[Questions courtesy of Nicky the Drunk]
When you started writing short pieces, was your purpose to be concise and focused to increase the impact, or do you just hate wasting words?
Well in music and in writing, I tend to like stuff that’s straightforward and stripped down. So the question is always “Does it serve the piece?” I’ve had to cut some of my best lines (or put them in something else) because the answer was “no.” So, like, a song can be ten minutes long if there’s a reason for it to be. Bobby Womack does a version of the standard “(They Long To Be) Close To You” that’s 9 minutes long. It’s really simple, but the nine minutes all serve the piece. But, say, “Freebird”… There’s three minutes of great song there, but it’s nine minutes long. Do you really need to have three solos? No. So cut that shit.
Too often writing obscures its own meaning, stands between the writer and the reader. I read Infinite Jest all the way through, footnotes and all. I thought the complicated structure might ultimately serve the book, but it doesn’t. It’s just set dressing. It seemed like Wallace was personally telling me, “Fuck you.” I thought, “Why does he hate his readers so much?”
I think that’s one of the reasons “poetry” is such a dirty word to people. Some poets just put words in there to make it more, I don’t know, poemy. But it can alienate readers to the point of damaging the whole genre. I quit writing poems for quite a few years because of animosity towards the medium. If a poem needs to be five pages, write the five pages, but if you can do the same thing in two lines, do that instead. It’s actually really hard to say something that concisely. Try it.
Your writing is based on your experiences, both pleasant and somewhat less than pleasant. Is it harder to write about the pleasant experiences? If so, what are the struggles in doing so?
It’s way harder to write about good times. There’s that famous Mel Brooks quote– “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when I cut my finger and die.” Or “If it bleeds, it leads,” in journalism. Without conflict, there’s no story. There’s a poem, “Mean Streets,” in the book about how nobody wants to read about how much I love my cat. I’ve written some straight up love poems, but rarely submitted them or read them for people because when I look at them they seem like drivel. Things have been looking up for me for a while now, and I’ve actually been able to learn from my modest successes, which is a change, but I haven’t the faintest clue how to turn that into something worth reading. People love a happy ending, love an “overcoming adversity” story, and I certainly have one of those. But I haven’t figured out the right way to write about it.
Then again, suffering for the sake of suffering is bullshit too. Lord knows there’s a mountain of terrible writing about genuinely harrowing experiences.
Now that you’ve had a few successful years of writing/reading poetry for poetry haters, do you intend to stay with this type of writing?
Have you ever tried writing songs?
Yeah, but I was terrible at it. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a little mortifying to tell people that you write poetry. I say “I published a book,” and people are like “Wow! That’s so cool! What’s it about?” Then when I say “It’s a collection of my poems,” I can actually see their faces drop, watch them struggle for something positive to say.
If I could play guitar, or sing, or hell, do electric work or something, I would. But this seems to be what I’m good at, so I do it. I’ve always obsessively loved music, but I’ve never been much good at playing it. I always think of Bill Hicks. Hicks was a genius at what he did, and was also a big music fan. It comes up in his work a lot, and I think he always secretly (or not so secretly) wanted to be a rock star. But he made some music, and it was awful. I’m a huge fan of his, I really wanted to like it, actively tried to like it, but it was irrefutably awful.
Seems to me that trying to be something you’re not comes at the peril of who you are.
Now that you’re a “writer” has that concept changed your approach or commitment to writing? Does it weigh heavy on you to identify as such?
My self concept around it has certainly changed. I had been actively writing for ten years before I ever read in front of anybody. I was involved in the Bay Area literary scene for five years before the book came out, had pieces published here and there. But it wasn’t until I actually had a copy of the book in my hand that the thought “I am a writer” seemed real.
I used to tell friends about readings by saying “Hey, you should come out to this thing, these people think I’m a writer!” So now that I’m “actually a writer,” I wouldn’t say it weighs heavy on me, that seems a little melodramatic.
I’ve never taken myself very seriously, which I think is good. But not taking myself seriously enough has historically gotten in my way. So in the sense that I give myself the legitimacy to take my work seriously, to acknowledge that this is a real thing that I do that holds value for some people, has actually been really helpful.
Going back to Hicks, I’ve never really had that desire to be a rock star. But to have produced something that another person connected to in some deep way is really gratifying.