I just came across this interview I did last year with a high school student. Lily, who attends Beijing No. 4 High School in China, was doing a project about the lives of artists–their motivations, work habits, etc., and she asked to interview me. It was fun to do, so I thought I’d share:
What is the source of your artistic passion? What motivates you to indulge yourself in art? An experience? A person? Or is it innate, a part of you?
I would say my source is awareness. Us poets are always noticing things! When the desire (no, the need—I don’t look at it as an indulgence, rather, as something more vital) to write a poem overcomes me, it may have been inspired by something I saw, or heard, which leads me down a philosophical rabbit hole in relation to that witnessed thing, which in turn leads to me putting pen to paper. It doesn’t matter if that thing is simple, or considered beautiful or ugly—it could be anything, really. What’s important is: Where does it take me? And perhaps more importantly (to me): What does it mean, what universal truth or epiphany lurks within?
Of which piece are you proudest? And what happens–what do you feel and think about when you are creating art?
The pieces I like best are the ones that come to me like a white-hot fire, the ones I must write before the intensity is gone (I often go back and revise later). Those are the ones that make me feel truly alive, almost as if my body and mind were being used as an instrument from beyond—from what, exactly, I’m not sure. There are no other thoughts while composing, other than the piece itself. In fact, distractions really irritate me when I’m in that state, so I must be left alone until I’m finished. Anyway, those pieces that come to me like that, and which I later revise and shape into even better pieces, are the ones of which I’m most proud, as they are a combination of inspiration and hard work.
How do you view the American tradition of art? What is the present trend or state of art in America? Which particular artist or artwork do you appreciate the most?
I view the American tradition as eclectic, as well as electric. America, being a melting pot, is infused with the traditions and voices of many different cultures, which makes it rich in the artistic sense. In my genre, specifically, I look to the past to Walt Whitman, who turned poetry on its head—nothing has been quite the same, since. That’s one thing about American artists; they are always inventing new genres, or reinventing old ones. However, right now, there is a trend in the poetry world, toward what I find to be dry, highbrow, and often nonsensical work. I find it boring and bloodless stuff, written by the academic elite, and I don’t like it much. In today’s world, I wonder if Sylvia Plath would ever even have a poem published, much less a book, and that’s a shame. Of course, well-crafted work will always have a place—that’s why poets like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins are still popular (probably to the consternation of academia).
What is art in your mind? For instance, a sanctuary, a world parallel to this one? Symbolically, how would you describe it?
Well, art is individual expression, for one. But it is also a cosmic connection, a wire plugged into what Jung calls the “collective unconscious”, in that there are universal truths that speak to certain themes of human existence. What matters is how it represents through the individual artist—what’s their take on that theme? Take tarot cards, for instance. Let’s look at card number nine, The Hermit: Most everyone would recognize the wise old sage, alone on his mountain, holding up the light of wisdom, right? That’s a trope that exists in every culture. But how does each artist interpret that old man, his mountain, his lamp, his message? It necessarily filters through that artist’s cultural background, that artist’s own experience and worldview—so even if you had twenty artists creating on the same theme, you’re going to have twenty different results, each as significant as the next, and that’s amazing. You could call that a spiritual view on art, I suppose, but that’s what it is to me; a kaleidoscope of universal experience and individual expressionism.
Do you believe art serves only self-fulfillment and enlightenment for the minority, or does it have the power to reveal universal values and change the world?
Well, to expand upon my answer in question number four, I believe art has the power for both self-fulfillment and enlightenment for the minority, as well as the power to change the world at-large, and concurrently, at that. Art is, as interpreted through the individual, Truth, and it is vital. So truthful and vital, that it is often viewed as dangerous. If you look throughout history, you see the tradition of conquering tribes and nations killing or imprisoning artists first. That silencing of truth is viewed as necessary for control of the population. You can’t rule a country if artists are running around, pointing out all the flaws in your system, right? You can’t have the work of artists provoking individual, critical thinking—no, to keep the sheep in line, to keep them from questioning your laws and regulations, you must keep the artists quiet, and control the flow of information with highly nuanced propaganda (a form of brainwashing) instead. An offshoot of this is “state-sponsored art”. That kills me, the idea that you can produce art, but only if it’s approved by the government. Art left uncensored and unchecked, however, in a free society, is a delightful and insightful and valid conversation with its viewers on what it means to be alive, on the very nature of humanity itself. It sparks the imagination, and engenders free-thinking, so, heck yes, I believe it can change the world. It may achieve that one person at a time, in different, small ways, but that’s how enlightenment comes about—individually.
If you were to pick a piece of work that can best represent you, yourself, which one would you choose?
Since it’s springtime, let’s go with a spring love/longing poem I wrote, called “Magnolias”:
Budding in early April,
the bare-branched trees
are candelabras, their tips
flames of white, purple,
mauve, the rare yellow.
We are allowed to gush
over them, the event
of their opening cups,
their unfolding into
party gowns, as Étienne,
toiling in his arboretum
for the Empress Josephine,
must have wept with joy
over his hybrids, over
each individual angel.
Tonight, the maiden moon,
intoxicating scent; I am
thinking of you, how seductive
and perilous the metaphor.
But it is spring, a time
of indulgence, and we are far
from France, under exotic skies,
flowers trumpeting their magic:
I cannot stop looking at them.
I cannot stop thinking of you.
Have you encountered a sense of confusion, frustration, or loss when you produce art, or is it of pure rapture?
Yes, to the first part. That’s why they make this–Writers Tears Irish Whiskey:
What’s the present state for artists in the US? Living conditions? I learned that, in the past, most artists could not support themselves purely through their art, so many of them took part-time jobs. Is that still the case now?
Yes, that’s still the case. Perhaps it always has been, and always will be. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but generally, most artists I know must support themselves in other ways. For instance, many American writers I know are currently teaching in adjunct positions at community colleges and schools, with no insurance benefits. Whatever pays the bills! As for myself, I have delivered pizzas, worked at hotels, driven a warehouse forklift, answered telephones, been a landscaper, and done substitute teaching, among many other jobs, as there were not many suitable positions in my area of the U.S. With that being said, please understand that I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing—different jobs bring all sorts of life experience, which only helps the writing!
Do you sometimes feel that because passion and idealistic beauty in art transcends insipid daily life, you find it hard to cope with the triviality of everyday life?
I used to feel that way. In fact, I went through a period of depression, but was able to fight my way out of it, and get back to this daily living thing, to find a way to be an artist in the midst of the seeming banality, futility, and pain. I’m stronger for it, actually. We may view artists as more sensitive, more introverted and intuitive, than others (that’s what makes them good at art!), and it’s tragic that so many (both famous and unknown) succumb to mental illness, substance abuse, and sometimes suicide. That ultra-sensitivity comes with the territory of being an artist, and it can be difficult for many, but I wouldn’t trade it for a boring, non-creative life.
What is your idealistic version of life? Do you think you are currently living in this mode, or that it exists only in utopia?
You know, ten years ago, I would have said an ideal life was impossible, that it was just a fantasy. And it very well may be for many, but I have, in fact, come pretty darn close to my ideal version of life. I always dreamed of traveling the world, having adventures, writing poems, taking photographs, teaching English Literature, and doing it all with the one I love. Well, that’s EXACTLY what I do now. And I make money doing so! How did I, a poor, single mother, living in a trailer park, collecting food stamps, and scraping and scrounging from paycheck to paycheck, manage to pull off such a feat? I went back to college, got a degree, found an overseas teaching job, and used my income tax return to buy a plane ticket (I also met my fiancé during this process, and surprise, he wanted to join me). The rest is history. The thing is, I had a dream, a plan, lots of determination, and the willingness to take a risk, and I pulled it off. Don’t get me wrong—things aren’t perfect (I don’t believe any such thing exists), but they’re close to ideal. So, while I know it can be a difficult thing to actualize for many, it’s not impossible.
Are all artists idealists? Or do they become spiritual only during creation, while in every day life they are just the same as clerks, nurses, etc.?
While I can’t speak for all artists, I do believe that most of us are idealists, with a different, more whimsical way of looking at the world (with a Bohemian bent, perhaps), deep empathy, and a “lust for life”. I feel this way both in my creative life and in my daily life. Being an artist can be quite meaningful, as well as being fun—and while others may think I’m “weird”, I take pride in that. There’s a certain freedom in just being yourself.
Artists have this persona of being tortured geniuses. Is that necessarily the case?
It’s certainly an issue, that inner torture, among artists in general, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s tragic that so many succumb to depression, suicide, etc. But one can find the strength to fight through that, and learn to live life to its fullest—both creatively and personally. I would like to say that one gets stronger the longer one lives, as in the case of myself, but that’s not true for everyone. I wrote myself out of my depression—I used my art as therapy, and it worked for me. Writing saved me. So, while existence as an artist can be torturous at times, my advice is to look to the art as a catharsis, as a saving grace.
For you, what is the meaning of life?
Above all, love. Love is the key.