petals and bones interview
Several years ago now, I was interviewed by Dani Burlison for the fantastic, but short lived, Petals and Bones zine/website. Since this interview is no longer available on line, I’ve decided to post it again, here. I’m fairly certain that the self-portrait above was the author image affixed to the original interview. Sadly, the words “I’m still working on my doctoral thesis” have not been nullified by time.
Petals and Bones interview w/Trane DeVore, by Dani Burlison
- Can you give some background on your life as a writer/photographer? How did you come to be a writer? What kinds of projects have you completed? Did you get a degree in journalism or an MFA?
The first book I ever made consisted of scribbled drawings of reptilian creatures with laser beams shooting out of their eyes, photos of my dad and I flying a kite at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, and a few misshapen attempts at spelling. The book was called Dad, Prot, Cat. Even though I could barely read or write at the time I was already totally fascinated with the incantatory power of language — its ability to call thoughts and ideas to mind simply by sounding out the marks on the page. I can still remember a time before I could read when I wanted so desperately to make the language work that I sat down with a copy of the novelized version of Star Wars in my hand and thumbed through just about every page hoping that if I just concentrated hard enough the text would come to life for me and replay the images in my head that I had seen on the big screen not too long before. Though my pre-literate mind never did crack the Star Wars code, I do have a distinct memory of the moment when I understood how the silent ‘e’ works. Suddenly the word that I was looking at — “there” — went from being so many letters on the page to appearing immediately in my mind as a word/concept. It’s really hard to describe exactly what that moment of realization felt like because it’s difficult to reconstruct the pre-literate version of my own consciousness, but if I had to venture a description I would say that it was as if I had been looking at a dead page when suddenly a worm or vine wriggled right out of it. It felt absolutely miraculous. A similar revelation occurred one time when my grandfather and I went to visit the poet Larry Eigner. Larry was an incredible poet and absolutely fascinated by language. Because he was born with cerebral palsy it was a physical struggle for him to read and write, and on the particular day that my grandfather and I visited he was poring over an enormous dictionary with a giant magnifying glass while investigating a series of words. He called me over to show me a word that he felt was particularly interesting – I have no idea what it was anymore — and he explained to me about the linguistic roots of words and the way that the meaning of a word changes over time, even as the word still contains within it — like a living ghost — the traces of all the past meanings that structure the way the word is used today. That idea — the notion that a word isn’t simply a pointer to an idea or an object, but rather a kind of living archeological site replete with hidden meaning — really blew my mind.
I suppose it isn’t much of a surprise that I became a writer since I’ve been surrounded by writers, artists, and musicians for my entire life. My grandfather was the poet Robert Creeley; my grandmother, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, writes novels, short stories, and prose memoirs, as well as theatrical monologues; Darrell DeVore, my father, was an experimental musician who created his own instruments; and my stepmother, Cecily Axt, is a wonderful collage artist who was a weaver and clothing designer associated with the Art to Wear movement in the 1970s and 80s. I myself started writing poetry seriously sometime in junior high school. The three main influences for my early work were a bizarre combination of the poetry and songs in Tolkien’s Lord of the the Rings trilogy, the Black Mountain vernacular of my grandfather’s work, and John Lennon’s songwriting. By the time I was in high school I had discovered Romantic poetry, and written plenty of horrible knock-off verse, and then later I was influenced by the modernist experimentalism of poets like Eliot and Pound. It was at about this time that I ended up hanging out with an amazing crew of young creatives — musicians, photographers, actors, and writers. We arranged several fairly large-scale poetry happenings, including one event where we convinced the local movie theater — The Plaza — to let us host a poetry and music event at their expense. We also once held an unauthorized candlelight reading, for about 35 people, in one of the larger storm drains that runs underneath Petaluma, the town I was living in at the time. Two of the most important intellectual and artistic collaborators for me from that era were a poet I worked with named Sean Sullivan, who was a kind of mentor to me, and my friend Daedalus Howell, with whom I published a very, very short-lived literary journal called Deluge 6. Eventually I ended up at Sonoma State University where I became fast friends with D.A. Powell, David Bromige, Christopher Reiner, and Cydney Chadwick — all stalwarts of Sonoma County’s small but vibrant experimental poetry scene. Cydney was, at that time, the publisher of an influential magazine of experimental writing called Avec, and would later become the publisher of both of my books, series/mnemonic (1999) and Dust Habit (2005).
The degree I received from Sonoma State was a degree in English literature, rather than a degree in creative writing, but for myself literary theory and analysis are intimately connected with the way I think about the practice of reading and writing. I think there’s a myth that “too much analysis” can get in the way of creativity, but I think that this is an entirely false opposition. Of course there are cases where a piece of work can be overthought and end up feeling lifeless and devoid of feeling; on the other hand, there are any number of works out there that really should have had more thought put into them before being released for public consumption. I have a lot of friends who went on to get MFA degrees in creative writing, but although they almost all had universally good experiences I never felt the need to enter an MFA program myself. After taking a few years off from school, I entered the graduate program in English literature at Berkeley from which I received an MA in 2005 (I’m still working on my doctoral thesis). For me, being at Berkeley was an absolute creative gift when it comes to poetry — I was put in touch with so many amazing writers that it would be ludicrous to even begin to compile a list. The San Francisco Bay Area has been one of the major sites of creative poetic production in the United States for the last 70 years or so. It’s a history that includes such diverse movements as the avant-gardism of the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beat happenings of the 50s and 60s, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, the hip-hop poetics of East Bay poetry slams, and the political commitment of projects such as June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. This incredible historical confluence has created an unbelievably rich cultural field that, if it were to be compared to an ecosystem, would be as biodiverse as a coral reef or a rainforest.
- How do you stay motivated to be creative? Where do your ideas come from?
Staying motivated to be creative isn’t really a problem that I’ve ever encountered — I think the world as it exists is an endless source of creativity and ideas. The real issue for me is how to find the time to channel that creativity into aesthetic production. Since I’ve moved to Japan I’ve found that time to sit down and do serious writing has been hard for me to come by. Part of this is because holding a full-time academic position demands a level of professionalism and responsibility on my part that takes a great deal of time. The other part of this, however, is that I’ve ended up finding myself in such an amazingly rich environment when it comes to culture, art, music, and history that it’s extremely difficult to drag myself away from it isolate myself in front of the computer. In addition to the thousands of temples, shrines, and festivals that are central to Japanese culture and history, there’s a tremendously vibrant contemporary arts scene in Japan, and Osaka — where I live — has one of the the world’s more interesting experimental/underground music scenes. Especially when I first moved to Japan and couldn’t speak very much Japanese (much less read or write), I found music and the visual arts the be the easiest aesthetic forms to engage with. With the exception of Elfpit, an epic poem that I’ve been collaborating on with the poet Liz Young, I didn’t do much writing at all during my first four years or so in Japan. Instead of writing, I spent a lot of time exploring, which, for me at least, is a key creative resource. But exploration doesn’t just entail moving through space and seeing new things — in order for exploration to become inspiration, various types of work are required. Especially important in terms of the way my own consciousness works is the interrelationship between research and experience that forms the jumping off point for worthwhile thinking. What that’s meant for me here in Japan is learning as much of the language as I can in the limited amount of time that I have, and reading as much as I can get my hands on in terms of culture, history, and place. It’s one thing to go to Nara and be impressed by the size and gravity of the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), but it’s another thing entirely to understand how important this figure is within the history of the spread of Buddhism in Japan, to know that Nara was once the endpoint of the Silk Road, and to realize that the impressive size of the statue was intended to help consolidate the imperial power of the court during the Nara Period. It’s also nice to know that the hole in the post that all the children are crawling through is the same size as the Great Buddha’s nostril, and that crawling through this hole guarantees good health or (the accounts differ) some form of enlightenment.
While I may not have done as much writing as I might have wanted since moving to Japan, I have ended up taking a ton of photographs. I might even go so far as to say that photography has almost become an alternate mode of thinking for me. I’ve never formally trained as a photographer, although a friend of mine had his own darkroom when I was in high school and we used to spend hours there developing black and white film and making prints. Although I have several friends who are professional photographers, I’ve never thought of becoming a professional photographer myself. I guess that I like feeling unconstrained in my photographic practice, free to follow my own interests when it comes to photography without any deadlines or constraints in terms of subject matter and style. If photography were to become ‘work’ for me — if I was no longer free to follow my photographic pleasure — then I think I would eventually become disaffected with photography and turn to something else. That much said, I have had a few magazines and websites pay for the use of my photography (the upcoming issue of National Geographic Traveler will use a photograph of mine), though just as often I let non-profit entities use my work for free if they ask nicely. The most important thing for me, however, is that the camera functions as an amazing technology of perception that allows images and moments of time to be pulled out of their everyday context and framed in such a way that they become objects of aesthetic contemplation. Carrying a camera is, weirdly, like carrying a portable museum. One of the ways that museums function is by creating zones of display that generate a more focused, contemplative type of seeing. This is why an everyday item, ripped out of its context, can become so interesting in the museum setting — I’m thinking especially of Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymades,” but Yoko Ono’s famous apple also serves as a fine example. Since the camera acts as a technology that also requires particular types of focus and contemplation, using a camera regularly has resulted in a situation where I don’t even need the camera anymore to see the world in this way. It’s almost as if the camera has become not only an instrument to capture images, but also a projector that allows me to broadcast the experience of being inside a museum onto the world itself.
- What advice do you have to someone who wants to be more creative or bring more creativity into their work?
“Don’t stop ’til you get enough.” I guess it’s a bit trite to drag out a pop chorus to try to answer a question about creativity, but really I think there’s no better way to remain fresh and open to new ideas than to be constantly engaged with interesting intellectual, aesthetic, and creative encounters as a practice of everyday life. I don’t mean this in terms of having a work discipline — the purpose of art is not to justify itself by imitating the 40-hour work week — but instead in terms of a general attitude toward the world. This means carving time out of your day for reading, listening to music, viewing art, and engaging in artistic practice yourself. The important thing is that you can’t just do these things in the background, as a consumer — “reading” doesn’t mean spending a bit of time surfing the net, and “listening to music” doesn’t mean turning on the iTunes DJ while you drive to work. During the 2008 Liverpool Biennale, members of the art collective Freee pasted up anti-consumerist billboards. One of them carries the slogan “Advertising wants to convert our desire for a better life into a desire to buy something.” A lot of contemporary consumerist ploys work in a similar fashion when it comes to mining the creativity vein; they take our desire to be more creative — to add aesthetic vitality to our lives — and they use that desire to sell us something that makes us feel as if we’re engaging with creativity while in fact we might as well be spending an evening lapsed out in front of the television. If you can forget about whatever it is that you’re doing in the process of doing it, or if what you’ve just finished doing immediately drops out of consciousness, then you need to find something different to do. An authentic engagement with thought or art should take us away from whatever everyday situation we find ourselves in and put us somewhere else for the duration.
Also, always keep a notebook handy. It’s surprising how many good ideas just disappear into the ether because they weren’t written down.
- How important is discipline to your creative output? How important is idle time/relaxation?
My biggest problem is that I’m a lazy perfectionist. I’m never fully satisfied with my work, but I can also never quite get up enough steam to actually sit down and put immense amounts of effort into it. It’s the worst of all possible worlds. Actually though, I think the real problem isn’t that I’m truly lazy, but rather that I’m easily distracted. In T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he writes about the poet’s “necessary receptivity and necessary laziness,” a reference to cultivating a particular state of mind in which thinking is allowed to take place in a haphazard, unstructured manner. The mind is able to make startling connections or produce sudden unexpected moments of insight not because the poet is working hard, but rather because the poet is hardly working. “You’re allowing your mind to wander” is a phrase that we often associate with a domineering grade-school teacher or an overzealous boss, but allowing the mind to wander isn’t just a negative — allowing the mind to wander allows us to escape from the constraints of everyday thought and trip through unexplored territory. In this instance, idle hands allow us to escape the proverbial Devil’s workshop, if just for a little while. Of course, if idleness is all that there is then you may end up in your own beautiful pleasure dome, but you’re not going to get anything substantive accomplished. I think my best creative work involves periods of (relatively) concentrated labor followed by periods of drifting (but creatively engaged) indolence. My grandmother once described to me how she can often go for six months without writing much at all, and then suddenly a burst of activity gets triggered and she ends up producing a new book. The important thing is that in her off time she doesn’t just sit around twiddling her thumbs, but instead spends her time making collages, reading, writing letters, and the like. There’s a host of aesthetic activity surrounding what, to someone else, might appear to be nothing but dead time.
- What does a typical day look like for you?
It’s hard for me to describe what a typical day looks like to me, since I tend to have three sorts of typical days here in Japan. The first would be a typical work day, where I spend time in the office, teaching classes, grading homework, and hopefully doing a little bit of research as well. I’m usually pretty beat after a full day of work and don’t have much extra energy to be aesthetically productive, though I do try to fit something into the day. The second type of day I have is a full day off with nowhere to go. These are pretty rare for me, but if I do get one of these I almost always try to listen to an album or two, study Japanese, and get some writing done. The third type of day I often have is a day that’s free from work, but mostly gets spent away from the house. This usually involves going to a museum, gallery, concert, performance, or festival somewhere in the Kansai area (the area that includes Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe). Often enough, however, I end up leaving the Kansai area and traveling somewhere for a few days. Just after New Year’s Day, for example, I’ll be going to Hiroshima for three days. I’ll stay at a friend’s family home and will visit Itsukushima Shrine and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, ride around on street cars, and eat lots of oysters (a local specialty).
The constants for me on any given day are these: 1) I absolutely have to read something, every day. Even when I travel I need at least a copy of the London Review of Books with me, or a novel. If I don’t read something for more than a day, then I get cranky. Reading is non-negotiable. 2) I always, always carry at least one camera with me. I don’t take photographs every day, but I like to have a camera with me in case the opportunity shows itself. The biggest problem is choosing which camera or set of cameras to take with me, since there are about ten that I shoot with on a quasi-regular basis. 3) If I’m going to be riding a train, or walking a considerable distance, I often listen to podcasts — usually This American Life, or Stuff You Should Know, or (my guilty pleasure) Football Weekly. One of the best podcasts that I’ve ever listened to is finished now, but still available for download, and I would recommend it to anyone — the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. 4) I spend quite a bit of time on the internet everyday — writing mail, uploading and commenting on photographs, and adding to the blog. However, I try not to check my mail more than twice a day, and I try to avoid aimless surfing if at all possible. Similarly, I try to avoid watching too much television, though these days I don’t find much that holds my interest anyhow. 4) I try to get at least seven or eight hours of sleep a night. Not sleeping enough is just about the biggest killer of the creative instinct that I can think of, especially because not sleeping enough usually means that I don’t end up spending enough time dreaming. I love dreams (I keep a dream journal) and, as Blondie says, “Dreaming is free.”
Filed under: culture, Japan, Osaka, personal, photography, poetry, sweet story of Trout Monroe, writing | Leave a Comment
Tags: Cecily Axt, Christopher Reiner, Cydney Chadwick, D.A. Powell, Daedalus Howell, Dani Burlison, David Bromige, Elizabeth Young, influences, interview, Larry Eigner, learning to read, Petals and Bones, photography, poetry, Robert Creeley, San Franscisco Bay Area poetry, Sean Sullivan, Sonoma State University, Trane DeVore, writing