October 16, 2010
Welcome. As this is announced as a “Self-Interview,” I won’t pretend to be two people chatting. Many of the questions were posed by friends of mine, after I asked them what they’d like to see answered in an interview. Those I’ve used will credit their author. This online feature is mostly about my haiku, so let’s start there. What is a haiku?
Due to a misunderstanding at the turn of the last century, Haiku are commonly thought of as a short 3-line poem of five, seven, and five syllables. Technically, most of the short poems I write are Senriyu, not Haiku. A Senriyu is any poem of 17 syllables. A traditional Haiku is not only short, but also includes a reference to Nature, the season, and some hint of time passing. In Japanese, Haiku are often much shorter than 17 syllables, as they use rhythm rather than syllables as their measure.
I started writing Haiku as a joke. When I went to my first National Poetry Slam in 1995, I was only a spectator. There are many ‘side events’ that non-registered poets may enter, and one of them was called “Head 2 Head Haiku.” Rules require at least 21 haiku to win. Sure, I can write a 17-syllable poem! So, being over-confident and pretty drunk, I wrote 21 REALLY AWFUL Haiku about Jerry Garcia. He’d died the day before, and I was not a fan of the Grateful Dead. Here’s an example: Ben & Jerry’s invent / a new flavor ice cream: / Rotten Garcia. groans I didn’t exactly get booed off the stage, but it was noticeably uncomfortable in the room. Next day, I had the bad luck of facing the previous year’s defending champion, Sarge Lintecum. He was smart, clever, and wickedly funny. He creamed me! I was deeply inspired by his work, and the other poets. How much brilliance can be crammed into so few words. Brevity is poetic, and Haiku seemed to be the essence of poetry to me from then on.
Is that what inspires you? Other poets?
Yes. Yes, and everything else! I love the world we live in, the ugliness and the beauty, the drama of suffering and pleasure. I grew up as an artist, got a degree in studio art, and took up poetry as a kind of cross-training for drawing. When I get writer’s block, I just switch art forms. Poetry is not my ‘native tongue’ however. I need to put on my “poetry cap” to translate thoughts or strong feelings into poetry. Other poets help me to think poetically. But the inspiration is over-flowing. I’m constantly inspired. I can work myself into exhaustion trying to express my gratitude for being alive, to reflect the beauty I see all around, to manifest all the ideas in my head. Art inspires me. Nature. Creation itself inspires me. I’m lucky, or blessed. I don’t need to seek inspiration. I have to choose what to focus on. That’s part of why I like Haiku. The form has a strong traditional association with describing things as they are in present-tense, of being based on nature.
Is it necessary to understand or know the author in order to appreciate the poem?
In my opinion, no. Art is a phenomenon unto itself which can be appreciated in context without any reference to history or authorship. To put it bluntly, I don’t need to like you to like your poem. Or, I don’t need to love your father in order to love you. Knowing a little bit about the author may enrich the experience of reading the poem, such as the sad story of the famous haiku poet Issa. Knowing his story makes each poem so much more poignant! To me, poetry, especially performance poetry, is a lot like a conversation. I can have a fascinating chat with a stranger on the street about cherry blossoms. I don’t need to know their biography.
The experience a viewer/reader/listener has with poem based on their own values is not dependent on some kind of external validation or reference. I totally agree with Tolstoy’s motto, “To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but that most people can’t eat it.” However, I’d take it further and say it is not necessary for the reader to comprehend the true meaning of a poem (or the author’s intent) in order to have an enjoyable or meaningful experience.
In fact, knowing the author can actually diminish the experience, as another ‘filter’ is placed over the piece and the feelings it invokes. For example, I’m unable to view a Picasso without the baggage of knowing about his nasty character weighing me down. I feel annoyed by work which is so intensely personal and obscure that I practically need the author’s diary by my side as a reference to decode it. It seems self-indulgent. As the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t look at the finger, look at the moon (it points to).”
Question from Daled: What took you from the visual arts to the written word? (or, if you prefer – why’d you go from painting to poetry?)
A few things: One, painting is toxic. Most artist’s paints are made from heavy metals, and the solvents are poison. It is literally against the law to throw an oil painting in the trash, though people do it all the time. It just seemed weird to me, to be making toxic waste, to be destroying myself by making art. I read so much art history, about so many unhappy, unhealthy, and dysfunctional artists, and it seemed like an occupational hazard! I love art, but couldn’t resolve the illogic of killing myself for it. Painting wasn’t helping me figure myself out emotionally. Even if I stayed unhappy doing poetry, the least I could do is stop poisoning myself.
Two, I got tired of making expensive trinkets for rich people. A typical American will spend 30K on a car that loses half its value as soon as you drive it off the lot, no problem. Those same ‘average folks’ will balk at spending $1000 on a painting that will not only increase in value, but still be valuable to their grandchildren. Our culture just has a skewed sense of value. So typically it’s the wealthy who buy art.
The social scene around art sales back when I graduated from art school was such a bizarre cult of personality. I just didn’t want to play that status game. I wanted to create something non-toxic that wasn’t about ME, but about ART. Art that was affordable, inclusive, and transcended class and caste. I was already writing poetry (really BAD poetry) and when I got pulled into organizing poetry events, it clicked. This was a way of including all kinds of people in making a non-toxic, non-polluting, inexpensive art. It was a way to serve others while being creative in a non-materialistic way.
Three: artists are often solitary creatures. People rarely applaud for paintings. I really didn’t connect with most of the people I met at art gallery openings. I was lonely at the time and not only were poetry events a great way to meet girls, the applause is a huge rush. Poetry became my service, my art, and my social scene. I met my wife at a poetry event.
Oh, and I should say that the visual arts scene has changed. First Fridays in Oakland (AKA “Art Murmur”) is so much fun! It’s become a kind of street carnival where all kinds of unpretentious people go to a bunch of galleries in an old industrial part of town. It’s inspired me to seriously take up painting again, but that’s another story! Suffice to say that serving others through art AND making it social cleared up a lot of emotional issues.
How did you get involved in Poetry Slams, specifically?
I didn’t like the game at first. Poets, competing? I’d already been running poetry showcases for four years before I saw my first slam at the 1994 Lollapalooza music festival. It seemed wrong, but I could not deny the hundreds of people watching the event. I wasn’t fond of the punchy, gimmicky, drama-driven writing, but could not deny the quality work I witnessed at my first National Poetry Slam. Nor could I ignore the thousand-person audience giving multiple standing ovations. So I was willing to set aside my biases to use the gimmick of slam to motivate poets and bring in audiences.
You gotta understand, when I was in school, writing poetry was something that got you beaten up during recess. It was NOT respected. Hiphop, Slam, Def Poetry Jam, so many factors have combined to make poetry socially acceptable. Back then, we organizers were all looking for a way to get audience to show up for poetry events. I managed to get up to 100 people out each week to my poetry event in Long Beach, but most of the time it was very small and not so profitable. The idea of poets touring like a band seemed silly. Today, the Berkeley slam features a touring poet almost every week!
Slam is metaphorical mud wrestling. It works. I’ve packed tens of thousands of people into venues across the West Coast in the last twenty years. Schools have invited me to work with students, and I’ve encouraged many thousands to write poems. Today, being a lyricist, calling yourself a poet is actually cool. I can name a dozen people I know personally, who make a decent living as professional poets, and could list many, many more.
Question from Kyle Bown: I could never figure why anybody liked haiku, but my question would be, as a coach do you get the same rush when a pupil rocks the room as when you do it yourself? Examples.
So, folks reading this interview may not know much about my background as a poetry coach, or that such a thing exists. Every year, dozens of the top poetry slams hold qualifying events to select a team of poets to represent their home venue at the National Poetry Slam. It has become accepted that teams have savvy veterans to coach the team on performance and strategy. I’m willing to lay down money that I’ve coached more poets to more wins than anyone else in slam, ever. I’m not saying the best win ratio, because getting the top score wasn’t always my goal or my poet’s goal. But I’ve coached a LOT of poets, and a lot of teams in a lot of bouts. I love to win. But I really love when a poet I’ve worked with wins.
To answer Kyle’s question: No. I get a way bigger rush from seeing one of my poets rock a room than when I do. It’s like asking a baseball player to compare hitting a grand slam to seeing his or her child hit the ball for the first time. The rush of personal triumph is overwhelming, it’s true. It can even be humbling or fearsome! But when you’ve watched someone learn, and struggle, and grow, and succeed? You are truly able to savor the experience, to feel part of a process larger and more ancient than one small lifetime. It’s so much more satisfying.
It’s part of why, after 14 years of coaching poets, I’d neglected my own work so much. It is a huge rush to see others succeed, but you can burn out if you ignore yourself. I’m learning, now, how important it is to BE an artist, to continue nourishing yourself even has you nurture others.
Question from Patrick Bremser: When did you start?
The first poem I can remember writing was in Junior High School: “Caught a flea on me. It survived the vacuum, it survived the poison. That’s one hardy flea! But it didn’t survive me!” I started writing poems regularly in high school as a kind of code. Once, I caught my sister reading my journal, but she didn’t read the poems. They were painfully bad! So I just wrote everything in verse and never had to worry about journaling again!
In college, when I was assigned to keep a sketch book, I would sit in cafes and draw on one side of the paper, then write poems on the back. A woman (flirting) looked at the sketch, then looked at the poem and lied: “That’s pretty good! Wanna come to my writer’s group?” I was terrible and they barely tolerated me. I learned and grew. Later, that same lady started a weekly poetry reading, where I became known as “The Heckler.” I figured if anyone was worse than me, they oughtta hear about it! Another woman (flirting) asked why I didn’t start my own show, if I was so opinionated. Then she booked a venue and asked me to co-host. I’ve been running events ever since.
Question from Anthony R. Miller: “Can poetry create empathy and understanding for people you usually would not?”
I don’t think so. People need to change from within; they need to be ready for the truth before they can actually HEAR it. However, I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have their minds expanded at poetry events. Poetry can be very seductive, and like putting a pill in a teaspoon of sugar, it helps the truth go down easier. Over the years, I can’t count how many people have randomly come up to me on the street and thank me for a certain poem. Or for running the show. Or for visiting their school with the slam team. We’re talking years, even a decade later! Poetry is the vehicle for many people to open to other points of view, to witnessing how much we are the same no matter what color our skin, our age, our gender, our birthplace. Poetry Slams by their nature are multi-cultural. They are like an emotional crash-derby. To play the game well, you need to be familiar with your rivals’ work, and how the audience is likely to respond to it.
I’ve had many minority and queer poets tell me “your audience won’t appreciate my work.” Then, after I dared them to try (and pointed out the $100 cash prize), most felt shocked when they were embraced and cheered. It works both ways! This is empathy. This is understanding. People will sit through and carefully listen to poems during a competition that they normally would block out or ignore. It’s not going to change someone who is completely close-minded. But if the door is ajar, so to speak, a great slam poet can kick it open!
The competition creates a certain kind of ‘plot’ to the night, a terrific momentum that sweeps the poems together like characters in a story. It rewards poets for getting out of their own heads and describing things in a way that people outside of their tribe can also understand. Poetry Slams are a great motivational tool, which is why so many youth programs and schools are using it. The point is not the points, as they say.
I’d add that the point is not the poetry, either! The point is people. It doesn’t matter what the vehicle is, whether poetry or painting or dance or music. Art is communication, and communion is a state of unity. This is the root of empathy and compassion. When you help others, you help yourself. When you understand others in a profound way, you also come to understand yourself.
Question from Katelyn Lucas: why (and how to) stay involved? Especially after “climbing the ranks.” How to share your energy among being an organizer and an artist…
I’ve seen a lot of poets become ‘successful’ and leave the poetry slam community, stop going to open mics, basically leave their roots. It’s a terrible mistake for two reasons:
One, it’s selfish. Who’s going to inspire the next talented newcomer? Who’s going to show how it’s done without using cheap gimmicks or worn-out clichés? I KNOW it can be tedious listening to crappy poems from well-meaning amateurs, but the rest of us listened to YOU when you were a beginner, too! It’s basic human decency to give back to the community that nurtured you. In a tight-knit community like the poetry community, people talk. You get a reputation that’s hard to change. It’s very beneficial to pay your dues.
Two, it’s bad business. You must stay in touch with your base. Your fan base, yes, but also the creative community where new ideas and trends gain momentum. It’s easy to let your work become stale if you insulate yourself with your peers, friends, and fans. This is how giving back to the community keeps you fresh. Later, after you’ve been around for a while, you’ll need to replace your fans that ‘age out’ or stop going to readings and buying CD’s of poetry. Folks get families, get busy, or get dead. In fishing, they say you’ve gotta “Chum” the waters. Throw some bait out ‘for free’ to get the fish interested, rather than only putting juicy stuff out when there’s a hook attached. It may not make economic sense to sit for two hours at an open mic when you normally get paid $1000 for a 30-minute set at a university, but keep a big view. You’ve got to water the roots, even as you harvest the fruit.
As for the “How to stay involved,” that really depends on the person. For many people (as with parents) it goes from serving yourself to serving others, though that isn’t always by mentoring or organizing. Usually, it does involve expanding the process beyond simply writing about yourself. It should not be seen as a linear process, though! If you enjoy writing poetry, and you give yourself creative freedom to follow your muse, there’s no need to stop but I do think we need to evolve and change. It’s very important to keep your priorities straight, and to honor yourself every step along the way. For me, it was a promise to myself. I took a one-year break from organizing back in 1997, and when I came back, I promised to stay involved only if it stayed fun. I made the slam my job; I made a living from it. Not much of a living, but enough. The bottom line for me, however, was that it had to be more fun than work. When I stopped having fun, and started truly feeling burnt-out, that is when I decided I needed to quit or change my role.
Nothing burns out an organizer faster than resentment. Usually resentment piles up when the organizer doesn’t feel like they’re getting as much out of it as they put in. That could mean recognition, money, sex, gratitude, power, whatever! Going around expecting people to thank you constantly is a fool’s errand. Nobody who’s not an organizer knows how much work it is!!! You’ve got to be clear about the big picture, and go to sleep after EVERY SHOW at peace with yourself and your work. Don’t ‘put it on the credit card’ and wait for the payoff later! On really bad nights, I’d ask myself if this was worse than waking at 4am and working at the stock exchange. Or cleaning toilets in a restaurant. Or being lonely. I’d ask myself if the fun up to this point outweighed the crud.
Make short-term goals you can easily achieve, and long-term goals to strive toward. Challenge yourself. Seek the company of people who will be honest even when it hurts, because they’ll keep you from becoming complacent and bored. Play little games behind the scenes by doing things a little different each time. Focus on the feelings, not the stories. Focus on the people, not the poems. When emotional drama gets annoying, remember that great art arises from great communities, not the other way around. It’s an investment in your own art. Being in community means dealing with human issues, just like being in a family. Control may feel safe, but no one likes a control freak. Make a game of letting things slide once in a while.
Why did you quit slam?
I haven’t quit, just changing roles. After hosting the biggest Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS) ever in Berkeley in 2009, I was feeling burnt and resentful. It wasn’t fun anymore, it had become just a job. I was so busy being an administrator, I was no longer a poet, hadn’t written a new poem in two years, hadn’t completed a painting in ten years! I needed to work on my house and spend time with my wife. I needed a break from organizing to follow my own muse for a while. I no longer needed to use exhausting service as a way to distract myself from feeling lonely or unloved.
Having a wonderful organizer like Betsy Gomez ready to continue running things was a true blessing. I still help out once in a while at the Berkeley Slam. I’m privately coaching two poets each week as clients. I’m in love with painting again, and honoring that impulse. I haven’t exactly figured out how to avoid toxic paint; the non-toxic plant-based alternatives aren’t very durable. I may have to make my own out of earth pigments! Plus, there’s this very engrossing Yoga practice I’m doing every day. Teaching Yoga is tremendously satisfying. It is this spiritual practice that has truly resolved those emotional issues that drove me to poetry in the first place. I’ll return to poetry and slam when it’s a choice, not a compulsion. Until then, I’m very happy now in my own skin, with being married, with my place in the universe.