BY AUDREY ZHAO | INTERVIEW CORRESPONDENT
Let’s jump right in with a question from the contributor we last interviewed, Carolina Ebeid: Employing the facts you know about another animal species (such as a bower bird, or a platypus, or a lunar moth), could you describe your poetics?
JY: I’m finishing this up on November 9, 2016. I’m looking at this interview and thinking why I should finish writing this? But I know that I grew up religious, republican, and full of hate for people who were different than me. It was art that changed me, and art led to education, which taught me how to articulate what I couldn’t understand, and taught me how to listen, and taught me how to grow, and education that helped me tie art and my beliefs together. I’m distraught. I’m terrified for the people I love. I’ve cried and cried this morning. But I keep turning to art to help me through this, I keep turning to the artist who I call friends and the artists that matter, and I keep thinking about how I started writing because I wanted to tell stories, and I kept writing because I wanted to address the things I was witnessing and thinking about, and I hope in some way my work reaches at least one person and it can spark questions in their beliefs/dogma (whether religious or social) and grow outside the confines of their communities. I am a protected person in this country and that makes me sick, but with this privilege, I hope do something good, even if it’s so minor only one person grows.
So, here’s the interview through the lens of someone two days ago:
Hi Audrey! First of all thanks for asking me questions and sorry for how long-winded I can be. OK. Here we go!
I once got into a pretty heavy argument with my twin brother over the use of wolves in a film we were prepping. One of our producers wanted these wolves to be nasty, vicious things seeking out humans and being violent as fuck. And then the heroes kill the fuck out of the wolves. It made me sad. Why were we killing these beautiful creatures? Why did we have to? I kept telling my twin that most wolves are scared of humans and that most healthy wolves wouldn’t eat a human. But this producer wanted the wolves of his nightmares, the wolves he grew up fearing, the wolves films told him were out there, hunting. I wasn’t having it. My twin was in the middle, trying to see both sides. When I talked to him today, he was like, “Dude, I wanted the wolves to be good, but it’s the town believes their bad.” That’s true, but I fought against the wolves being in there at all, simply because if a viewer sees a wolf, there’s that image/idea we all know of wolves there already, preset—probably linked to their position in folklore, religion, mythology, and popular culture. The myth of the wolf is so loud that they make easy villains.
I am always looking at how myths are made, and attempting to re-enact, reshape, and repurpose myth, along with creating my own within the world(s) of my work. It’s probably from all the time I spent in my youth with the Bible, from all the stories we learned and shared and repeated to each other, to others. But the more I studied, the more I learned, the more I started to question, to challenge—folks around me didn’t like that—but I was interested in WHY we told these stories and WHY we allowed these stories to tell us how to act and what to believe, and I got to a point where I couldn’t rectify the difference between what I was preaching (and trying to believe) and what I actually felt (and actually believed). This is pretty close to the time I started really writing/making things. And the more I broke apart my beliefs in order to understand them, the more I moved further away from accepting what I was told I should accept, and the further I got away, the more I kept trying to create my own narrative that would justify what I was trying to desperately to believe—I used to stay up at night and cry about my lack of faith and beg god to show me the fire all my friends felt and to rid my body and mind of the things I fought so hard to stamp down and no one answered and I kept telling myself that someone would answer and that I would be OK but while I waited I cried about it and worried I would burn for who I was—and the longer I kept at it the more my justifications become impossible, and I realized, I was just trying to take a bunch of myths that had nothing to do with me, and meant nothing to me, and believe them. And, at the end of it all, these myths (these guidelines for living) couldn’t stand up to real inquiry—they buckled under the pressure. They were falling apart, because I wasn’t made for this, all of it was too methodical and judgmental and righteous, and it was there to create power for those who followed (even though, the message of the Bible is clearly not, but its message was appropriated—shit, I’m not gonna follow this digression any further. I’m already fucking crying on this plane. I thought I was gonna love god and be a pastor with a church, and make the worship team play versions of “Our god is an awesome god” so they sounded like Mineral. But, naw.) Anyway, I was talking about Myth.
So, I guess my poetics/practice/process is always related to myths—how they’re made, how we deploy them in relationship to our lives, how do we make/change them, how does fear and dogma grow stories into myths, myths into beliefs, and ultimately, how do we break a myth to its pieces to where it came from and why.
And I try to tell jokes. I mostly fail at the last thing.
When did you start writing? What do you think has kept you writing?
JY: I started writing music in high school after hearing three records: Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, Built to Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, and Pedro the Lion’s Whole EP (though It’s Hard to Find a Friend made a much more important impact on my artistic life). I was just like, “Music sounds like this? I don’t have to listen to Sublime and Dave Matthews anymore?!”
Sometime after that, my father and I would watch films together, when everyone else was in bed or gone or whatever. One night we rented (from Blockbuster!!!!) American Beauty and Fight Club, and while watching those, I realized that I wanted to tell stories. I told my dad, “I think I want to be a writer,” and he reached over to the pile of books he kept by his recliner, and handed me Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates and Herman Hesse’s Demian, and said, “Well then read these.” Then a friend of a friend got me into the Gen X writers (Coupland, Ellis, McInerney, Palaniuk, etc.), then a little later, my dad got me into Haruki Murakami.
When I finally went to college, I was writing mostly fiction, and went through undergraduate and most of my first master’s program as a fiction writer—though I started to turn to poetry (and decided to get my MFA in Poetry), thanks to Oliver de la Paz.
But in thinking about language and poetry, it was all those lyrics of all these late 90s early 00s emo bands that sort of laid the ground work (lol I know), but it’s because of bands, like Sunny Day, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, Braid, American Football, the Promise Ring, Kilmer, Pedro the Lion, Seldom, and on and on, that I started thinking about words beyond lyrics. I started thinking about music, not just as a means to say something, but songs as their own language. When I started reading the liner notes and lyrics, I started to wonder what the words meant detached from the music—there was a difference between what I was listening to before 1998 and these new discoveries.
I was a high school athlete, but burnout and injury kept me from pursuing that in College, so all I had was creation. I wrote songs, wrote stories and novels, and flirted with poems. By the time I got to college, filmmaking entered the picture too. I had all these modes. And I was trying to do all of it at the same time.
Because I starting making on my own, I didn’t have any sort of training, and I grew with all these modes of making art at the same time. So my skills at playing drums moved along with my skills writing prose, and so on. By the time, I got to College to study with professors, I was playing shows and touring too—my education in indie rock, I guess. Basically, I wanted to tell stories and make things, and I couldn’t choose one way to do it, so I tried all the ways, through whatever means I had—so in a way, the chance to fuck with boundaries came from not only the way I got into writing, but from this time in my life when I was teaching myself everything that came at me, and ultimately came from my need to make things. I have continued this practice of all-at-once—though not as intensely these days, and I think this keeps me interested.
Writing and making is harder with my work and family life, but I wrote so much in my late 20s and early 30s that I’m at a point where I’m OK with this new pace of life/work. I just work when I work, and when I do, it’s more methodically focused on one thing at a time, or more specifically one PROJECT—lately, I’ve been focus on multimedia project, called A Carnage in the Lovetrees. (I’m sure I’ll talk more about this in a bit.)
The point is, I need to keep making. Whether its poem-making, myth-making, filmmaking, it doesn’t matter. And so, because I don’t have the time, I end up thinking about it till I find time, then I work (as fast as I can).
You grew up in Washington state, and I can’t help but notice multiple small references to the state throughout your poems. How important are locations to your writing? And, since you now live in Chicago, do you think distance from Washington has affected your understanding and resulting portrayal of it?
JY: Yeah, I’m always droning on about the Pacific Northwest. I’m sorry. I don’t think I’ll get over it. It’s like faith and the church, I keep saying I’m done writing about it, but it’s always there, creeping in. Living in Washington State certainly instilled that Place is everything. Even when I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I was so invested in the landscape that, to this day, I find it sneaking into my work, in the same way that Chicago and the Midwest are beginning to poke around.
I see things through a cinematic lens. Everything, even things that are staged are seen through this lens, even songs or whatever. It starts with an image for me, and usually, that image is a place/location.
My twin created a web series, Keep it Cinematic, that is currently in production (kind of, you can ask him about it), where he films bands playing alternate versions of their songs, and talking about the process of songwriting. The locations where the bands play are beautiful in that it’s usually in nature, but then my brother and his crew inserts human things, oddities in nature. Like, one section of the first episode he has a guy playing an acoustic guitar, sitting in a plush chair, in a field surrounded by evergreens, with a lit up lamp next to him, with Christmas lights over his head. My twin is obsessed with image and that’s how the series came about, he asks the band, where a song comes from, leading them towards talking about image and where the image takes the song. The point is, we both think like that, and it’s a big part of my work, and I think that comes from living in the PNW.
When I was briefly at New Mexico State University, Carmen Giménez Smith sort of yelled at me that a poem can’t just be a camera recording beautiful wreckage—where’s the poet, where’s the implication, where’s the meaning of this beauty you keep writing about!?—I think that’s when I realized (maybe not in that moment, but eventually), it’s not just about what the place looks like, but how the speaker and/or poet feels about it, how people (or characters) behave/function/live within that space. She said something brilliant like, “Couch all this in a space that we can care about.”
That said, I need a location to find the person, to anchor the story, to anchor the myth onto something tangible. I can’t tell a story or build a myth without its source.
The landscape of PNW still very much lives in the work I do, because it was just how things were. I didn’t experience a lot of other places till much later in life. Chicago is flat. The Midwest is flat. I want mountains and its trees and rivers and roads, rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you, but there’s something about the Midwest that I like, that feels like home—differently. I don’t know, I haven’t been here long enough to articulate it, but like I mentioned earlier it’s starting to show up more and more. Chicago is my home now. I think I look back on Washington and the West Coast, specifically, the PNW, differently now, because I’m so removed. It’s not everyday life for me anymore, it’s nostalgic and massive, and moving. I think I can appreciate it more when I see Lake Michigan and know there’s not salt in that water and it’s not attached to an ocean, and I can see for miles with no mountains. The differences are palpable. But the PNW will always be a part of me and my work, just maybe less so the longer I spend away from it. Even if I wanted to get rid of the PNW, there’s no way (funny, right now, I’m on a plane to Seattle for a quick visit with my son and family).
You’ve written two plays in verse (The Holy Ghost People and When the Wolves Quit) and To The Chapel of Light, which is, arguably, a screenplay in verse. What—and who—has inspired you to experiment, to push boundaries in these ways?
JY: So, good news—Plays Inverse Press is reprinting Wolves and Chapel along with a third play-ish collection, This is the Way to Rule, all in one book—a trilogy of plays—called Psalms for the Wreckage. Late winter 2017. Sorry, I’m excited about this!
But getting to your question, I kinda mentioned this earlier, but let’s blame all of this on one person and one thing.
Thing: Because at the beginning of my creative life, I learned how to make things in different modes all at the same time—mostly teaching myself, and because once I started this I couldn’t stop. I needed to do it. Sometimes, it’s impossible to make a poem, sometimes a poem isn’t the right way to build something, it needs a narrative, sometimes it needs a stage, or tracking shot. Sometimes it needs all of the above. But ALWAYS it needs to be made, even if it fails to live.
Person: The person is Oliver de la Paz. I owe a lot to this wonderful human being. I have other mentors in my life, but when he became my mentor, it was the single most important moment as an artist for me. Whether he wanted to or not, he became my mentor. I just started showing up to his office hours all the time—he was a busy dude (still is)—and turning in 30 more pages of work than required (oh, Oliver, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry for all the extra work! I have not forgotten your generosity). Anyway, Oliver taught a Prose Poem seminar, and let’s just say, he sparked a project (which eventually become To the Chapel of Light) that sent me veering away from studying fiction, because I realized I could do it all, and pretend it was poetry, and in doing so, I became a poet. Oliver’s the guy who took on my thesis when I dropped the fiction thesis, he’s the one who took time, he’s the one who didn’t fail me when as an undergrad when I deserved to be failed, he supported me and pushed me and when I handed him the pages of this weird little thesis, he said, “I think this is a film in verse, dude.”
I think that my first two books using genre and form as a way to couch the narrative, the poems in a space that can be seen or recognized—I don’t think I knew I was doing that at the time—but it seems clear that that’s what I was trying for, even without knowing. In later books/manuscripts, I’m much more aware of form and its relationship to the content, and I’m much more deliberate. Like THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE is an actual play. It could be staged fairly easily with money and a committed theater company (or so Tyler Crumrine tells me). When the Wolves Quit would require the creation of a new script, breaking down and adding dialogue, cutting scenes, stunts, magic—basically it would be creating a whole new text with the book as a source or guideline. But with THGP, Tyler and I edited it so that it could be performed as is.
Anyway, I think the people who got to me early, helped me recognize what I was doing and pushed me in the right direction.
NOTE.: I have to also give credit to Richard Greenfield who realized what I was trying to do and pushed me to run towards it. He’s the one who said (of When the Wolves Quit), “This is a play in verse, stop acting like it’s not.” We were drinking beers in his backyard and the sun was in my eyes and he was yelling about poetry and about poets taking the easy route, and he was talking about this moment where a character is lost in the woods, and he goes something like, “Why doesn’t she get to the end of the woods and there’s a concrete wall and there’s ropes and lights and she’s ventured out of the play, and off the stage…?” Then he made the comment about it being a play. He made it clear that I could work in genre AND between them, by letting my work go where it wanted to, and to not worry about what I wanted it to be, but let it form itself, and accepting what that would be.
How has your experience as a filmmaker informed your poetry writing and how has your experience writing poetry informed your filmmaking?
JY: I keep circling back to the same stuff with my answers. But in all honestly, they’re infused, but it all revolves around story and myth, and HOW I deploy it.
I don’t want to repeat myself. That would be boring.
What I will say is that more and more, the separation between the genre and makeup of a project starts to fall away quickly, and for every poem, there’s a film or essay or document attached to it, and while it may not be living with the piece as it exists in the world, it is definitely a foundational aspect of it. One of my manuscripts, has a whole “Supplemental Materials” section, where I gather all the research and notes and fragments that helped me through the manuscript, including Facebook messages between me and my friend Dave, talking about hardcore punk, its history and legacy, and its bands. But even that bled into the makeup of the book. I even wrote songs for that project, and started a screenplay, and tried to get my twin to film a fake tour video (that never happened).
And then there’s my twin, who really wants to develop Wolves as a show or film, and he still talks about it all the time. He mentioned it this morning. I find it annoying, but at the same time, when I wrote it, I thought about a combination of Twin Peaks, George Washington, Days of Heaven, and The Ring, and Murakami novels. I guess, in a way my vocabulary is stitched to the language of film, perhaps in the same way it’s stitched to music, but the difference is that the image comes first. Always. The music arrives out of the place and its people/characters.
Who are you reading right now? Any additional recommendations for young writers?
JY: I don’t have a lot of time to read or write (at least not as much as I used to), but have stuff by my bed, at the office, in my bag that I pick up and read and jump around it:
All of the Plays Inverse stuff, Beyza Ozer, Alexis Pope, The Lettered Streets Press stuff (most recently, Louise and Louise and Louise by Olivia Cronk, Way Elsewhere by Julie Trimingham, and our latest, Split Series Volume 3 with Megan Giddings and Lo Kwa Mei-en), Martin McDonough, Kristoffer Diaz, Samuel Beckett, Sara Woods, Fred Moten, Haruki Murakami (especially when I’m in a funk), Amber Sparks, Shane McCrae, Talin Tahajian, Neil Gaiman, Ocean Vuong.
Young writers should be omnivores of Indie Lit. Read and buy and support like mad. Whatever they can. Stop drinking and buy books instead. Not really, but when you’re at a reading, buy one less craft beer and buy a book. Go online and order from small presses (not just amazon), we remember you and also, one book directly from a press goes a long way. It’s also just good karma. One day you’ll want people to be buying your book and it’d be shitty if you weren’t buying other people’s books. So yeah, order what you can from small presses, but even books you don’t know. Take some chances. If it’s not your thing, you’re still supporting the community, you know? But if you’re ten pages in and you’re not into it, stop reading and save it for later. There are so many books. You don’t need to torture yourself.
Please, please for the love of god, know that you should be patient! Most writers don’t publish their first book till their 28-30 (yes! I know the exceptions, I just listed a bunch). I know it feels like a long time, but it’s really not. Not in the grand scheme of life and your writing, but especially not in the grand scheme of the universe. So be patient and enjoy your writing and submit. I didn’t publish my first book till I was 29. Nick Twemlow’s Palm Trees took ten fucking years to get published! TEN! That book is incredible! If you’re good and work hard and aren’t a piece of shit, eventually, your first book will get out there. But really do your research and know where you’re submitting and be nice to editors, because a lot of us, recommend things we pass on to other publishers who would like it.
Oh and be good people. Please. I can’t take another shitty poet who thinks god created them to make poems and do what they want. Seriously GTFO. What’s the point of making art if you’re not decent and full of love for others? Be decent. Be supportive.
Can you tell us about current or future projects? What’s it like to be Joshua Young?
JY: WELL…*takes huge breath*
I already mentioned our most recent The Lettered Streets books, so that’s exciting for me as an editor and publisher and reader—these writers/poets/books are amazing and I can’t believe we were allowed to work with these brilliant people.
The thing I’m working on now the most is that multimedia project, A Carnage in the Lovetrees, which revolves around a band of the same name. The project utilizes digital media (including social media, music videos, video series, podcast appearances), performance (including interviews, live shows and events), journalism (features, interviews, reviews), a faux-documentary, music (legit records), culminating with a feature film. [You can learn about it here: http://acarnageinthelovetrees.com] (psst. There’s a secret page that breaks the fourth wall and explains the project in depth: hint “/carnage-mythos”)
The film is scheduled to begin shooting in late fall of 2017, and we are currently in the pre-production and developing the (there’s a running theme here) myth around the band, before the film begins principal photography. I had two previously recorded albums that weren’t released, so we appropriated those for Carnage, and I went into the studio in Bellingham, Washington to record the album myself (with some help from my twin and a couple friends, which has become a part of the narrative behind the band). We are currently mixing that record and plan to release it winter 2017 (digital and vinyl). We currently booking shows, making merch, music videos, and reaching out entities, such as media outlets, podcast, etc.
I’m exhausted. But it’s a good exhaustion. The feature film is beginning the casting process, though we’ve casted me and the person who plays my character’s sister and bandmate.
I should probably tell you the plot or synopsis: A Carnage in the Lovetrees follows a band on a US tour in support of their new record, where they are subsequently abducted. The surviving members struggle with the loss of their friends and family, as they deal with the band’s unwanted success, created by the news coverage surrounding the abduction.
I’m also slowly revising a novel and I’m submitting to contests, because I can afford it kind of, right now, and that’s what my mentors tell me I should do.
Other than that, I write when I can, and edit when I can, and haven’t really taken on any new projects. It feels good. I’m trying to live my life, be a good partner, be a good parent, and be a good person.
Thanks for chatting with us! Now, if you’d like, please give us a question to ask our next contributor.
JY: Thanks for having me! I’m honored and thanks for letting me talk about my shit. OK…a question.
If you had the capability, time, and money, what other practices, processes, genres, art forms would you utilize in your work, and how would you accomplish it, and what would it look like, how would it sound, what would it feel like, etc. etc. etc? If you already do, can you please share your approach/process/practice?
Joshua Young is the author of four collections, most recently, THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE (Plays inverse 2014), and the split chapbook edro-Woolley Days: A Damien Jurado Mixtape (b/w Talin Tahajian's Start with Dead Things (Midnight City Books 2015)). He is editor-in-chief at The Lettered Streets Press and works at the University of Chicago. He lives in the Albany Park neighborhood with two humans.
Audrey Zhao interviews contributors of the Adroit Journal for the blog. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Fissure Magazine, the Rattle Young Poets Anthology, Words Dance, and Vinyl. She is a Bay Area native.