We interviewed Larry Crist in July, 2015
R&R: What is a poetic line?
I don’t know. Is this a trick question?
R&R: All right. If you don’t care to go there, how do you react to poetry that seems to be just broken prose?
Far easier to generalize or determine proper prose from the poetic. When I’m taking liberties with punctuation and breaking up a line, for meaning or aesthetics, I’m more than likely trying to indicate that this is a poem—if any nudge of my intent is not clear. I’ve never had any formal poetics. I am guilty of making up my own rules, and what I most often hear back is that my poems are little stories—sudden fiction with odd or unorthodox punctuation.
R&R: What’s wrong with American poetry now? Is it dying as some say?
Who says? Poetry is absurdly popular. Maybe that’s its problem. Everybody writes it, nobody reads it—well I do, and I know others who claim to.
One thing I’d point out is that I think there are a lot of wannabe writers out there with limited or diminishing publishing opportunities, aside from what maybe one just posts or publishes on their own. In another life (or time period) I would mostly write novels. I have a pal who would make a living as a movie reviewer, another who has aspirations of being a travel writer and several who write plays or seem more like journalists or historians or mystery or children book writers. I started writing (as a child) comic books.
However varied all these types of writing are, the through-line is that these are all people I know through open-mic poetry venues—our weekly church service. I know very few pure poets.—those who only write poems. You needn’t be a real poet to produce good poems. For me poems are often happy accidents and not anything I set out to do. I write to be read out loud and I might not write half what I do were there no place to read it in public. As a former drama geek I love performing and reading out loud. It keeps me social and is the only way, after numerous public readings, I can figure out what’s wrong with a poem.
What I hope is dying is difficult esoteric rhetorical exercises that I personally don’t—after one reading—get, or that makes me feel stupid. 90% of what’s in Poetry Magazine for instance.
I want to be entertaining and entertained. Life is short and there are a billion hours of reading for every one hour you have. I’m not going to make a life study of say, a John Ashbery. If a poem doesn’t grab me or allow me to enter fairly easily I cease to care; I want fun poems I can smoke like crack.
Back to the question—new generated works or poems is the admittance to most open mics; I have several projects always going, but the most consistent over the years is to have new stuff to read for all the old ears that have heard me before, and, I imagine it’s somewhat the same with them, resulting in a lot of good and bad and forgettable poems being churned out all the time.
R&R: What’s right with American poetry now?
Mmmm, I read a nice collection called Satori earlier this year.
R&R: Are all modern poetics personal? Bob has studied Pound and Eliot who freed us from poeticisms. Does that strip-job have any historic residue for modern poets?
Yes on both questions and I’d refer you back to the answer to question #1.
R&R: Before you published Undertow Overtures, you read in a lot of venues. Has putting out UO changed what you read, where you read and how often?
Somewhat. Now instead of lugging around an entire telephone-book sized stack of unruly rewrites, and multiple versions, I have a perfect little bound 140 pages of well-revised—this-is-now-done—stuff. It feels good to flash the cover and not dig through pages with corrections all over it. I feel confident whenever I read from the book whereas anytime I pick up something else I’m constantly making changes to it, or realizing half way through that I grabbed the wrong version. Undertow Overtures is roughly 20 years of collected, mostly published stuff. It’s my first phase or period, and now I’m onto another.
R&R: You mention your background in theatre. Tell us about that.
My mother taught theatre (children’s) as well as exposed me to a lot of theatre (as a child, that was not geared toward children). I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williams, O’Neill . . .
I began appearing in plays when I was eight. I was very ADD and we moved a lot and I was generally disruptive while strangely introverted. Theatre has always helped get me out of myself.
R&R: How does your theatre background bleed over into your poetry?
I’m geared toward performance. I am always watching a reading and hearing them afterwards. I probably listen and watch readings more like a casting agent, studying presence and poise, how the reader takes stage? their rapport with the crowd? whether they’re comfortable in their own skin? whether they’re a successful communicator? Clarity and musicality of voice, whether they bat or blow-out the mic, their posture . . . all this before I’m able to really listen to what is being said.
You can read a bad piece well and sell it, and more often than not, read something good badly. As with one of the tenants of theatre, “I can stay home and read pretty poems (plays) but if I come to a reading (theatre) I want to hear and see something that rocks; I want performance; I’m not there just to listen, I want to be entertained.
And of course, what I expect as an audience I try for when it is my time on stage.
R&R: In one of our conversations you said that before an event you read aloud a Shakespeare scene to get your voice tuned up. Do you have a particular scene that you use?
No, and usually I read a full act or at least a half hour’s worth of some kind of vocalization to get the cob-webs off my tongue and the mechanism up to speed. I try and reread Shakespeare’s plays every year—always out loud. Hamlet is my favorite, Lear, As You Like it, Mid-summer’s . . . But I wouldn’t read any of them more than once a year, it would lose its pop. It’s only really about warming up. The point is to get the mouth, tongue and breathing working, and loosening up these articulators.
R&R: Why Shakespeare? Why not Byron or Conrad Aiken or Billy Collins?
Formal speech makes greater demands. It’s like waving around a bat with weights before going up to bat with a regular bat. I have my worn-out, dog-eared, easy sized printed Bard folios, but damn, that’s an excellent suggestion about Byron. I need to read him aloud. I’ve never read Aiken but am a fan of Billy Collins. He’s easy, playful, conversational whereas Shakespeare (and Byron) or any formal verse makes greater demands on the voice. There are score-able music and enunciation challenges and breathing demands.
As an actor and someone who grew up with a speech impediment, I feel undressed without warming-up. I grew up without being able to say my R’s or L’s, which with my name, that’s almost half the letters that were unpronounceable. I had an operation, snipping the underside of my tongue, when I was still a teen, as well as a lot of speech therapy. My greatest actor regret or most desired role in life would be to play Henry Higgins.
So, yes, good speech and a heightened sense of oral-interp is as crucial as making certain your fly’s not open while you’re up there.
R&R: Why do you read?
(This question helped incite a poetic response—see poems at the end.)
Finally, and or/to add—who knows the quantifiable long and short term results of reading, especially classical works from yesteryear. It’s an incredible thing that we have a Shakespeare who wrote in our amazing language that we still speak, and to have it pass through you, digesting it through your eye, voice and ear; it’s a very empowering thing.
R&R: Bob and I have a notion that writers don’t read for story but to see how the story is put together. In other words, readers read for entertainment, writers read to understand structure and style. What’s your reaction to that?
It depends on what it is, when, where and who? If I’m reading Stephen King or Carl Hiaasen I’m reading for entertainment, and hopefully I’m reading it on a beach towel or in a hammock with a beverage by my side. If I’m reading Fitzgerald or Hemingway or PG Wodehouse, I’m more than likely devouring them for style, and paying attention to how they lay down a line, create tension, or crack a joke. Someone like Somerset Maugham (whom I adore) I read for both content and style.
R&R: You read a lot of novels. What do you get from reading novels?
Sometimes a tan—a rest upon a couch with your feet up—a means of falling asleep.
I read far fewer novels than I used to.
Usually I’ll have a non-fiction history type book going, a poetry collection & some kind of fiction. Novels require momentum whereas NF or poetry collections do not Reading, like sleep, often gets short-changed.
I grew up in a house full of books. From the earliest I can remember I wondered what all was in them and that if I read all what was in my father’s bookcase that one day I would equal or surpass him. I learned to read early, before school began, then grew very bored in school to the point where I dropped out of high school and later attended and milked college for as long as I possibly could. I made a conscious effort in my 20s to read all the great works I could so that I wouldn’t have to read ‘em later on.
I am guilty of reading mostly dead white Euro-males; but then someday I will be a dead white male of Euro-ancestry, so I think it okay in my case.
I always like Hemingway’s axiom: You must read everything to see what there is to beat.
And along the way, one discovers powerful influences: Steinbeck and Richard Brautigan were very important to me in my teens, and caused me a fair amount of wanderlust. Reading Henry Miller in my early 20s made me want to write prose, and Bukowski not long after, made me want to write poems.
I enjoy Murakami, I adore the action sea novels of Patrick O’Brian, and this other guy, Jack Remick, for a healthy dose of both style and story.
R&R: Tell us about your relationship with the Jack Straw outfit?
I applied a dozen times for this program. I failed 11 or 12 times (I lost count). My final time, and I hope I don’t get anyone in trouble for saying this, but I didn’t actually apply. I received a call saying that my application for that year had somehow been chucked out in the cyber trash and could I quickly send my materials in again (which were due that day or the next). So, rather than say I had given up, I took my rejected application from the year before, changed the date and turned it in. I was delighted to get an acceptance letter a couple weeks later.
It’s a fun program but is over far too quickly. Loved my 11 classmates. Very eclectic bunch, some of whom I knew beforehand, but have since had the opportunity to get to know them better. Our curator, Stephanie Kallos picked a diverse and wildly talented lot. It all comes down to the curator to select a good group.
You get to attend some nice parties and participate in some readings you might not otherwise attend. It’s a good means for a bunch of mostly like-minded people to get together, bond, and create community—people who have your artistic back . . .
R&R: Have you said all you have to say or do you have more poetry books in your life?
I’m currently working on a long poem about tv—11 pages at present. I may publish it as a little chapbook at the end of the year—I’ve never put out a chapbook before. I’m also gathering another poetry collection, roughly about the same size or longer as Undertow Overtures, of mostly (since) published and newer stuff that I don’t want to wait overly long before some little magazine publishes it first. I am not a fan of on-line poetry journals; poetry belongs in print on the page in hard-copy, and not read from a screen; consequently I try not to submit electronically to things that are only on-line. This does somewhat limit my publishing opportunities.
I like what I’ve heard Thomas Hubbard say, that your first book of poems can be all about you, but thereafter, one ought to find less ego-driven ephemera for one’s second book.
So, yes, unless this reign of humans ends tomorrow, there will likely be another poetry book.
R&R: Do you want to tell us how you wound up in prison?
Hahaha . . . I hate to disappoint but I was never in prison. I was a bad unruly kid and spent about a year, all told, between Juvenile Hall, a boy’s work camp, and perhaps as much as a month in county jail while still a teen, or young adult, over the spread of about three years. I identified as an outlaw, early on, and as I wandered into various and numerous illegal activities, I realized I was always an outlaw, never a criminal; I dislike criminals as much as I dislike cops, they are part and parcel of the same disease,
I did all the same kind of bullshit that got Genet or Jean Val Jean busted. I did a lot of drugs and dealt mostly weed. Dope helped deaden any guilt I might feel. I recall stealing an entire box of popsicles as a child only to throw them away, feeling too guilty afterwards to eat them. I enjoyed the thrill, particularly when stealing from any large corporate entity and the rush of being chased. I believe in karma. All or any nastiness you stir up will return and bite you in the ass later.
R&R: We read your Facebook comment after someone put up a photo of a Billy Collins book that had been blasted with a shotgun. Your note said: “Why Collins? I can see doing this to an Elizabeth Bishop book . . . “ Can you elaborate on that? And tell us what it means to your poetic vision?
I now know why a political career would be a bad thing for me personally.
I plead guilty of trying to be funny, pitting one popular poetry star (I like and am familiar with) versus another, whose name I know but not the work—I could just as easily have said Rod McKuen.
That certain poets are popular is not always a poet’s fault, but anyone popular in this non-business business is likely going to attract resentment.
I genuinely do enjoy BC. I don’t know that he’ll be read a 100 years from now—or anyone for that matter, but I enjoy poems that are funny and not difficult and accessible as his are.
I still re-read Bukowski poems, to name another poet who is still popular, though only maybe 10% of his poems are really good; since his death 20 years ago, another 10-15 books have appeared. So, I don’t blame him for all the many weak poetry collections, only his estate and perhaps his surviving widow’s ensuing vodka habit.
R&R: Your talents are manifold, Larry. We know that you don’t limit your writing to poetry. You’re an actor, a poet, but you also write fiction and memoir. Tell us what you’re working on and why.
Currently I’m working on a novel. It’s roughly my fifth or sixth such effort. I’ve yet to do anything with any of ‘em, but get to the end of a first draft, so, I’m trying to move beyond this and produce a good second draft and then get it into someone’s hands who might publish it.
I still do occasional theatre work—mostly paid workshops. I decided I wouldn’t do theatre for free anymore upon coming to Seattle 23 years ago, but even paid theatre mostly pays badly, and better memories than mine are required. Either writing or acting will eat up all your time, so I’ve had to choose which timesuck I devote myself to.
R&R: How do you start a poem from scratch? From a vision? A word? An image? Can you give us some idea of your writing process?
Oh man, how many hours do we have here?
I wander around and take long walks, sit on trains and park benches and in bars. I stare out windows, study birds, tend plants, shop and study people. I always carry around something to write in. I get swept up by something—A smell, a fine meal, sounds . . . I try and stay open to whatever the muses have to say. I try to find a good first line. Then, providing something comes, try for a good second line, or sometimes I find an ending zinger and work backwards.
I have basically three kinds of poems, or songs (w/o music). There’s the political rant. These are usually bad and either too emotional or not emotional enough—or not funny; Didacticism without humor dies a quick death. There’s the memory poem or reflective anecdote. I have a lot of these story narratives in Undertow Overtures. Then there’s the bio/persona/place or era poem, where I write about something I’m not necessarily a part of and/or is beyond my experience.
Discipline wise, I try and write every morning for 3 to 5 hours, or longer when that luxury is available.
Poems are everywhere. Like butterflies used to be.
R&R: Many writers, among them Paul Valery, (a French poet, early 20th Century) kept notebooks. I have seen your notebooks in which you keep your words but you also have tons of sketches. What do you sketch? What does sketching do for your poetry? Can you give us a couple of examples?
You are most kind and generous, some are indeed sketches, most however are doodles. It is my own form of semi-creative autism. I’ve drawn ever since I could hold a pencil. All through school I doodled. Anytime I could get away with it I would draw, mostly faces. Much of this was superheroes from early comic book addiction. I often
draw at poetry readings, if I get bored. Sometimes I’ll draw the person reading. I also like to draw on holiday or places and things I’m intrigued by. It helps one see better and helps train the eye. I don’t know how helpful it is in generating new poems. I’ve been doing it all my life. I should be a better artist/drawer than I am.
I’ll have to check out Paul Valery’s notebooks.
R&R: Have you been in love more than once?
Uh, yeah. Bunches. I am guilty of some passionate overlap, otherwise known as cheating, though I have been monogamous for quite some time.
Back when I was an actor it was difficult because you’re constantly meeting charming and attractive people and then if you play leading men, as I often did, you will inevitably have a kissing scene, or say fantastical things to one another, AND then there’s all the drama traps that any pair of drama-queens frequently fall into.
I’ve been with the same gal, Chris Clarke for the past three years. She’s a poet and scientist and not an actress. I’m happy she’s not an actress.
R&R: You came of age in Northern California. Will you confess a little what that was like?
Well, as one Californian to another, it’s a big state and where one comes from sculpts who one is. I lived lots of places before I wound up in Humboldt County, or Northern California, the true northern California, not San Francisco. I lived in LA and SF as well and also the wine country interior. My father left early and I lived with my mother, a school teacher, and we moved a lot as teaching is often migratory.
From around the age of 7 when my folks divorced and we moved from a goat farm to San Francisco, to around 12 or 13, when we moved to Humboldt County, after my mother landed a much sought after University professorship at HSU, it seemed like I ran the gambit of growing up between class struggles.
My father was pure bohemian nudist philosopher/scholar and drop-out. His last real job was working with Ken Keasey in the mental ward taking care of shell-shocked Korean Vets, and for a time we lived with Dick Albert AKA: Ramdass. I was only a baby at the time.
Well, my mother got tired of supporting my father, who was forever writing his thesis. We lived in the country, raising goats and were very poor, only it wasn’t always apparent as we were surrounded by itinerant Mexican laborers where we probably appeared well-to-do comparatively. Then I’d visit my mother’s side in LA for the summer. They were devout Christians and very wealthy. And then I’d return to our broken down farm or our slum shit-hole city apartment, where we were the poorest folks on the block, and where It seemed like my mother had invented divorce as everywhere I looked there were kids with two parents living in nice houses.
Later on, we went to live with my grandfather in Mill Valley, where again I felt like Little Orphan Annie landing in the lap of ‘Papa Warbucks’. Then after a couple years there she got her position at HSU and we moved to Humboldt.
Humboldt was then a redneck backwater defunct logging and fishing area. I showed up in seventh grade with long hair, longer than the crew cuts sported by all the other farmer’s kids. Two years later, once we hit high school, I was selling many of these same kids marijuana, but at that time, seventh and eighth grade, I just got into a lot of fights.
I was kicked out of Arcata High. I attended juvenile hall high and later dropped out of continuation high. I attended College of the Redwoods for my AA and later Humboldt State U for my BA before attending grad school at Temple U, Philadelphia, where I earned an MFA in theatre. Until Seattle, Humboldt is where I had lived the longest, although in lots of different towns and residencies. My mother still lives there.
R&R: What about growing up in Northern California made you turn into a poet?
A poet is what others call you. I just try and write. Poems are often happy accidents that occur while trying to do other things. To say I’m a poet feels synonymous to saying ‘I’m broke and earn no money.’ I never liked it when people called me an actor either, because that always sounded like—he’s a liar, and makes no money.
I think having grown up in lots of places gives one greater perspective from which to write. I always was envious of those who always lived in one place and had a stable upbringing, whose parents stayed together and had brothers and sisters, and a dad, who had an actual profession.
But I never had any of that. I always felt like an outsider. Were I raised in a more stable atmosphere I’d be writing vastly different stuff or not writing at all. I think one becomes an artist in an effort to fix something broken, and if that works, you try then try to fix other things too.
R&R: When is your next reading?
The next release party for Clover is in Bellingham, Sep 27 @ Village Books, Zippy’s Dec. 10th. Friend me on Facebook for future postings.
(A pair of ‘reader poems’ —an old one & then a brand new one):
Breeders versus readers
they make babies, i read books
Words, words, words . . . sez Hamlet to Polonius
Laertes . . . Ophelia . . .
well-bred if not well-read
Readers are less destructive
Books collect harmoniously
Mein Kampf sits beside Black Like Me
Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner hunker quietly
without argument, ego, smoke or depleted spirits
Books from different eras
rest in curious combinations
26 letters, 36 dramatic situations
a well established rootage
a flourishing tree of sub-genres
which could use some pruning
Breeders are less circumspect and not limited to breeding
They are capable of anything, everything
You name it—they’ll do it
An eternal crap-shoot of sperm and eggs
a myriad of repercussions where the house seldom wins
spawning infinite potential tragedy and his ne’er-do-well kin
war, disease, nationalism . . .
ill-read and inbred and barely literate
every ism and schism lives beneath this rock
kick it and watch a million self infatuated
entities race for cover
Those who never read between the lines or sees what’s on the shelf
who are just as likely to burn or ban what they can’t understand
stumbling through their own rough hewn narratives
like they were the first to blaze the trail or find the way
cast blame, isolate flaws
revising events, altering the past to fit their myths
vandalizing antiquities to coincide with sharia law
See you in act five, scene two, when everyone dies
when we can die again one last time, alone with all the others
except for that character no one can remember
who has that speech that always gets cut
To feel less alone
To have something
you can never finish
and when you do
start something new
To feel and not to feel
This love affair with words
as they swim by your eyes
To go where i have not been
but someday may
based upon something
i’ve read, and once there
read some more
To learn things
i know nothing about. To
refresh, replenished, rekindled
to burn anew, to rise in wonder
Eyes left to right
as pages accrue in the one hand, diminish in the other
Words beside my heart. Words words . . .
To sleep perchance, yes, but to also keep tabs
on my talented friends—typers, tellers of tales
poets, book writers, short storyists, historians
how to-ers, funny frank, expansive folk and
word whores all. I celebrate them in daily awe
I want to beat every last one of them
and all those other thems—read ‘em
to beat them—something i heard Hemingway say
To keep the words going and never let the well
run dry—this actively passive pastime
this crapshoot profession, gobbler of and ego enabler
a calling perhaps, doable through practice
to read into others as you
would have them read unto you
To go where many have been
and return there again
into nothing onto everything
into this that can never be said
that inevitably will go unread
To seek out truth or enjoy the lies
From here within to this inside
this perfectly bound book
with that new book smell
where i can go
and vanish again
(brand new & not yet read in public—still subject to changes.)
Larry’s book of poems, Undertow Overtures (cover by Duane Kirby Jensen) contains some exciting work.
You can check out the book in Seattle bookstores or order here amazon.com