles to finish her last two weeks of cosmetology school without derailing her life.

Today, Lauren is an author, blogger, playwright, performer, wife and mother. Her one-woman show Mother Tongue, dealing with Lauren’s struggles to get pregnant and her decision to adopt, premiered this summer.

Lauren spoke with Lunch Ticket editor-in-chief Lise Quintana.

Lise Quintana: There are several levels of “coming out” with sensitive personal information about your life: coming out to friends, coming out to family, coming out to community, coming out to the world at large. Which was the hardest for you?

Jillian Lauren: They all have distinct challenges. I would say that the hardest for me was probably the community that I live in right now, because there were levels of revelation to my family and my close friends—but they sort of knew what I had done. They knew my history. But my neighbors, the moms in the “Mommy and Me” group, they don’t get that kind of information from me. They don’t know the stuff that I discuss in my memoir. Now they do, but they didn’t before. I wasn’t trying to hide anything, it just doesn’t come up at Gymboree that I used to be in a harem. So that was a little hard for me. Overall, the whole coming out has been a wonderful experience, and it’s allowed me to be myself in the world and allowed people to love me for who I am.

I wasn’t trying to hide anything, it just doesn’t come up at Gymboree that I used to be in a harem.

LQ: What gave you the courage to publish your memoir?

JL: I think that the only reason to write a book like this is that you can’t not write it. It was announcing itself to me and demanding to be written, and when I wrote the book, I did it in such a way that I thought that no one would ever read it. That’s how you have to write. Now it’s a little bit different for me. I know that’s probably not true, but at the time it was feasible to think that no one would ever read it. Every step of the way has been a revelation to me. I hope to approach all my work in the same way: you do the work because the work needs to be done, and then you worry about who’s going to publish it and read it later.

LQ: That brings up an interesting point. Once you’ve written your story and it’s ready to go, most writers have to start advocating for their work to get the attention of publishers. Did you have that problem?

JL: I did. I tried to sell my novel for a very long time – I actually have two novels, one of which was never published and the other one was written while I was at Antioch before I wrote my memoir. I was trying to sell that for a very long time, and it wasn’t until I packaged it with the book proposal for the memoir that I was able to sell them both. I think you do have to advocate for yourself, you do have to sell yourself. You have to act as if you’re the best writer there is and you have a voice that needs to be heard even on the days when you don’t believe it.

LQ: In “Some Girls,” you mentioned discovering that you had been writing all along, even though your first passion was theater. Given your earlier academic challenge [leaving New York University after only a few days], what motivated you to pursue your M.F.A.?

I just had a feeling that it was going to be a way for me to apply myself and to give some structure to my writing process and to get behind myself and say “This is what I’m doing now. I’m a writer. This is who I am.”

JL: I had to go back and get my B.A. I had cobbled together different classes from different colleges over the years, and so many times I decided I was going to go back to school and then quit. I had gotten more disciplined and was settled and in a supportive, stable relationship, I was sober from drugs and alcohol, and I was ready to complete something. I went back and got my B.A. because I knew I wanted to get my M.F.A. in creative writing. It’s not because I felt so comfortable in academic settings, but I just had a feeling that it was going to be a way for me to apply myself and to give some structure to my writing process and to get behind myself and say “This is what I’m doing now. I’m a writer. This is who I am.”

LQ: Although “Pretty” is a novel, much of it was lifted from your own experience. Your main character Bebe has a visceral negative attitude toward the authority figures in her life (whom she and Jake refer to as “zombies”). Before you got sober, was that your view of people who lived a more conventional life than your own?

JL: (laughs) It still sometimes is! I’m from a fringe perspective. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve always felt like I was on the margins of culture. That’s the perspective I try to speak from and those are the voices that I’m interested in representing. Those are the voices of the people around me on the margins. I’ve never called anyone a zombie: that was the language of the book. But it does represent my perspective in some ways. One with the volume turned up: a more immature version of my perspective.

LQ: You’ve just said that you’ve always felt at the margins. Do you feel that you’re claiming that as your territory—people in the minority: sex workers, adoptees, the tattooed, non-whites, addicts, etc.?

JL: Yeah! I don’t really have a choice. It is my space. It became very clear to me at a young age that it’s kind of a great space. It’s an electric and a creative place. It’s not always comfortable and it’s often more visible than I want to be. Right now I have a transracial family with multiple adoptions, I’m tattooed to my eyeballs. I’m very visible in society. Sometimes I wish I could blend into the woodwork a little more, but I’ve learned to really embrace it as who I am. It’s always going to be what my work is about.

LQ: There’s no doubt that you carry a lot of legitimacy about issues concerning addiction and sex work, but do you feel it was hard for you to be heard on issues of body image, class or race, since in those areas you can be seen as culturally normative?

JL: I think that I have a commitment to authenticity, and I hope that is apparent in the work. I don’t feel that it’s ever been questioned that I have the right or the place to talk about body image. It’s true, I’m just a kind of normal attractive person, but that has not been my internal experience and I’m interested in writing from the gut. I think that the work that I’ve done around these issues has resonated with readers more than anything that I’ve written, judging by the response I’ve gotten. But it’s all one big thing. Sex work and body image—these two things go hand-in-hand to me.

LQ: It was evident in both Pretty and Some Girls, which, by the way, I got my mother to read and she loves.

I hear all the time “I gave Some Girls to my mother and she loved it.” That means a lot to me. It’s become an intergenerational kind of dialogue.

JL: Thank you! Do you know how many times that I hear that? I’m not sure why, but I hear all the time “I gave Some Girls to my mother and she loved it.” That means a lot to me. It’s become an intergenerational kind of dialogue. It seems like there’s a real through-line, even though I didn’t necessarily intend one.

LQ: You mentioned in a 2011 interview that your character Bebe was “struggling with who she is and what is her real value.” Is that at the heart of your own need to write?

JL: I think that my need to write is not a conscious thing. It is inborn, and I could ascribe a lot of reasons to it. It gives me a reason to experience the world around me. I’ve always been a compulsive documenter. It’s my inborn impulse: to look at the world around me and arrange it into narrative. I don’t know if it’s my search for my value, but maybe it’s a piece of that. I mean, I get my sense of value more from my relationships with people. I hope that comes out in my book, but that’s definitely in the mix, for sure.

LQ: You use the phrase “being present” a lot. What does that mean for you when you’re writing?

JL: I think that’s a real struggle when I’m writing because our attention is so split and our brains are these incredibly fast multi-tasking machines right now. I’m a mother and I’m a blogger and I have eight million bazillion things that I’m constantly juggling, but when I have to sit down and do the hard work—when I have to write a book—I have to be present in my emotions, present in my body, I have to be not multi-tasking. It’s a real challenge. It takes a moment to get into that space and it takes a big moment to get out of it. It takes real commitment to carve out time in the day when you are just dedicated to being present with whatever you’re working on.

LQ: You’ve adopted a boy from Ethiopia and you blog about that choice and the challenges it has presented you. Given the investment of time that any preschooler takes, where do you find the time to write daily?

JL: I prioritize it. I have had this discipline in place for so long. There are times when I stray from it, when I’m publicizing a new book or something, and I’m not able to write every day. Right now I’m in a creative groove and I’m writing by 9:30 or 10:30, and I write for four hours. I’m extremely regimented about it and that’s how I find the time. My house is a disaster and I let a lot of things go. My garden looks like Morticia Addams is our gardener. I just keep thinking that at the end of my life I’ll wish I wrote more books and I spent more time with my child. I don’t think I’ll say I wish my crap drawer was more organized.

LQ: You describe yourself in your book as a “feminist sex activist.” Now that you’re a parent, how has your view of sex and society changed?

It’s become more urgent to me that my son learns to love and respect his body and the bodies of other people around him.

JL: And being the mother of a boy—not just being a parent, but being the mother of a boy after all that I’ve been through. It’s a real lesson. It’s a challenge to root out any of the last resentments I have about men. As a parent, my views of sex and society haven’t changed that much. They’ve become more urgent. It’s become more urgent to me that my son learns to love and respect his body and the bodies of other people around him. That women are able to maintain reproductive freedom of choice. That stuff has become more important.

LQ: You say that as the mother of a son, it’s particularly urgent. In both your books you talk about how being viewed as attractive or unattractive affects women at every stage of life, practically from infancy. Have you thought about how you’ll address that issue as the mother of a son?

JL:  My son’s still four and a half. I think that there are a lot of issues that I don’t have right up in my face because I don’t have a daughter. That’s a whole other ball of wax that’s present for me, but it’s not right in my living room. But believe me, I don’t care if my son is gay, straight, transgender, he is going to treat everyone kindly and with respect.

LQ: What are you working on now?

JL: I’m working on another memoir about trying to get pregnant and trying to have a family and what that journey was like for me and coming to the decision to adopt my son and how that made me confront my own feelings about being adopted.

LQ: Does it have a name yet?

JL: Nope. It is the as-yet-untitled memoir. If anyone has any great ideas, you should let me know.

Aimee Bender, Author

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is the author of two short story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures (2005), two novels, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) and a novella, The Third Elevator (2009). She contributed to The Secret Society of Demolition Writers and The Writer’s Notebook.

She received her undergraduate degree in Literature/Writing at the University of California at San Diego and, her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.

Ms. Bender is the recipient of two Pushcarts, the SCIBA award for best fiction, a Los Angeles Times Pick of the Year, and an Alex Award. She has been published in Tin House (“Lemonade”), The Paris Review (“Faces”), Electric Literature (“The Red Ribbon”), Ploughshares (“The Fake Nazi”), and other journals.

She was interviewed by Kathleen Whitney Rohr, Fiction Editor of Lunch Ticket.

KWR: Thank you for supporting Antioch University Los Angeles’ new literary journal Lunch Ticket. We are publishing our second issue.

In the prologue to your novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, about people living forever, the narrator says “That’s the story my father told me at bedtime on my tenth birthday.” Did your parents tell you made-up stories as you were growing up?

AB: We did a lot of reading aloud, and my parents encouraged reading a lot. My mom talks about a memory of reading poetry by A.A. Milne together. Occasionally when we were playing my dad would make up a story, but it was rare. My mom would tell me extensive made-up stories. An example: I had very long hair as a kid. Washing it was kind of an ordeal. When we would dry it—and it was this knotted mess—she would talk about me as a witch, because I had witchy hair. It was a fairy tale where I got to be all the characters. I started out as the witch and then as she combed my hair, slowly I became the princess.  It was so effective.  I ate it up.

KWR: I thought about how my great-nieces would respond to your novella The Third Elevator, because they are young children. Do you think The Third Elevator is a children’s or adults’ fairy tale or something else completely?

AB: A couple people have thought it is maybe for kids, but I wrote it with adults in mind because the questions or the troubles the characters encountered felt to me more like adult troubles. There are certain lines that need not to be crossed to make a story for children, but I don’t think it crosses those lines specifically. Do you think your nieces would be able to read it? I’m curious.

KWR: My eldest great-niece is six, and I think that she would enjoy the entire story, except for the part where the turtles are cooked.

AB: Yes, that moment was not for children as much.

KWR: I read that you have been giving the proceeds from The Third Elevator to insideOUT Writers.

In my mind, if a writer is writing something that has value to the writer, then hopefully the writing itself will have value in some way to the community, but what that value is will of course hugely vary.

AB: Sumanth Prabhaker from Madras Press has this wonderful approach where he asks what nonprofit the writer would like to pick for the proceeds to go to after he has made the money from publication. I had read about insideOUT in the memoir True Notebooks by Mark Salzman, where he talks about his experience in the very beginning of the organization going into juvenile hall, how profound an experience it was for him. It’s a very honest memoir because he really talks about crime and juvenile hall and his own reservations about being there at all. The organization has bloomed a lot since then. I knew about it in Los Angeles, and I got more involved and went to one of the readings in juvenile hall near downtown and found the work there very moving. Just the idea of giving kids, some of whom may go to prison and some of whom may get out, a chance to actually write.  I think that’s hugely valuable. I now have a mentee who is an alumnus of the program, so I’ve gotten a little bit more involved.

KWR: In what way do you think that writers have an obligation to the community?

AB: I don’t think writers more than anyone else. In my mind, if a writer is writing something that has value to the writer, then hopefully the writing itself will have value in some way to the community, but what that value is will of course hugely vary. If a writer happens to enjoy a helpful role in reaching out to the community, then great!  But it’s a separate action, a different impulse. A lot of writers aren’t interested in that kind of participatory act, and that’s fine—the actual writing is what makes a writer a writer.

KWR: In your short story, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” the rabbi talks about not living small. In conjunction with the idea of writers as people having an obligation to the community and then how a person’s life develops, tell me what a person would look like who is living big.

AB: Do I think every person has an obligation to the community? In some way, yes. I think it’s important to help. How a person tries to help is completely up to them, it can be in a small way or more. I think we all can try to give back in some way a little bit. The idea of living small–the Hasidic story is about when you die you’re supposed to go and apologize to God or whoever for all the ways you did not live big, every way you did not live life fully. What would it look like for a person living big? There would be some kind of investment in her world in many levels, a connection to people in some way, or nature, close to some kind of project or work or hobby or something that has meaning and value to that person. It’s so individual what that looks like, but I think the connection to oneself and the world around is how I interpret that Hasidic piece.  Of course this isn’t easy!  But it seems like a pretty good goal to me.

KWR: I found that story to be different from your other short stories that I have read, and I liked the Hasidic story within it. It seems to me that you are giving a lesson without lecturing.

AB: That’s good to hear. It’s more of a conversation, a long conversation between two characters that are batting around an idea as opposed to a lot of action.  I wasn’t sure what to do with it and then it found its way into Tablet, and it got into the world.

KWR: I’m glad it got into the world. In your short story “Job’s Jobs” [Willful Creatures], God tells a writer he cannot write anymore or he will be killed. If God held a gun to your head, would you give up writing? And if yes, what would you do instead?

A part of me would die if I couldn’t write, but there is a certain pressured way of talking about writing that I think is not so helpful. If I really felt like I was going to be killed if I wrote, then I would stop writing. Absolutely. If I was in a totalitarian regime, if I was in the U.S.S.R., and I was told you can’t write anymore or we will kill you, I would have done something else or try to say things through metaphor, in another way. Could it be another art form?

AB: A couple of answers. One is that when I went to writing talks when I was starting out sometimes a published writer or agent or editor would say something like, “if you don’t need to write, if you don’t have to write, then you’re not a writer.” I used to always listen to that and I took it extremely literally. I won’t die if I don’t write. It’s not air or water. A part of me would die if I couldn’t write, but there is a certain pressured way of talking about writing that I think is not so helpful. If I really felt like I was going to be killed if I wrote, then I would stop writing. Absolutely. If I was in a totalitarian regime, if I was in the U.S.S.R., and I was told you can’t write anymore or we will kill you, I would have done something else or try to say things through metaphor, in another way. Could it be another art form?

KWR: In the story, Job tries different art forms and God doesn’t like that, either. If writing was eliminated, but you could do anything else, what would that be?

AB: Maybe music. But also I’m not that good at music, so I don’t know if I’d actually be able to do it. Open a nonprofit. I don’t know if I’d be good at that, either! That’s hard stuff.  I do really like teaching.

KWR: When you have something that is your life and to think of doing something else, that is quite difficult.

AB: Language is everywhere, so if I do give up writing of all kinds, that eliminates a lot. It’s not like I could say, “It would be fun to try to write a movie,” because that’s still writing. I wouldn’t like to direct a movie or act in a movie.

KWR: Can you tell us about the Imagination Workshop?

AB: Before I was getting interested in insideOUT, there was the Imagination Workshop. It’s a theater group, also a nonprofit, and the idea is to use improv to imagine oneself in metaphor. It’s a way to reach out to those people who have a fixed notion in their minds about who they are and what they can think and what their imagination can do. The improvs were very safe, playful and fun, and allowed exploration for veterans, or psych patients, or geriatric Alzheimer’s patients or youth at risk. They played being a table or a famous architect or whatever.  I worked with the psych patients, and twice a year we put on a show, a musical. It was really fun and very meaningful. It was all about play and imaginative expression.

KWR: Did you find that participating affected your writing?

AB: I don’t think it did directly, but it was a very creative environment to be in. It was very meaningful to see someone who was schizophrenic and had a very hard time communicating suddenly be in the moment. It wasn’t a curative activity, but it had incredible power. Someone very caught up in voices in his head would be able to step aside and be a character and have a very clear authority and confidence. That’s incredible to be around. It affected my sense of human dignity and belief and the deep value of the imagination.  Here were people who are not usually given these tools thriving inside new freedom.

KWR: What is The Secret Society of Demolition Writers [The Secret Society of Demolition Writers, www.Amazon.com]?

AB: The editor, Marc Parent, his idea was that there are certain demolition derbies where the drivers drive incognito and so the drivers feel very free to drive in a new way.  He asked some writers if we would be willing to put in a story without our names on it. It would be something different and free us up.

KWR: I tried to guess which story was yours, but in the beginning of the book the editor says that the writers may have written differently than you would expect them to write. Did you find that writing anonymously allowed you to write differently?

AB: I think ultimately with all writing I’m trying and trying to capture that feeling.  I don’t have to show anyone, so I want to try to let myself write anything.

KWR: It was fun not knowing who wrote the stories. Do your story ideas come to you fully formed, where you are basically just transcribing your brain, or do you develop ideas as you are writing?

AB: Definitely the second, I’d say, ninety-five percent of the time. I would say the primary delight I find in writing is the discovery, the unknown aspect.

KWR: I consider writing to include sitting with my eyes closed, staring at the wall opposite my computer, listening to music, or some combination. What does your writing include?

AB: I’ll block out a couple of hours so within that time I can just sit there, I don’t have to write, so sitting with my eyes closed would be fine, lots of staring at the wall. Absolutely. I don’t listen to music but not for any particular reason. Fidgeting and wanting not to be writing is as much a part of writing as the actual act of it.

KWR: Are you still writing in a closet?

AB: No, I moved out of that place and moved out of the closet. It was kind of cramped.

KWR: I workshopped a story once in which a woman kills her husband and kills her dog and possibly kills herself, and I left that part ambiguous. The workshop instructor asked me if she killed herself, and I said I didn’t know, and she was outraged. In your essay “Character Motivation” [The Writer’s Notebook], you say that writers should choose an action for a character that they can’t explain to give readers the opportunity to form their own interpretations. Are writers ultimately required to know everything their characters do and think?

AB: Ultimately, no I don’t think writers are required or even can know everything. I don’t think because a writer conjures up a character he has total access. He has access that he has: the sentences that are good about that character tell you things, and the sentences that are bad about that character, in my mind, don’t tell you much and should be cut. You can make up a million things that are just made-up facts; it doesn’t mean they have any resonance. The only clarification I would need is if it feels like a game a little bit to the reader or an ambiguity.  Are you, the writer, stepping away from an emotional place?  Then I think it’s a problem. Is it an easy out or does it add resonance, does it add complexity, does it add something real to not know? As a writer, I think the question is: am I skirting something or does this feel emotionally right and true as it is?

KWR: What is the significance, the value, to you of the title of a story, such as “The Fake Nazi”?

AB:  The title is the first entry point and then when you finish you go back and think about it again.  It has meaning, but some titles are much more dominant than others in terms of how they interact in the story.

KWR: Same question for the first sentence of a story, such as An Invisible Sign of My Own, and I love this one: “On my twentieth birthday I bought myself an ax”?

AB: It’s really helpful for me to have a first sentence that will bring me to the second sentence. I don’t think a first sentence has to be a certain way, but for me it’s helpful if I get pulled in and am eager to find out what’s next.

KWR: In what way are last sentences significant to your story, such as in “The Neighborhood,” “Even though he never plays with them again, they are now fixed to his body for years,” referring to blocks? In what way are last sentences significant to your stories?

AB: Last sentences in general tend to be important to the story. You do not know until you reach the end where the story lands. And you get to the end and you think about the whole thing again.

KWR: Your writing has what I call in my own writing “throwaway phrases”—those phrases that are tangential to the story. Yours are so rich in description. One example is your story, “On a Saturday Afternoon,” “a man’s t-shirt has a stain from peach cobbler at lunch left over from a potluck at Janet’s,” and we never know who Janet is, and we never know about the potluck. What is your goal with that type of phrasing?

AB: There is a lot I can say about that, about exploring the world of the story. I encourage students to let those tangents develop because often if you’re really exploring it may seem off topic but that’s really where the goods are.  Or how you’ll get to the end that we were talking about. Indulging the associative mind a little bit; Charles Baxter talks about this well in his book of essays, particularly the one on “Rhyming Action.” For the story Janet never comes back and the peace cobbler never comes back, but I think it felt important to me to talk about a certain kind of man and it helps me to picture him through that detail.

KWR: In a similar vein, your writing has a facility for similes, such as in “The Ring” [The Girl in the Flammable Skirt], “The ring caught the light like an opened wound,” which to me was some combination of a perceived beautiful piece of jewelry along with blood and tissue. Can you tell me what the significance of similes is to your stories?

AB: It’s similar to what I talked about in my last answer. I like similes. I enjoy reading them. I enjoy writing them! Similes that are overthought tend not to work. It’s allowing the impulse to flower on the page. In rewriting, it’s interesting to see which ones don’t quite work. I know for myself whenever I’ve slowed down and I’ve thought “now it’s time for a simile,”—well, those are the similes that tend to tank.

KWR: It has to flow from your writing. Is that correct?

AB: Yes.  Writing from a less conscious state; some of it is just the letting go of the thinking and planning process. Some are going to work, and you don’t know if they are going to work until a few days later.

KWR: What is the least helpful writing advice you have ever been given?

AB: Probably for me it’s “what does the character want” that has troubled me a lot, because I think it is a reasonable piece of writing advice, but it’s not the way I think. And so I have often felt it is a failing in me that I have been unable to answer that question. People who give writing advice give advice that speaks to the way they think. And everyone thinks differently. I don’t know what the character motivations are until I’m well into the story.

KWR: When I went to law school, I discovered I should have taken acting classes and should have perfected my poker game. As a writer, are there particular skills you wish you had that you don’t have?

AB: I have a terrible memory for research, so it would be nice if I could retain more!

KWR: It’s almost November and time for the NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month, www.nanowrimo.org], and I have read suggestions that you have offered to those writers. Do you participate yourself?

AB: I’ve never done it. I think it’s a great idea, and I think it promotes less self-consciousness, and I imagine these writers will write lots of pages that they cut and a few key ones to keep.

KWR: Assume you can only say one sentence in your keynote address to the Writers’ Digest conference in October. What will you say?

AB: My guess is the writing advice that I tend to repeat that I find very helpful myself is to write what you feel like writing, because it’ll keep the prose active.  Follow the language and the interest of the writer, as opposed to something more obligatory.

KWR: Thank you, Aimee.

Greg Neri, Young Adult Author and Poet

Photo: Debrah Lemattre

Greg Neri writes poetry, prose, and graphic novels for young adults under the pen name G. Neri. He’s said, “I write provocative, edgy stories for reluctant readers, especially urban boys, in hopes that these kinds of books—immediate, compelling and told through the eyes of young males—will open minds to reading.” They’re not the only ones taking note of his work. He was a 2011 Coretta Scott King honoree for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a middle-grade graphic novel, and Ghetto Cowboy, his latest middle-grade novel, received the 2012 Horace Mann Upstanders Children’s Book Award. He’s also a two-time American Library Association Notable Book Honoree.

Neri, who lives on the Gulf coast of Florida with his wife and daughter, recently spoke with Lunch Ticket about his writing process, his upcoming projects, and where he finds inspiration.

Kristen Schroer: Your books address an incredibly wide range of themes— surfer mules, chess, urban cowboys, the short life of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, Johnny Cash. Can you tell me about your research process and what it involves?

…it was filled with these amazing photographs of these kids in basically what is the worst neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and there’s this whole subculture of black urban horseman. It was almost like discovering some sort of modern-day Western was going on.

Greg Neri: All my fiction books are inspired by real life. It’s not that I sit down and say, Oh I’d like to write a book about black cowboys. It’s that I come across a real world situation or subculture that I’ve never heard of, and it stops me in my tracks.. For instance, with Ghetto Cowboy, somebody had sent me an article in Life magazine about this neighborhood in Philadelphia, and it was filled with these amazing photographs of these kids in basically what is the worst neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and there’s this whole subculture of black urban horseman. It was almost like discovering some sort of modern-day Western was going on. I’d never seen or heard about it. In fact a lot of people who live in Philadelphia have never heard about it either. It just floored me.

I immediately dive in once that thing grabs me and won’t let me go. Of course the first thing I do is start Googling. I’m just throwing phrases up and seeing what comes back at me. I’m not interested so much yet in the nitty-gritty little details, but I’m trying to capture the emotional truth of the place and the time. As soon as I have the essence of the place and its people, the characters kind of present themselves—the story presents itself—then I immediately start writing. I don’t even plot it out necessarily. I’m following the characters and seeing where they take me.

After I’ve done a draft or two, I will do a second round of research in which I’m verifying the things that I’ve written. I start with reality, and it takes me off on a fictional spin, and then I have to come back and verify that that fictional spin could exist in this world as I’ve portrayed it. Oftentimes I will end up going to the place near the end [of the writing process] as a reality check. With Ghetto Cowboy, I didn’t go to that specific neighborhood until after I’d already written a couple of drafts. I had talked to a lot people, I had done a lot of research, but when I actually went there, I had the strange sensation of walking into my book. These people had become my characters and the place had become a fictional thing, but here was a reminder that no—this is reality, this is a real world. And you have a responsibility to portray the poetic truth, even if it’s fiction. That’s happened on several books, where I go there at the end, and then I know it’s good and it’s right and it’s true.

KS: So for your upcoming picture book about Johnny Cash’s childhood, was that your experience when you went to Arkansas for what would have been his 80th birthday?

Just to walk in those footsteps really makes it real for you as a writer. It’s like a full circle. You read about things, they’re kind of abstract. Then you write about them, they become part of your mind.

GN: I heard that the Cash family was going to celebrate what would have been Johnny’s 80th birthday in this tiny, tiny hometown of his in Arkansas. The whole family was going to be there. So I just decided, well, I have to go.

It was like driving back in time. You left the city, and within 40 minutes of Memphis you’re in this total outback where you can stop on this dirt road and see horizon 360 degrees around you, and not a single person in sight. And that was his home. I would stand in what was his backyard, where they grew the crops, and just to feel the wind howling off those empty plains…and the mud. It’s this thick mud that your feet got stuck in. They called it gumbo and you could see why. You could feel it. I knew, this is where he found out his brother had just died, and this is where he first learned to swim and this is where he first learned to play guitar. Just to walk in those footsteps really makes it real for you as a writer. It’s like a full circle. You read about things, they’re kind of abstract. Then you write about them, they become part of your mind. Then you go there and it’s a real thing. And then the next thing you know, you’re talking to Rosanne Cash.

KS: Speaking of the worlds of your stories, have you had feedback from the cowboys in North Philly since the publication of Ghetto Cowboy?

GN: Yeah, and I’ve found all these other pockets of black urban horsemen around the United States. New York—in Queens, Brooklyn; in DC; Philadelphia; down in Louisiana. And in California where I’m from, South Central and in Oakland. I travel a lot around the United States and almost everywhere I go it seems someone comes out to me and says, “Oh, we have these guys.” When I was in LA for the Upstanders Award, a group of kids came from South Central. They were all young black horseman and girls. And I’m going to a school in Houston in a couple weeks and there’s a whole crew there and they’re actually going to come to my talk with their horses (laughs). They’re totally into it.

KS: To be able to find that book, where you see yourself in it, must be a really incredible experience for someone that age.

GN: Yeah. And it was kind of like this dying world and I wanted to capture it before it disappeared. It is worth remembering and worth valuing—it had value to it. And no one else was writing about it. I thought, This has to be told.

KS: Speaking of your travels, it does seem like you spend a lot of time on the road and doing school visits. Me, I love just being by myself in my house at my desk and I know a lot of writers feel similarly. But how does travel feed your process? What’s the significance for you of that community engagement?

GN: Well, I certainly have that side where I would rather not go anywhere (laughs) and just sit here. But I know that once I’m out there it’ll be great and I’m going to get a lot out of spending time with my readers or spark new readers. One, you are reminded that your books have made an impact on people. You see it, you feel it, they tell you things. My books kind of cater to this underground audience. They won’t be on the New York Times bestseller list, because they sell directly to schools and libraries for the most part, and a lot of my readers can’t necessarily afford to buy these books. They need the teachers and librarians to get these books so that they can have access to them. One book will be read by hundreds of kids. And that doesn’t show up in the stats. Then the other scenario is that a lot of schools I go to will actually buy the books for the kids. I don’t know where the money comes from. I’m going to this school in Houston, they bought 1500 copies of Ghetto Cowboy, one for every single kid in the school, plus the staff. That happens a lot with my books. The library might buy 400, 500 copies, and then give them out. They know these kids have one, never bought a book, and two, maybe never even read or finished a book.

One of the things I hear back is that my books are amongst the most stolen books from the library, which means that it means something to someone—so much so that they have to hold on to it. That’s a cool thing to know that somebody so desperately wants it. I met this kid in St Louis recently—he had never read a book and then he read my book Yummy. Ever since then, the only book he’ll read is Yummy. Every time they assign a book or he has to go to the library, he’ll read Yummy. So he’s read it like 15 times.

Then they [the kids] ask, When’s your next book coming? So you know there are people waiting for your next book and that these books mean something to them in a real way. It’s not just casual entertainment but it has real meaning and it affects their life, sometimes even changes their life, especially with a book like Yummy. I hear from a lot of kids who kind of recognize themselves in Yummy, and it’s like a wake up call. That feeds you and keeps you going. Plus, if you’re writing about this age group or these kinds of kids, the more contact you have, the more real they are. If you haven’t been around kids for a long time, then you lose that reality. The way they speak, the way they handle themselves, what they’re into and all of that. It’s good from a writer’s perspective on voice and place and how characters handle themselves, but also to know that your books are worth doing.

KS: Did you have a similarly transformative experience with an author or a book when you were younger?

GN: I wasn’t a huge reader in my early days. I was a very visual person and if I looked at a book it just looked like a big block of text. It didn’t hold my interest. Then a teacher gave me a copy of the Phantom Tollbooth. Just scanning the pictures it was apparent this was a crazy book. I had a pretty crazy imagination but here—like, someone printed this crazy thing! It opened my eyes to what a book could be, what a book could do. It could be kind of this wildly imaginative crazy experience that totally surprised you. Shortly after that I started reading a lot, so I went from reading not very much to reading The Lord of the Rings. I see that a lot. All it takes is that one book to open the door.

KS: Let’s talk about your book trailers, because you’ve developed some gorgeous book trailers for your works.

GN: I grew up in Los Angeles around the film world, and my first real job was working for a trailer company, a post-production house, that made previews for upcoming movies. That was a great training ground: how to tell a whole story in a minute twenty seconds, or sixty seconds, or thirty seconds. That’s a whole art in itself, capturing that tension—to show them and hook them in that amount of time. It’s a powerful tool to learn early on. I just love trailers and watching them for the movies, so when I started writing books it was a natural for me, because when I write I see it in my head like a movie. And the kids who read them, I think, see them like movies too. That’s the first question they always ask: When is this going to be a movie? The kids love the trailers. I don’t need to pitch the book, I just show them [the trailer] and they’re like, “Ohhhh.”

KS: It’s a nice element and different way for people to hear about the books if they’re not browsing at the bookstore or on Amazon.

GN: Right. And some kids are just more visual. Once they see it like a movie, they get it.

 KS: You have three short stories coming up in anthologies and your Johnny Cash project. Anything else you’re working on?

GN: Yes, I’m about to turn in the second draft of a novel in the next couple of days, and I have a couple of graphic novels that I’m kind of working on, on the side. As soon as I finish this novel I’ll jump on those too. Knockout Games is the one I’m doing right now. I’d been working on another book for about a year and a half, kind of struggling with it. Then I went to St Louis in April, and my contact took me to certain places and told me about this thing that was going on there that I had never heard about. It was kind of like Oliver Twist and Fight Club and Lord of the Flies all rolled into one and it was real. Very quickly it became apparent that it was a book. As soon as I got to the hotel that night and started Googling it, a ton of stuff started coming out. I just started writing it and it wrote itself very quickly, in like two and a half weeks.

As opposed to having spent the previous year and a half struggling with this other novel. Stories know which one you’re supposed to be writing. I have no control over it. It becomes apparent because one hits so deep and the other’s like a battle. You have to give into the muse and let her take you where she will, even if it’s not logical. You can’t fight it. If you fight it, you’ll lose.

KS: You sound prolific, with all these active ideas just fermenting in your mind. Is there stuff that you do outside of your writing that contributes to this?

There’s the saying you should write what you know about, but I’m always like, you should write what you don’t know about. You already know what you know about, and your world is pretty limited, but what you don’t know can literally fill a book. So that’s what I do.

GN: I’m always reading, I’m always watching, I’m always looking. I’m just interested in real life stories in general, without the purpose of looking for something to write about. I’m just interested in and of itself. I think that fills your head with all kinds of unexpected possibilities, of things that can happen in real life or the way that people behave that is totally outside of your own life. There’s the saying you should write what you know about, but I’m always like, you should write what you don’t know about. You already know what you know about, and your world is pretty limited, but what you don’t know can literally fill a book. So that’s what I do. What I don’t know, that thing I never heard of, like Oh my god, that’s real? It just takes over me and it fills a book.

KS: And it’s more freeing in a way, relying on your imagination rather than being an expert.

GN: Yeah, to immerse yourself in a whole other world. What connects me to that world, even if the characters you’re writing about are completely different than me, living in a totally different existence than I ever lived in is that we’re all human. We all know what it means to feel loss or anger or happiness or sadness or frustration. We have all that to different degrees, depending on our situation, but we all know what that feels like. You just have to put yourself in their shoes in that situation, and the story becomes you. You are in the story, not physically in the story, but you’re in the story, the story comes from you, comes through you, so when other readers who have no connection to that world read it, they can relate to it. I get asked all the time how come I don’t write about my own life, and I say, I do. Not literally about my life, but I am in every character, in every scene. We all are.

For more information, visit Greg Neri’s home on the web at www.gregneri.com


Arthur Sze, Poet

Photo: Gloria Graham

Arthur Sze was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012. He was born in New York City and educated at the University of California, Berkeley. Sze is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Ginkgo Light (2009), Quipu (2005), The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (1998), and Archipelago (1995).  He is also renowned as a translator of Chinese poetry, and released The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (2001). Most recently, Sze edited the highly acclaimed anthology Chinese Writers on Writing (2010). Among his many awards are a Lannan Literary Award, an American Book Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, and a Western States Book Award for Translation. From 1984 to 2006, Sze taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he is Professor Emeritus. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, the poet Carol Moldaw, and their daughter.

Our two Poetry Editors spoke with Sze by phone.

Janice Ko Luo/José Hernandez Diaz: Can you describe a typical day in the life of Arthur Sze? In particular, what is your writing process? 

Arthur Sze: I’m not sure that I have a typical day, but it really works around my daughter who just started seventh grade. Ideally, if I can get up really early and write for an hour, sometimes on the weekends it’s longer, but during the school week if I can get an hour, then I can go back to work in my study for an hour, hour and a half, so basically I piece my writing time together. Then in the afternoon, if I can get an hour, that’s pretty great too. In terms of the actual writing process, my best work is first thing in the morning, and I basically do best when I don’t know where I’m going. If I make a mess of things, if I lose my way in order to find it, that’s better. If I think I know where the writing is heading, that’s usually a bad sign because I’m too much in control or there isn’t room for discovery.

JKL/JHD: What are you working on now?

AS:  I just completed a new manuscript of poems called Compass Rose and Copper Canyon is going to publish it in May or June of 2014. I’m excited about that manuscript. It’s five years of writing and the whole book ends on a colon, and there’s a blank page at the end. I’m excited about that. There’s a lot of directionality and searching through the manuscript, through the poems, of orienting in the world. There’s a lot of travel. And there’s a poem that has thirty one-line stanzas that is its own poem, but I broke it into unnamed sections, so there’s one line and two lines and then three and four, five and seven and nine…and so that poem is a through-line that runs through the book. The last poem in that manuscript is called “The Unfolding Center” and incidentally that just appeared in the latest issue of Kenyon Review. That’s the poem that ends on a colon, but I wrote that long poem in collaboration with Susan York, a visual artist here in Santa Fe.

Susan has created twenty-two large abstract drawings that go with my eleven poems and we’re in the process of looking for exhibits. We want to travel the show and have a book published that would include the poems with high-resolution images of the drawings. The drawings are about two feet wide by two and a half feet high, and the Santa Fe Art Institute wants to first exhibit the collaboration.  That will be in the fall of 2013. That’s something I’m working on, and then I’m also working on some new poems. I don’t know where those are going, but I’m just glad that some short new poems are coming to me.

JKL/JHD: And when you say that you don’t know where these poems are going, do you have these images for the poems in your head, or do you base them on life experiences that you jot down? How do you go about coming up with images and juxtapositions? 

…it’s a mystery where poems come from. Sometimes it’s a musical phrase…Sometimes it’s something I overhear, or something I see.  It could be images.

AS: I would say both suggestions that you mention – that there are images or things from daily life. I mean it’s a mystery where poems come from. Sometimes it’s a musical phrase…Just to give you examples from the past, I overheard something at the post office and I thought someday that is going to enter a poem, and it took many years to happen, but it did. Sometimes it’s something I overhear, or something I see.  It could be images. It could be almost like a dream state where phrases come to me, so it’s hard to predict. I don’t have one particular source. I like to use the metaphor of seeds. You can have lots of ideas and some of them, if you nurture them, grow and evolve and develop into really interesting poems and others don’t. And it’s hard to know when it’s going to happen.

JKL/JHD: What is your editing process? 

AS: My editing process tends toward growing the poem and letting it reveal itself, to not, again, know too soon where the poem is going or what it’s about. I often have a lot of non-narrative fragments, suspended images and phrases on a page and they grow. It’s kind of a big mess, but eventually I start to sift them down and start to go through and think about how one may connect to another. A lot of it is very instinctive. I want to feel that on the one hand there is a kind of spontaneity and excitement of discovery, but I also want to feel that there is a kind of underlying rigor, that the images or sequencing isn’t arbitrary, that each word needs to be where it is and that each line and image needs to be where it is. There’s an underlying rigor that is making things happen in their particular way.  In terms of editing, I will frequently play with ends and beginnings and subvert them or I’ll try to open up spaces between lines that I have written. If I have fragments, I will sometimes cut out sections and remove them so that they’re not just on a computer screen but I’m tactilely moving them around on a desktop, or if I have sections in a sequence I might lay them out on the floor and put white pages, blank pages, in between and ask myself–can something go between these? Or what would happen if I wrote something in between? So it’s an organic process.

JKL/JHD: You mention that in your poetry you try to capture spontaneity and discipline at the same time. Can you tell us if you are trying to mimic something in nature, or the reasoning behind those aesthetic choices? 

If I know the structure too soon, then I’m imposing it, and that’s usually a disaster for me, because there isn’t enough creative room.

AS: I’m not sure if it’s something in nature–it might be. I think a lot of it has to do with figuring out some kind of structure that’s growing organically and in that sense it follows the laws of nature. If I know the structure too soon, then I’m imposing it, and that’s usually a disaster for me, because there isn’t enough creative room. There is a kind of natural order to how things progress in a poem, particularly in longer sequences. I’m looking for some kind of structural through-line. It could be from astronomy. It could be, as an example from nature, how a persimmon ripens.

JKL/JHD: Would you say that your poetry transcends the different schools of thought in poetry?  We think you are accessible both to academic poets and the poets who are outside academia, because of the two elements you speak of–spontaneity and rigor.

AS: I personally dislike poetic labels. Calling someone a Beat poet or someone a language poet, I find that unhelpful. At this point, I think of what Adrienne Rich said “you can’t think of it as American poetry, but American poetries,” because there are so many different styles that are all part of American poetry, and I like that. I also have poems that have lots of layers, so on the one hand, I think the immediacy of my images and my surprising juxtapositions can appeal to a wide audience, but for someone who is a college student or a working poet, there are lots of layers in my work. So those can be appreciated in a way that maybe a high school student might not immediately see or recognize or respond to, but I do hope ultimately all poetry engages viscerally. I think it was Eliot who said that “a poem communicates before it is understood,” and I like that idea that you might not get all of the poem at once, but if the poem is good, you’re going to get some kind of gut response quickly.

JKL/JHD: As you know, Antioch University is a school geared towards social justice. Can you give us some advice on how to write about social or political issues effectively in poetry?  Maybe not overtly, but can you give us your take on this?

AS: My own opinion is to follow Emily Dickinson and think, “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  I think sometimes if one is trying to make an overtly political poem, it boomerangs. It comes back at you, because ultimately I think poetry is about liberation. It’s about imaginative freedom, deep emotional experience, and it’s a liberating force. As such, it needs to resist all forms of coercion. If one has a political agenda to address inside of a poem, it’s not that it’s a bad thing, but I think for that to be effective as a poem, you oftentimes have to approach the truth from an oblique or unexpected angle. You don’t want the poem to become propagandistic or a piece of political indoctrination. You want people to be moved by the true spirit of what’s at stake and then say–oh, this is a terrible injustice.

In my own experience, I rarely write prose poems, but I have a prose poem called “The Los Alamos Museum” in The Redshifting Web. It was written in prose after visiting the museum in Los Alamos that displays replicas of the atom bombs. Lots of high school students, junior high school students, Ph.D.s and adults go through this museum. They see in high-tech format how you can design a nuclear warhead, and it looks like a really interesting, exciting scientific challenge to figure it out.  But what it really denies is the cost of humanity. You don’t see the photographs of devastation from those two atom bombs. You don’t see that in designing this nuclear warhead. Instead you have a computer module that makes it resemble a computer game. It removes the impact of how powerful and charged nuclear weapons are part of the problems of our nuclear age. In the museum, they even had lights on the floor and if you pressed a button, the whole floor lit up in a fast arc of light to show you how quickly the light would zoom out from point zero, from where the atom bomb was detonated. And of course, I’m looking at my son and he’s fascinated by the lights and I’m thinking–well, you know, everything would be obliterated.

I went home and thought that if I wrote something didactic, it wasn’t going to be very interesting or moving, so I decided to make the poem very clinical, to use lots of specific details from that museum and because I have a science background and scientific vocabulary at my disposal, I could write it clinically but I could also show how dehumanizing it is too. I thought, I never write in prose but this should be a prose poem. The poem needed an objective presentation, although the subtext is of course, extremely emotional.

JKL/JHD: It seems like you’re saying that form plays a big role in presenting political issues. We also read an interview about how you list and catalogue things as a way of preserving the names of Native American tribes that are disappearing. Can you talk a little more about form?

AS: Let me just back up to the issue of catalogues and tie it into politics.  In a sequence called “The String Diamond” [in The Redshifting Web], I think it’s section three, there’s a list of thirty endangered species, and there’s no commentary before or after, so it’s just a list and it starts “Deltoid spurge,/red wolf,/ocelot,/green-blossom pearly mussel…” I found that list on a National Geographic map where they had one of these foldouts listing 500 endangered species; and I loved the sounds to the plants and the creatures. I started to play with them and orchestrate them. So there’s no commentary about why are these things, items, being listed. But if you see or begin to see that there’s a through-line running through this list of the many, then the list can be read as intensely political. These are all species vanishing off the face of the earth, but I never say that overtly. I’m just articulating pure sound and naming and to carry that over to the Institute of American Indian Arts, I taught there for twenty-two years, and when I left, I wanted to write a poem that in some way reflected on my experience there, but also honored the many students that I had the privilege and honor of working with.

I worked with students from over 200 tribes, so I listed the names of students who after twenty-two years stood out in my memory. I first had their names and then I thought, that’s too literal. I replaced the personal names with the names of tribes.

I worked with students from over 200 tribes, so I listed the names of students who after twenty-two years stood out in my memory. I first had their names and then I thought, that’s too literal. I replaced the personal names with the names of tribes. When I did that, I got really excited. I thought, this is like a roll call of Native tribes coming forward, and I remembered they used to do that at graduation. When a student got up and received their diploma, they would also name the tribe, so that centerpiece, that bare list is in the center of “Spectral Line” [in The Ginkgo Light]. It’s a poem in nine sections and section five lists the catalogue. That’s the beginning of the poem, though it is formally located at the center. As I developed the sequence, I frequently considered how, in astronomy, spectral lines form a unique signature of bands of light. With the Institute as my source of energy, I braided narrative sections with non-narrative sections to try to enact an experience of its unique signature, from the profane to the sacred, which was exemplified in its formal diversity.

JKL/JHD: Can you tell us some of the students you worked with at the Institute of American Indian Arts?

AS: As an aside, I want to say that sometimes when I was teaching I would ask myself what a successful day or successful event would be. I often thought there would be a student who wouldn’t say a word for months and then suddenly would start speaking. I felt like that was a huge success that that student got to the point where he or she trusted me or trusted the environment, where they would start sharing and articulating their thoughts and experiences with literature. That was a huge success. In terms of particular former students, I would name Sherwin Bitsui, Orlando White, DG Okpik, Allison Hedge Coke, James Stevens, Eddie Chuculate, Layli Long Soldier, Santee Frazier and Jennifer Foerster. I recently went back to the Institute for a residency, and they said that my former students have now published twenty books, which is pretty great for an undergraduate BFA program.

There are two more writers I would like to add to a list of emerging Native writers, Joan Kane and Natalie Diaz. I’ve never met Joan, and I didn’t know her work before judging the AWP Donald Hall Poetry Prize, but I picked her manuscript, Hyperboreal, and the University of Pittsburgh Press will publish it next year. She’s Inupiaq from Alaska and I thought her work was very very wonderful.

JKL/JHD: You recently edited the book Chinese Writers on Writing. Can you recommend some contemporary or emerging Chinese poets to read?

AS: Among the contemporary or emerging Chinese poets, and I’m thinking of China right now, and not say – Taiwan, two poets that people will probably know, who were part of the Misty School are Bei Dao and Yang Lian. I think they’re both doing good work. I think some of the post-Misty poets that interest me include Xi Chuan, Zhai Yongming who wrote an important feminist manifesto back in 1985 that’s included in Chinese Writers on Writing for the first time, Zang Di, Wang Xiaoni, Yu Jian, and Yi Sha.  I want to mention that Zephyr Press and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have a new series of bilingual poetry books. The poems are printed in Chinese and then English translation. There’s a set of ten in the works. Four have come out. I think Ron Padgett and Wang Ping translated the Yu Jian book, and Andrea Lingenfelter translated the Zhai Yongming book. Two other really good poets that are in that series are Ouyang Jianghe and Han Dong. There’s also another translation series that Jonathan Stalling at the University of Oklahoma Press is initiating and that first book just came out. It’s Winter Sun by Shi Zhi, translated by Jonathan.

JKL/JHD: How do Chinese poets feel about the American influence on their poetry? Has American poetry influenced Chinese poetry?

AS: Yes, not just American poetry, but Western poetry has been a gigantic influence on modern Chinese poetry. For the Misty School Poets, I personally knew Gu Cheng who died tragically in New Zealand, and he told me that when he was growing up, his generation just could not wait to read the latest waves of translations of American poetry. It included Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Snyder, Ginsberg…They just were soaking up American and European poetry. It was just tidal wave after tidal wave. That’s where they drew their inspiration.

The post Misty poet I mentioned, Xi Chuan, is a pen name and most of these poets use pen names. Xi Chuan means Western River and he said for his formative years, he did nothing but read Western poetry, American poetry, European poetry, and it was only in the last decade or so that he said to himself, I need to learn Chinese poetry. I need to learn the Chinese tradition. He teaches at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and as a way to learn that classical tradition, he started, instead of Western poetry, teaching classical Chinese poetry to his students. I mention this because there’s now a big movement for contemporary Chinese poets to reclaim their heritage and tradition. Years ago, they were so clearly wanting to rupture and break from the past, but it’s now a time when they feel confident that they can absorb from the tradition and not be trapped by it. It’s a very exciting situation.

JKL/JHD: Do you feel the next generation of Chinese students have knowledge of Classical Chinese poetry? It seems like the younger generation is living in such a capitalistic Internet culture there now.

AS: That’s a really interesting question. Poetry in China has moved to the margin in the way that American poets would say is the case in America. Because of this marginalization, and because classical Chinese poetry is written in old-style characters and has such a spare syntax, whereas contemporary Chinese is written in simplified characters and has a radically different syntax, I believe the emerging generation of Chinese students feels that classical Chinese poetry is at a great remove from them and that their knowledge of it is limited.

In 1985, I remember having tea with the Chinese Writer’s Association, and the head of Poetry Monthly was lamenting that their readership had dropped to 1.5 million, and I was like 1.5 million–Chinese numbers are always huge–but still, that’s a lot of people reading poetry. For those Misty School poets, their manuscripts had a circulation of maybe 10,000, but the reading audience for poetry today is small. Poetry doesn’t sell in the way that it used to. It doesn’t have the large audience that it used to and, as you say, there’s such a capitalistic Internet culture there now. Nevertheless, poetry is still taken extremely seriously by the party, by the government, but it clearly does not have the clout in readership that it once had.

JKL/JHD: Do you think it is partly because of the government’s censorship and people being scared of writing, of the consequences of writing, say, political poetry?

Chinese poets have told me that the most difficult thing is not government censorship, it’s self-censorship, what happens when you start writing a phrase and you think–oh, that’s not going to be allowed in the publication. Once you start self-censoring, then that’s a disaster.

AS: It’s a really interesting issue. Chinese poets have told me that the most difficult thing is not government censorship, it’s self-censorship, what happens when you start writing a phrase and you think–oh, that’s not going to be allowed in the publication. Once you start self-censoring, then that’s a disaster. But there are all sorts of ways that those Chinese poets have figured out different kinds of solutions. I know one poet, for instance, who lives in Shanghai part of the year and in New York City part of the year. In New York City he’s writing whatever he wants and then he takes it back to China to see what he can get published there. What he can’t get published, he might publish in New York City, Hong Kong or Taipei. A lot of poetry websites come and go quickly on the Internet, so poems get posted and then they quickly disappear. It’s a complicated but really interesting situation, and I can’t give you an easy answer here.

JKL/JHD: How has Eastern poetry influenced your poetry?  We are assuming that you travel a lot to China, and Asia in general – has that influenced your poetry?

AS: It has. When I was a student at Berkeley, I created my own major in poetry. I wasn’t a formal English major and one of the things I wanted to do was to be able to read Li Bai, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Li Shang-yin, the great Tang Dynasty poets in the original. Then I tried my hand at translating them for several reasons – one was I thought I could learn my own craft that way, but I did also experience the poems at a much deeper level in translation by thinking about how those poems were put together. And how could I, even though I knew it was an impossible task, how could I make some kind of attempt to translate them into English? In terms of my own evolution as a poet, the ancient Chinese poetry came first, and then it’s interested me that over time I’ve reached out to poets from other time periods. When I edited Chinese Writers on Writing, it was really a reading of modern Chinese literature (poetry and fiction), and so I had moved from the very ancient all the way up to the contemporary.

In terms of my travel to Asia, I’ve read at international poetry festivals in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival in China asked English language poets to translate poems by contemporary Chinese poets into English, and vice versa. So there was a lot of cultural exchange. In traveling to these festivals, I’ve had important conversations with many poets—I’ve translated poems by Yang Lian, Xi Chuan, Yan Li, Chen Li, and Yang Mu into English—and these experiences have influenced my poetry in oblique ways.

JKL/JHD: Do you do a lot of research, because we know you write a lot about nature and science? Do these things just stick in your head, because you have a science background? 

AS: I think I probably do less research than many people would guess. A lot of the information comes from first-hand personal conversations. Santa Fe is a very small town, but there are lots of really interesting people here. In the 1990’s, I used to have dinner with two amazing physicists, Murray Gell-Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for the quark and George Zweig, who also discovered that particle. I would come to dinner-the wife was an arts administrator, and her husband was a physicist—and  I would converse with the physicists. Murray would talk about Complexity Theory, while George Zweig would talk about fundamental particles, so a lot of that information that found itself into my poetry was not from researching on the Internet. It was from actual conversation with people here in town, who were working on those endeavors.

To give another example, I learned my mycology by mushroom hunting with my son for five summers with a renowned expert, Bill Isaacs. In July and August, we would go up into the mountains above Santa Fe, as part of Bill’s class; we would collect every mushroom we could find and lay them out on picnic tables. Bill would go through and identify all of them. I tried but couldn’t really learn the mushrooms by looking in a field guide. So again, the images of mushrooms that are in my poetry came from intimate hands-on experience.

JKL/JHD: Can you give us an example of one of your recent poems?

AS: Yes. This is a poem from my new manuscript Compass Rose that appeared in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day Series.

Comet Hyakutake

Comet Hyakutake’s tail stretches for 360 million miles—

in 1996, we saw Hyakutake through binoculars—

the ion tail contains the time we saw bats emerge out of a cavern at dusk—

in the cavern, we first heard stalactites dripping—

first silence, then reverberating sound—

our touch reverberates and makes a blossoming track—

a comet’s nucleus emits X-rays and leaves tracks—

two thousand miles away, you box up books and, in two days, will step through the
invisible rays of an airport scanner—

we write on invisible pages in an invisible book with invisible ink—

in nature’s infinite book, we read a few pages—

in the sky, we read the ion tracks from the orchard—

the apple orchard where blossoms unfold, where we unfold—

budding, the child who writes, “the puzzle comes to life”—

elated, puzzled, shocked, dismayed, confident, loving: minutes to an hour—

a minute, a pinhole lens through which light passes—

Comet Hyakutake will not pass earth for another 100,000 years—

no matter, ardor is here—

and to the writer of fragments, each fragment is a whole—

David L. Ulin, Author and Los Angeles Times book critic

Photo: Noah Ulin

No one knows books like David L. Ulin. On any given day, the Los Angeles Times book critic has an assortment of books within his reach, and each one is as different from the others as the hues of the rainbow. From The Best American Short Stories 2012 to Waging Heavy Peace, the meandering memoir by singer-songwriter Neil Young, Ulin’s personal and professional tastes for reading material run the spectrum. He counts iconic author Joan Didion as one of his greatest influences.

“One of the great things about my job at the paper is it’s just a kind of public version of my private reading life,” he said. “I pretty much read what I want and write about it.”

Ulin has also written several of his own books, including The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and The Myth of Solid Ground: The Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, which was named a Best Book of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. He has edited three anthologies: Cape Cod Noir, Another City: Writing From Los Angeles, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a 2002 California Book Award.

His most recent book, Labyrinth, is about a middle-aged man, now living in Los Angeles, who travels to San Francisco, his former home, to confront his geographic and social history. He seeks solace at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, where he walks the labyrinth and reflects on who he is, who he was, and the relationships between distance and belonging, memory and identity.

Ulin is also the author of essays and articles that have appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, The New York Times Book Review, LA Weekly, Black Clock, and Columbia Journalism Review. He also published a book of poems, entitled Cape Cod Blues. His essay, “The Half-Birthday of the Apocalypse,” was nominated for the 2004 Pushcart Prize.

Ulin teaches graduate-level writing courses at several Southern California universities, including the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Lunch Ticket editor Wendy Fontaine recently interviewed Ulin.

Wendy Fontaine:  You’re a professional reader and a professional writer. Which do you like better?

I like having written more than I like actually writing. I started as a reader and I became a writer because of how much the books I was reading, and the writers I was reading, meant to me, and how much I wanted to be in their company.

David L. Ulin:  Reading is a lot more fun. I like having written more than I like actually writing. I started as a reader and I became a writer because of how much the books I was reading, and the writers I was reading, meant to me, and how much I wanted to be in their company.

WF:  What’s your typical workday like?

DU:  I don’t have a typical workday, I don’t think. I like to do a lot of different things. It keeps me interested. A typical week would include teaching a couple of classes, reading a couple of books, and writing usually two things for the paper. Generally I write in the morning. I find that’s when my mind is freshest. If I’m really working on something, I’ll be writing by 6, but usually I’m writing by 7 or 7:30. I want the writing time to be as unencumbered as it can be.

WF:  How do you decide what to write about?

DU:  It depends on the project. It takes me a while [to write a book.] Writing even a short book will take me a while, so if I’m going to be engaged in a project, it’s got to be something I want to sit down and wrestle with. It’s got to be a relationship that I want to be in.

WF:  Does the marketplace influence your decisions?

DU: I want the marketplace to like my books, but I have to like my books first. With shorter pieces, it’s a little different. You live with them for a shorter period of time. I’ve been lucky. I really haven’t had to do much work geared for the marketplace.

WF:  Speaking of the marketplace, what are the literary trends coming down the pike, and should we, as writers, even care about the trends?

We do write for readers. That’s part of what the job is. You’re writing to be read. You’re writing to have a connection to the reader, so we need to be aware of the idea of writing as a public act.

DU:  For a writer, trying to pay attention and tailor one’s work to trends—particularly to market trends but even to cultural trends—is kind of a loser’s game in a certain sense. By the time a book comes out, who knows what the trends will be then? It’s sort of like chasing smoke.

We do write for readers. That’s part of what the job is. You’re writing to be read. You’re writing to have a connection to the reader, so we need to be aware of the idea of writing as a public act. But we can never determine who those readers are or how they come to our work. So I think that your best bet is to find the material, the style, the voice, the writing, the story that speaks to you first. It’s only when we write out of that authentic center do we produce work that is going to connect with the reader.

I’m much more interested—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a writer—in trying to find that essential core and trying to create something that will actually speak to someone, beginning with myself.

WF:  Do you think that kind of authenticity is what gives a book or an essay its sticking power?

DU:  Absolutely. That other stuff just doesn’t resonate as deeply. If we’re not trying to express ourselves deeply and directly then we’re wasting our time and we’re wasting readers’ time. I don’t want to say writers should isolate themselves and not worry about the marketplace. You have to worry about the marketplace because you have to survive.

There is always that conversation about author platforms and how to position yourself, and I think that is important for writers to think about. But in terms of trying to market the stuff, or thinking about its marketability, all that can be centered on after the book is finished or after the writing is done. Otherwise it gets in the way.

WF:  When you get to read for pleasure, what do you choose?

DU:  I love hard-boiled detective novels. I read essays, cultural criticism, literary fiction. I read pretty much the same kind of stuff that I read for the paper.

WF:  Is there a book that you’ve read recently that surprised you?

DU: Yes, Neil Young’s memoir. It’s the weirdest rock star autobiography I’ve ever read in my life. It’s authentically Neil Young’s voice, which is good and bad. It’s messy, it’s long…but it’s also kind of weirdly beautiful because it’s so much a representation of him.

WF:  Last June at Antioch University, you spoke about the ethics of nonfiction, specifically about how facts are defined and treated by certain authors, like John D’Agata. (D’Agata wrote an essay in 2002 about the suicide of a Las Vegas teen, having taken liberties with certain details of the story to heighten its literary effect. The fact-checking process for the essay is the subject of D’Agata’s 2012 book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Some say D’Agata’s method deceptively blurs the line between fact and fiction while others say it redefines the parameters of creative nonfiction.)

What are the rules of creative nonfiction, or are there any rules any more?

DU: I don’t really believe in rules, in general. I think there are certain ethics. I’m not a D’Agata apologist, but I think he threw a really interesting bomb into the middle of the room. You don’t need to agree with him, but I like the idea of art and literature as a provocation. One of the things we are supposed to be doing, as readers and as writers, is shaking up our preconceptions, so whenever a writer provokes us into something, I think that’s a good thing.

Nonfiction is an interesting and really complicated territory. You can tell by the way there’s no good way for us to talk about what it is. Fiction is fiction. Poetry, you have a really good sense of what that is. But nonfiction means everything. It’s across the board, and then we subcategorize it as creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction or literary journalism or whatever you want to call it. None are satisfactory umbrella terms for what it is we are trying to do. We start to think that, because we are using the word “nonfiction,” that what we are dealing with in this kind of writing is fact when what we are really dealing with is truth—and they are not always the same. What D’Agata is trying do, though sometimes a little heavy-handedly, is create the space for us to discuss this.

WF:  Books are difficult to write. They take focus, passion and commitment. That said, is it difficult for you, as a critic and as an author, to give a bad review?

DU:  It’s really hard to write a book, even a book that’s a complete disaster. But the critic’s job is to tell the truth about that book as he or she sees it. I can’t do the job if I’m not willing to say this book didn’t work and here’s why. It’s harder now because I have had that same experience [of receiving a bad review]. What I think has changed since I started writing books is that I’m much more aware of the subjectivity of the reviewer.

The ethical requirement of the critic is to be honest from their perspective, to say whether they think a book works or doesn’t work for them. The ethical requirement of the critic is also to be respectful of the process.

WF:  Do authors ever call you afterward and complain?

DU:  Very rarely.

WF: What advice do you have for those of us who are aspiring to be working writers?

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t be a writer. Don’t listen to their negative bullshit. The people who became working writers are the people who didn’t quit.

DU:  Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t be a writer. Don’t listen to their negative bullshit. The people who became working writers are the people who didn’t quit. The lack of perseverance is a guarantee of failure. But if you can’t be dissuaded, then you will be a writer.

WF:  Lunch Ticket is a literary magazine with a special interest in social justice. What social issues do you wish more people cared about?

DU:  My social justice begins close to home. I start with the things that affect the people I care about and then I move from there. The big issues that I’m involved in are issues of gay rights and women’s rights.

The key, to me, is empathy. I think we, as a culture, lack empathy. We are generally selfish and self-focused, and we tend to think of the “other” as “other” instead of being of the same human dynamic. But creating empathy is at the center of our literature, whether it’s for actual people in nonfiction or invented characters in fiction, whether it creates empathy for people who are very different from us in terms of point of view or in terms of culture. How can we not have empathy when we read our way into the life of another human being? That is the social value of art.

Also, empathy cuts both ways. We have to be empathetic toward those who are not empathetic. There has to be a meeting ground in the center, a place where we all share a set of common experiences, and where disagreement is tolerated as long as it’s civil.

WF:  What book should every writer read?

DU:  I don’t know if I can boil it down to one book but to me the essential text is Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Another book I find really, really important is The Confessions of Saint Augustine for precisely these kinds of empathy questions that we were talking about and the idea of empathy stretching across millennia. To read that book, you enter into Augustine’s head. The stuff that he’s wrestling with—questions of meaning, questions of love, questions of experience, questions of fear and mortality—are all the same things we’re dealing with now. Everything has change but nothing has changed.